COLERIDGE IN THE DRAGOONS. File of correspondence relating to Coleridge's discharge after his enlistment as a Volunteer Private
Lot 275
Sold for £ 5,250 (US$ 7,001) inc. premium

Lot Details
Property of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's direct descendant
File of correspondence relating to Coleridge's discharge after his enlistment as a Volunteer Private under the name Silas Tomkyn Comberbache in the 15th or King's Light Dragoons, comprising seven letters and drafts of letters, including correspondence between George Coleridge and the army authorities and his drafts of letter to his brother Samuel:

(i) Autograph draft by George Coleridge, to the commander of the regiment, General Gwyn [Major-General Francis Edward Gwyn or Gwynne, 1748-1821, who had served as Major of the 16th Dragoons under Burgoyne during the American War of Independence]: "About a fortnight since a letter was committed to your Servant's hand for you from Coleridge [their eldest brother, James] in behalf of an unfortunate Brother, who has incautious of the expences, enlisted in the Reg.nt under your command – His discharge was therein requested, and as his peculiar situation at Coll: made dispatch necessary, we are alarm'd at your silence"; and requesting an interview; with the postscript: "My Brother assumes the name of Comberback", 1 page, light browning, 4to

(ii) Two autograph letters by George Hopkinson [George Caesar Hopkinson, 1738-1825, of Wootton Court, Gloucestershire], Captain of the King's Light Dragoons, to George Coleridge, acknowledging his letter to Gwyn and explaining that the General has been too busy raising a new regiment of cavalry to reply: "I having the honor to command the King's light Dragoons shall be exceedingly happy to contribute to the relief of your anxiety for your Brother and will if in my power obtain you his Discharge – if you can make it convenient to call here... I shall with pleasure inform you of the only mode I can think of to indemnify the Regiment for the loss of a Recruit, should Mr Coleridge be Discharged"; the second letter announcing the discharge: "Yesterday I returned the Discharge to the Adjutant with directions to deliver it to Mr Coleridge and to tell him he was at liberty to return to his Friends when ever he pleased"; with address panels, postmarks and seals, 3 pages, 4to, 46 Parliament Street and Whitehall, 20 March and 8 April 1794

(iii) Autograph letter signed by C. Pell, to George Coleridge, arranging for the kidnap of a man to replace his brother in the army; autograph address-leaf ("Rev.d G. Coleridge/ Hackney"), seal and postmarks, 1 page, 4to, Bates Hotel [described by Feltham's Picture of London, for 1802 as 'a much frequented genteel place'], 26 March [1794]

(iv) Autograph retained drafts of three letters by George Coleridge to his brother Samuel: offering an elder brother's sound advice over the enlistment debacle, and reassuring him that he is now free to return to university [see note below], 4 pages, folio and 4to

(v) Autograph letter signed by Coleridge's old schoolfellow, G.L. Tuckett, to George Coleridge, telling him how happy he is that George has been "able to rescure your Brother from that unhappy situation into which by a series of imprudences, almost unparalleled , tho' the most to be lamented I ever heard of, he has involved himself" and hoping that "this scape from ruin, poverty, and final disgrace be a lesson to him"; also giving it as his opinion that the sooner Coleridge return to Cambridge the better, ending his letter – "I most cordially wish this ugly business was finally settled, and that your brother has changed his military dress for the cap, and gown –/ When the discharge be procured, be so obliging to favour me with a line"; autograph address leaf, sealed and post-marked, 3 pages, 4to, "Hare Court [Inner Temple] Monday" [?31 March 1794]


  • 'HUMAN AFFAIRS AND HUMAN CONDUCT, MY BROTHER, ARE NOT THE DREAMS OF POETS, NOR THE OBJECT OF IMAGINATION' – George Coleridge secures his brother Samuel's release from the army after his enlistment as a trooper in the King's Light Dragoons.

    Coleridge had run up considerable debts while an undergraduate at Jesus College, Cambridge and, at his wits' end, fled to London in December 1793: 'There, after spending his last money on a lottery ticket which failed to win, writing a poem on the event, and contemplating suicide, he presented himself as a volunteer for the 15th light dragoons under the assumed name Silas Tomkyn Comberbache' (John Beer, ODNB). Richard Holmes wonders if that this 'outlandish surname' might have been 'a last dactylic tribute' to Coleridge's dead brother Frank, whose middle name was Syndercombe (Coleridge: Early Visions, 1989, p. 54); while Cottle tells us that it was a name Coleridge spotted over a London doorway (Early Recollections, ii, p.58). (So far as we are aware, another possible source has remained unidentified, namely Combesatchfield, ten miles from Ottery, the country seat of Colonel James Coleridge's sister-in-law, where the younger generation of Coleridges used to spend idyllic summer holidays; see Bernard, Lord Coleridge, The Story of a Devonshire House, 1905, p. 68).

    Being barely able to ride a horse, much of Coleridge's military service was spent quarantined in the Henley Pest House, nursing a soldier suffering from smallpox; an appalling and one must assume life-changing experience of which his brothers had little inkling, as the retained drafts of George's letters to him make clear. While Coleridge's enlistment of course ranks – with the visit of the gentleman from Porlock – among the best-known debacles of the poet's life; it was also a watershed: 'he was beginning to define the world of his own poetic imagination... something his brothers would never understand. The earnestness with which they now all rallied round to get him back to Cambridge has a touching fatuity. Coleridge had really escaped through Comberbache. In the Henley Pest House, close to disease and death, he had glimpsed other possibilities. He would go through the motions, but he would really not "come back" again' (Richard Holmes, Coleridge: Early Visions, 1989, p.57).

    The first of George's retained drafts can be identified, from context and phrasing, as the first of the letters sent upon hearing of Samuel's enlistment. It opens: "My Brother Samuel, I trust feels, as little surprise nor regret at the appearance of my writing & signature, as he does at the affection which gave them birth". George goes on to tell him: "Till I hear from you, I shall feel an anxious suspense which/ I trust you will soon relieve". Touchingly, he is at considerable pains not to give offence, clearly being uncertain of how Samuel is going to react; at one point writing: "He will not however conceive that my Lips can smile at folly like his"; which he then rephrases at the foot of the next page as: "And tho' I will never smile at your folly nor my Bosom admit it". He also does his level best to sound encouraging, as when he remarks (clearly unaware of Samuel's plight in the Pest House): "The situation, my Brother, from which You have escap'd, rather than that into which you have plung'd has afforded me matter of serious consideration – I think with horror of the tempest into which you had forc'd your frail bark, and wonder only that you found any anchorage at all". This letter is not printed by E.L. Griggs, Collected Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1956, i.

    (The letter Samuel wrote in reply, postmarked from Henley on 8 February, clearly reflect his experience of the Pest House – 'Images of horror! They haunt my sleep – they enfever my Dreams! O that the shadow of Death were on my Eyelids! That I were like the loathsome form, by which I now sit' – and is printed by Griggs, Letter 33, pp. 63-4). George of course thought he was indulging in a mere figure of speech, and in the second of our drafts opens his reply: "My Brother has cheer'd me – He will not (I think) suffer me to be cheer'd in vain". Something like a quarter of the letter is printed by Griggs, starting from the foot of the first page: "I was comforted at the sight of your hand-writing" (p. 75). Among the material that Griggs leaves out is George's earnest advice: "Human affairs and human conduct, my Brother, are not the dreams of poets, nor the object of imagination. These as well as moral and intellectual acquirements meet their perfection in the school of the world. We learn to think only that we may act. If so, how pernicious must it be always to luxuriate in the aery region of fiction, – to dedicate to the visionary muse those faculties which should be devoted to the divinity of active Virtue" (a fine example of the genre and a foretaste of Southey's warning to Miss Brontë that habitual day-dreaming produces 'a distempered state of mind').

    George's third letter of 10 February 1794 is the only one that is dated. In it he reassures Samuel that it is safe for him to resume his career at Jesus and that "A handsome Sum shall be gotten ready for the liquidation of your College debts"; most of this is published by Griggs, p. 64.

    Just how difficult it had been to secure Coleridge's release is shown by the letter by C. Pell, who it seems had been charged with negotiating the business. In it, he tells George that they will have to resort to kidnap in order to supply a substitute: "After parting with you I made the enquiry relative to procuring a Man; but am sorry to say that the Gentlemen Crimps (who are the only people to be resorted to on such an occasion) will not undertake it under 25 Guineas"; a 'crimp' being a kidnapper or trickster who provided men for the army or navy, as also for the slave trade. (In the event this proved unnecessary, and S.T. Comberbache was discharged as 'Insane'). This letter, together with those by Captain Hopkinson, is printed by Griggs, i, pp. 75-6 (note heading Letter 43).

    The author of the final letter, G.L. Tuckett, was an old schoolfellow of Coleridge's who, as Griggs puts it, 'ferreted out Coleridge's army identity and revealed it to his commanding officer, family, and Cambridge friends' (p. 192, fn. 1). The only part of this letter printed by Griggs is the sentence referring to Mary Evans and her family. Griggs also quotes from another letter by Tuckett reflecting what he describes as a 'sneering attitude towards Coleridge' (pp. 32, fn. 1 and p. 192, fn. 1). Although in our letter, Tuckett compares Coleridge to Johnson's portrait of the hapless Savage, and his tone is not without condescension, he was nevertheless clearly aware – or professed himself to be aware – of Coleridge's more positive qualities, telling George that "With respect to myself, I most willingly forget all that has past – and unless he should relapse, and I entertain little apprehension of it from my knowledge of your brother's heart, into his old irregularities, I shall be proud of continuing that acquaintance and cultivating that intimacy with him, from which I have already derived many, and valuable advantages, and from which in my future pursuits I might obtain more important assistance".

    George Coleridge, who did more than anyone to rescue Coleridge from the army, was the brother closest to Coleridge, the tenth and youngest of the family, especially after the death of their father when Coleridge was still but a boy. Coleridge wrote of him in 1797: 'My Brother George is a man of reflective mind & elegant Genius. He possesses Learning in a greater degree than any of the Family, excepting myself. His manners are grave, & hued over with a tender sadness. In his moral character he approaches every way nearer to Perfection than any man I ever yet knew – indeed, he is worth the whole family in a Lump' (Griggs Letter 179, to Thomas Poole, 1797).
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