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The Notebooks of S. T. Coleridge:

A slow accumulation of extracts and appreciations:



The Serpent by which the ancients emblem’d the Inventive faculty appears to me, in its mode of motion most exactly to emblem a writer of Genius. He varies his course yet still glides onwards—all lines of motion are his—all beautiful, & all propulsive—

Perry 109; Coburn 609


This lovely description of how literary digression can delight (Sterne, Browne, Burton come to mind as possible models) could also be applied by his admirers to Coleridge the discursive talker. But he was well aware that to many he was a windbag; the underlying direction of his argument during his long 'oneversations' was only detected by his more appreciative hearers. So there may be a degree of self-justification in this praise.  Just before this extract Coleridge opens the subject by finding fault with the verbose James Mackintosh: 'Nothing grows out of his main argument but much is shoved between—each digression occasions a move backward to find the road again'. In Jungian terms Mackintosh was Coleridge's shadow: a receptacle in which to project an aspect of himself he found problematic.




Previously featured Notebook passages:


Item—the World not a total present, like a circle in space—but a manifest Spiral or infinite Helix in time & motion—Proved by Geology.—

Coburn 4988


'27 August 1823. Charles Lamb's Difficulty'. This fragment quoted is the product of a discussion with Charles Lamb on the immortality of the soul. Coleridge countered Lamb's doubts - that if there is a beginning there must be an end - by bringing in the idea of a pre-existence prior to our birth about which we are oblivious. Lamb didn't like the idea of an aetherial  form of survival either. 'If I try to imagine myself with positively other organs, & faculties, it is no longer myself but an Angel...' Lamb, it seems, didn't think it would be the real survival of C.L. unless he remained the person of that name mulling over a pint in a cosy nook of a celestial Salutation & Cat. He didn't want wings. Coleridge countered this by pointing out how the STC of ten years ago was a different being but somehow still the same. We are beings evolving in time, not static identities. This leads to the idea that time is an important category. 'Proved by Geology'? Well, perhaps.




26 Decr, 1829—Saturday Night/ All day I have felt it as a Monday—& about dinnertime (in consequence, perhaps, of a second fine Turkey—viz. the Duchess's, tho' not approaching to the superbity of dear Adorabit's Pride of Norfolk, and Grand Seignor of the Turkeys, European and Asiatic!! Item, the ditto relation between the two retinues of Sausages—tho' her Grace's very good, and supershoppic!) a Sunday—only that dear Mr Green had not been with me.


Coburn 6229


Coleridge liked his food, and here is a subtle Christmas yah boo to the Duchess's 2nd placed turkey. Adorabit = will worship (Latin), hence a nickname for William Worship eulogised the previous day as 'dear William Worship' who provided this 'Seignor of the Turkeys' (See Anthony Harding's Notes 6229n).  'Supershoppic' sounds astonishingly modern and foodie, but from the man who coined the term 'sub-consciousness' one would hardly expect anything less.


Ernest Hartley Coleridge's Anima Poetae the first full length selection from Coleridge's notebooks was published in 1895. In his preface he undersold the late notebooks of which the above extract is an example: 'The series of note-books which belong to the remaining years of his life (1828-1834) were devoted for the most part to a commentary on the Old and New Testament, to theological controversy, and to metaphysical disquisition. Whatever interest they may have possessed, or still possess, appeals to the student, not to the general reader.'  In general he's right enough, but they are by no means all serious, there is also plenty of fun to found in the late notebooks.




Sweet discontent

Of a Contentment overflowing,

Jet of a Pleasure striving with its fullness

         a joy that strives with its own fullness

or Sweet Overswell and mimic Discontent

Of a too full Contentment.

Coburn 4736


This unstable epigram was written in October 1820. It follows a passage in the same notebook where Coleridge enquires into why music gives pleasure (4734). He itemises five elements:

  1. Sound: the sweet sound of the instrument itself.

  2. Melody: enjoyment of a succession of notes that are felt to have "inherent Congruity".

  3. Harmony: pleasure in the congruity of co-existing notes.

  4. "Seeking, expecting, and finding, according to a Law".

  5. Effects on the nerves "probably produced on & seated in the pectoral Nerves especially, the Plexus Solaris &c".


Draft poems are very rare in Coleridge's early notebooks. These are more frequent in later notebooks because Coleridge's poetical composition was more sketchy in both senses of the word, and starting a poem in a notebook would ease the pressure of composition. He can turn imperceptibly from prose to poetry while fluent with ideas, and he can avoid confronting the big step of starting a poem, by telling himself he is just sketching out notes towards a poem. 


In this extract he is stirred into poetic mode by his meditation on music. The embryonic poem plays with his fourth category by suggesting that "finding" leads to its own restless discontent. This lack of stasis is mirrored by his inability to reach a satisfactory form for the idea. The first three lines contain the idea and are complete, and the three lines that follow are signs of his dissatisfaction; his bobbles between alternatives do not gell into a recognisable poetical form. The superb jet image is the core of its success as an epigram. An object is caught in the restless opposing forces of fountain and gravity, but this fountain is not mighty enough to force up "dancing rocks" as in 'Kubla Khan'. It seems gentler: more like the shop-window fountain balancing "a little ball on its jet" that inspired Yeats to write 'The Lake Isle of Innisfree'.




I write melancholy, always melancholy: You will suspect that it is the fault of my natural Temper. Alas! no.—This is the great Occasion that my Nature is made for Joy—impelling me to Joyance—& I never, never can yield to it.—I am a genuine Tantalus

Coburn 1609


This entry was written in October 1803 immediately after Coleridge heard of Sara Hutchinson’s plan to live near Keswick. It’s likely she was on his mind. Joy (or the lack of it) was a major theme of the ‘Verse Letter to Sara Hutchinson’, and its revised version published as ‘Dejection: an Ode’, in the Morning Post in October 1802.


In ‘Dejection: an Ode’, Coleridge wrote that joy ‘ne’er was given,/ Save to the pure’, and that his own nature was too damaged to receive it. His only hope was to see it possessed by Sara and to enjoy it through her.


At first this notebook entry seems very different; joy is something his “Nature is made for” that he “never can yield to”. He is actively resisting something which is available to him if he could only “yield” to it. How can he end by calling himself “a genuine Tantalus”, one who vainly grasps for a joy just beyond his reach, if he begins by describing himself as resisting a joy that is native to him? The key seems to be that his resistance is not under voluntary control: “I never can”—not “I never will”. Volition is a constant Coleridgean meditation. When he is struggling with drug addiction it’s a question of wanting not to want, but here, perhaps, it’s a question of wanting not to resist.



Qy. Whether words as the already organized Materials of the higher Organic Life (viz. as Vegetables which are the rude Material of Animal life) may not after a given period become effete? How rightly shall we conceive this marvellous Result a Language?—A Chaos grinding itself into compatibility!

Coburn 5314

Perhaps it's enough to set Coleridge’s formulation alongside Rilke’s different but related idea that the poet’s task is to renew the value of words by turning them (as he puts it in an oft-quoted remark) back from whores into virgins. Our common experience of words losing their charge by overuse (or over-abuse) is well captured by Rilke. . If language arises by grinding the chaos of individual minds into a collective lowest common denominator, there is no distinction possible between the formation and the degeneration of language. Rilke’s view is thus supported and inverted at the same time. This notebook entry continues for one more sentence: “But this would give only the negative attributes”. It’s a tentative and not entirely satisfactory speculation.



Memory carried on by the fear of forgetting / thus writing a thing down rids the mind of it.

Perry 217; Coburn 1388


Coleridge’s simple paradox is underlined by the fact that he called his notebooks “memorandum books”. Seamus Perry, during a talk at Kilve, quoted Philip Larkin’s idea that poetry ( and notebook?) writing originates in “the impulse to preserve”, and we could follow that thought to widen the application of Coleridge’s idea. The idea that creativity is driven by the need to rescue something from the ruins of time is the theme of Shakespeare’s sonnets: “That thereby beauty’s rose might never die”. Is Coleridge hinting that this very act of preservation creates another kind of loss - a little death? As Shakespeare’s rose can only be preserved as “A liquid prisoner pent in walls of glass”, so works once completed are lost to their creator.  Might this explain a difficulty in finishing work? Christabel, for instance? Of course, where the material being written down is painful, this separation brings relief.



Dec. 6. 1803.—Adam travelling in his old age—came to a set of the descendants of Cain, ignorant of the origin of the world; & treating him as a Madman killed him. A sort of Dream, which I had this Night.

Perry 281; Coburn 1698


Why is this enigmatic entry so evocative? Coleridge calls it “A sort of Dream”.  1803 was a climactic period of Coleridge’s laudanum consumption so this experience is almost certainly opium induced. These visionary episodes, which are more like thinking in symbols than ordinary dreaming, evoke even to the non opium-using reader a taste of the liminal state—the borderline between sleeping and waking that any of us may fall into. Capturing the contents of this vision is much like bringing back the flower plucked from Paradise in a dream.


Appropriately enough, the setting for this experience is the land of Nod where Cain travelled east of Eden after God had cursed and marked him for murdering his brother Abel in a jealous rage. Coleridge’s fascination with Cain is well explored—the cursed figure that he tried to write a poem about in 1797 in ‘The Wanderings of Cain’ is a precursor of the Ancient Mariner. His identification with fratricide goes back to his early memories of quarrelling with his brother Frank, and has been seen as a pointer to the ambivalent aspects of his friendship with Wordsworth.


But what of the descendants of Cain? Genesis locates them in the land of Nod “out of the presence of the Lord”, a description that doesn’t help you find it in an atlas but gives a strong impression of the vibe of the place. The last of Cain’s descendants recorded in Chapter 4 of Genesis are three brothers who originated three important skills of civilisation:


·         Jabal - father of cattle herders;

·         Jubal - father of music;

·         Tubal-cain (or Jubel) - father of metal workers.


The line of Cain then implodes into a seventy and sevenfold frenzy of cursing after Lamech, the father of these three, commits another murder. This bad branch of humanity is dropped by Genesis in favour of the descendants of Seth, the good third son of Adam and Eve, who replaced Abel, the son whom Cain had killed. The line of Seth led eventually to Noah whose three sons (strangely symmetrical with those three sons of Lamech) were each assigned a continent to repopulate after the flood: Shem to Asia; Ham to Africa; Japheth to Europe.


The skills of civilisation are thus credited to the descendants of Cain, the bad branch of humanity. Jubal is particularly relevant here: Genesis 4:21 tells us that he was the originator of music and inventor of instruments. Poetry in its early stages was associated invariably with music, so Jubal could also be seen as the originator of poetry. Linking the origins of poetry with the outcast branch of humanity leads easily onto the kind of identifications that originated in the romantic era and reached full flowering in the nineteenth-century French figure of the Poète maudit. We can follow this figure through into twentieth-century America and wander with Hank Williams down the Lost Highway of secular song. On that journey, the guilt derived from his strict churchgoing background proves a heavier burden than his “ deck of cards” and “jug of wine”.


The descendants of Cain, then, carry a complex range of associations. Coleridge’s “sort of Dream” at a first reading offers their violent aspect—they are so fallen, so “ignorant of the origin of the world” that they fail to recognise their ancestor, find him mad, and  kill him. By late 1803 this may well have felt to the despairing Coleridge like the trajectory of his own life; a feeling that he had lost contact with his youthful hope and innocence, and fallen into a kind of dull dejection. Perhaps his anger against himself was buried, and would surface in violent dream images such as this. His syntactical error—Adam grammatically should be the subject of  “treating” and “killing”—can be read as a sign of confusion over the true source of those violent feelings.


On the other hand we can also see here a refracted picture of Coleridge’s tendency to disown his past. It is irresistible to link this passage with a poem he wrote near the end of his life, ‘Phantom or Fact? A Dialogue in Verse’, in which a personification of his own past rejects him. This poem is written to make sense of an experience (a “sort of Dream”?) in which “a lovely form” full of “tender love” that he feels to be his own spirit returned from heaven, recoils from him as he awakens to its presence, “shrinking back, like one that had mistook!”



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If a man could pass thro’ Paradise in a Dream, & have a flower presented to him as a pledge that his Soul had really been there, & found that flower in his hand when he awoke—Aye? and what then?

Perry 536; Coburn 4287


According to Kathleen Coburn this is derived from Jean Paul’s Geist (1801) Vol II.29-30.  We have adopted Perry’s transcription ”Aye?” in place of Coburn’s “Aye!”. Where a choice is available, one should always favour the quizzical in Coleridge. This passage in Coleridge’s Notebook has been assigned to the years 1815-1816. Coleridge’s deviation from Jean Paul’s original work is interesting. Jean Paul’s passage is translated as follows:

Oh, if a mortal man were to wander in a dream through Elysium, if vast unfamiliar flowers were to close above him; if one of the blessed were to offer him one of these flowers, saying: “Let this remind you when you awake that you have not been dreaming”—how he would yearn for that Elysian land, whenever he looked at the flower.


Coleridge’s Notebooks

All citations are by entry number as follows:

Perry: Coleridge’s Notebooks: a Selection, Edited by Seamus Perry, (Oxford University Press, 2002). Now in paperback at £12.99.

Coburn:  S. T. Coleridge: Notebooks, Edited by Kathleen Coburn, Merton Christensen and Anthony John Harding (5 Volumes, Princeton University Press, 1957-2002). A pearl of great price - go sell all thou hast, or alternatively get a loan while interest rates are low.


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© Paul Cheshire 2003-6