Paul Cheshire reads

Coleridge’s Poetry and Prose: A Norton Critical Edition

Selected and Edited by Nicholas Halmi, Paul Magnuson and Raimonda Modiano (W.W. Norton & Company, 2004)


Coleridge’s Notebooks: A Selection edited by Seamus Perry

(Oxford University Press, 2002)


(The Coleridge Bulletin, New Series 22, Winter 2003, pp 80-83



Norton Critical Editions have been a sustaining presence throughout my life as a reader. I remember with affection my first encounters with the Norton Prelude—the revelation of the 1799 text, helpful annotation and a broad spectrum of supplementary material providing context, reception and critical essays.  For a reader re-engaging with Wordsworth and Romanticism after a long interval, the Norton edition provided all the tools I needed to dig deeper into the text and sift through an assortment of views to widen my understanding and find congenial readings.  It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that I wouldn’t be reviewing this book now if it weren’t for the way the Norton Prelude nurtured my growing interest and gave it somewhere to go.  So this is my criterion for a Norton Coleridge: it should be a Coleridge stimulant (to borrow Richard Holmes’ term) that does for Coleridge what those three editors achieved for Wordsworth.

       Compared to Wordsworth, Coleridge is necessarily a hard task to Nortonise.  As well as being a poet he was so many other things—critic, philosopher, theologian and, as the introduction nicely puts it: “perhaps, one of the last thinkers to attempt to unify knowledge on a religious basis”.  In addition to this, his informal prose, the notebooks and letters, reveal another dimension of the man: his playful, nimble brilliance, his struggle with himself, his spiritual self-exhortations.  Can this multifaceted being be caught within a single volume?

       The very size of this edition is emblematic of its success. Although it is nearly 800 pages long, it remains slim enough to squeeze into a jacket pocket. It is not much more than half the width of H. J. Jackson’s 734 page S. T. Coleridge: The Major Works, a new edition of a selection which has served us well, and against which this one will undoubtedly be measured. [1]

       The problem of selection is not so difficult for the poetry. There is reasonable consensus over the best and the most important poems.  Deciding on which versions to take is more of a problem.  Jim Mays’ reading text solution allowed him to pick and choose each individual text on the basis of its own merits.  Here Paul Magnuson has opted for a uniform policy; he has (with certain exceptions) selected the first published version of each poem and has taken the further step of locating each poem firmly within its original published context.  Thus when we start with Poems on Various Subjects (1796) we have the text of its preface included.  ‘The Eolian Harp’ appears under its snappy 1796 title ‘Effusion XXXV’ minus the “one life” lines that Coleridge wrote so much later, which have to be given in an editorial footnote.

       Because of the cumulative nature of Coleridge’s successive collections, by the time we get to Sibylline Leaves the additions are so few that it is as though the leaves remain scattered rather than gathered, as was the poet’s aim.  This is an insurmountable problem, but the plusses certainly outweigh the minuses. I learned here, for example, that ‘Ode on the Departing Year’ was first published as a Quarto pamphlet together with ‘Lines Addressed to a Young Man of Fortune’ in December 1796.  In this edition, facts such as these are the first thing one sees.  I had only taken in the existence of that poem’s Cambridge Intelligencer publication previously.  Coleridge’s publication history is fascinating, and this form of presentation highlights its oddities.  ‘Christabel’ and ‘Kubla Khan’ appear in 1816, when they were published, and are thus completely out of sequence in compositional terms.  All these anomalies raise questions in the reader’s mind that are then answered by the notes.

       The annotations throughout the volume are full, and Norton allow them to be where they surely belong: at the foot of the same page.  This is where the Norton format really comes into its own, when set alongside the Oxford Major Works edition, which has a stated policy of keeping notes to a minimum.  Any editor, given the choice, would surely opt for this Nortonic space for expression.  Any sensible reader certainly should.  To be fair to Oxford however, they do include an index to the prose: a handy tool, which Norton omit.

       Coleridge’s prose presents the greater challenge for a selector. Megan O’Neill, in her review referred to above, prophetically proposed that much space could be made in a Coleridge anthology by a judicious filleting of Biographia Literaria and this is exactly what has been done here.  Take Chapter 2, headed  “Supposed irritability of men of Genius—Brought to the test of Facts—Causes and Occasions of the charge—its Injustice”.  We have the astonishing experience here of Mr Coleridge getting straight to the points enumerated in his chapter heading, instead of talking round and round the subject. It comes as a pleasant shock to find oneself proceeding in a straight line instead of as a “breeze mid blossoms straying”.  If only he had dictated the work to Raimonda Modiano or Nicholas Halmi rather than Morgan in the first place, they might have kept him on track.

       Similarly, the extracts from The Friend printed here dispense with its opening marathon of Coleridgean throat clearing, for which I can only express my gratitude.  However, I guess that Coleridge would not have been too happy about swapping his beloved amanuensis for Modiano and Halmi; I won’t go so far as to claim that long term one-to-one enclosure with Asra was Coleridge’s only reason for writing/ talking The Friend, but it must have been a main attraction.  Also, I am likely to read the 10 page version of On the Constitution of the Church and State offered here.  This work’s forbidding title has kept me at bay for years, but I should be able to swallow ten pages, and if I like what I read, then who knows? I might feel drawn to read the whole thing, in which case Norton has fulfilled its brief to stretch the reader, beyond his or her limitations.

       The final section of the book consists of 120 or so pages of criticism and bibliographical material.  Criticism is too restrictive a term for the material that is offered.  The 19th century views range from Wordsworth (an extract from The Prelude), Lamb, and Hazlitt to other less familiar names; next follows a section devoted to 19th Century America with Emerson, Poe and Margaret Fuller.  Again one feel grateful for this less familiar name—her description of the Lake Poets as “the pilot-minds of their time” is pleasing.  The selection of 20th century criticism is an opportunity to reduce the daunting accumulation of modern critical writing into something manageable.  The extracts read well: sometimes too well!  If the essence of a critic’s insight can be epitomised so well by an extract, the reader can wonder whether the full-length of the book was necessary.  But let’s not go there.

       Given that it is an imperative of this edition to cover all of Coleridge’s published writing, letters and notebook entries are the easiest items to limit, so this is understandable, but I do have reservations about the way the extracts from the Notebooks, Table Talk, and other essays are homogenised under the heading of Miscellaneous Prose.  For Table Talk I imagine Coleridge out-loud talking to others, but he writes the Notebooks alone, primarily if not wholly for himself.  It feels important to attune the reader to these important differences, which affect how these writings are “heard”.

       There is a good remedy for this last complaint, but before I move onto it I want my final word on this Norton edition to be a full vote of confidence. Whatever the level may be of our knowledge of Coleridge, here is an indispensable travel pack that will enlighten the new Coleridgean and rejuvenate the jaded habitué.  Next time anyone asks me what single volume to buy to get a broad sense of Coleridge’s work and a good range of expositions of his key ideas, I will reply without hesitation that this Norton Critical Edition is the book for our time.  A resounding success.

       But I must nevertheless recommend a dietary supplement: Seamus Perry’s Coleridge’s Notebooks: A Selection.  If ever a book can be described as a literary vitamin, this is that book.  Now available in paperback, it is fit for any general reader, Coleridgean or not, and would make a perfect Christmas present for the uninitiated.  The selection preserves the idiom of the work, and even if one is fortunate enough to own the full five volume set, it is a vital supplement. This selection is portable (there’s room for it in the other pocket) and Perry comes at it with a fresh eye, both in his notes and in his transcriptions, where he occasionally departs from Coburn.  This reminds us that any single edition is only a version, where guesses at indecipherable writing have been made, and where layout and transcription conventions are set in stone in ways that can skew the reading.  Perry selects a full range of Notebook entries from the serious and deep, to the light throwaway verbal doodles, thus preserving their miscellaneous random character.  It feels exciting to imagine this selection finding new readers who will discover how much poetry there is to be found in it.  Consider this haiku-like entry, found now at random:


Poems.—Ghosts of a mountain/ the forms seizing my body, as I passed, became realities—I, a Ghost, till I had reconquered my Substance/.


Both these books will win Coleridge new Friends.  I shall welcome them, especially if they don’t mind using PayPal.

[1]          See Megan O’Neill’s review of the latest edition of this work, in the Spring 2003 Coleridge Bulletin, New Series 21 (NS)