THE KINDNESS OF STRANGERS

This is a story of the childhood of great poet S. T. Coleridge.

His father died when he was nine and the young boy was sent to board at the charity school of Christ’s Hopital. A compulsive reader he would read works from the school library: “my whole being was with eyes closed to every object of present sense, to crumple myself up in a sunny corner and read, read, read.” (see Coleridge’s autobiographical letters to Tom Poole: Coleridge’s Letters). One day when he had slipped away from school-where he was not happy- he was roaming the streets of London caught up in imaginative re-living of his reading, imagining himself swimming. One of his arms struck the pocket of a passing pedestrian. The man, not unnaturally, suspected a pocket-lifter and caught hold of him. It sounds rather like Oliver Twist but then the young boy started to explain to the man he was swimming the Hellespont, imagining he was Leander swimming towards his beloved Hero. The gentleman was so amazed and delighted to discover an apparent street child who appeared so great a reader that he presented the boy with a subscription for three years to the King Street Lending Library. ( the story told by Coleridge to his physician and friend, Dr Gilman appears in the latter’s The life of Samuel Taylor Coleridge)

This was a membership the young Coleridge would use fully. He read everything he could lay his hands on -“skulking” out of school to claim the two volumes he was entitled to daily.

Charles Lamb, a fellow pupil and future writer recalled how Coleridge in the dormitory every night would regale his school companions with his reading of the day. Whether it was Homer or neo- platonic philosophy he held his audience spellbound.

Throughout his life he retained everything he read and he read more or less every thing there was to read!

Talk about good seed falling on fruitful soil! What wealth can come from a generous deed!

( I am grateful to Malcolm Guite Mariner: A Voyage with Samuel Taylor Coleridge for this story)

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