Marginalia V, Edited by H. J. Jackson and George Whalley

Reviewed by Jeffrey W. Barbeau


(Coleridge Bulletin, New Series 20, Winter 2002, pp 141-146)


FRAGMENTARY WRITINGS, Thomas McFarland once insisted, are the form ‘in which Coleridge excelled.’  Coleridge, McFarland’s ‘true master of the fragment,’ writes neither erratically nor unsystematically in his multifarious marginal thoughts, but with the clarity and coherence of a writer whose compositions display the awareness of ‘the total implications of the point under consideration.’[1]  The high praise showered on Coleridge by McFarland and others for the vitality of his marginal notations markedly differs from what one might expect from a form of writing that appears to merit little, on the surface, for its attention to the unity of the whole: marginalia often are derived from commonplace origins and may display lackluster qualities since they are drawn from ‘anything written by Coleridge in the margins and other blank spaces in the text of a printed book, on flyleaves, end-papers, or the inside or outside of a paper wrapper.’[2]  The mystery that riddles the reader of Coleridge’s marginal comments, then, turns on a single question: how do Coleridge’s fragmentary writings elicit a unified and coherent body of thought or dissociated strands of a conflicted and wandering mind?  After examining the background and content of Marginalia V, I suggest that readers of the marginalia must guard against oversimplifying textual disparities and allow apparent inconsistencies to have fair play until a fuller portrait of the fluctuations in his thought is developed.

       The fifth volume of the Marginalia continues the long tradition of editorial meticulousness that the Collected Coleridge (CC) has maintained since the project’s inception.  Heather J. Jackson and the late George Whalley, assisted by numerous other scholars, have carefully recorded every text known to have been inscribed with Coleridge’s marginal jottings.  As with previous parts of the twelfth volume of the CC, the particulars of each text, including its complete bibliographic information, provenance, contents, and the proposed dates of Coleridge’s marginal compositions, appear at the commencement of each book entry.  Lost texts, too, for which no marginalia have survived, such as Coleridge’s comments on the Scottish philosopher Dugald Stewart (1753-1828), have been included alphabetically within the text with whatever information is known of the volume’s background.  Indeed, even the enigmatic and ‘Harmless Effusion on a blank Anté-leaf’ (866) has been preserved for




examination in the marginalia of a yet ‘Unidentified’ book.  In this way, the editors have, in this volume alone, compiled Coleridge’s musings and reflections on over thirty authors and more than sixty books.  Nonetheless, it is Coleridge’s marginalia on five authors, in particular, that constitute the overwhelming majority of the volume: the notes on Robert Southey (1774-1843), Heinrich Steffens (1773-1845), Wilhelm Gottlieb Tennemann (1761-1819), Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772), and Jeremy Taylor (1613-1667) comprise nearly three-quarters of the almost 900 page tome.

       It may come as a surprise to some that the bulk of Coleridge’s comments on the works of Robert Southey are recorded not in the pages of his poems, but rather in his Life of Wesley (1820).  The Life is a work Coleridge claims to have had more ‘often in my hands than any other in my ragged Book-regiment’; it was to these pages that ‘I was used to resort whenever Sickness & Languor made me feel the want of an old friend, of whose company I could never be tired’ (120-21).  Here, one finds a storehouse of commentary on a wide body of topics including the state of the English church, the connections between Methodist preachers and the zoo-magnetists, and the freedom of the human will.  Coleridge’s ability to provide unique insight into seemingly commonplace ideas is apparent in one marginal comment, for example, on a passage relating Wesley’s claim to have converted numerous ‘habitual Drunkards.’  In response, Coleridge suggests that Wesley more particularly meant the conversion of a ‘frequent Drunkard’ than the conversion of a ‘habitual Drunkard,’ ‘in whom the obscure Will which is the radical of his plastic Life is infected.’  In the conversion of a ‘habitual Drunkard,’ Coleridge maintains, ‘a true reformation would be a true miracle, equivalent to re-creation’ (190).  This case reveals an important quality of Coleridge’s marginal notes: the exposition of many complex social, theological, and philosophical problems flow from seemingly inconsequential passages in the author’s text.

       Coleridge’s notes on the works of Heinrich Steffens provide an important account of his ongoing contact with German Naturphilosophie.  Throughout, one finds Coleridge grappling with Steffens’s Idealist philosophy, such as when he is criticizing Steffens’s reading of Kant (297).  Still, perhaps the most remarkable quality of these marginalia is the persistent verbal wrestling in which Coleridge engages his interlocutor.  The reader must thoughtfully distinguish between Coleridge’s criticism and his rhetoric; Coleridge refers to Steffens’s arguments as ‘abominable Trash’ (274), ‘sick’ning Trash’ (299), ‘sickly jesuitical Trash’ (302), and ‘like a man talking in his Sleep’ (302).  Yet, the foundation for Coleridge’s accusatory tone is what he considers Steffens’s proclivity for generalization, the ‘common defect of German metaphysicians’ (372).  Still, at other times, Coleridge expresses his desire ‘to place myself as a Pupil with H. Steffens’ and, ultimately, exposes his respect for the thinker when he presumes ‘not understanding their ignorance I conclude myself




ignorant of their Understanding’ (359-60).[3]

       Coleridge’s comments on Wilhelm Gottlieb Tennemann reveal a similar preoccupation with post-Kantian philosophy.  Although Coleridge’s notations on Tennemann lack the gruff attitude toward the author that one finds in the marginalia on Steffens, his critique is no less stinging.  The heart of the problem with Tennemann, for Coleridge, is his inability to reason save ‘thro’ the Spectacles of Kant, or rather of Kanteanism’ (728).  In particular, Tennemann’s slavish and mechanical use of Kant, a ‘Kanteanism, in letter rather than spirit’ (742), led to zealous oversights and the inevitable neglect of a thoroughgoing logic.  Responding to Tennemann’s claim that Christianity is too narrow a teaching to satisfy the needs of the human spirit, Coleridge counters with characteristic astonishment:


‘O! this quiet prosy way of humming a man out of his religion by bringing out the most arbitrary and paradoxical assertions as matters too plain and too long settled by among men of sense to need more than to be merely stated, and with the air and tone of one into whose <Brain> the very thought, that any one was likely should think of denying or questioning his positions, had never once entered—verily it is exquisite!’ (767). 


In this way, Coleridge’s opposition to Tennemann often leads to rather substantial notes.  Corrective notes on the relationship between Plato and Plotinus (750ff) and on the meaning of ‘the true Mystic Philosophy’ (795-96) are especially noteworthy.

       In light of Coleridge’s grappling with Steffens and Tennemann, the marginal notes on Emanuel Swedenborg seem a striking departure in rhetorical tone. While Coleridge clearly remains unwilling to embrace aspects of Swedenborg’s thought, he repeatedly defends his earnestness: ‘I should pity the man who having read any portion of his writings could entertain the least suspicion of his veracity, or of his sincerity, as with others so with his own heart.  He must therefore have been either a Seer or a Dreamer’ (473-74).  Coleridge is not timid in conferring praise on Swedenborg’s accomplishments either; in one note on Swedenborg’s conception of the ideas of the understanding, Coleridge exclaims, ‘excellent.  This single Line fairly outweighs the whole of Locke’s Essay on the Human Underst.—’ (432).  The marginalia on Swedenborg are largely concerned with logic, but a number of other notes contain valuable commentary on symbols, faith, and Scripture as well.

       The largest collection of notes on any single author in the entire six-part series of Marginalia are those Coleridge wrote in the works of Jeremy Taylor.  Not even the substantial marginalia on William Shakespeare in Marginalia IV




surpass the 200 pages of extensive commentary on Taylor’s discourses and sermons.  It is likely that Coleridge found in Taylor a mind much like his own; for example, at one point Coleridge expresses admiration for Taylor’s ‘oceanic’ reading.  Yet, in the same note, Coleridge also suggests a key difference: unlike his own desire to study the writings of other thinkers with a critical eye, Coleridge asserts that Taylor, ‘does not appear to have been a critical Scholar … he read rather to bring out the growths of his own fertile & teeming mind, than to inform himself respecting the products of other men’s’ (619).  One example worthy of consideration is Coleridge’s handling of Taylor’s notion of the relationship between Scripture and church tradition.  Rather than simply reacting to Taylor, Coleridge thoughtfully interacts with the text while displaying an acute sensitivity to history.  Coleridge fears that Taylor relies too heavily on the authority of the Fathers of the early church for whom tradition was a necessary test for Scripture in the formation of the biblical canon.  By contrast, Coleridge maintains, ‘for us the order is reversed’ (572-73).  Notably, Coleridge is careful to suggest that he does not disagree with Taylor’s conclusion, only the logical means by which he came to it: ‘As to myself, I agree with Taylor against the Romanists, that the Bible is for us the only Rule of Faith; but I do not adopt his mode of proving it’ (572).  Since Coleridge devotes considerable attention to the Christian doctrines of original sin, baptism, and the Eucharist, many of the marginalia will appear familiar to those who have studied Aids to Reflection.  Still, a conversational tone exists in these entries that makes them an especially useful comparative tool.  The marginalia on Taylor are essential reading for anyone interested in understanding Coleridge’s religious thought.

       Of course, although the extended commentary on these authors is undoubtedly valuable, it would be a mistake to overlook the considerable contribution that many relatively shorter marginalia could have for Coleridge studies.  In light of the recent interest in Coleridge’s trinitarian philosophy of religion and the long-anticipated publication of the Opus Maximum, the notes on William Sherlock’s (1641-1707) A Vindication of the Trinity provide an important depository of Coleridge’s attempts to mediate divergent conceptions of the Godhead.  Elsewhere, Coleridge’s brief reflections on the life and thought of St. Teresa of Ávila (1515-1582) further substantiate his interest in the mystic tradition.  Finally, many will be interested to examine both the marginal comments and the numerous passages that are highlighted in the ‘Annex’[4] to Benedictus de Spinoza (1632-1677).  Clearly, discerning readers will be careful not to overlook the many valuable, if briefer, entries of the volume.

       Marginalia V stands, together with the CC, among the finest critical editions in modern scholarship.  The textus, ‘that part of the book which prompted Coleridge to write a marginal note and to which a marginal note




refers,’[5] is adequately preserved for readers to gain a sense of what may have been the original impetus for Coleridge’s notation.  Marginal notes by Coleridge are printed in red ink and quickly attract the reader’s attention.[6]  On the whole, editorial comment is useful, concise, and easily understood.  Readers will especially appreciate cross-references to other writings by Coleridge, most often parallel comments in the notebooks.  The editors have produced an extraordinary work of scholarship and deserve many accolades for their accomplishment.

       Still, the text must be used with care.  Students looking to the Marginalia for timely support for a thesis will, no doubt, need to observe the standard caveats in using this resource, especially when relying on the dates that the editors have assigned to his marginal comments.  Far less apparent to the unacquainted reader are errors of fact that occasionally slip into the text.  Although William Sherlock died in 1707, one note incautiously substitutes biographical details from the life of Sherlock’s son Thomas (1678-1761) when it suggests that ‘Waterland participated in a formal public dispute with Sherlock over Arianism in 1714 and succeeded him as vice-chancellor at Cambridge in 1715’ (16n.172).  While many footnotes shed considerable light on Coleridge’s often obscure references, some could have been eliminated as commonplaces or replaced by more pertinent information: a reference to the biblical book of Genesis, ‘‘[t]he First Book of Moses, called Genesis,’ to give it its full title,’ is likely unnecessary for the reader of marginalia on Swedenborg (430n.41).  Other footnotes are more troubling, however, when they replicate and protract tendentious notes from other volumes of the Collected Coleridge.  One editorial note explaining the origins of Coleridge’s use of ‘Bibliolatria’ in marginalia on Tennemann, for example, refers the reader to the manuscript text of Confessions of an Inquiring Spirit where, it is claimed, ‘Lessing’s coinage of Bibliolatrie is given as the ultimate source’ (805n.1352).  Turning to the Confessions in Shorter Works & Fragments (CC vol. 11), however, one finds that the ‘ultimate source’ provided there is, in fact, the only source provided, to the utter neglect of Englishman John Byrom’s (1691-1763) earlier use of the word. One can only hope that the renewed attention to Coleridge’s notes on the writings of Jeremy Taylor, occasioned by this volume of the marginalia, will provide an antidote to the occasional neglect of English influences on Coleridge’s theological and philosophical writings.

       Notwithstanding, the volume is an asset that will be valued for many years.  The recent appearance of the final volume of the marginalia provides a complete and necessary index to the parts, but it cannot resolve a central difficulty of Coleridge studies: the fact remains that no date can be applied to




every marginal comment and, so, scholars must carefully scrutinize the ideas presented in each passage.  The organization of comments by author and book does not lend itself to an analysis of the changes in Coleridge’s thoughts on a given topic over a period of years.  In fact, Coleridge’s own comments often unsettle a reader’s confidence in the unity of composition when they appear in reaction to earlier marginalia: ‘August 1825.  I do not recollect the date of the above note; but I take no shame to myself for the mood in which it must have been written!’ (172).  Herein lies the challenge for readers of Coleridge’s marginalia.  Even if one believes that Coleridge wrote with a sense of the whole, an awareness of ‘the total implications of the point under consideration,’ as McFarland suggests, the question of intellectual development remains unanswered.  In many ways, Coleridge’s own words on Southey could fittingly be applied to the marginalia: ‘The prominent Fault (or what to fault-finders would appear such) of this delightful Work is for me one of its characteristic Charms—the frequent inconsistency, I mean.  But observe! only the inconsistency of page this with page that, some 40 or 50 pages apart—no inconsistency of Southey with himself under any one existing impression or in relation to any one fact or set of circumstances!’ (121).  In the years to come, scholars armed with this critical edition of the marginalia must be willing to embrace the disparities in Coleridge’s writings and resist the temptation, occasionally abetted by editors’ notes that smooth uneven ground, to diminish those facets of his thought that challenge systematization.  Only then will the importance of Coleridge’s intellectual development be identified and his true achievement be appraised.


[1]       Thomas McFarland, Coleridge and the Pantheist Tradition (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969), xxvi.

[2]       George Whalley, ed., Marginalia I, Vol. 12 of The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. Kathleen Coburn, Bollingen Series, 75 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980), xxiii [hereafter, CM].

[3]       Notably, Coleridge’s use of this ‘golden rule’ in his marginalia on Steffens is dated to about 1814-15; as the editors note, the famous phrase is found in Coleridge’s writings since 1801 and its most famous appearance is in the 1817 Biographia Literaria (see CM, V, 360n.197).

[4]       Annex material, as the statement of ‘Editorial Practice’ in CM I explains, ‘are used mostly for gathering together passages that are marked but not annotated’ (xxx).

[5]       CM, I, xxiv.

[6]       Among the highlights of the Coleridge Summer Conference 2002 was Richard Garnett’s talk on the Collected Coleridge, ‘The Designer’s Tale.’  One wonders if Garnett’s astute decision to print Coleridge’s words in a distinct font color—a decision for which scholars owe Garnett a debt of gratitude—was at all influenced by the American practice of printing Bibles with the words of Christ in red.