Friday, May 22, 2009

Coleridge the newspaperman

A couple of days ago I mentioned in passing an early foray by Samuel Taylor Coleridge into the world of periodicals, which was a newspaper, published every eight days (to avoid the tax on weeklies), called the Watchman. Written almost entirely by Coleridge, it was launched on March 1, 1796 and ran for only ten issues. In the course of those ten issues, however, Coleridge had managed to feature a wide range of writing, from samples of his poetry to satirical essays to somewhat scurrilous attacks on those he deemed to radical. As Adam Sisman wryly notes in The Friendship, "Small wonder that he received 'many abusive letters.'"

The Watchman did garner some praise, however: Sisman quotes a letter Coleridge sent to a friend detailing the "wonderful" reviews; in its rapturous phrasing we can catch glimpses of the oft-reported dazzle of Coleridge in conversation:
The Monthly has cataracted panegyric on my poems; the Critical has cascaded it; and the Analytical has dribbled it with very tolerable civility. The Monthly has at least done justice to my Religious Musings--They place it "on the very top of the scale of Sublimity"--!--!--!
I love the ebullience of those repeated exclamation points at the end. Sisman, however, can't help but point out that the Monthly Review, "also criticised his meteres, coined words, and double epithets." Sisman goes on to quote a letter Coleridge received that should surely bring a smile to the face of any poet-critic:
Sir! I detest your principles, your prose I think very so so--; but your poetry is so exquisitely beautiful, so gorgeously sublime, that I take in your Watchman solely on account of it.

By all reports, the Watchman was staid and normal compared to Coleridge's later venture into periodicals, The Friend: A Literary, Moral, and Political Weekly Paper, Excluding Personal and Party Politics and the Events of the Day, which he self-published for twenty-five issues in 1809. By that point, the feverish quality of Coleridge's mind had become far more pronounced, his odd combination of obsessive manias and endlessly branching ideas rendering his writing at best complicated, at worst impenetrable. Yet I find that Sisman's description of the magazine, in all its strangeness, makes it seem oddly compelling:
Even Coleridge's admirers were forced to admit that The Friend was often "very obscure." Not only was the subject-matter uncompromisingly difficult, the presentation was a further deterrent to the general reader, with multiple digressions reminiscent of the worst of his lectures. In defiance of journalistic principles, Coleridge ended one number in mid-sentence, completing it in the next. Despite being told that The Friend was "unreadable," he remained oblivious to advice or criticism. . . . Southey was . . . irritated when in the second number Coleridge used a footnote to deny the charges of deserting his wife and country made against him ten years earlier in The Beauties of the Anti-Jacobin. This was folly, since the charges against Coleridge and his friends had long been forgotten by all except perhaps those immediately concerned, and resurrecting them now could only do him damage. . . . After the first dozen numbers Coleridge yielded to pressure to lighten the content of The Friend, but the effect of this new policy was far from satisfactory. The new material was much more miscellaneous, and the result was incoherent. It became harder and harder to know what The Friend was for.
Am I crazy to imagine that receiving such an obviously personal oddity in the mail every week might be a strange treat?

I suppose I could put my money where my mouth is: it looks as if copies of that volume of Coleridge's Collected Works are readily available on the used-book market. But it doesn't really seem the same somehow--am I wrong to think that whatever crazy charm might be carried by a weekly dose of unfettered Coleridge appearing in the mailbox would likely be deadened by being bound between covers?

1 comment:

  1. "Am I crazy to imagine that receiving such an obviously personal oddity in the mail every week might be a strange treat?"

    Heck, now I get 'em in my RSS reader every day! Ha ha!

    Or maybe a better joke, now based on personal experience, would involve the treat of writing the oddity.

    Greatly enjoying this series, by the way.