Exhibition: In Xanadu: Coleridge and the West Country

Samuel Taylor Coleridge by Peter Vandyke oil on canvas 1795 NPG 192 National Portrait Gallery London

Samuel Taylor Coleridge by Peter Vandyke oil on canvas, 1795 NPG 192 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Museum of Somerset, Taunton, from 12 March to 25 June

In the spring of 2022 the Museum of Somerset will continue its popular programme of spotlight loans featuring national treasures with local connections. From 12 March to 25 June the British Library is lending the unique manuscript of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s extraordinary poem ‘Kubla Khan’ together with the first edition of ‘Lyrical Ballads’ by William Wordsworth and Coleridge. The loan is part of the British Library’s ‘Treasures on Tour’ programme, which is generously supported by the Helen Hamlyn Trust.

The exhibition celebrates the display of the manuscript in the county where the poem was written in a lonely farmhouse at Culbone in 1797.Coleridge said he imagined the poem in “a sort of Reverie brought on by two grains of Opium”. But before he had finished writing it down he was interrupted by the Person from Porlock, and left ‘Kubla Khan’ as the most famous of all unfinished poems. Its evocation of Xanadu and of ‘caverns measureless to man’ has been an inspiration for artists, writers and musicians ever since.

 British Library Board Manuscript of Samuel Taylor Coleridges Kubla Khan Add MS 50847

Manuscript of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's 'Kubla Khan': Add MS 50847 © British Library Board   

The exhibition will tell the story of the time Coleridge spent living in and near the Quantock Hills, from 1797 to 1799, his relationship with William and Dorothy Wordsworth, and the legacy of his writing. It will be accompanied by a programme of talks and guided walks that further explore the Somerset landscapes Coleridge loved and that helped to inspire poems including ‘Kubla Khan’ and ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’. A new workshop is also being developed that will engage schools with the exhibition through creative writing and drama.

Tom Mayberry, Chief Executive of the South West Heritage Trust, said: “We’re delighted to be working with the British Library to display this wonderful and enigmatic poem in Somerset,200 yearsafter it was written. The Somerset landscape lies near the heart of Coleridge’s poetic achievement and it was in West Somerset that most of his best-known poetry was written. This is a real homecoming.”

Alexandra Ault, Lead Curator of Manuscripts 1601-1850 at the British Library, said: “The Somerset landscape was one of Coleridge’s great inspirations and we are thrilled to loan the 'Kubla Khan' manuscript and 1798 edition of ‘Lyrical Ballads’ from the Library's collections to this exhibition. We hope visitors to the Museum of Somerset enjoy seeing the manuscript on display within the area where Coleridge enjoyed such intense creativity.”

Spotlight loans have been an important part of the museum’s programme in recent years. Loans have included the Alfred Jewel from the Ashmolean Museum, the Becket Casket from the Victoria and Albert Museum and the portrait of Henry VII from the National Portrait Gallery.

The exhibition ‘In Xanadu: Coleridge and the West Country’opens at the Museum of Somerset, Taunton, from 12 March to 25 June. On 19 May a talk about Coleridge and his West Country connections will on given by Tom Mayberry, ChiefExecutive of the South West Heritage Trust and author of ‘Coleridge and Wordsworth in the West Country’. Short gallery tours will also be running monthly, from March to June, where visitors can find out more about the objects and artworks on display.

Visit museumofsomerset.org.uk to find out more.

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