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STORY | Thomas Poole - Coleridge and the Benefactor of Nether Stowey

The Village of Nether Stowey Sign
The Village of Nether Stowey

SYNOPSIS | Coleridge's Inspiration was the son of a tanner from Nether Stowey

Samuel Taylor Coleridge – rock star poet of the Romantics. Opium eater. Laudanum addict. Outspoken. Radical. Socialist. He didn’t treat his wife particularly well. He spoke in grand themes but relied on gratuitous donation or abject squalor.

Thomas Poole – self-educated and well-read. Son of a tanner. Magistrate. Philanthropist. He provided a free school. He set up an institution for women. He believed in the kinds of liberal thinking rare and radical back then.

And yet it is Samuel Taylor Coleridge whose name is littered across the village of Nether Stowey in Somerset. It is Coleridge’s Cottage now run by the National Trust. The pub is called the Ancient Mariner. This is Coleridge’s village. And yet the poet in question was only here for a matter of months between January 1797 and September 1798.

But the locals know it. The Coleridge intellectualists too. That but for Nether Stowey born and bred Thomas Poole, Samuel Taylor Coleridge would never have come to this corner of Somerset to stay, to write and to breathe life into English poetry that developed into the Romantic poetry we know and love today.

That is not to say that Coleridge hadn’t been traipsing around the Quantock Hills before, but merely that Thomas Poole allowed Coleridge to come, to live and to breathe in the wonder of this unique part of England which would result in some astounding literary creations. The Ryme of the Ancient Mariner. Kubla Khan. Christabel. To name just a few.

Coleridge was a precocious writer. Born in 1772 in Ottery St Mary in Devon, his father’s death led him to shuttled into private education which didn’t suit him. He went to Jesus College, Cambridge but didn’t last the duration. He became friends with poet Robert Southey and developed a plan to leave for America and found their own agrarian socialist society called Pantisocracy. As part of this plan they married the Fricker sisters, daughters of Quakers. Samuel marrying in 1795 to Sarah Fricker in St Mary Redcliffe in Bristol. But the pair fell out – Coleridge becoming quite the dissident speaker.

It was perhaps around this time Thomas Poole crosses paths with the young poet. Poole had been born in 1765 in Nether Stowey, the son of a tanner. He was self-educated and self-taught. He read widely and thought deeply. He socialised with fellow ‘radicals’ from the wider south-west and in visits to London and the Midlands where he conversed and was inspired to spread the ideas of Thomas Paine and Benjamin Franklin amongst others.

Coleridge enjoyed the big skies and enduring countryside of rural life. It would lead to Poole finding a cottage for Coleridge and his young family to leave the Bristol city life for the country poverty and simplistic life of his home village Nether Stowey in Somerset. The famed Romantic poet William Wordsworth would follow in his wake but with Poole locating Alfoxton House for them. For a few short years, a congregation of poets, writers and thinkers made Nether Stowey their thinking place. Coleridge and Wordsworth would make Poole’s home and garden part of their literary discussions; a modern think tank no less.

In 1798 Coleridge and Wordsworth co-wrote Lyrical Ballads. Widely seen as the pre-eminent beginning of the Romantic Movement in England. Coleridge contributed few poems but one was a stand out. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner was originally first published in this volume.

Some have suggested that Wordsworth’s presence diminished Poole’s presence and significance in Coleridge’s life. As both poets left for Germany in 1798 leaving Poole to mind Coleridge’s family.

Coleridge did return but soon left for Wordsworth’s Lake District. The two men saw each other but rarely, with news coming predominantly through correspondence. Poole offering sage advice. Coleridge’s logic diminishing through frequent and obvious opium abuse.

Whilst Coleridge went on to write, Poole remained committed to Nether Stowey. The place of literary inspiration and simplistic situation. But now it was Poole who would go on to inspire and change the world. Though not for the world over, but for the locals of this piece of the Quantock Hills. He travelled to the continent, spoke and learned. He put these ideas into practice back home. A Female Friendly Society. A school. A bank. Justice. A savings bank. Buildings and infrastructure. A man of the people; his people.

Coleridge continued to benefit from his old friend; with money coming from Poole to finance his newspaper The Friend, and in supporting Coleridge’s son at university. A benefactor until the last.

When Coleridge died in 1834, he left one of his rings to Poole. It seems that distance had not quelled the relationship between them. Poole died four years later in 1837 at the good age of seventy. A favourite of the village of Nether Stowey.

Coleridge’s Cottage was purchased and renovated around the turn of the twentieth century. Literary critics, academics and wider locals keen to protect and breathe life into the memory of Coleridge and Nether Stowey. Even now many visit this place each year and many still venture on the ‘Coleridge Way’ – a walking path which heads towards the inspirational Coleridge places of Porlock and beyond.

But few remember the man whom without there would not have been Coleridge Cottage; would not have been the Nether Stowey that we know today; would not possibly have been those literary beginnings of the Romantics. But for a self-educated, inquisitive, thoughtful son of a tanner – Thomas Poole. Nether Stowey’s real superstar.