Coleridge Summer Conference, 1992


Peter Larkin


(The Coleridge Bulletin  New Series No 1, (Winter 1992-93) pp. 28-29)


The Coleridge Summer Conference, the largest single event to be organised by the Friends, has achieved its hat-trick this year and now looks set to become a permanent fixture on the biennial calendar, as much due to the shameless enthusiasm of its participants as to the dogged tenacity of its organisers. We were again at Cannington College, halfway between Nether Stowey and Bridgwater, and the venue of the 1990 gathering. The College appears to be becoming used to the more outlandish metaphysical blooms that. sprout up every so often among its neat parterres and even seems to relish it. And we are fortunate to be based once again in the old part of the College, among the gardens and buildings of the former Cannington Court in which the original Farm Institute began, but which had once been the site of a Priory and which reverted to being a nunnery for a time in the very year of Coleridge's last visit to the area. To speak of flowers and borders is no mere figure in this context, as we were surrounded by the extensive botanical gardens of the College, girded by the tall buttressed sandstone walls Coleridge would have known as he passed by on his way to preach or visit in Bridgwater. The papers were delivered among the resonant spaces (at times too much so) of Clifford Hall, a lofty domed room that has served both as chapel and private theatre in past times as the plaster swags above the colonnade illustrate - an appropriately extravagant but uplifting setting for any display of Coleridgean verve. And there was certainly plenty of the latter on offer in a variety of shapes and sizes, rather like its great original. Nor should one regret, though it was distracting at the time, that a number of papers were accompanied by a pealing or tolling from the adjacent parish church whose high tower could spy on us when we were in the court-yard - despite the competition for attention, though, we were inclined to take the ringing for a blessing rather than reproof. We might also have recalled that one of the former incumbents of the parish was Henry Poole, Coleridge's university friend to whose home at Shurton Court he made for when he first visited the area.


It was good to see so many present-day university friends (and Friends) attracted back to this part of Somerset this summer to participate in the fullest and certainly the most strenuous programme of the three conferences there have so far been. The range of papers was also wider (or even wider) than before, and more ample discussion periods allowed for some animated stand-offs of the most elevated and good-tempered kind. There was a common relish for meaty Coleridgean discourse never at a loss to reach for a colourful illustration or two (and happily on these occasions many voices, rather than just one, managed to get a word in). David Miall's skillful ordering of the sessions encouraged a number of common threads between papers to emerge, so that one had the impression of a "politics" morning or a "theory" afternoon, or of a number of close readings clustering round one poem, while historical or philosophical intricacies found their own spaces in which to abound and overlap. Coleridge himself would have been at home in much of this, and we certainly would not have been able to keep him quiet. As it happens, we did not, and he was not. Two presentations lightened the "faded intricacy" of words with judicious slides so that the worlds of Italian art and of early nineteenth century Hampstead refreshed us. I particularly recall the papers that drew us aside a little to recall the relevance of Southey or the predicament of Coleridge's first-born, Hartley, or gave us new insight into Coleridge's own boyhood at Christ's Hospital, or provocatively contrasted Coleridge's reflective practice as a poet with some contemporary fashions for "letting the image say it all". We had begun (after a timely tribute to the late Kathleen Coburn) with some resourceful reflections on Coleridge's marginal scribblings and we ended with an expert review of his prosodic methods, both neglected topics but both well able to demand (and receive) a place at the feast.


Inevitably, the audience finds itself listening to much that it might not have gone out of its way to read or did not realise it was interested in, but here must reside the value of any coming-together like the Coleridge Conference. Private habits of selectivity must give way to new incursions of inclusiveness, or at any rate, to a particularity corning from quite another quarter, so that both lines of allegiance and demarcations of intellectual opposition can be refreshed by many a crossing over or stepping between. Which is not to deny that such a process is as exhausting as it is stimulating, and who would want to disparage those who made their withdrawals from time to time to the nearby Bee garden to remind themselves that quiet hadn't quite yet been disinvented or to indulge in fits of regressive absurdity or quite unrepeatably freakish commentaries of their own? For these things are equally Coleridgean. If most of us were among the refugees at some time or another we knew that such things were thoroughly a part of the conference. After all, we were among friends, and it was down at the nearby "Friendly Spirit" inn that the conference discourse reached its apotheosis or subsided into amiable non-sequiturs,




or both together. I remember one evening where one entire bar was lined with members of the conference indulging in what sounded identical to the familiar pub banter coming from the bar next-door, except that if you crept a little closer you found the matter was post-Kantian or radical politics or Christabel (am I recalling one night or every night?)


The conference had also scheduled some more decorous times for relaxation of course, crowned by a full day in Bristol, where we were met by Basil Cottle (a descendant of the original publisher of Lyrical Ballads) who quickly showed us how much he knows about the Bristol you can see, to which he added a wealth of information about the Bristol sadly no longer there to see. There was also a Bristol the conference were not supposed to see (due to limited time) but it is an heroic guide indeed who can confine visitors to the outside of St. Mary Redcliffe; I pass over further mention of the shameless mass desertion into the shadowy interior. We were taken round crannies of old Bristol into which no coach has ever penetrated or is very unlikely ever to do so again, but thanks to the resilience of our driver we were able to see Brandon Hill, the Pneumatic Institute and Dr. Beddoes' house. The visit ended in Clevedon where a highly suspect terrace-cottage did duty for Coleridge's jasmine-covered Cot. We were also able to spend part of another afternoon in Nether Stowey, a "must" for old and new members of the conference alike. After having been met at the parish church and shown the memorial to Coleridge's greatest local friend, Thomas Poole, we went on to view Coleridge Cottage with its long garden reaching almost to the back of Poole's house in Castle Street. Thanks to the kindness of the present tenants we were also able to see inside Poole's house with its famous parlour and former book-room. The visit aptly terminated at "Coleridge Books" where delegates were regaled with glasses of wine amid well-filled shelves (who would speculate which category was emptied the sooner?) For those able to stay on the conference were led on a final walk by David Miall up onto the Quantock ridge and back down through the grounds of Alfoxton, with readings along the way. For the best part of five days we had talked of our reading to one another or read our talks but at the last we simply walked as we talked or looked as we listened, and perhaps learned to read something of that landscape which however silent and reserved remains the chief element in that unended moment, as much recollection and recreation as event, that we call "Coleridge in Somerset".