Literary Nonfiction & Biography

The best books on Samuel Taylor Coleridge

recommended by Seamus Perry

Interview by Stephanie Kelley

The reputation of Romantic poet, critic and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge has long been overshadowed by William Wordsworth, his friend and Lyrical Ballads co-author. Oxford professor Seamus Perry talks us through the books that showcase Coleridge's idiosyncratic brilliance.  

Seamus Perry

Seamus Perry is a Fellow of Balliol College and a Professor in the English Faculty of the University of Oxford. He has published books and essays on Coleridge as well as other nineteenth and twentieth century English poets and critics. His most recent book is Rollercoasters: An Anthology of Poetry from the Romantics to the Present Day edited with David Womersley (Oxford University Press).

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First, I have to ask – how did you come to love Coleridge? 

When I was a student, my main undergraduate tutor, Jonathan Wordsworth, was a Wordsworthian scholar. So, I became deeply immersed in English Romanticism, and I came to love Wordsworth very much. But I didn’t want to write about him, because I thought Jonathan had written what there was to say. And Coleridge was within the Wordsworthian shadow, but not Wordsworth himself—I suppose that’s how I first came upon him.

Then when I started thinking about him and writing about him, I just became fascinated by his diversity and his miscellaneousness. That’s a kind of richness to Coleridge; it makes him perhaps a bit vulnerable and human. He’s much less heroic than Wordsworth or Byron.

From an early age, Coleridge described himself as a boy “haunted by spectres”, “fretful”, “inordinately passionate”. Is there a lingering sense of him as a lovable failure, in Wordsworth’s shadow?

I certainly think Coleridge thought of himself very much as a failure within the shadow of Wordsworth’s success. I think, as your question implies, the truth is a bit more complicated than that. Wordsworth is in all sorts of ways just as indebted to Coleridge as Coleridge ever was to Wordsworth.

Wordsworth wouldn’t have become what he was unless he met Coleridge at that particular time in his development. And Coleridge does talk a lot about his own failure, that’s true. I think that’s one of the things that makes him quite an attractive figure to people outside universities as well as inside universities.

“Wordsworth is in all sorts of ways just as indebted to Coleridge as Coleridge ever was to Wordsworth.”

A lot of his popularity in the world of real people, real readers, comes from those great poems like ‘The Ancient Mariner’ or ‘Kubla Khan’ or ‘Christabel’ that are either unfinished, otherwise fragmentary, or don’t have a formal finish and polish that a more professional (if you like) poet would have given them.

Biographies like Richard Holmes’s are very good at invoking the way in which amazing, imaginative accomplishment and deep human failure and inadequacy are completely intertwined in Coleridge in a way that’s engaging on a human level.

I think that’s a good lead into your first book, which is an edition of Lyrical Ballads. Can you tell us a bit about the context of Lyrical Ballads – the friendship between Wordsworth and Coleridge, and its place in the Romantic period?

Sure. This is a book written when they’re both living in Somerset. They’ve decided they want to go visit Germany because Germany is—as it will be for a large amount of the nineteenth century—where progressive, avant-garde thoughts are being thought. If you want to be on the edge of modernity, Germany is the place to go, and German is the language you need to read. Wordsworth never learns German properly, but Coleridge does, and it totally changes his life as a thinker. He becomes totally immersed in contemporary German thought and is never the same again. (Wordsworth implies in various places that he thinks it ruined him—but that’s a different story.)

Anyway, there they are in Somerset; they’re going on long walking tours every day, and they’re loving each other’s company. It’s not just a diad, it’s a triad; Dorothy Wordsworth is also a part of this incredibly creative and exciting and dynamic friendship. Of course, there’s also Mrs. Coleridge and some little Coleridges around, but they didn’t really fit into the excitement of this new relationship.

By the time Lyrical Ballads is published in 1798, they’ve been in each others’ pockets for about a year. Wordsworth hasn’t written much until the spring of 1798, and then he starts again. But Coleridge has written some of the best things he ever writes, including ‘The Ancient Mariner’, the first part of ‘Christabel’, ‘Frost at Midnight’, and other bits and pieces.

So why Lyrical Ballads? Well, obviously, to go to Germany they needed to raise some money—and ballads were very voguish. So if you wrote a really good ballad, especially if it had a supernatural quality to it—something a bit Gothic—then you could sell it to a magazine and make a bit of money. That’s how they thought they could subsidise the trip to Germany. They planned what in retrospect we can now see was ‘The Ancient Mariner’ on a walk along the North Somerset coast in November 1797. Wordsworth remembers, almost half a century later, the planning of the ballad.

“Having listened to Coleridge talk for the last six months, Wordsworth finally starts to write poetry again.”

They must have planned it in some high spirits. Wordsworth soon realises that they’re not going to be able to collaborate on it, and he just leaves it to Coleridge to write. Coleridge writes, and writes, and writes, and after six months, ‘The Ancient Mariner’ emerges, at least in its first form—and that’s the first poem in Lyrical Ballads.

The most exciting poems by Wordsworth in that volume are written in the spring (often his most productive period). Having listened to Coleridge talk for the last six months, he finally starts to write poetry again. He writes some of his most extraordinary poems like ‘The Thorn’ and ‘Goody Blake and Harry Gil’. But Coleridge’s presence in Lyrical Ballads is ‘The Ancient Mariner’, which dominates the first part of the book.

The book in 1798 is published anonymously. The reason for that is no one knows who Wordsworth is anyway, says Coleridge in a letter at the time—if he put his name on the title-page, they’ll just get into trouble, because “my name stinks.” What he means is that Coleridge had quite a large reputation, especially in the southwest of England and London, not for poetry but for radical politics.

He was known as a sympathiser with French revolutionary ideas, which in a very qualified way he was: he didn’t sympathise with French atheism, but he did sympathise with certain aspects of French republicanism. I suppose the two poets must have thought that putting his name on the title page would just be a provocation to hostile reviewers to attack his Jacobin radicalism.

How does it change in the next edition, in 1800?

One thing that changes is that Wordsworth’s name appears on the title-page, but not Coleridge’s. It becomes a two-volume work with lots and lots of new poems, almost all of them by Wordsworth.

‘The Ancient Mariner’, which was the opening number in the 1798 volume, gets shuffled to towards the end of volume one in the 1800 volume. Wordsworth’s taken over, really—I don’t think in a particularly hostile way, but he’s just been extremely productive, and has written some of the poems for which he’ll be remembered as long as he’s remembered.

The hidden poignant Coleridgean story for the 1800 Lyrical Ballads is that Coleridge’s big contribution was supposed to be ‘Christabel’—but it becomes clear that he can’t finish it. In the end, rather than publish it as a fragment, it’s decided that they won’t publish ‘Christabel’ after all. This of course leaves a bit of a gap in volume two. To fill it, Wordsworth sits down and writes ‘Michael’. It must be one of Wordsworth’s greatest poems, but it arises out of Coleridge’s inability to bring ‘Christabel’ to a conclusion.

For your next book you picked an edition of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner illustrated by Gustave Doré. These are beautifully intricate, morbid, intense pictures on a grand scale. How were they received at the time?

They’re very popular quite quickly. They’re published all over Europe. I think it’s one of the most memorable illustrations of any poem. The nineteenth century loves illustrating poems, but ‘The Ancient Mariner’ gets treated spectacularly by the standards of the illustrative nineteenth century.

Coleridge only lived to see one illustration of the poem done by Michael David Scott, and he wasn’t terribly impressed by them. One of the things he said Scott got wrong was portraying the ancient mariner as an old man at the time of the story—the whole point, Coleridge said, was that when the events of the poem happened, he was a young man. He’s an old man now, but a young man then.

It’s not just a poem about terrible things that happen, it’s a poem about how you remember terrible things that happen, narrativise them, and try to make sense of them. It’s a very powerful, extraordinarily perceptive poem about coping with trauma. How do you write a poem about making sense of experiences you can’t rationalise fully?

Doré is a wonderful artist and a brilliantly intuitive reader of poetry, it seems to me. Some of the illustrations of key moments in The Ancient Mariner—like the arrow heading towards the heart of the bird and all the rest of it—are brilliantly and memorably done.

“How do you write a poem about making sense of experiences you can’t rationalise fully?”

The thing I most admire about the Doré illustrations is the last one, something which isn’t in the poem at all: the ancient mariner spotting the next person he’s going to tell the story to. That’s not in the poem, but it’s a wonderful piece of literary criticism on Doré’s part. It’s happened before and it’ll happen all over again. There’s no final expiation of the burden of this dark, psychological stuff the mariner is carrying around in his head. Doré gets that.

So it’s an illustration of how the Victorians are carrying this Romantic poet forward.

Yes, that’s a good thought. It’s also a remarkably open poem. It’s like a Shakespeare play—what makes it so compelling is the mystery or enigma at the heart of it. So it’s interpretable in all sorts of ways.

Having said that, there’s a huge amount in The Ancient Mariner which involved the deepest, darkest and most tumultuous bits of Coleridge’s soul, which is why he could never leave it alone. It’s a very, very heavily revised poem, and whenever he re-prints it he goes back and changes, adds and tweaks things. If you count the versions in a very strict way, there are something like seventeen or eighteen distinct versions of the poem. He’s still tinkering with it in the 1830s when he’s quite an old man.

Those marginal annotations in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner – how are we supposed to encounter them?

That’s a very, very good question. I suppose there are two basic answers, and they might both be true. One is that the notes in the margin are genuinely meant to clarify what’s going on in the poem, because the poem seems to have confused many of its initial readers, who didn’t see a moral shape or structure to it.

When the albatross is shot, it brings down a curse upon the mariner. Then, later on in the poem, the marginal note says “The curse is finally expiated”—so there’s a kind of Crime and Punishment redemption structure the notes seem to emphasise and clarify.

A second interpretation of those notes would be to say that they make the poem look a good deal more simple than it actually is emotionally. If what the ancient mariner is going through at the end of that poem is the experience of someone who’s had a curse lifted from him, then it’s a bit mind-boggling to think what it might be to have a curse on you. He seems just as tortured at the end as he ever was. Doré’s great insight is that he never gets rid of the stuff. He just has to go download it again in a few days’ time.

If you pursue that line of enquiry, then the possibility arises that the marginal notes aren’t written in Coleridge’s own voice as such, but perhaps in the voice of some fictive editor. The ancient mariner pretends to be a medieval ballad, and medieval ballads in the eighteenth century often came with editors’ notes—the paraphernalia of the sort you get in Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765). It may be that Coleridge is doing something a little bit more like Nabokov – something incredibly sophisticated, with many textual layers.

It seems very much ahead of its time in that respect.

I think that’s right. The idea the poem is partly about interpretation—how you interpret and misinterpret things—is an intriguing one.

Quite a few of the marginal notes either seem to be irrelevant, or digressive. Some very beautifully: Some quite comically. Some are just wrong. I had a student once who went through and categorised all the marginal notes into those which were wrong, those which were right, and those which were ambiguous. I now can’t remember what the pie-chart looked like, but a large section of the pie-chart were notes that looked erroneous.

That’s quite interesting, isn’t it? If that floats the idea of erroneousness and misinterpretation being one of the things that the poem is interested in, it invites us to think about our own reception of the poem. Having the marginal notes is a way of dramatising, as it were, a reading of that poem just as we’re reading the poem. But also it invites us to think about the way the mariner is an interpreter, or possibly a mis-interpreter, of his own experience.

It reminds me of Byron on Coleridge – “I wish he would explain his explanations”. But he’s showing the way bad explanations can be wisdom and illumination of an altogether different kind.

That’s absolutely right. And one thing the ancient mariner is completely convinced about is that because he shot the albatross, all this terrible stuff happened. If you had to paraphrase the story, telling someone who had never read the poem what it was about, that’s what you would say. But the more you look at it, the more it seems like after the bird is shot, the weather improves, and everyone on board the ship tells the mariner he’s done a really good thing. Then the weather turns, and everyone turns their back on him. So the causal link is actually very precarious, and it’s most entrenched in the mariner’s own mind. It’s about the power of narratives to make sense of what’s happened to you.

So many of Coleridge’s poems are about just that—the power of memory, perception, and making sense of experience. For your next book, you picked Coleridge’s Complete Poems. Can you take us through the hits and misses of his poetic output?

I suppose he’s famous for two sorts of poetry, which on the face of it have almost nothing to do with each other. One is what came to be called ‘supernatural poems’: ‘The Ancient Mariner‘, the unfinished ‘Christabel’, and ‘Kubla Khan’ of course. They’re still fairly common currency in a general readership. They are all about the sorts of things we’ve been talking about in ‘The Ancient Mariner’, one way or another.

And then a completely different category of poems, some written alongside the supernatural poems, chronologically speaking, are blank verse poems. They are poems of personal voice, reflection, memory recollection, sometimes confession. Those are poems like ‘Frost at Midnight’, ‘This Lime-tree Bower my Prison’ and ‘Dejection: An Ode’.

Both those categories of poems are extremely innovative in all sorts of ways. Particularly the second category—which come to be known as the ‘Conversation poems’ for their particular style and conversational quality—have gone on to influence many later nineteenth- and twentieth-century poets.

I always think of especially ‘Dejection: An Ode’, which is an absolute landmark and in some ways the last big poem he writes, in 1802. He really gets going in 1795–96, so it’s quite a truncated period. Of course he continues to write poems of one kind or another for as long as he lives, but he writes them as someone who no longer thinks of himself primarily as a poet. They’re written with his left hand, while his right hand is writing philosophy or journalism.

So ‘Dejection’, although it doesn’t mark the end of his poetic career, does mark a turning point. It’s an extraordinary poem written out of great psychological and emotional unhappiness that he associates with the death of his own imagination. That idea—that you might find in the death of your imagination a way of writing imaginatively—is an astonishing discovery, really. A load of twentieth-century writing comes from that.

It’s also about the death of his love, right? It seems that at the moment when Coleridge’s personal life erupts into flames, a good poem comes out of it.

I think that’s right, but his emotional life is in flames pretty much all the time. Obviously, it is completely about emotional unhappiness. It’s about falling in love with a woman and not being able to love her because of various constraints, like being already married.

Someone said, I can’t remember who now, ‘You could not have had a better argument for the efficacy of adultery than that poem.’ It would have been by far the easiest way of dealing with the issue.

But the idea that you might find in the death of the imagination a route to the imagination is such an extraordinary thing, and it anticipates all sorts of modern writers like T S Eliot, Wallace Stevens and Samuel Beckett. Beckett writes an extraordinary short text called Imagination Dead Imagine (1965). Well, if you wanted to summarise ‘Dejection: An Ode’ in three words, it would be that. Or, as Wallace Stevens said, ‘the absence of imagination had itself to be imagined’.

One place where we see Coleridge’s imagination come alive is the Notebooks. Why should we read them?

I think in a way the Notebooks are his masterpiece. Partly because they’re an opportunity for him to exercise or to demonstrate his genius without any of the obligation to finish things that he found so impossible.

Somewhere the great Coleridge scholar John Beer observes that it wasn’t that he lacked the industry to finish things. The problem with finishing things for Coleridge was typically that he saw two positions, or two totally different and contradictory truths. That made finishing things quite hard, because you have to choose either one or the other, or somehow try and synthesise them. That’s the uphill struggle in the kinds of abstract, esoteric philosophy Coleridge spends a lot of time thinking about.

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The notebooks free him from that. There’s something about the improvisatory, moment-to-moment, spontaneous business of a notebook—and especially that the notebooks aren’t going to be published. Of course, there’s some evidence that as time went on, he realised they might be, and they get more formal. But at least for the first several years, these are going to be read by no one, really, apart from perhaps a loved one or yourself in ten years’ time.

I think that freedom from the sense of a scrutinizing public eye was very enabling for Coleridge. He’s quite a lonely man for a lot of his life. His notebooks become a kind of confidante. He wrote things in his notebook because he had nobody else to talk to.

And there are bits of his conversations too—he records what people say to him, what they think of him, and rehearses his own responses in his notebooks. Beautifully, he’s fictionalising his own encounters.

He was also a brilliant observer of nature: natural scenes, trees, landscapes and sunsets. Some of that gets into the poetry. I think the place where he’s at his greatest is what we would now think of as nature writing.

He writes beautifully about his young children, and satirically about the things that he finds: wonderful passages about what aspens look like when they first come out, what larch buds look like, and fantastic bits of self-portraiture as well. Here he’s talking about the way in which he’s a talkative fellow: “my illustrations swallow up my thesis”. These wonderful bits of self-analysis are whimsical, not always torturous (though sometimes torturous as well.)

He’s funny, too.

Yes. He must’ve been extremely good company when he was on form. I think he got a bit more pompous as he got older, but as a young man I think he was brilliantly witty.

Your last book is Biographia Literaria (1817), Coleridge’s stab at a coherent theory of the imagination. Leslie Stephen said it was “put together with a pitchfork”, “without form or proportion” (‘Coleridge’, 1888). What does he mean by that?

The book is thrown together a bit. I suppose Leslie Stephen means like an old-fashioned hay-stack is put together with a pitchfork—you just pile up whatever hay you find hanging around. And it is a bit of a hodge-podge. It’s a great example of Coleridge not being able to finish something.

If you read volume one, which is the most rebarbative of the two volumes, you find yourself, after a few hundred pages or so, in the midst of some really turgid philosophical deductions. Coleridge is trying to argue that the passive philosophies of the mind that eighteenth-century Associationist psychology typically describe are wrong. He wants the mind to be intrinsically active and creative.

Passivity, inherited from an eighteenth-century philosophical tradition, is what he’s rejecting. He wants to put forward an innate, divine creativity informing not just works of art but all our perceptions. When you put it like that, it sounds straightforward, but my goodness, it becomes extremely tangled. It’s incredibly difficult for most readers, including most Coleridgeans, to fully master it.

Then, when he’s in the thick of all this, he suddenly stops, and there’s a letter—notionally, a letter from one of his friends—saying, ‘I think this is going to lose your readership; I don’t think you want to do all this. People have bought this thinking it’s going to be your literary life and opinions! They don’t want to read this philosophy stuff. Anyway, I wish you well, dear Coleridge, yours forever’, and so on.

And Coleridge then writes, ‘having received this letter I realised of course he was right, and I’d better drop all this’—it’s the most extraordinary moment in a book. If you look at the letters Coleridge wrote around this time, of course there was no friend: it was Coleridge.

And he includes it?

He includes it. Coleridge writing a letter to Coleridge. It’s an extraordinary moment—a stroke of the self-deprecating, self-ruining wit that characterises him.

After all these shenanigans, he gives very famous definitions of imagination and fancy. Then you turn a page and begin volume two, which I think is the place to start for the modern reader – he talks about his friendship with Wordsworth, the origin of Lyrical Ballads, and he talks about Shakespeare and Milton as being kinds of poetic genius.

Then there’s a long account of what’s great and not so great about Wordsworth’s poetry. By this stage, they’ve fallen out. Some of that personal scratchiness gets into the literary criticism. But they remain some of the best pages of literary criticism about Wordsworth ever.

They’re wonderfully generous and perceptive about the things in Wordsworth that are great, and they’re not actually wrong about the things in Wordsworth that aren’t so great. It’s just the contrast between the beauties and the shortcomings is so stark that the defects perhaps come out sounding rougher than Coleridge intended.

So you think there’s a case to read it out of order?

Yes. The very first chapters are about his education and schooling are very approachable, and you can pick up again at chapter fourteen where he talks about getting to know Mr. Wordsworth for the first time and about the imagination.

He talks very beautifully and memorably about the imagination as the thing that works to balance and reconcile opposite and discordant qualities. It’s a wonderful formulation that once you have in your head, you don’t need to apply to just Coleridge and Wordsworth—it’s a wonderful idea of how the imagination works generally.

The book is full of extraordinarily diverse and miscellaneous things which are, admittedly in a kind of precarious and ramshackle way, being brought together into a single thing. In that respect, perhaps it does at least gesture to the acts that it’s interested in describing.

Interview by Stephanie Kelley

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Seamus Perry

Seamus Perry is a Fellow of Balliol College and a Professor in the English Faculty of the University of Oxford. He has published books and essays on Coleridge as well as other nineteenth and twentieth century English poets and critics. His most recent book is Rollercoasters: An Anthology of Poetry from the Romantics to the Present Day edited with David Womersley (Oxford University Press).