January 8, 2022

Coleridge and Ramsgate – News from the Isle of Thanet

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

The summer of 1819 was quite a stressful time for Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Its publisher, Rest Fenner, had gone bankrupt due to financial irregularities. The poet owed huge royalties, amounting to around £ 1,000 (around £ 89,000 today), but these, along with all his copyrights with the publisher, were now in the hands of creditors.

The resulting financial worries had caused a resurgence of anxiety and depression for the poet, something he had suffered from for much of his life. Concerned for his well-being, Coleridge’s friends therefore decided that he needed to get away from it all, and in August of the same year they took him on a long vacation by the sea. they chose was the trendy seaside resort of Ramsgate.

Unlike John Keats, who had spent time in Margate a few years earlier, Coleridge was already an established literary figure among the wealthy at Regency Britain. For Keats, this would not happen until after his death in 1821. Coleridge was also a regular visitor to Ramsgate until his death in July 1834, when Keats had only vacationed twice in Margate.

It is not known exactly where Coleridge stayed on his first visit, but his surviving letters and notebooks record what he did.

In his first letter from town, Coleridge describes his walk along the top of the cliff to Dumpton Gap, where he took his first swim, or as he put it “a glorious fall into the waves”. The bay was also one of the landing sites for local smugglers, namely Joss Snelling’s Callis Court Gang, which Coleridge would no doubt have heard of. The bay and the underground activities therein will appear later in his poem “The Delinquent Travelers”:

Under the cliffs of Dumpton Bay,

Between Ramsgate and Broadstairs,

Rude caves and screen doors are visible:

(For Fancy in his magic could

Can turn the big day into a starless night!)

When Lo! Methinks a sudden group

Smugglers in smocks surround me.

Refused, oaths, I try in vain,

Immediately, they gag me for a spy …

In Ramsgate, Coleridge saw his anxieties fade away, at least for now, and although he didn’t stay more than eight weeks, the town had left a favorable impression on him. He returned pretty much throughout the 1820s, traveling by steam packet, and stayed at various addresses along Wellington Crescent. He and his house mates regularly walked on top of the cliffs or bathed in the sea.

He took a keen interest in local affairs and was present at key moments in Ramsgate’s history. In 1822 he witnessed the laying of the foundation stone for the obelisk, known locally as the King’s Toothpick, to commemorate George IV’s visit to the city, and on October 23, 1827, he was the one of the participants, along the Princess Victoria, for the consecration of the Church of Saint-Georges-le-Martyr.

Obelisk

On November 23, 1824, from the window of 29 Wellington Crescent, Coleridge witnessed a dramatic shipwreck on the Goodwin Sands and heroic rescue attempts by the men of the Deal Lifeboat. Coleridge, in a letter to a friend, gave a vivid account of the disaster.

The ship was the Belina, a West Indian, and had struck the sands overnight and by dawn had “collapsed”. He continues: “If it had been made of iron, it could not have stood out. The Breakers were clearly visible from our window… No Boat could approach her: and if the Crew is saved, it will be a bit of a miracle… ”

Only six of the Belina’s nineteen crew, including the captain, mate and cabin boy, were rescued by the Deal Lifeboat and a lugger called Sparrow.

As far as his writing is concerned, no piece of poetry or prose can be attributed solely to Ramsgate. Coleridge seems to have spent his time here polishing and polishing poems he had already started. His poem “Youth and Age” was influenced in part by the city with its references to “aerial cliffs and sparkling sands”.

In 1823 he also worked on the proofs of Aids to Reflection, a religious and philosophical treatise which was published later in 1825. He also intended to work on the revision of his unpublished philosophical treatise The Logic of Reflection (published for the first time in 1990) vacation of 1833, but he did not. Only his letters can be attributed with certainty to the city.

Montefiore Synagogue and Mausoleum Photo Brian Whitehead

Coleridge’s last vacation at Ramsgate was in July 1833. For the past three years he had been terribly ill but had recovered sufficiently from this last trip. While here he visited the Montefiore Synagogue and visited the brother of his fellow poet Robert Southey in Canterbury.

Coleridge returned to London at the end of the month and died a year later at his home in Highgate, aged 61.


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