"Desultory Fragments" or "Printed Works"? Coleridge's Changing Attitude to Newspaper Journalism

By Hessell, Nikki | Papers on Language & Literature, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

"Desultory Fragments" or "Printed Works"? Coleridge's Changing Attitude to Newspaper Journalism


Hessell, Nikki, Papers on Language & Literature


Scholarly interest in the print culture of the Romantic era has grown in recent years, with two new collections of essays, British Romanticism and the Edinburgh Review and Romantic Periodicals and Print Culture, building on a platform of research established in seminal works such as Jon Klancher's The Making of English Reading Audiences, 1790-1832 and Kevin Gilmartin's Print Politics: The Press and Radical Opposition in Early Nineteenth-Century England. Yet despite the fact that Samuel Taylor Coleridge's writing life provides fertile ground for reconsidering the role of journalism in the Romantic period's formulation of authorship and literary value, little attention has been paid to his long career as a journalist. None of the other canonical Romantic poets had such close links with the press, nor such a vexed attitude towards the relationship between journalism and literature. As Richard Holmes has noted, Coleridge's career as a man of letters seems to have occurred "almost against his will" (176). He wrote for the daily newspapers sporadically for two decades as well as producing two periodicals of his own, yet he might be regarded as the champion of literature's superiority over the newspaper and magazine press. How are such contradictions of genre and profession to be reconciled? And what does Coleridge's dual role as a canonical poet and a hack journalist tell us about the stakes of print culture in a period when increasing newspaper sales potentially threatened to erode literature's audience? (1)

In his comprehensive introduction to Essays on His Times, David Erdman notes that the life of a newspaper journalist was always "more or less" a familiar life to Coleridge (lxvii). If it is possible to hit the nail on the head by way of an equivocation, then that is what Erdman achieves in this passing remark. Coleridge was indeed always more or less a journalist, but this statement is not the throwaway assessment it appears to be. It is in fact an apt description of the finely calibrated way in which Coleridge measured journalism, both as a genre and as a profession. On the scales of literary accomplishment, he was always furiously adding and subtracting small measures or heavy weights in order to appear, as need dictated, more or less a journalist. (2)

This constant balancing act has meant that scholars have struggled to take an accurate measure of his journalistic career. In an important piece of research Zachary Leader signals refreshingly in his title, "Coleridge and the Uses of Journalism," that journalism might have had productive and identifiable effects on the poet's work and on the Romantic canon. Leader's excellent essay draws extensively on Coleridge's many ambivalent remarks about journalism but does not engage in sufficient detail with that ambivalence as a critical problem, reading the remarks instead as an indication that serving as a journalist was "hardly a source of pride, let alone an ambition" (26). Leader's argument thus tends to interpret ambivalence more as a manifestation of negativity than as a sign of a contest over writing and authorship that occurred in the Romantic period and that has particular significance for Coleridge's reputation. Deirdre Coleman's recent chapter on the journalism in the Cambridge Companion to Coleridge provides a detailed and succinct overview of this aspect of Coleridge's career but touches only briefly on the question of his attitude to the profession and the genre (127-28), and it is primarily focused on his work for his own periodicals, The Watchman and The Friend, rather than his work for the daily press. The full scope of Coleridge's changing attitude towards journalism needs to be examined more closely as it forms a kind of double life; wholeheartedly dedicated to his marriage with literature, he also pursued a romance with the press, constantly reformulating his writing career and his literary reputation around journalism and positioning himself as an artist in a marketplace that was also re-evaluating the nature of authorship and artistry. …

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