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Samuel Taylor Coleridge: Childhood

Samuel Taylor Coleridge was born on 21 October 1772 in Ottery St. Mary, Devonshire, England. He was the youngest of ten children of the Reverend John Coleridge, a clergyman, and Anne Bowden Coleridge. Eight of his nine older siblings were boys, and his brothers tormented him mercilessly. Samuel, who started school at the age of three, sought refuge in books. Two weeks before Coleridge's ninth birthday his father died, and he was sent to live at Christ's Hospital, a London boarding school that gives free education to orphans (the 450-year-old school still exists). There he met fellow student named Charles Lamb, who also grew up to be a poet. The two became lifelong friends.

Coleridge thrived in London, making friends easily, immersing himself in the libraries and engaging in philosophical debates whenever he could. From an early age, he demonstrated an active imagination and a talent for talking himself out of scrapes. One day while walking in London, Coleridge daydreamed that he was the Greek mythological character Leander, swimming across the Hellespont river to be with his lover Hero. While waving his arms to pantomime swimming (he was a committed daydreamer), he bumped into a man who thought Coleridge was trying to pick his pocket. He shouted at him, and Coleridge cried back that he was actually en route to Sestos, the riverside town where Hero lived. His accuser was so impressed that he bought the boy a subscription to a library.9

In 1791, Coleridge enrolled at Cambridge University. He was an excellent student, but found himself distracted from his studies. The French Revolution was underway, a triumph of the Enlightenment that energized burgeoning Romantics (at least, before things went awry and they started chopping people's heads off). In 1793, 21-year-old Coleridge decided to quit school and enlist in the army. He became a member of the 15th Light Dragoons under the alias Silas Tomkyn Comberbache.

The dreamy, bookish Coleridge was a terrible soldier. Fortunately, he endeared himself to his fellow troops by using his literary skills to ghost-write love letters to their girls back home. In exchange, his comrades helped him with tasks he struggled with. "The ink poured out in a torrent, so that by the time she had got to the fourth page the girl couldn't do otherwise than give in," wrote E.M. Forster in an essay on Coleridge the soldier. "When the letter was written and the girl on the way there or back there was no reason you shouldn't brighten up his horse for him; it didn't take long, and you knew which end kicked and which bit, more than he did."10 Eventually, his brothers paid money to bail him out of the army.

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