Poet comes out of the margins

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The Independent Online
PRIVATE scribblings about the shortcomings of Shakespeare by one of his most intelligent critics, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, are to be published in a comprehensive collection of the Romantic poet's marginalia.

The project to gather and publish every scrap ever written by Coleridge, who died in 1834, is now well under way. Marginalia IV is part of a series which will comprise six volumes. Its editor, Heather Jackson, a professor at the University of Toronto, has devoted nearly 17 years to Coleridge's margin scribblings.

The fourth volume, published last week, contains 8,000 notes on subjects as varied as the Gospel of St Luke, medical reports and opera. Coleridge, who introduced the word "marginalia" to the English language from Latin, left more than 400 annotated books when he died.

Among writers whose works he annotated were Sir Walter Scott, Immanuel Kant and John Donne. Sometimes he is downright rude. "I have noticed with pain the apparent unthinkingness of the Writer," he writes of Robert Percival, although he is interested in the writer's experiments with cannabis. "I have both smoked and taken the powder ... the effects in both were the same, merely narcotic, with a painful weight from the flatulence or stifled gas."

On Shakespeare's work, Coleridge is more reserved. Hamlet, he remarks, "was the Character, in the intuition and exposition of which I first made my turn for philosophical criticism, and especially for insight into the genius of Shakespeare". But he admits he sometimes cannot see what the playwright intended. On King Lear he writes: "What can I say of this scene? My reluctance to think Sh. wrong - and yet ...".

Professor Jackson wants to encourage a return to marginalia. "Nowadays people feel guilty about writing in books. One librarian was rather grumpy about Coleridge, and said he shouldn't have gone about spoiling other people's books."