Photo of S.T. Coleridge

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Introduction to the Coleridge Collection

by H.O. Dendurent

Victoria University Library would like to thank “The Wordsworth Circle” for their permission to publish H.O. Dendurent’s introduction to the S. T. Coleridge Collection at Victoria University Library. Copyright © 1974 Marilyn Gaull.

Most specialists know of the existence of the S. T. Coleridge Collection of manuscripts and rare books at Victoria University, but probably few are familiar with the scope and depth of materials which place the collection, according to The New Cambridge Bibliography of English Literature, second in importance for Coleridge studies only to that of the British Museum. Others may not know that the collection contains, besides material relating directly to Coleridge, numerous manuscripts and documents of family members which have historical interest in their own right, and also a considerable number of manuscripts of Robert Southey, William and Dorothy Wordsworth, Charles Lamb, and many other early nineteenth-century figures.

The collection is unique in its provenance from the Coleridge family and the family editors in particular. It was acquired from a descendent of Coleridge and through the efforts of Professor Kathleen Coburn presented by the J. S. McLean Foundation the Victoria University Library in the University of Toronto in 1954. Professor Coburn’s private Coleridge library also forms part of the collection. Since the collection came to Victoria University it has of course been added to and will continue to develop.

The Victoria Coleridge Collection is by no means a systematic collector’s collection; it was rather accumulated haphazardly over many years by different individuals. It was assembled to aid the nineteenth-century editors in their work: Sara and Derwent Coleridge, H. N. Coleridge, E. H. Coleridge, and J. Dykes Campbell all used and added to the collection. Many of the manuscripts we now have available for study would certainly have been lost if not for their concern to support with as much evidence as possible their high idea of Coleridge’s contribution to British letters and thought. Much of the value of the collection, in fact, stems from the insight it provides into the workings of the early editors and consequently into the growth of Coleridge’s reputation in the nineteenth century.

The collection is most significant, of course, for the variety and importance of the S. T. Coleridge manuscripts it contains. The foremast among these is the autograph manuscript of “Christabel” which Coleridge presented to Sarah Hutchinson. The manuscript includes several substantive revisions and certainly was copied soon after the composition of the second part of the poem, as the conclusion to that part is lacking. Among other Coleridge poems at Victoria are two which were previously unknown, found in the Bacon commonplace book (item 102). The manuscripts of Coleridge’s prose include his unfinished Opus Maximum, which he dictated and extensively corrected and revised, his work on logic, the “Organum vere Organum” or “Bristol Notebook”, and transcripts of many of his sermons and lectures, including the philosophical lectures of 1818-19. Of the 64 manuscript letters in the collection, almost three-fourths are addressed to members of Coleridge’s family; among the thirteen other recipients is the German poet, Ludwig Tieck. Although the letters date from as early as 1796, the largest number are from the last ten years of Coleridge’s life. Besides the manuscript letters, there are over a hundred transcripts, including important groups of letters to the Evans family, Thomas Poole, and C. A. Tulk.

The Victoria University Library collection contains especially rich resources for the study of Coleridge’s private papers and informal conversation. There are twelve manuscript notebooks (and extensive transcripts of thirty-four more), which served Coleridge’s continuing attempts to capture the thoughts of his vigorous mind in some retrievable if not orderly manner. There are over thirty annotated books and a large collection of transcribed Coleridge marginalia. Many of the Coleridge manuscripts are in the form of loose notes on a variety of subjects, but especially on religion, philosophy, morals, natural science, language, literature, and politics. Another valuable manuscript is that of Coleridge’s table talk, collected by H. N. Coleridge from 1827 and published in 1835. The notebooks, marginalia, and other informal writings show that while Coleridge did not always produce in finished form all he had optimistically promised the public, his intellectual contribution proved to be more careful, profound, and permanent than such critics as Hazlitt had foreseen. Among the materials necessary for piecing out details of Coleridge’s life are the business and personal documents found in the Victoria collection. Some of these relate to Coleridge’s role as public secretary in Malta from 1804 to 1806. There is a diversity of interesting letters, reports, and other documents among these items and the other documents of Coleridge’s literary and personal life. The remainder, almost half the collection, is composed of papers of persons other than Coleridge; and there are a great many represented, from Wordsworth, Lamb, and Southey to lesser, almost unknown, individuals. The collection is especially rich in autograph letters and thus serves as a repository of handwriting specimens of many of Coleridge’s friends. It contains manuscript letters to Coleridge from no fewer than 42 correspondents and 283 manuscript letters transmitted among members of the Coleridge circle (an additional 38 correspondents). Almost half the letters are from members of the Coleridge family, and a very large number are from the Southeys or Wordsworths, so that more than three-fourths of the letters are from members of these three closely knit families.

The collection also contains verse and other writings by members of the circle other than Coleridge. Charles Lamb, for example, is represented by three short poems. There are twelve poems by Robert Southey, including eight in his own hand, two of them quite long. Together with the Southey letters and other papers, these constitute an important resource for Southey studies. Seven poems by Dorothy Wordsworth and four autograph poems by William Wordsworth are found in the collection. Both in the wide variety and depth of the manuscript and book holdings, the Victoria University Library Coleridge Collection is a fertile resource for the study of Coleridge’s life and writings. Because of the manner in which the collection was assembled and preserved, and the nature of the family relationships which led to the accumulation of other material as well, it proves to be an unusually valuable repository of manuscripts by important contemporaries of Coleridge.