Pilgrim footsteps tracing the arc from Coleridge’s home in Nether Stowey to Wordsworth’s Alfoxden House
My brother, Geoff, was in a barb coma back in the states, the prick of the barbiturate drip flowing evenly into his easily opened veins. In a week, I was scheduled to be bouncing along the Quantock Hills on a long-planned journey my heart had been scheming to execute, and for which serendipity had provided the lucky chance. Daily visits to my brother’s sickbed alongside his stoic mate, Holly, only made the prospect of escape more shamefully real. England and Coleridge were calling me to their bosom. Clearly, I wanted to run away; run far away from the pain of viewing Geoff’s slack face again, the autonomic twitching of his unconscious fingers. What stately pleasure domes did he see floating by behind his bruised eyelids, as he lay laced and velcroed into his metal cot? No amber graph or green line on all the monitors plugged into his dreams could tell the tale. The doctor reassured me twice that Geoff was stable, and my conscience acquitted itself in a few midnight sessions of introspection….
My poet-companion, Dan Weeks, and I had just ascended to the highpoint above Nether Stowey, reaching the unexpected apex of our several days’ wonder-wander in the footsteps of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Dan stood jauntily, arms akimbo, atop a loose highpoint marker-pile of rocks; rocks as grey and damp as the locks of Father Time. After a quick snapshot, he scrambled down the stacked pile, and we took a breather in the overcast humidity.
The Coombs, or woodsy hills, surrounded the small mountain we had climbed in a jade series of rippled, close-set waves that resembled nothing so much as the rich velvet folds of brain coral. In every direction the virile greenness of an ageless verdure unrolled–scarce a square foot of ground was visible among the rounded hills, the gentle valley clefts–the trees were so full, so untouched by time. Green thoughts came unbidden in such a place. It was fitting that here, where some of England’s most exalted thoughts had been thunk, we should stand in a gigantic physical embodiment of Coleridge’s mighty mind–himself perhaps the deepest and densest of all the philosophical accretors in the history of England’s “green and pleasant land.”
At one farther edge of the high slope, we could see the Atlantic Ocean–a sheet of leaden foil glinting through the dull haze. Dan took a folded paperback copy of Coleridge’s poems out of his back pocket and turned to a description of these very hills that Coleridge had written some two centuries ago.
Where broad smooth stones jut out in mossy seats,
I rest:–and now have gained the topmost site.
Ah! what a luxury of landscape meets
Up here, at the unobstructed top, there was a small depression in the skull of the slow-slope mountain–a dimpled dell that, by the slight lifting of its living walls, silenced the wind that blew by on all sides of the mount. Looking up, one could see how this dell held the silver sky gently in its hollow, as if cradled in a giant’s cupped palms. Taking a deep breath, I thought briefly of my brother Geoff’s skull, cracked by his heavy electrician’s toolbox flying forward from the back of his work van when a pharmaceutically blitzed woman’s Suburban hopped the Jersey barriers one sunny afternoon in Belmar as she nodded out on some madcap mix of pills and blow.
Far off the unvarying Cuckoo soothes my ear.
Up scour the startling stragglers of the flock
That on green plots o’er precipices browse
And there, in the blue humid stillness, focused and compressed as if thumbed beneath a stadium-sized contact lens, there was total silence. The dell held off both traffic sounds and the bantering breeze. There was only sky, and, far below, the Bristol Channel moving noiselessly as a crenelated postcard. And in that silence, to my mind, there was God. All of this was perfectly apparent to Dan as well as we read Coleridge’s description of this very spot aloud, and then grew quiet at the profundity and odd perfection of this most observant of men who, we felt sure, had envisioned us standing there with him centuries past his expiration.
Deep sighs my lonely heart: I drop the tear:
“Let’s hustle off to the pub.”
“Amen,” I agreed. “If I stand here any longer my lazy legs will begin to stiffen like after-breakfast butter shoved into the freezer.”
Earlier in the day, at the belated start of our ten miles’ stroll, we had danced over field and stile to the end of town to arrive at Butcher’s Lane, the thin edge of the incline that becomes these hills. Butcher’s Lane is enclosed in a hoop of briers and flowers weaving a colored dark even at midday beneath the sedate swaying of ancient trees; one trots blindly upward under a flickering canopy. From this fragrant birth canal we emerged onto the higher starting-block of our day’s race, our faces already sweating with our own age and the summery humidity. Butcher’s Lane goes round to the back of Castle Hill, an old goat-stomp of a rotten rockpile–a medieval remainder of moat-and-bailey castle construction. Beyond the backs of rickety goats (but not beyond the noisome scope of their dead-egg smell, I swear), we could see something of the scale of the happy tramp we had planned for the day. The village of Nether Stowey was laid out below us like a Christmas diorama from steeple to mill. In many places, pleasant walls leaned together prayerfully as folded hands beneath thatched rooflines.
Farther along the trail, the high Coombs made themselves known by their mellow might–steep hills that crept greenly higher, never quite showing their rocky teeth (nor betraying their exhausting bite). Beyond those layered hills we knew that the sea kept her own counsel, and we could sense her presence more by the lack of land rolling onward than by hearing the repeating bang of her breakers. Somewhere on the far, shadow side of the Coombs rested Wordsworth’s Alfoxden House–the goal of our stroll, and the residence where Coleridge and Wordsworth reinvented English poesy with their Lyrical Ballads. How many hundreds of times had Coleridge made this same pilgrimage, his pockets bursting with scribbled scraps his imagination has made immortal?
We slid down the far side of the mountain on rucksacks and rears, the stony dust dimming our eyes and settling on glass-lenses and in nostrils annoyingly. It was quick work, but tricky, for suburbanite knees. We had earned a lobster lunch at least, and made our way directly for the even smaller village on the far side of the Coombs. Buttered bread and beer sounded sumptuous, and maybe a place to hang our sweaty socks over the back rungs of an empty chair for an airing.
But before we reached the nearby pub (The Plough and the Stars, I believe) there appeared around a shrubbery-shrouded corner of the road a humble kirk, its short steeple straight and its red door ajar. At the sight, my heart contracted with a stab of remorse–I had forgotten about my brother! We paused, and I entered in through the creaky gate, pushing the red door open just enough to pass through the portal guiltily. I was apprehensive that I would disturb some rector or other official at their task, or blunder into a worshipper who might read the sin in my face as plain as a blush. Luckily, no one was there, and I could look around the small chamber undisturbed.
Richard Holmes, the famed Coleridge biographer, tells the tale of Coleridge as a young runaway crawling into a sandy riverbank cave–and he reported on his biographer’s intuition that STC had left his written mark there in the dark. Holmes himself, on the trail of Coleridge, found out a likely cave on the banks of the Otter and crawled into its mouth in pursuit of his intuition, exploring on hands and knees with a series of matchsticks quaveringly alight. At the very back of the sandy hole, with the stream itself no longer even a glimmer behind him, Holmes swears he saw the initials STC graven on that last wall–initials which, when he touched too near, crumbled down, leaving only the moist gravelike smell of sand and blackness.
This is the midnight I found myself in as I stepped into the dark kirk, only a few narrow strides beyond the blade of light that angled in from the empty lane.
There was a round stained glass window of modest circumference at one end of the nave–a man with a shepherd’s crook and a sleepy sheep at his feet. Down the dark pews, a gloomy shine emanated from the polished wood. I put a foreign coin or two in the charity box and sat in the front pew a moment and composed myself to prayer.
Thinking about my brother when I had last seen him–one leg strapped in suspension, elevated but not yet set, his ribs bandaged lightly so that his lungs might heal enough to bear the trauma of the planned operation that would reconstruct his shattered hip if he was ever to walk again–a portion of some verse of Coleridge’s came to mind where a walker in the night notices the bare stem of a plucked flower and thinks that he would not have taken off its blossom had he been the one to pass by. Something about the delicacy of Coleridge’s feeling, and the heedless damage to the tiny flower must have prompted it to my consciousness:
Ah! melancholy emblem! had I seen
Thy modest beauties dew’d with Evening’s gem,
I had not rudely cropp’d thy parent stem,
But left thee, blushing
Long the way and light the heart. We got back to the B&B far after sunset, our backs twisted and our thighs crying out for merciful oblivion. We each chucked a pound coin in the honor box on the portable fridge in the foyer hall and grabbed a hand-brewed beer created by the inn’s owners, Rory and Marge. I forget my choice–something named after a farmyard animal most likely–and Dan procured his inn-favorite, a dusky brew that was flavored partly with finely crushed oyster shells. We turned into the common room where a coal fire was kept banked against the damp and began to compare our aches and ecstasies from the day’s troublesome tramp. I particularly relished nearly breaking into Alfoxden House (now a private residence), Dan making both some more general remarks and commenting very particularly about the honorable bumbling of the many bees in the bushes along the high path toward the crown of the Coomb.
Soon enough, a few more travelers made their entrance. Two elderly couples in their hearty eighties sat kitty-corner from us in the inn’s common room, their large comfortable-looking hiking boots placed at at-ease stance distance and their sturdy walking sticks loitering athwart their corduroy-covered thighs. We were retailing the tale of our toilsome treading acrosst Coleridge’s cerebrum, our ankles aching as we spoke.
“Oh, aye,” pipes up one senior, an easeful smile upon her face. “That’s a good warm-up.”
“Let’s start with that one tomorrow on the way to breakfast,” chimes in another, taking a small sip from his orange, home-brewed ale. There’s a general nod at this notion. Dan and I couldn’t help but chuckle at our own sorry imperfections. There must be something in Nether Stowey that makes even very old feet nimble enough to match Coleridge’s rambling mind.
On the plane to England, Dan and I had been bursting with chatter of STC’s unfailing brilliance–and more than brilliance. Coleridge was not only a source of sparks, of light shed from the flint of his percipience, he was also generative of light in others; around him bloomed the sympathetic glow of canny cogitation, as when seventh-graders ferry phosphorescent bulbs within range of some overwhelming magnetic source of potenial electricity in science class–and the darkened room blooms, almost torchlit with the hopeful bulbs waving in their small hands.
Nether Stowey had been our chosen destination, but where we wound up was more a matter of interior miles than flattened maps and stark coordinates.
TWO POEMS BY STC BROCKLEY COOMB Lines composed while climbing the left ascent of Brockley Coomb, May 1795 With many a pause and oft reverted eye I climb the Coomb's ascent: sweet songsters near Warble in shade their wild-wood melody: Far off the unvarying Cuckoo soothes my ear. Up scour the startling stragglers of the flock That on green plots o'er precipices browse: From the deep fissures of the naked rock The Yew-tree bursts! Beneath its dark green boughs ('Mid which the May-thorn blends its blossoms white) Where broad smooth stones jut out in mossy seats, I rest:--and now have gained the topmost site. Ah! what a luxury of landscape meets My gaze! Proud towers, and Cots more dear to me, Elm-shadowed Fields, and prospect-bounding Sea. Deep sighs my lonely heart: I drop the tear: Enchanting spot! O were my Sara here. THE FADED FLOWER Ungrateful he, who pluck'd thee from thy stalk, Poor faded flow'ret! on his careless way; Inhal'd awhile thy odours on his walk, Then onward pass'd and left thee to decay. Ah! melancholy emblem! had I seen Thy modest beauties dew'd with Evening's gem, I had not rudely cropp'd thy parent stem, But left thee, blushing, 'mid the enliven'd green. And now I bend me o'er thy wither'd bloom, And drop the tear--as Fancy, at my side, Deep-sighing, points the fair frail Abra's tomb-- "Like thine, sad Flower, was that poor wanderer's pride! Oh! lost to Love and Truth, whose selfish joy Tasted her vernal sweets, but tasted to destroy!"