I speak to thee, my Friend! to thee,
Who, yet a liveried schoolboy, in the depths
Of the huge city, on the leaded roof
Of that wide ediﬁce, thy school and home,
Wert used to lie and gaze upon the clouds
Moving in heaven; or, of that pleasure tired,
To shut thine eyes, and by internal light
See trees, and meadows, and thy native stream,
Far distant, thus beheld from year to year
Of a long exile
SONNET TO THE RIVER OTTER
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
What happy and what mournful hours, since last
I skimmed the smooth thin stone along thy breast,
Numbering its light leaps! Yet so deep imprest
Sink the sweet scenes of childhood that mine eyes
I never shut amid the sunny ray, but straight
With all their tints thy waters rise,
Thy crossing plank, thy marge with willows grey,
And bedded sand that veined with various dyes
Gleamed through thy bright transparence!
It is difficult to lose one’s parent at any age, but it is especially so as a child. When John Coleridge died, his son Samuel was only nine years old.
John Coleridge was an intelligent and sensitive vicar who nurtured his son in an extraordinarily rich environment which was no doubt taken for granted until it was lost. In the years following John’s death, Samuel’s quest for context, perspective, and ultimately renewal required a lifetime. The immediate future was to be dark and hard.
Malcolm Guite explains:
This visionary remembrance of the river of his childhood, written long after, is made particularly poignant and intense by the sudden and complete catastrophe, from the child’s point of view, which brought his childhood to an end. When Coleridge was nine, his father went off to Plymouth to see Frank, Coleridge’s only slightly older brother, settled and apprenticed as a midshipman. He returned home in apparent good health and high spirits, but that very night he died suddenly, probably of a heart attack.
John Coleridge’s death changed everything. The vicarage went with his job. Coleridge’s mother found herself at once bereaved, homeless, deprived of income, and having to provide as best she could for such a large family. This may account in some degree for what follows, and for the tragic break in real trust and affection between Coleridge and his mother. Friends of the family, rallying round, and trying to ﬁnd places and support for the numerous children with whom Anne Coleridge could not cope on her own, told her they could get young Sam presented at Christ’s Hospital, a charity school in London, whose board, lodging, and education was sometimes provided free to the sons of the clergy, particularly those in material distress. We can see why she took up the offer, but we can equally see how traumatic it was for Coleridge to lose a beloved father, to be wrenched away from his home and family and sent off to the sparse diet, grim regime, savage beatings, and, above all, exile and loneliness which was the experience of most boys in a London charity school.
Was your childhood marked by the loss of a parent?
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