Coleridge and Column Inches
Massey University, New Zealand
Building on research by David Erdman, this essay seeks to re-examine Coleridge’s parliamentary reports of 1800 within the context of contemporary reporting practices. A comparison of Coleridge’s accounts of his trips to the House of Commons with standard accounts of parliamentary reporting and its norms shows that Coleridge was given special license by the editor of the Morning Post, Daniel Stuart. While David Erdman focused on the length and accuracy of the reports as a basis for his claim that Coleridge was a superior parliamentary correspondent, this essay argues that it is the space granted to Coleridge’s reports in the Morning Post and the freedom he was afforded as a journalist that demonstrates the importance of his contributions to parliamentary coverage.
In the 27 March 1817 issue of the Courier newspaper, Samuel Taylor Coleridge laughingly dismissed the reputed eloquence of the long-winded parliamentarian William Smith, saying it was “entirely owing to the Procrustes Tyranny of the Parliamentary Reporters, who had persisted in measuring his harangues by their own pocket-ruler instead of the patience of the House” (Essays on His Own Times [EOT] 2: 467). It was some time since Coleridge had written parliamentary reports, as he did in 1800 for the Morning Post, an antiministerial London daily edited by Daniel Stuart, but the comment reveals an insider’s knowledge of contemporary newspapers’ processes for covering the House of Commons. Space was a defining feature in the coverage, and Procrustean is an apt description for the procedure by which speeches were transcribed, edited, and shaped until they could fit into the four pages of four columns that newspapers usually had at their disposal in 1800. In its turn, Parliament exerted significant control over the management of space in the daily press. By the end of the century, the quality of a newspaper was often assessed by the quality of its parliamentary coverage, and editors consequently devoted time and resources to making this feature prominent, lengthy, and detailed (Barker 35). It was possible for a particularly important debate to displace every other planned item for the following day, including advertisements. In these cases, a four-page newspaper not only became a four-page summary of the debate, but it also potentially lost its variations in type, its headlines, and its decorative poetry and instead became thoroughly homogenized: four pages of closely printed material punctuated only by the capitalized name of each new speaker.
The way newspaper editors managed the space on the page had been a relatively topical subject of debate at the time Coleridge joined the Morning Post in 1799. In December 1798, William Wilberforce had argued in the House of Commons that the newspaper reports sought “to pervert the public mind, and to prejudice Members in the opinion of their constituents” (Wilberforce 7: 320), noting that the space assigned to a speech contributed markedly to readers’ understanding of the parliamentary debates. The newspapers, he complained, had sometimes “contented themselves merely with stating, that some honourable Member had made a very able or eloquent speech, whilst the speech of another, in opposition to it, had been given at great length” (Wilberforce 7: 320). Wilberforce’s comments highlighted the negative effects of standard reporting practices on parliamentary eloquence, but the situation might have appeared reversed to a contemporary journalist. As Coleridge noted in an 1816 letter, “it seems epidemic among Parliament men in general to affect to look down upon & despise Newspapers, to which they owe 999/1000 of their influence & character, and at least 3/5ths of their knowledge & phraseology” (Collected Letters [CL] 4: 640). He was undoubtedly right to suggest that newspaper reports actively shaped and embellished the language of parliamentarians. Recent research on parliamentary reporting in the 1790s has stressed the significance of journalists’ and editors’ personal preferences in the composition of newspaper reports. Dror Wahrman has called parliamentary reports from the late 1790s “distinct reconstructions” that aimed to influence readers’ interpretations of the debates in ways that suited the individual paper’s politics (85)—an observation that corroborates some of the concerns that Wilberforce had raised in the House and is borne out by an anonymous nineteenth-century observer of the press who noted that the typical reporter, “like the pit critic of a theatre, has his friends and his favourites” (Periodical Press 138).
Wahrman further argues that contemporary reports were not only “inflected through the rhetorical and linguistic habits and practices of the reporter, editor and newspaper,” but were also mediated by the “structural limitations” of parliamentary reporting in newspapers of the period (90). These are the structural questions that need to be addressed in relation to Coleridge’s contributions to the Morning Post’s parliamentary coverage, which have received limited critical attention to date. The only detailed scholarly examination of his parliamentary reporting is found in David Erdman’s essay “Coleridge in Lilliput: The Quality of Parliamentary Reporting in 1800.” In this article, Erdman establishes a system for assessing the three reports from 1800 that can be directly attributed to Coleridge: a section of William Pitt’s 3 February speech on the war, a pithy address by Richard Brinsley Sheridan on 10 February, and an impromptu oration on Britain’s security from Pitt on 17 February. By collating Coleridge’s Morning Post reports with examples from other extant newspapers, Erdman shows that Coleridge’s contributions were generally longer than those of his colleagues and praises him as “simultaneously more faithful and more creative than his professional colleagues” (33). This conclusion is reached via a thorough consideration of the amount of corroborated material that Coleridge used as well as the number of unique words or phrases that he apparently inserted. My aim in revisiting the question of Coleridge’s parliamentary reporting is not to repeat Erdman’s research nor to dismiss his conclusions but rather to suggest that, with the work of collation already completed, scholarly attention can shift to considering some more practical questions about Coleridge’s role as a reporter, questions that do not rely solely on the textual evidence of his notebooks and reports for their solutions but instead draw upon the reports in their original newspaper incarnations, with all the minutiae of layout providing crucial supplementary information that contributes to the meaning of the report. There is only so much that collation can tell us, and Coleridge’s reporting is perhaps better understood if more consequence is given to the standard industry practices of newspaper reporters on the one hand, and the format and presentation of reports in the newspapers on the other.
Reconfiguring Erdman’s focus on the number of words in a report as an indicator of its accuracy and comprehensiveness, I would like to suggest that it is the space that a report occupies in a newspaper that manifests its significance. Space is a more subtle measure than length, and more appropriate to a newspaper context for two reasons. First, it is important to note that focusing on length means minimizing the impact of a report’s physical production in a newspaper; the length of a report can be ascertained by looking at it in isolation, but the space that it occupied can be gauged only by examining the issue in which it appeared. In the former case, the dynamics of a parliamentary report’s original form are lost in a blunt attempt to quantify its contents. In the latter, we can briefly inhabit the world of the eighteenth-century newspaper reader, experiencing the visual, political, and rhetorical impact of editorial and journalistic decisions. Second, we need to modify Erdman’s theory of lengthy contributions as the mark of a good reporter and acknowledge that it was not Coleridge himself who determined the Morning Post’s format. He might have composed a report of extended length, but the decision to publish it in that form rested with the editor, Daniel Stuart, and his compositors. In fact, we have no way of establishing what Coleridge’s original manuscript reports looked like; the evidence we have is already a joint production, mediated by Stuart and the demands of his newspaper. Coleridge’s contributions to the Morning Post’s parliamentary coverage in 1800 should be read within the context of the daily allocation of room on the page, which contributed to the newspaper’s reconstruction of the debate. In this medium, space was critical to two sorts of production: the production of the newspaper and the production of meaning.
The significant quantity of space surrendered to Coleridge’s long parliamentary reports in the pages of the Morning Post might also hint at the importance of his role as a reporter, which appears to have been a somewhat unorthodox one. There are slight but telling discrepancies between Coleridge’s visits to the House in 1800 and normal journalistic practice that suggest he was almost certainly not working as a parliamentary reporter in the conventional sense. Around 1800, the parliamentary press corps generally worked within a fairly rigid routine. James Perry, the Morning Chronicle’s editor from 1790, had developed a system of rotating correspondents who worked in shifts at the House of Commons to deliver copy for the following day’s newspaper. Perry’s innovation, which he had developed at the Gazetteer before bringing it to the Morning Chronicle, was the standard practice of all the major papers by the time Coleridge joined the Morning Post in 1799 and was especially essential in light of the morning newspapers’ deadlines. Perry’s system meant that each reporter’s copy could be set in type as it arrived at the printing office, leaving only the final bulletin to be type-set before the presses could roll. Until this practice was introduced, morning newspapers could not prepare the previous evening’s debate in time for the impending deadline (Escott 157). Perry’s method also meant that no correspondent recorded or even heard the entire debate, as each reporter usually working a two-hour shift (Jerdan 1: 84-85).
Coleridge’s descriptions of his attendance at the House strongly suggest that he was not involved in this system, since he does not appear to have left the Gallery to transcribe his notes in order for his report to be set in type. Writing to Josiah Wedgwood, he said he attended the 3 February debate “till 3 this morning—& then sate writing, & correcting other men’s writing till 8–a good 24 hours of unpleasant activity!” (CL 1: 568). This remark implies not only that he waited until the end of the debate to draw up his own notes, but also that he had seen enough of the speeches to correct other correspondents’ reports. In a similar account to Robert Southey, Coleridge wrote that he had been at the House “from 10 in the Morning to 4 o’clock the next morning” when he attended the 10 February debate (CL 1: 569). He also attended only a fraction of the parliamentary debates on behalf of the Morning Post, which suggests that he was not part of the paper’s regular parliamentary corps. In January and February 1800, for example, the paper reported twenty-one separate debates from the House of Commons, of which Coleridge covered only three, although he probably attended on more than three occasions. A much more likely scenario than that of Coleridge as a regular member of the parliamentary corps, then, is that Daniel Stuart asked him to attend the debates whenever possible in order to extract any reports he might care to produce based on his own journalistic interests. This scenario is borne out by Stuart’s recollection that he took Coleridge to the House “in hopes he would assist me in parliamentary reporting, and that a near view of men and things would bring up new topics in his mind” (“Anecdotes” 9: 487) and that he allowed Coleridge to rewrite other reporters’ contributions on the basis of his own experience of the speeches, since, as Coleridge noted dismissively on one occasion, a brief report passed a speech through the “flatting mills” (qtd. in Stuart, “Anecdotes” 9: 488).
The timing of Coleridge’s brief flirtation with parliamentary reporting is revealing in terms of the Morning Post’s marketing strategies. On 27 January 1800, Stuart published an editorial that proclaimed the paper’s successes and guaranteed that its high standards would be maintained. Amongst the crowing declaration of the paper’s circulation numbers and reassurances about the “fixed, reasonable, and practical” principles that would guide the editor and his team, Stuart singled out for comment the paper’s parliamentary coverage:
To the Readers of this Paper, we hope, that our habitual vigilance renders unnecessary any assurances of attention to every customary department. But as some Journalists have stepped forward to pledge themselves more particularly on the score of their Parliamentary Reports, we may be permitted to say, that we are prepared to give them with the same copiousness and accuracy, which on former occasions added much to the reputation of THE MORNING POST.
Stuart’s attention to parliamentary reporting in this promotional paragraph may simply have been good business strategy, since the coverage was so popular and so central to a paper’s success. But the comments also hint that someone on his staff had offered to contribute superior reports to the paper, or that the editor had a particular journalist in mind.
The date of the issue that included this editorial statement is an important clue to Stuart’s intentions and suggests that it was Coleridge who had pledged himself to the endeavor of delivering effective reports to the Morning Post. Although Parliament had already met twice in 1800, and the Morning Post had covered these deliberations on 22 and 23 January, 27 January was scheduled to be the day on which the Prime Minister William Pitt would debate with the Opposition the merits of continuing the war, and it was also to be the day on which Charles James Fox, the popular Whig leader who had been in self-imposed exile from the House since May 1797 in protest at the government’s war policies, would return to confront Pitt directly. As it turned out, Pitt pleaded illness, and, although the House met and some coverage appeared in the papers on 28 January, the controversial debate was postponed. The same fate befell the next scheduled date, 29 January. Coleridge informed Josiah Wedgwood that he had attended the House on both of these occasions, writing on 4 February, after the debate had finally taken place on the previous evening, “I have been three times to the House of Commons, each time earlier than the former, & each time hideously crowded—the two first Day[s] the Debate was put off” (CL 1: 568). He was evidently interested in reporting the war debate in particular, however, since he appears not to have taken notes on either 27 or 29 January, despite the fact that the House sat on both occasions, nor to have attended the two earlier debates on 21 and 22 January. When Stuart published his editorial proclamation on 27 January, then, he was expecting that Coleridge would be covering the day’s highly anticipated confrontation between Pitt and Fox.
Coleridge seems to have understood that his role at the House was to try to identify interesting moments in the debate and thus help the Morning Post improve its coverage through the type of “distinct reconstructions” that Wahrman has suggested are typical of the period’s newspaper conventions. Apart from the two debates in which Pitt’s highly anticipated speech was supposed to be delivered, Coleridge attended the House on at least three occasions in early 1800: 3 February, 10 February, and 17 February. He was also, perhaps, in attendance on 14 February, when he wrote to Thomas Poole, “I have given up the Morning Post; but the Editor is importunate against it—to night I must go with him to the House of Commons” (CL 1: 572). If he did go to the House that night, he took no notes and seems to have produced no reports, another indication of the independence he enjoyed as a reporter. To Josiah Wedgwood, he noted that he had covered only a segment of Pitt’s 3 February speech: “I reported that part of Pitt’s which I have inclosed in crotchets—not that I report ex officio; but Curiosity having led me there, I did Stuart a service by taking a few Notes” (CL 1: 568). The letter is a little disingenuous on this point, since Coleridge was probably under a greater obligation to Stuart than the word “Curiosity” suggests, but the sense of freedom to report, and the fact that this was not “ex officio” reporting, fits with other evidence of Coleridge’s role. This freedom brings us, finally, to the question that should guide our reading of his parliamentary reports: how does the use of space in the Morning Post manifest Coleridge’s rather unusual role as a reporter and influence the meaning of his reports for readers?
On 3 February, Pitt delivered the speech that the newspapers had been expecting, in which he outlined the history of the conflict between Britain and France, before addressing the recent coup in France and the subsequent peace negotiations and urging caution on the question of peace until “experience, and the evidence of facts” warranted a serious negotiation (Pitt 10: 338). The 3 February meeting of the House of Commons was of great commercial importance to the daily newspapers, as it included the long-promised debate on peace, and the 4 February issue of the Morning Post that carried the debate is a particularly vivid example not only of the effect that parliamentary coverage could have on newspaper space, but also of the ways in which space contributed to readers’ understanding of the arguments in the House. The paper stretched from its usual four columns per page to five, the maximum space available, in order to accommodate as much material as possible. The testing time that Stuart’s staff had to endure is evident in a notice in the Morning Post on 5 February, which asks that “Readers and Correspondents will excuse the omission of many valuable articles this day: our Printers, &c. being quite exhausted by the fatigue of preparing yesterday’s paper” (2). Similar spatial problems faced other morning papers. The True Briton was forced to switch to a smaller, more densely printed type on the fourth page of its 4 February issue in order to squeeze the final speeches into the remaining space. The Whig Morning Chronicle, by contrast, used the lengthiness of Pitt’s speech as an alibi for shaping its coverage, remarking, “of course we can only give a very faint outline of the topics upon which he insisted” (4 February 1800, 3). This excuse is carefully crafted. Ostensibly, it proclaims a certain editorial integrity by admitting that the Pitt address has been truncated. But the implication is more subversive: Pitt might insist on certain points, but they produced nothing more than “faint” impressions on the Morning Chronicle’s parliamentary staff. After reproducing a considerable portion of Pitt’s speech in the first person, the Morning Chronicle noted, “For want of room we find it necessary to state only the heads of the remainder of the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s Speech” (4). As Erdman remarks, the likely motivation for this decision was to ensure that the paper had room for Fox’s reply (44). The Times made a similar decision to summarize Pitt’s address as space grew tight and also used its editorial note as a device for shaping readers responses to the speech, commenting approvingly, “Here Mr. Pitt recapitulated in most glowing, manly, and eloquent language, the several topics of his Speech” (4 February 1800, 4).
Erdman’s collation of the various morning newspapers’ coverage of Pitt’s 3 February speech produces some intriguing data on the length of different papers’ reports. The Morning Post’s was approximately 5,500 words long; the Morning Chronicle’s totaled around 4,200 words, with shorter contributions from the True Briton, the Oracle, the Morning Herald, and The Times. In the Morning Post’s long report, a section of around one thousand words is attributable to Coleridge, beginning in the middle of Pitt’s speech and following it to its conclusion. Erdman’s collation demonstrates the range of accurate and imagined phrases that found their way into the published report but he does not comment in any detail on the editorial decisions about space on 4 February. Revealing evidence about Coleridge’s role as a parliamentary reporter can be gleaned from the testimony of space in this issue of the Morning Post. Coleridge’s report begins at the moment that the Morning Chronicle and The Times broke off and began summarizing Pitt’s words. The Morning Post expands where others contract, in other words, and the second half of Pitt’s speech assumes a significance that it does not have in some of the other extant reports. This significance is also, by implication, granted to Coleridge’s merit as a reporter: his rendition of this portion of the speech is accorded extensive space in the Morning Post on a day of peculiar spatial limitations.
The conventions of parliamentary coverage in the period, which encouraged journalists and editors to be selective for practical as well as political reasons, combined with the fluidity and freedom of Coleridge’s role as a reporter, suggest that we can read his contributions to the Morning Post’s parliamentary coverage, to some extent, as pieces of his own choosing and signposts to his interests as a journalist. The point at which Coleridge definitely began to take notes on 3 February, following a few messy jottings, was marked by a rhetorical shift in Pitt’s argument. Rendered in Coleridge’s notebooks as “Now let us see what this change has been” (Notebooks [CN] 1: 651), and in a similar fashion in the published report, with the substitution of “But” for “Now” (EOT 1: 155; Morning Post 3), the shift announced Pitt’s intention to analyze the nature of Bonaparte’s character and the proposed change in the French government heralded by the new Constitution. These highly charged topics would have had an obvious appeal for Coleridge in the context of his recent journalism for the Morning Post, which had focused on the Constitution and the prospects for peace. He ignored the opening part of Pitt’s speech, which had recounted, as Coleridge later put it, “the old re-repeated tale of the origin of the war” (EOT 1: 170), although this section of the address was reported in full in the Morning Post. But when the Prime Minister began to tackle issues that related to his own journalistic preoccupations, Coleridge took up the task of reporting for his readers.
The effect of this decision on the Morning Post’s presentation of the debate was striking. As I have noted, other newspapers, including the Morning Chronicle and The Times, simply summarized this concluding section of Pitt’s speech. Only the Morning Post and the True Briton printed it at an extended length, the latter paper using smaller type to fit the entire speech into its pages. The True Briton’s reasons for covering the speech in full can be easily deduced: a fervently pro-Pitt paper, the True Briton would understandably have emphasized the Prime Minister’s important address to the Commons on the war. The Morning Post’s decision cannot be said to have the same basis, but the space assigned to the speech should still be read as part of the “distinct reconstruction” of the debate. Pitt’s speech was central to the arguments about the war and thus a critical moment in contemporary politics. The newspaper could reinforce this as much as possible by granting it the space that both manifested and determined its importance. This formulation of the relative importance of various speeches is somewhat at odds with what Erdman sees as the obvious tendency of reporters: “They naturally select for emphasis those parts of the speech that make the best political news, and what they think that to be depends on their political bias” (46). In fact, the way the Morning Post covered Pitt’s 3 February address suggests that it was not simply playing favorites but rather acknowledging the political significance of certain moments in the debate, moments that were largely determined by Coleridge’s perception of proceedings. If it was simply a matter of reporting those parliamentarians to whom the paper was politically sympathetic, Coleridge might have been expected to cover Fox’s response to Pitt, which he certainly heard. After attending the 3 February debate he noted:
Pitt & Fox completely answered my pre-formed Ideas of them. The elegance, & high-finish of Pitt’s Periods even in the most sudden replies, is curious; but that is all. He argues but so so; & does not reason at all. Nothing is rememberable in what he says. Fox possesses all the full & overflowing Eloquence of a man of clear head, clean heart, & impetuous feelings. He is to my mind a great orator. All the rest that spoke were mere creatures. I could make a better speech myself than any that I heard, excepting Pitt’s & Fox’s.
CL 1: 568
Coleridge’s impressions of the 3 February confrontation continued to influence the Morning Post’s management of space beyond the 4 February issue in which his report appeared. Parliamentary reporting was only one aspect of a newspaper’s parliamentary coverage, and Coleridge participated in a clever experiment that exploited the medium to illustrate his observations about the relative merits of Pitt and Fox as parliamentary speakers. On 6 February, the Morning Post published an oddly structured article called “Analysis or Skeleton of the Debate in the House of Commons, Monday, February 3 1800,” which used a single divided column to show the Ministerial arguments on the left, alongside the Opposition’s counterclaims on the right (2-3; EOT 1: 162-69). The effect of this arrangement bore out the implications of the description in the title: the two sets of arguments extended like ribs from the division between them, and, because of the different lengths of each point on each side, large white spaces appeared periodically. This visual effect conveyed some sense of the dynamic arguments at work in the debate as a whole, in a manner that could not necessarily be translated into the usual linear space of a newspaper report, where sequence and chronology had to be preserved. The novel article employed space as part of a rhetorical strategy, relying on the newspaper reader to approach the left column first, then to read the Opposition’s dismissive retorts, before moving on to the next example. The visual image of the blank spaces, which fell far more often on the Ministerial side, reinforced the relative scantiness of the arguments put forward by the Ministers compared with the weightiness of Erskine’s, Fox’s, and Whitbread’s replies, although this scantiness was one of ideas rather than duration; Coleridge indicated that he had cut the Ministers’ comments down to essentials when he noted that the opening point on the Ministerial side was made by “Dundas, Canning, and Mr. Pitt, at great length” (“Analysis” 2; EOT 1: 163), and he frequently used ampersands to indicate both the long-windedness and the repetitiveness of the Ministerial speeches. An expensive luxury in a medium that needed to fill space, the startling blocks of white suggested that vacancy spoke volumes.
In addition to the “Skeleton” and the original report of the 3 February debate, Coleridge also wrote a commentary that appeared on 6 February, describing the rhetoric and performance of the various parliamentarians in a way that suited the Morning Post’s politics (2). The essay was designed as a tool that could be added to the report and the “Skeleton” to guide and shape readers’ opinions of the debate, and the piece could quite accurately be described as a kind of journalistic rebuttal, one that Coleridge might have delivered had he been involved in the debate on the floor of the House. This technique was particularly evident in his use of suitable interjections (“O shame! shame!”) (EOT 1:170; Morning Post 2), rhetorical questions, and direct engagement with Pitt’s points about the war, which he countered one at a time as an opposition speaker might have done. Coleridge made sure that his readers saw Pitt’s performance as the Morning Post did: as a speech that included “the old delusive calculations about French resources, calculations always accompanied by prophecies, which prophecies have been always, even to a laughable degree, falsified: these formed the substance and contents of the Ministerial orations” (EOT 1: 170; Morning Post 2). As if to highlight the switch between Coleridge-as-imagined-parliamentarian and Coleridge-as-journalist, a dash was inserted to separate this initial spirited harangue from the final paragraph, which abandoned the voice of an active participant and instead lyrically described the contest between Pitt and Fox from an observer’s point of view:
Mr. Pitt built up his periods, as usual, in all the stately order of rhetorical architecture; but they fell away at once before that true eloquence of common-sense and natural feeling which sanctifies, and renders human, the genius of Mr. Fox. Like some good genius, he approached in indignation to the spell-built palace of the state-magician, and at the first touch of his wand, it sunk into a ruinous and sordid hovel, tumbling in upon the head of the wizard that had reared it.
EOT 1: 171; Morning Post 2
The space that the Morning Post devoted to the 3 February debate is thus considerable if we add together the initial reports, which occupied an entire issue, the “Skeleton,” and Coleridge’s commentary from 6 February. At a practical level, this simply illustrates the acknowledged importance of the debate and a newspaper’s willingness to use precious space for coverage over several days. More subtly, it demonstrates the visual, political, and rhetorical possibilities of newspaper space, as the three pieces Coleridge contributed, though covering essentially the same material, moved from the dense and conventional parliamentary report, to the leading article, which occupied the most significant space in terms of original journalism, and finally to the extravagant and eye-catching “Skeleton,” which pushed the boundaries of contemporary parliamentary reporting by using an established visual form that readers would probably associate with coverage of controversy to recreate the back-and-forth debate of 3 February and by working within the newspaper’s highly structured presentation to recreate the parliamentary experience in a more vital and vivid manner than that in which standard reports were delivered. The expansive space granted to material on this debate was a response to the commercial imperative of catering to readers’ fondness for parliamentary coverage and simultaneously manifested and sealed the debate’s political importance. But the use of space in these instances should also be read as a direct consequence of Stuart’s editorial promises about parliamentary reporting and the freedom he afforded to one of his correspondents. It was Coleridge’s vision of the debate that reigned supreme.
On 10 February Coleridge returned to the House and engaged in another exhausting day’s work from 10:00 a.m. until 1:00 a.m., when the House adjourned, before returning to the Morning Post’s offices to edit copy until 4:00 a.m. (CL 1: 569). On this occasion, Coleridge recorded a speech by Sheridan, but it does not appear to have been a particularly memorable occasion for him as a reporter; no direct reference to it has been found in his letters in contrast with his comments on the speeches by Pitt and Fox that he had heard. On 10 February, Sheridan spoke early in the debate, putting forward a motion requiring a full inquiry into the British government’s disastrous expedition to the Netherlands. The speech that Coleridge recorded was a later response from Sheridan to the progress of arguments on his motion in the House. Responding to comments on both sides of the House, Sheridan defended himself against charges of being “mealy-mouthed,” commenting that “in general he was accused of being rather too plain a speaker” (Sheridan 10: 458). He also joked, according to the Parliamentary Register, that he had been accused of taking “a line of candour for which he ought to apologize” (Sheridan 10: 458). It was a brief address, made even slighter by the decision to omit the middle section of Sheridan’s pronouncement and to reproduce only its commencement and conclusion in the Morning Post the following day. While trying to capture a rather elusive prey—what Sheridan actually said—Erdman does not engage in any detail with the questions that concern me regarding the 10 February report: what were the guiding principles behind Coleridge’s tasks as a reporter, and how does the use of newspaper space highlight these concerns? The Sheridan address is rich in possibilities on these points precisely because it does not appear to have been a particularly significant speech and was not especially appealing to Coleridge for its political relevance.
A survey of the major morning papers’ coverage suggests that the speech was not a noteworthy one. Sheridan’s address occupied just ten lines in the 11 February Morning Chronicle’s summary at the end of its coverage, which was printed in small type on the fourth page; a more generous thirty lines at the conclusion of The Times’s report (4); and sixty-five lines in the True Briton (4). The Morning Post’s coverage of the speech is the most extensive, occupying two-thirds of the final column on the fourth page and running at around one hundred lines. The fact that Sheridan spoke near the end of the day’s debate is perhaps one explanation for the brevity of the reports; under Perry’s system, as each reporter filed an account and it was set in type, the space remaining for subsequent speeches naturally shrank. But this conclusion still begs the question of why the Morning Post decided to print Sheridan’s fairly insignificant speech at some length on a day when space was tight, a question that Erdman does not address. It deserves further consideration because it sheds light on Coleridge’s practice as a reporter and demonstrates the way in which the physical make-up of the newspaper could contribute both to contemporary readers’ understanding of the arguments and to modern scholars’ interpretations of Coleridge’s intentions. His decision to report this particular speech seems, at first, to be out of step with his practice on 3 February, which was to record carefully a politically important pronouncement that directly related to his own journalism on current affairs. In fact, the omitted section in his report of Sheridan contained the most relevant and specific factual information on the parliamentarian’s objections to government policy, although Coleridge’s notebooks do record these details.
The clue to the speech’s appeal probably lies in Coleridge’s interest in parliamentary language and in the relationship between the way in which journalists experienced the debates in the House and the way in which readers experienced them through the medium of the newspaper. What is clear from the text of the 10 February Sheridan speech in all the daily papers is that it was extremely funny. The True Briton commented, with a back-handed compliment, that almost the entire substance of Sheridan’s remarks “consisted of that delicate vein of humour so peculiar to him” (4), and three instances of laughter are recorded in The Times’ brief report (4). Coleridge’s notebooks also record laughter and frequently reveal closer attention to Sheridan’s diction and his rhetorical flourishes than to his content. It would be nearly impossible to reconstruct Sheridan’s remarks from Coleridge’s notes, but the veneer of verbal trickery and rhetorical effect is evident. We can examine one important note as an example: “frightened in a very facetious manner arraigned mealy mealy-mouthed tripping in a lie of candour atone for in reply meally-mouthedness that I no desire of Maj. Ministers could any arguments of Mine [...] [sic]” (CN 1: 652). In this note, we can hear the alliterative m and f sounds that seem to have caught Coleridge’s ear and the repetition of the comment about being “mealy-mouthed.” There is also the matter of the “lie of candour.” As Erdman demonstrates, this remark from Sheridan was either missed or recorded as a “line of candour” by other reporters, but Coleridge appears to have captured a characteristic Sheridan paradox (54). In another revealing instance, there is the structure, completely divorced from content, that is conveyed in this jotting: “—if—if—if” (CN 1: 652). Erdman notes that Sheridan’s wit was rarely captured effectively by the parliamentary reporters (54), and it appears that Coleridge attempted valiantly to piece together what he had heard for the Morning Post’s reading public. Later in his career he would condemn the frivolousness of parliamentary reporters, who judged parliamentarians’ performances by who received “the greatest number of laughs, loud laughs, and very loud laughs: (which, carefully marked by italics, form most conspicuous and strange parentheses in the newspaper reports)” (Friend 1: 109). But in 1800 Coleridge was a newspaper insider, performing as well as helping to define the role of the contemporary reporter. Experience rather than information is perhaps the best word to describe what Coleridge covered and appreciated when he composed reports. In this instance, it appears that he wanted to share the jokes with his readers.
The management of space in the Morning Post’s 11 February parliamentary coverage provides particularly tantalizing evidence of Coleridge’s significance as a reporter. The fact that Stuart printed this report at some length, showcasing the most entertaining part of Sheridan’s address while omitting the dry diplomatic detail, testifies to some confidence in Coleridge’s vision of the debate. Even more compelling evidence of this confidence can be seen only if we examine the 11 February issue of the Morning Post directly with the details of normal parliamentary reportage in mind. Stuart presented the five speeches immediately preceding Sheridan’s closely printed in a small type so that they occupied considerably less space than they would have if they had been published in the normal fashion. In other words, Stuart made the decision to make available as much space as possible in the final column of the newspaper’s final page for Coleridge’s contribution. It was an unorthodox editorial move; the switch to a smaller or more closely printed type was typically final, an admission that the compositors could not fit the whole debate into the paper without some spatial modifications. In the 11 February issue of the Morning Post, the change to small print on the fourth page was a pre-emptive move, designed to barter space in the concluding columns in order to make room for Coleridge, whose contribution was then afforded the compliment of being printed in a normal-sized type with regular spacing. Although this speech was not significant enough to warrant much coverage in the other papers, and the Morning Post itself omitted a large chunk of what Sheridan said, the Morning Post did manage to give some space to what was perhaps the most memorable speech of the night.
On 17 February, Coleridge covered Pitt’s major speech on the war and Jacobinism, working until 5:00 a.m. to have the copy ready (CL 1: 573). Pitt’s oration on this occasion was entirely unexpected. The Opposition MP George Tierney asked the Prime Minister directly to name the object of the war in one sentence. After briefly ridiculing Tierney’s assumption that he would fail to produce a satisfactory explanation, Pitt said, “I know not whether I can do it in one sentence; but in one word, I can tell him that it is Security” (Pitt, Parliamentary Register 10: 567). Erdman’s collation shows that a vast array of unique phrases appeared in the Morning Post’s report and must have been Coleridge’s later creations, since most do not appear in any form in his notebooks (59-60). As we have seen, Coleridge became more intensely involved in those speeches that resonated not simply as important political statements but also as moments of instant appeal to him as a listener. Although it featured prominently in all the dailies, this speech was given the most space by the Morning Post: over four thousand words, compared with approximately 3,450 in the Morning Chronicle, 3,300 in the Oracle, 3,100 in the True Briton, 2,800 in The Times, 1,550 in the Morning Herald, and 820 in the London Chronicle (Erdman 55). The length at which Coleridge reported Pitt’s sudden speech meant that it dominated the space in the 18 February issue of the Morning Post, occupying almost all of the second page and thus illustrating visually its centrality to the previous night’s debate and to future discussion of the war with France. In fact, as Stuart recalled, the speech was not an especially long one (9: 488). By building up the speech’s significance, the Morning Post nevertheless presented the address to its readers as one of Wahrman’s “distinct reconstructions,” a crucial moment in domestic politics.
Coleridge’s creative contribution to Pitt’s 17 February speech was considerable, but the emphasis on creativity should probably be tempered in light of Wahrman’s conclusions about the nature of reporting in the period. More attention needs to be paid to the question of how Coleridge used his experience in the Gallery and to his motivation for including his own material. As in the case of the rhetorical shift at the start of his 3 February report, or the jokes recorded in the published version of Sheridan’s speech, the 17 February address began with the sort of structural dexterity and word-play that attracted Coleridge. The fact that he missed the opening sentences of Pitt’s address in his note-taking, although they were reproduced in the published report, suggests that he decided suddenly to cover this speech. This decision might have occurred because Pitt, after his brief introductory remarks ridiculing Tierney, abruptly named the object of the war in a single word. Coleridge’s opening note reads, “Security—against a danger the greatest that ever threaten’d that never threaten’d that it is a danger that it is a danger” (CN 1: 653). His overriding objective, as the note demonstrates, was to recreate for readers the sheer rhetorical impact of Pitt’s response on a listener in the Gallery. Accuracy of content was less significant than persuasiveness of presentation, a lesson he might have learned from Pitt himself, whose speech epitomized the effectiveness of information distilled and repeated in a few key phrases.
Erdman suggests that the three parliamentary reports show “three degrees of originality” (33), climaxing in the 18 February report of Pitt’s 17 February speech, but he does not offer an explanation of why Coleridge would want to embellish a speech that would later so infuriate him for its simplistic logic, or give Pitt credit for language he had not used. This question struck Thomas Poole, who called Coleridge’s report “the finest manufacture from the worst materials” but asked “wherefore deck out the minister in this way? Why had you not reported Sheridan and his side?” (qtd. in Sandford 2: 6). John Colmer’s suggestion that Coleridge altered Pitt’s language to show what an ideal report could be has a mischievous appeal (75), but, while it is tempting to see Coleridge as engaged in a unique sabotage mission by refusing to duplicate Pitt’s actual speech on the page, the technique of shaping a speech to suit one’s own interests or those of the newspaper and its readers was probably the norm. Expanding the speech through his own phrases meant recreating on the page the impact of Pitt’s address, if not its actual phrasing. By occupying a central place in the Morning Post’s 18 February issue, Coleridge’s report of the Pitt speech manifested spatially not only its political importance and rhetorical impact but also the status of its reporter. Stuart’s recollections of this report testify to some level of journalistic freedom afforded to Coleridge in the speeches he recorded and clearly demonstrate that an emphasis on correct reporting is misplaced, since they reinforce the impression that the editor did not demand accuracy at the expense of color and vibrancy and allowed Coleridge’s version of events in the House to trump more ostensibly accurate or verifiable accounts. Although Stuart, who also attended the 17 February debate, persuaded Coleridge to adopt the correct phrase Pitt had used to describe Bonaparte, “the Child and Champion of Jacobinism,” in place of the less alliterative but more figuratively consistent “Child and Nursling,” he could not prevent him from inserting an original phrase that Stuart recalled as “breasted the tide of Jacobinism” (9: 488). The editor noted in his memoir, “I recollect objecting that Pitt did not say so, but it passed as Coleridge wished” (9: 488).
Coleridge’s memories of the 17 February experience at the House have further muddied the critical waters and perhaps contributed to the impression that his report of Pitt’s speech—and indeed his reporting in general—was a remarkable departure from journalistic norms. He wrote to Thomas Poole that the report “made a great noise here” (CL 1: 574), though Stuart later called this “a romance” of Coleridge’s invention (9: 488). The morning after Pitt’s speech was delivered, Coleridge wrote to Southey: “I reported the whole with notes so scanty, that—Mr Pitt is much obliged to me. For by heaven he never talked half as eloquently in his Life time. He is a stupid insipid Charlatan, that Pitt” (CL 1: 573). His biographer, James Gillman, took this idea a step further, writing that Coleridge slept through the speech before inventing a report at the Morning Post office (207-08). Amongst the half-truths of Coleridge’s memory, however, lies a verifiable sense of professional freedom that is absent in Erdman’s analysis of the reports. Using a formula that deals principally with the number of “creative” and “accurate” phrases—and then crediting this blend to Coleridge’s originality as a writer—Erdman overlooks the real professional conditions of late-eighteenth-century reporting, in which journalists were understood to be “living indexes of the sentiments of their respective papers” (Periodical Press 139) and in which newspapers were known to print speeches in a way that graphically shaped their reception. When journalism’s norms are foregrounded, Coleridge’s contributions can be seen as largely conventional examples of a genre that aimed to recreate the debates on the page from a specific ideological position, albeit with the added twist that his reports seem to reflect his personal experience of and interest in the debates. The real originality of the reports perhaps does not lie with Coleridge: it is the genre itself that is more flexible and creative than Erdman’s research allows. And, perhaps most importantly, the reports that we can examine are not Coleridge’s in any exclusive sense. Their content and meaning come to us having already been determined by the Procrustean demands of newspaper space and the influence that such practical concerns exerted upon readers’ understanding.
This essay will use the standard abbreviations for Coleridge’s writings employed by the editors of the Collected Works.
Debrett’s Parliamentary Register constitutes the closest thing to an official record of parliamentary debates around 1800. It is, however, quite unreliable, not least because its accounts are simply patchwork versions of the speeches selected from various newspapers. For more detail on the problems posed to scholars by the Parliamentary Register and the relationship between this record and that of Cobbett or Hansard, see Erdman 33.
Coleridge’s experience with parliamentary coverage dated back to his time as the editor of The Watchman, in which he had called upon parliamentarians and reporters to follow a strict system of speechmaking to avoid the “fatiguing and colourless confusion” of many contemporary reports (56).
This is not to say that accuracy did not figure in editorial calculations. In response to ongoing complaints from parliamentarians about the reports, the Morning Post retorted:
Proprietors of Newspapers pay too highly for Parliamentary Reports to be indifferent about their accuracy. The expence of Reporters is an enormous burthen on every Paper, and often renders them incapable of other exertions. The Proprietors struggle for pre-eminence in their reports as eagerly as Candidates struggle for success in a General Election.
8 March 1800, 2
Although Coleridge was aware of the procrustean effects of parliamentary reporting, he was largely oblivious to the specific details of the spatial constraints that an editor or compositor had to consider. While writing for the Courier in 1811, he told Stuart, “I feel, I have yet to learn how much larger a space my Scraps occupy in the Paper, than I am in the least aware of while writing them. What I had imagined as a snug little paragraph turns out to be a column” (CL 3: 330).
Some insights about the challenges facing a prospective parliamentary reporter in the period come from a rather unlikely source. William Wordsworth had discussed the possibility of taking up a position as a journalist for the Telegraph with his friend William Mathews in late 1794 and early 1795. In a letter to Mathews, Wordsworth wrote, “I must premise however that I have neither strength of memory, quickness of penmanship, nor rapidity of composition, to enable me to report any part of the parliamentary debates,” before going on to express some trepidation about the physical conditions under which reporters worked, which constituted “a further circumstance which disqualifies me for the office of parliamentary reporter, viz. my being subject to nervous headaches, which invariably attack me when exposed to a heated atmosphere or to loud noises and that with such an excess of pain as to deprive me of all recollection” (137-38).
Accounts of Perry’s revolutionary new system can be found in all of the major histories of journalism. See for example Haig 191-94, Escott 157-58, or Jones 55.
Coleridge possibly had a hand in drawing up this editorial statement, as he notes in Biographia Literaria (1: 212). Stuart disputed this claim, however, arguing “it was not likely I would make great changes to please any one, or wholly give the conduct of the paper out of my own power” (9: 487).
This mode of presentation was not entirely original, however. Stuart had used this method (probably with Coleridge’s input) to demonstrate the inconsistencies of the ministerial papers’ commentaries by matching up conflicting statements that the True Briton had published (11 January 1800, 3). The True Briton had responded in a similar fashion on 14 January 1800, attacking Coleridge directly (although not by name) under the title “Opposition Candour” (2). Coleridge’s interest in this visual technique might also have stemmed from his Watchman days, when he had used it to show the gap between the professed objects of the war with France and its actual achievements (108-09).
The following is a complete list of the unique phrases in the Morning Post report taken from Erdman’s collation. The bracketed terms are Erdman’s and give context to the unique words:
strained all sinews, stifling evil, breasted the tide of power, pierced with steadfast eye [through disguises], stumbling and drunken [tyranny], insulted and roused us, short-sighted ambition, bloody [scene], fought battles, gaudiest puppet of folly, presses hand, break out on surface, lurks in vitals, youth and rampancy of Jacobinism, prodigal [of blood], squandered [millions], firesides, presses me upon dissonance, breaking ties of union, shade of difference, vote a single farthing, not press hard, all travel same road, all that forms and feeds sources, convulsive efforts as imply feebleness, routed, disarmed, fettered, Jacobinism extinct or dying, feebleness ensuing [exhausted] finances, irritation a branch to, softer name, eyes open to horrors, feeling lurks behind, [spectators] caught disease by looking on, haughtiness of tone, stifle suffrages, way-lay it, true picture, mark and pledge of genuine, lessoned by experience.
Barker, Hannah. Newspapers, Politics, and Public Opinion in Late Eighteenth-Century England. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1998. DOI:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198207412.001.0001
Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. “Analysis or Skeleton of the Debate in the House of Commons, Monday, Febuary 3 1800.” Morning Post 6 February 1800: 2-3.
———. Biographia Literaria or Biographical Sketches of My Literary Life and Opinions. Ed. and intro. James Engell and W. Jackson Bate. 2 vols. Bollingen Ser. 75. The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge 7. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1983.
———. Collected Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Ed. and intro. Earl Leslie Griggs. 6 vols. Oxford: Clarendon, 1956-71.
———. Essays on His Times in The Morning Post and The Courier. Ed. and intro. David V. Erdman. 3 vols. Bollingen Ser. 75. The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge 3. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1978.
———. The Friend. Ed. and intro. Barbara E. Rooke. 2 vols. Bollingen Ser. 75. The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge 4. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1969.
———. The Notebooks of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Ed. Kathleen Coburn and Anthony John Harding. 5 vols. Bollingen Ser. 50. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1957-2002.
———. The Watchman. Ed. and intro. Lewis Patton. Bollingen Ser. 75. The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge 2. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1970.
Escott, T. H. S. Masters of English Journalism: A Study of Personal Forces. London: Fisher Unwin, 1911.
Haig, Robert L. The Gazetteer 1735-1797: A Study in the Eighteenth-Century English Newspaper. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1960.
Jerdan, William. The Autobiography of William Jerdan, with His Literary, Political, and Social Reminiscences and Correspondence During the Last Fifty Years. 4 vols. London: Hall, 1852-53.
Parliamentary Register; or, History of the Proceedings and Debates of the House of Commons. 12 vols. London: Debrett, 1797-1800.
The Periodical Press of Great Britain and Ireland: or an Inquiry into the State of the Public Journals, Chiefly as Regards Their Moral and Political Influence. London: Hurst, 1824.
Pitt, William, the Younger. Speech to the House of Commons on 3 February 1800. Parliamentary Register 10: 319-48.
Stuart, Daniel. “Anecdotes of the Poet Coleridge.” Gentleman’s Magazine ns 9 (1838): 485-92; ns 9 (1838): 577-90; ns 10 (1838): 23-27; ns 10 (1838): 124-28. DOI:10.1093/past/136.1.83
Wahrman, Dror. “Virtual Representation: Parliamentary Reporting and Languages of Class in the 1790s.” Past and Present 136 (1992): 83-113.
Wilberforce, William. Speech to the House of Commons on 20 December 1798. Parliamentary Register 7: 319-21.
|Auteur :||Nikki Hessell|
|Titre :||Coleridge and Column Inches|
|Revue :||Romanticism on the Net, Numéro 40, novembre 2005|
Copyright © Michael Eberle-Sinatra 1996-2005 — All rights reserved