Literature & poetry
Coleridge through the kaleidoscope
Coleridge's notebooks are a wonderful amalgam of journal, travelogue, sketchbook and commonplace book. Yet, all but the most dedicated scholars could be forgiven for being daunted by the scale and scholarly apparatus of Kathleen Coburn's definitive edition, completed with the fifth and final pair of volumes last year. Seamus Perry's new edition is the first dedicated selection from the notebooks since the poet's great-nephew E. H.
Coleridge put together Anima Poetae in 1895 from the then-unpublished manuscripts; on that count alone it is to be welcomed.
Perry's selection is drawn from those notebooks held in the British Library. It is a mark of his editorial scrupulousness that he has included only those texts for which he was able to consult the manuscripts.
However, to forsake those notebooks in the Toronto collection (and others besides) inevitably restricts the selection. Likewise, while the most engaging entries are undeniably concentrated in the period represented here, to stop the selection in 1820 leaves the reader without much sense of the eccentric mix of theology, science and philosophy within the later notebooks. One sympathises with Perry's self-confessed reluctance to undertake the formidable task of annotating them, but he might have offered readers at least a glimpse of the ageing Coleridge taking his appetite for speculation into the further reaches of geometry, galvanism, animal magnetism and mesmerism - or harnessing the dazzling descriptions of natural phenomena that fill the earlier notebooks as similes for philosophical abstractions (" How luminous! " exclaims the later Coleridge in mid-disquisition, "As plain to be seen, as an Eel in an old Fish-pondI or the Sun glittering on the mud and sparkling on the Duck-weed!").
Perry's selection is divided into biographically structured chapters, giving the reader a thread and shape that is much harder to discern in Coburn's edition. In making the notebooks more accessible this works well, but Perry's introduction at times seems to suggest an implausible degree of coherence: he refers to "the Notebook" (singular) as a monolithic entity, a "work", and "perhaps the unacknowledged prose masterpiece of the age". As a description of the heterogeneous contents of 60-odd pocket books kept over four decades, this is Coleridgean organicism taken a step too far, and shows Perry curiously willing to subscribe to Coleridge's holistic ambition for "a single great workI which would work an effect of colossal reconciliation upon the diverse elements of his thought". I have always found the fascination of the notebooks (emphatically plural) to lie in their relentlessly honest subversion of the aesthetic unity he was forever seeking in his philosophical prose, and in the absence of the recuperative manoeuvres that he deployed rhetorically but with increasing difficulty in the poems. In this more private forum he acknowledges, not without humour, the self-defeating convolutions of his endlessly fertile intellect: "Now how to get back, having thus belabyrinthed myself in these most parenthetical parentheses? Cut thro' at once, & now say in half a dozen Lines what half a dozen Lines would have enabled me to say at the very beginning/ but my Thoughts, my Pocket-book Thoughts at least, move like a pregnant Polypus in sprouting Time, clung all over with young Polypi each of which is to be a thing of itself - and every motion out springs a new twig of Jelly-Life."
Here Coleridge had found a medium that gave free play to the very qualities that were elsewhere so problematic for his aesthetic project - a naturally fragmentary form, infinite freedom to digress, a licence to plagiarise - and an escape from the temptation to bombast that he found so hard to resist in his more public discourse. To claim for the notebooks the degree of unity that Perry's terminology implies seems in this context slightly to miss the point, by forcing them into a structure they seem at all times to resist.
These reservations aside, Perry cannot fail to please in the wealth of extraordinary material in his selection. By losing much of Coburn's editorial punctuation, Perry makes the notebooks a good deal more readable while keeping the idiosyncratic Coleridgean slashes and dashes that are so much part of the immediacy of many of the entries. The process of selection inevitably telescopes the gaps between the composition of entries, creating some new juxtapositions. Overall, Perry strikes a good balance between Coleridge's spontaneous recordings and the more consciously literary and philosophical entries, though he eschews the mundane shopping lists, medicinal recipes and such like that in Coburn's edition give more of a feel for the kaleidoscopic mix of Coleridge's daily life.
Perry's annotation is invariably sensitive and helpful, though the triple numbering scheme (his own, Coburn's and the manuscript sources) seems a little cumbersome. The commentary section takes up almost half the volume; for sheer pleasure of reading it is tempting to wish for more Coleridge at the expense of some of the detail given here. But Perry's contextual work enhances the pay-off for the student of Coleridge - elucidating the more cryptic entries and setting Coleridge's observations in the light of his reading and the work of his contemporaries, cross-referring to cognate passages in the letters, poetry and prose, and offering helpful pointers to secondary reading. Overall the volume is better suited to this readership than to the more general audience that OUP's handsome packaging seems designed to attract.
Josie Dixon is a contributor to The Cambridge Companion to Coleridge.
Coleridge's Notebooks: A Selection
Editor - Seamus Perry
ISBN - 0 19 871201 4
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £17.99
Pages - 288