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COLERIDGE & LITERARY SOCIETY, 1790-1834
The Papers of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) from the British Library, London

Editorial Introduction

Throughout his adult life, Coleridge kept notebooks which served as journals, commonplace books, source books for his public work and places to experiment with and draft letters, lectures, poems and prose texts. Because of the sensitive nature of some of Coleridge’s personal writing, these notebooks were kept in the Coleridge family and not known to scholars until the twentieth century. They received little attention before the publication of Livingston Lowes’ Road to Xanadu in 1927. Since then, following the publication by Kathleen Coburn of meticulously edited texts and accompanying volumes of notes, the notebooks have become a crucial part of the Coleridge canon.

Coleridge’s notebooks are notoriously – and typically – chaotic. Often more than one seems to have been in use at a time and very few entries contain anything enabling reliable dating. Reflections on the collapse of his marriage, usually in Latin and/or Greek, appear amid clear and concise accounts of the implications of a particular philosophical position. Descriptions of landscape, sometimes apparently written in situ and often the basis of later poems, jostle with the most abstruse theological musings. Coburn quotes from Notebook 18, “If I should die without having destroyed this and my other Memorandum Books, I trust, that these Hints and first Thoughts, often too cogitabilia rather than actual cogitata a me, may not be understood as my fixed opinions – but merely as the Suggestions of the disquisition…” (p xix)

It is not surprising that over forty years of Coleridge’s “suggestions of the disquisition” resulted in 56 fragile books, many of whose original bindings are long lost and most of which were used from both ends at once over many years and sometimes several decades. Coburn found that the demands of book form required her to codify and arrange Coleridge’s manuscripts, and writes that “short of a photographic reproduction of the pages, a turning out of notebook after notebook would not be very useful to students.” (pxxi). That photographic reproduction follows.

This edition also includes Thomas Poole’s collection of correspondence with Coleridge. Poole provided much needed emotional and financial support for Coleridge throughout his life, and dealt with Coleridge at his most vulnerable and at his most ambitious moments. It is probably fair to say that Poole knew Coleridge in ways that Wordsworth and even Sara Hutchinson never did, but he was also an important figure in 1790s radicalism in his own right.

One of the manuscripts from the Ashley collection is the famous Liber Aureus, the notebook containing his pupils’ best compositions kept by James Boyer while he was headmaster of Christ’s Hospital. Coleridge, Lamb, Leigh Hunt, Valentine Le Grice, and others met under Boyer’s tuition, and each of them later wrote of the enormous impact of the sadistic and intellectually demanding teacher on his adult life and psychology. The Liber Aureus contains juvenile work by this circle.

The autograph fair copy of Kubla Khan has been the subject of much scholarly debate. Coleridge was addicted to opium from his time at Cambridge until his death, and his claim (made in a note on f1b here) that this poem came to him during an opium dream may have been one of the things that inspired the young de Quincey to experiment with the drug. Coleridge did not publish Kubla Khan until 1816, when he added the story that, on awakening from the dream, he had been the process of writing it down when he was interrupted by “a person from Porlock” and forgot the rest of the poem. This copy seems to date from somewhere between 1797 and 1804, and the watermark is similar to one from a letter of 1799. It is believed to be the earliest surviving draft of the poem.

Other poems in manuscript include Lewti, To Lesbia and early drafts of The Destiny of Nations. Drafts and manuscripts of much of Coleridge’s published prose are also here, including the lectures on Shakespeare, Milton and theories of poetry, the philosophical lectures, Logic and some of his political work. There are drafts of material that subsequently went into Aids on Reflection as well as Coleridge’s manuscript annotations to a printed copy.

Sarah Moss, Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford University

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