Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Coleridge's Fly-Catchers: Adapting Commonplace-Book Form1

Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Coleridge's Fly-Catchers: Adapting Commonplace-Book Form1

Article excerpt

"To know is in its very essence a verb active."

- Samuel Taylor Coleridge2

In a 1797 letter, Samuel Taylor Coleridge confessed, "as I have few books of my own, I read with a common-place book."3 Describing his collection as a repository for quotations from other texts, Coleridge placed his commonplace book in a long history of readers compiling extracts for personal reference. By 1812, however, he described his commonplace books differently. By this time, he understood them not just as records of other authors' works, but as collections of new material for publication. Writing to James Murray, one of his publishers, in 1812, Coleridge explained, "In the huge cumulus of my Memorandum and common-place books I have at least two respectable volumes."4 From a book of readerly extracts to a fusion of readerly and writerly notes, Coleridge's commonplace books evolved in tandem with the larger tradition of the Romantic commonplace book. By the early nineteenth century, technological advances and pedagogical reform had combined to support the printed anthology, which pushed the manuscript commonplace book out of the school and into the home. With this transition, commonplace-book compilers increasingly moved away from strict systems of organization (including the defining features of early-modern commonplace books such as general topics and indexes) and embraced looser, more diary-like forms. As elements of the lived life joined with literary extracts, commonplace books of the Romantic period explicitly rendered reading and composition as synonymous activities. While the close relationship between reading and writing had been implicit in the tradition for centuries, it was not visible in its structure. Though early modern collections of extracts were meant to aid composition, the act of composition had typically occurred outside of the commonplace book. However, like his contemporaries, Coleridge began to transcribe original material alongside borrowed extracts, putting various entries into conversation in ways that the form had not previously accommodated.

This article makes two primary claims for the poet and thinker Samuel Taylor Coleridge's vast collection of notebooks. First, that they should be reassessed as a new stage in the evolution of the commonplace book tradition; and second, that the way they revise older commonplace book form exemplifies how Romantics in general, and Coleridge in particular, thought about the creation and formation of knowledge. We tend to think of Coleridge as diminishing over his career, from a celebrated author to a mad note-taker, yet, his later commonplace books present a strong writer long after the publication of his major works. As we will see, Coleridge's style of note-taking influenced the form of his published works - particularly his commitment to working within multiple genres at once, as well as including large swathes of other authors' works in his own texts. These elements of Coleridge's style have been most criticized; however, as I argue, they are also most indebted to the form of his commonplace books.

Though scholars have long called Coleridge's collection "notebooks," here I retrieve the name of the tradition within which he understood himself to be working. Doing so elucidates the way Coleridge revised the commonplace-book tradition to suit his own epistemological commitments. Coleridge, like many of his contemporaries, shunned traditional structuring mechanisms of the commonplace book such as the index and general topics in favor of more loosely defined structures for containing and generating knowledge. As Romantics embraced new theories of knowledge formation, such as Idealism and Transcendentalism, the commonplace-book form changed dramatically. Rather than collecting received knowledge (as the term "commonplace" implies), these new commonplace books embraced a transcendent epistemology that focused on the workings of the mind itself. This essay builds from the work of what Anthony John Harding has called a "material hermeneutics of literature" exemplified by historians of Romantic reading practices such as Heather Jackson and William St. …

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