OVER the last several years, with the publication of the final Collected Coleridge volumes, the last volume of the Notebooks (edited by Anthony Harding) and the upcoming volume of critical essays on the prose and poetry (edited by Nicholas Halmi and Raimonda Modiano), we do seem to see a new appreciation of Coleridge forming. Heather Jackson’s revised edition of The Major Works appears in good and timely company. The Major Works presents for the “reader of literature” a goodly collection of what are arguably the most important works.
Of course, given Coleridge’s digressive, explorative, insatiably curious character, deciding which of the many works to include involves some careful consideration of the needs of “the reader of literature.” Collections like this rely on several audiences, including the “major authors”: the university course, the ambitious undergraduate “survey” course, the appreciative non-academic, and the beginning scholar. Each of these groups poses slightly different challenges for the editor: is the goal to provide “the most important” concepts in Coleridge’s philosophy? Or is it to present “the best” of the poetry and prose? Or is it to offer a representation of Coleridge’s polymath intellect?
Many of the poetic selections appear inevitable no matter the goal of the editor: the mystery and conversation poems, ‘The Pains of Sleep,” “Ne Plus
Ultra,” “Work Without Hope,” “Self-Knowledge,” and so forth seem obvious. More difficult choices involve which prose works to include: as Jackson herself says in the introduction, Coleridge is “a hard man to take excerpts from… he could hold a complex concept in suspension while discussing a bit of it, so that in extracting the bit one loses the whole.” However, her experience at editing Coleridge pays off in her decisions about the prose inclusions: the whole text of Biographia Literaria is here, with selections from, among other works, Aids to Reflection, Table Talk, Lectures on Shakespeare, The Friend, and of course the Letters and Notebooks.
In many ways, this collection hits precisely the right note. Students and teachers tracking Coleridge through his incarnations and efforts, discovering familiar nuggets in widely separated venues, will appreciate the selections from a wide range of Coleridge’s prose work: notions from the Notebooks wend their way through Letters and The Friend, finding themselves echoed in Biographia and finally shaped to perfection in Aids to Reflection. I note with special appreciation the generous sampling of Letters and Notebook entries, although I am sad to see that so comparatively little of The Friend and nothing from The Watchman has been retained. Since the vast majority of this text is Coleridge’s prose, though, it is pointless to quibble over which bits of the prose would have been “better” to include. From my perspective, the more important matter is that students get the opportunity to experience Coleridge as somewhat more than a poet. And that is a goal most admirably achieved.
One could argue vehemently, however, about including all of Biographia. Its centrality to Coleridge studies makes its inclusion an obvious decision. But even while it is an undeniably important work, Biographia is also probably the most frustrating of all Coleridge’s prose. Even the doughty undergraduate or upper level “major authors” course will probably not be able to read all of the text, given the typical 17 week semester and the probable reading load of poetry and other prose. But given the alternative—presenting an incomplete picture—the entire text must be included. One regrets, therefore, that more discussion of the text’s importance was not provided.
Still, there is no lack of supplementary texts should readers need them, and Jackson has provided a reading list for interested parties. The suggestions for critical studies inexplicably include nothing newer than 1994; however, the range is admirable. Her explanatory notes to the text of the poetry and prose seem truncated although certainly adequate. Presenting the edited Coleridge must be a constant balancing act, inevitably wanting to include more while grimly resisting the temptation. Ultimately, I can think of no better compilation of Coleridge’s words, serving so many different needs, for so affordable a price.