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The Norton Critical Edition of Coleridge's Poetry and Prose

  • Nicholas Halmi

…plus d’informations

  • Nicholas Halmi
    McMaster University

Corps de l’article

In the the last decade the field of Romantic studies, for all its traditional self-doubts, has implicitly staked a claim to its legitimacy in the form of textual production. This production, remarkable both in its amount and in its variety, has not been confined to the creation of new texts, or for that matter to the recovery of old texts, but has also—and perhaps most excitingly—manifested itself in the development of new kinds of texts which exploit the new digitizing technologies. My readers will be familiar with several ongoing projects, including British Women Playwrights around 1800 and the remarkable Blake Archive, which make exactingly edited texts and images easily accessible on the Web. I hope that the publication of the present article on the Web will prevent me from being misunderstood as hostile to the phenomenon of electronic publication when I state what I trust is self-evident, that for ease of access and use—i.e. user-friendlines—the old-fashioned printed book remains unsurpassed, which is why Northrop Frye called it the most democratic of media. I view the relation between electronic and print publication as one of complementarity rather than of competition, and adduce the fact that there has been no end to the making of books as the Web pages and CD-ROMS have appeared: witness, for example, the new editions of Hazlitt and De Quincey by Pickering and Chatto, and the new anthologies of the Romantic period by Blackwell, Harcourt, and Longman.  [1] If it is not "new", it is still valuable, indeed necessary, to produce texts that can be read, as M. H. Abrams said of the Norton Anthology, in the classroom, in a student's dormitory room, or under a tree. In the case of the edition I am going to discuss now, that will be more literally true than it is of the Norton Anthology itself.

The Norton Critical Edition of Coleridge's Poetry and Prose, edited by Paul Magnuson, Raimonda Modiano, and me, was commissioned to fill a significant lacuna among the currently available student editions of Coleridge. Although there are several inexpensive paperback selections of the poetry, and a lightly annotated Oxford Authors/World's Classics selection of the poetry and prose, there is no edition that combines a reliably edited and thoroughly annotated selection of both the poetry and the prose in a relatively inexpensive paperback format. Although the editors and publishers expect that the principal users of our volume will be undergraduates, we are also aiming to make it useful to the large number graduate students and researchers who cannot afford or do not otherwise have ready access to the two volumes of Coleridge's Complete Poetical Works, the twenty-three published (and eleven forthcoming) volumes of The Collected Works, the eight published (and two forthcoming) volumes of the Notebooks, and the six volumes of the Collected Letters (this last long out of print). Ours will be an edition to own, but also, we want to ensure, to cite, and to that end we have approached the questions of text and annotation afresh, in ways that I shall elaborate now. This essay should not be taken as definitive, however, since we are still working on the volume and may be compelled by exigencies of space and the like to cut certain texts or alter certain details.

Like all Norton Critical Editions, Coleridge's Poetry and Prose is divided into two major sections, one containing the texts themselves and the other containing criticism of Coleridge. Of the 700 printed pages to which we are limited by the publisher, roughly 100 will be occupied by the criticism. Since the selection of criticism is not yet complete as I write this, I shall refrain from saying anything about it except that will include both Romantic-era and twentieth-century criticism. In addition to the two major sections, we shall have a general introduction, a chronology, a fairly extensive bibliography organized along the same lines as that in the first edition of the Norton Critical Shelley's Poetry and Prose (that is, having sections devoted to references works, first publications, critical editions, and criticism), and an index of titles and first lines. The textual part is divided more or less equally between poetry and prose, as a consequence of which the editors of the prose, Raimonda Modiano and I, have faced a somewhat different burden of selection from that of the editor of the poetry, Paul Magnuson. In the former case, which I will mention first, the chief difficulty has been to strike a balance between acknowledging the pedagogical canon of Coleridgean prose—that is, the bits of the Biographia, the literary lectures, The Statesman's Manual, and the table talk that instructors habitually refer to and therefore expect to find in an edition intended for classroom use—and representing the full range of Coleridge's interests and torments.

I had hoped to mitigate the difficulty by soliciting from the subscribers to the NASSR mailing list suggestions of texts to include, but I received surprisingly few responses, among them a very helpful one from Susan Wolfson (a fuller version of the selection she herself made for the new Longman anthology) and some others from people who wanted me to include long extracts of texts that particularly interested them. Of the various possible interpretations of this meagre response to my request, the most charitable to Coleridge and myself is that for most readers his prose canon is small enough to be adequately represented in the existing anthologies. Those readers will, we hope, be reassured by our selections from the Biographia (approximately 120 pages), from the literary lectures (extracts from the well-known lectures on Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, The Tempest, ancient and modern drama, and dramatic illusion), from The Statesman's Manual (the passage on allegory and symbol and Appendix C), and from frequently quoted letters (twenty-one in total). But we have also sought to expand the canon by offering a generous selection of Coleridge's political prose of the 1790s, including Conciones ad Populum, The Plot Discovered, and A Moral and Political Lecture, as well as the 1802 essay Once a Jacobin Always a Jacobin, some essays from the 1818 edition of The Friend, and, if space permits, parts of the 1830 treatise On the Constitution of the Church and State—all of which will be useful to instructors and researchers who are concerned with the political positions and contexts of Romantic writing. The goal here has been to present enough explicitly political writings of various dates and genres—lecture, tract, newspaper article—to enable readers to decide for themselves the justice of the charge of Coleridge's apostasy.

This leaves, of course, a lot of prose unaccounted for, and it has fallen to me to take account of it, however—necessarily—inadequately. The task has been to distil two volumes of table talk, five of notebooks, and six of marginalia into a section of fifty pages called, for lack of a better term, "miscellaneous prose". Under these circumstances any method of arrangement will be fairly arbitrary, and all I can say in defence of the one I finally chose, after much deliberation and consultation, is that it allows the reader, in the manner of Tennyson contemplating his grief in In Memoriam, to flit across the wide surface of Coleridge's interests without disappearing into their depths. Specifically, the texts chosen for this category are placed under alphabetically arranged thematic headings, beginning with "Androgynous Minds" and ending with "Wordsworth". Among the other headings, to give an indication of their variety, are "Dreams and Sleep", "Evil", "Love and Friendship", "Madness", "Opium", "Property", and "Women".

This kind of thematic arrangement, which naturally favours obiter dicta and aphoristic observations runs the risk of representing Coleridge as something like the "wit and wisdom machine", as Samuel Beckett put it, of Boswell's Johnson. I have sought to reduce this impression mostly by means of extensive cross-referencing within the miscellaneous prose, suggesting the connection of one remark to another and forming a context in which both can be better comprehended, and occasionally by including a remark that to most readers will probably evince neither wit nor wisdom. Under the heading of "Women", for instance, I have chosen a passage from the Table Talk which ends: "Every one wishes a Desdemona or Ophelia for a wife,—creatures who, though they may not always understand you, do always feel you, and feel with you. How does one annotate this, if one has been rash enough to include it at all?" My first inclination was to write "Rubbish!", my second to explain that Coleridge's relations with women, beginning with his mother and continuing with his wife and Sara Hutchinson, were very troubled. Eventually I realized that my first and perhaps only responsibility as annotator was to identify Desdemona and Ophelia, since anyone who did not recognize those names could not appreciate what Coleridge was saying. So this is what my footnote says: "Desdemona, married to and eventually smothered by Othello after being unjustly accused of adultery, remains unwaveringly loyal to her husband; Ophelia, devoted to Hamlet yet obedient to her father, goes insane after Hamlet rejects her and murders her father. Coleridge's point about women seems to be that men can't live with them, and they can't live without men."

A special difficulty confronting the editors of a student edition of Coleridge is the plagiarisms, since it will hardly do to dismiss in Coleridge's prose what we repeatedly tell our students we will not tolerate in theirs, especially since the excuses we offer on Coleridge's behalf—a drug habit, domestic turmoil, trouble with printers—are precisely the ones that our students give us. Like his political apostasy, his plagiarizing is an issue on which it is both expected and impossible for editors to remain neutral. But it is possible, and certainly desirable, for them to refrain from polemics of the sort that the Times Literary Supplement seems to delight in publishing about once a year. In the handful of texts we have included where this is a problem—parts of the Biographia and two of the literary lectures—we have given our rationale for including the text despite the fact that parts of it are plagiarized, and presented the relevant passages of the original texts in translation in the notes. Paul Magnuson has done the same in his presentation of the "Hymn before Sun-rise", which De Quincey revealed to have been a free translation of a poem by Friederike Brun. Unlike some earlier editors, we have not avoided the word "plagiarism." But we have sought to avoid, if I may pursue this sensitive issue a bit further, the defensiveness and anachronism that are occasionally evident in the annotations of the Bollingen editions of Coleridge's Notebooks and Collected Works. Thus you will not find a proto-Freudian or proto-existentialist in the notes to the Norton edition. But having said that, I must add, in defence of Kathleen Coburn, that the editor's work is no less historically conditioned than the author's: if Coburn was defensive about Coleridge, it was because she had to contend with smug dismissals of him as an opium addict who somehow wrote a handful of good poems; if she presented him as the earliest twentieth-century psychologist, it was, at least in part, because that was the means of generating an interest in his work and ensuring its publication in scholarly form.  [2]

Determining the relation of an editorial production to the critical climate in which it is produced is of course easier to do retrospectively than contemporaneously, but it is possible, by way of revealing a little more about the Norton Coleridge, to identify some ways in which current editorial theory is reflected in our practice. As in the Wu and Mellor/Matlak anthologies, we have sought to present a Coleridge who would have been recognizable to his contemporaries, which in general has meant printing texts as they were first received by the public, while at the same time calling attention to the processes of revision and self-commentary that have led editorial theorists to reject the notion of a single, authoritative text. Obviously, exceptions have had to be made, notably in the case of writings that Coleridge himself did not publish; but these twin editorial principles have been maintained fairly consistently in the treatment of the poetry. Most of the poems have been printed from the volumes or periodicals in which they originally from those volumes. Thus poems first published in Poems on Various Subjects (1796) appear together under that heading; the same is true, mutatis mutandis, of poems published in the Ode on the Departing Year volume, in the 1797 Poems, in Lyrical Ballads, and so on. Coleridge's subsequent substantive revisions to these texts have been selectively recorded in the footnotes, so that readers will be able to follow the process of revision. In two instances, with The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and the Dejection Ode, where the revisions are too extensive to be accommodated in the notes and the later versions of the poems are better known than the earlier, we have resorted to printing two texts, the Ancient Mariner on facing pages, as in the Norton Critical Prelude, and "Dejection" serially. (Most paperback editions print only the later version of each poem, while Duncan Wu's anthology, although it includes different versions of a handful of Coleridge's poems, prints the early and later texts apart from each other, thereby making comparison rather inconvenient.)

If we have not included fourteen versions of a given poem, such as Christabel, it is partly because most of the versions exist in manuscript rather than in printed form, and partly because we have not been persuaded by the arguments in favour of "versioning", or refusing to privilege any single state of a text, that this practice is viable in the classroom, where one can certainly teach or assign essays on two versions of what is recognizably the same work, but not fourteen versions.  [3] This is one of those instances in which we have recalled what a distinguished editorial theorist once confided to me: the advantage of theorizing about editing over actually doing it is that one never has to make compromises. Such a notion of editorial theory postulates a state in which the text—or rather texts—are free from all material constraint, but the only place where such texts have ever existed that way is in the human mind. To produce an edition, whether printed or electronic, requires decisions, and hence the rejection of possibilities and acceptance of compromises.

If Yeats, after dying, became his admirers, as Auden's elegy averred, Coleridge, while still living, became his interpreters, or at least one of them. By presenting the first published text with notes of the revisions, we are trying to show how Coleridge participated in the reception of his works, often after that process had already begun in other hands. To print only the last authorially revised text without any indication of how the poem had been altered since its original publication would be to enshrine the author as the definitive interpreter of his works and to deny instructors a crucial means of conveying the public nature of post-publication revision as a complex interaction between author, publisher, reviewers, and contemporary readers.  [4] I have said that Coleridge became one of his interpreters. This process manifested itself not only in his revisions of the texts themselves, but also less publicly but not strictly privately in his annotations in presentation copies of his works. Since the extent of this self-interpretive practice is not widely known, even among Coleridge scholars, the inclusion of a selection of this kind of material in our notes will be, I think, an exciting feature of the Norton edition. Paul Magnuson has tracked down numerous annotated copies of Coleridge's poetical works in order to supplement his annotations with Coleridge's own, and I too have made use of virtually identical sets of annotations in presentation copies of the 1818 Friend (one of which, the copy presented to John Kenyon now in the British Library, was unavailable to Barbara Rooke when she edited The Friend for The Collected Works).

The publication of the Norton, the first of the twenty-first century editions of Coleridge, will coincide with the completion of The Collected Works, which one of its editors once described to me as the last of the great Victorian editions. Neither will be completely satisfactory from the point of view of editorial theory, but both, I trust, will find their readers and their places as records of the continuing reception of Coleridge's writings.

Parties annexes