Elif Batuman tells a story in her recently published The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them
, about visiting Tolstoy's estate Yasnaya Polyana for a conference. A visiting historian presenting at the conference is researching the marginalia in Tolstoy's personal library. Another scholar asks him about it one morning at breakfast. Oh, there aren't any words, he says. Tolstoy doesn't write in any of his books. But the pages. They fall open in certain places!
Batuman doesn't describe the reaction of the other scholars at the table, but one can imagine that it may have produced more head-scratching than vigorous nods. No annotations? Not even underlining? What's to study?
At first glance, a similar predicament confronts the reader happening on Samuel Taylor Coleridge's copy of Robert Southey's Joan of Arc
in the Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection
. In 1818, Coleridge annotated his 1796 copy of this text in red pencil. But after his death, Coleridge's notes were largely rubbed out by members of Southey's family who were less than keen to save Coleridge's annotations for posterity. Luckily for researchers, the text of Coleridge's Joan of Arc
marginalia is preserved, along with the annotations of approximately 450 other titles in The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge
, a whopping six volumes of which are devoted to Coleridge's marginalia. Heather Jackson, the editor of these volumes, has also compiled a one volume edition, A Book I Value: Selected Marginalia
, a treasure trove of a book offering some of Coleridge's most intriguing writing in the margins, on topics such as education, religion, revolution, government, biology and psychology.
Coleridge and Southey had met in Oxford in 1794 and were reunited later that year in Bristol, where they set to work sketching ideas for a utopian society inspired by Plato's Republic
, to be founded on the banks of the Susquehanna in Pennsylvania. They collaborated on several publications to raise money for their "Pantisocracy", as Coleridge called this planned agricultural and literary commune ("equal power for all"). It was then, too that they collaborated on Joan of Arc
. Southey wrote the first book, and Coleridge, much of the second and some other lengthy passages.
The Revolutionary sympathizers Coleridge and Southey found a kindred spirit in the Maid of Orleans. Rendered as a sorceress by Shakespeare, Joan fared eminently better in Southey's epic, where their heroine is characterized as the embodiment of liberty and celebrated for her fierce devotion to republican ideals. The book was commercially successful, and greatly advanced Southey's reputation as a serious writer.
The bond between the two poets became a family tie when they married sisters, but soon after, the poets parted ways. Raising funds for the Susquehanna experiment proved time-consuming, and in 1796, the more pragmatic Southey abandoned the cause to study law. Coleridge, who had contracted himself to Sarah Fricker to strengethen ties to Southey for the good of the Pantisocracy, felt blind-sided. The friendship deteriorated, and with it, Coleridge's respect for Southey's work.
The annotations in Joan of Arc were made around 1818, over twenty years after the poem's initial publication. Coleridge found fault with Southey's wooden portrayal of Joan, and writes in the Berg copy that Joan has been transformed into a "Tom Paine in petticoats, a novel-palming proselyte of the Age of Reason." As for Southey's poetic skills, Coleridge finds so much to criticize that he develops a short-hand legend to simplify his own comments in the margin. A "J" In Coleridge's hand signaled a "discordant jingle of sound," "LM" a ludicrous metaphor, and S.E. "Southey's English, i.e. no English at all." He also goes after Southey for being an intellectual fraud, writing in response to Southey's claims about Statius and Lucan in the introduction: "The proper petulance of levelism on a youth of two-and twenty. I will venture to assert Southey had never read, or more than merely looked through, Statius, or Virgil either, except in school lessons."
The Joan of Arc annotations were made after Southey and Coleridge had superficially patched things up, though their friendship had been compromised irreparably and would never really recover. Some years earlier, in 1803, at Coleridge's request, Southey and his wife paid him a visit at his family's home Greta Hall in the Lake District; but Coleridge slipped away soon after, leaving his wife and the residence forever. Southey was to become Greta Hall's caretaker for the next forty years.
Coleridge may have felt free to be so forth-coming in his criticisms because of Southey's own dismissal of his work. Southey had reviewed Wordsworth and Coleridge's Lyrical Ballads
back in the late 1790s and dismissed "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner"
as a "Dutch attempt at German sublimity." Heather Jackson has written of Coleridge that he was almost universally charitable in his annotations towards the writers of the books he annotated in print; apparently brother-in-laws—even brother-in-laws who supported him financially—were the exception.
For more on the marginal writings of Coleridge and other literary luminaries in the Berg Collection, check out Monday's class, Engaging the Text: Monday afternoon at 4:15 p.m.