Samuel Taylor Coleridge at 250 (1772-2022)

By Timothy Gress, Coordinator, Pforzheimer Collection
December 28, 2022
Portrait of Samuel Taylor Coleridge circa 1798 from the neck up

Portrait of Samuel Taylor Coleridge circa 1798

NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID: 1214972

2022 marks the 250th anniversary of the birth of English Romantic poet, literary critic, and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Coleridge is most remembered today for collaborating with his friend and fellow Romantic poet William Wordsworth on Lyrical Ballads (1798) and for poems such as “Kubla Khan,” and “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Non-fiction works include Biographia Literaria (1817), a mix of autobiography, satire, philosophy, and literary criticism, and The Friend, a periodical single-handedly written, published, and distributed by Coleridge between June 1809 and March 1810. 

The first Coleridge items acquired by the Pforzheimer Collection were purchased by the Collection’s namesake Carl H. Pforzheimer in 1918, primarily at the auction of American book collector Winston H. Hagen’s library of English literature. Included in this initial acquisition was a copy of Sibylline Leaves (1817), the first collected edition of Coleridge’s work and the first time he claimed authorship of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” and a first edition copy of Lyrical Ballads (1798) which formerly belonged to Coleridge’s son Derwent. Regular purchases throughout succeeding decades have led to an accumulation of nearly all of Coleridge’s published work—from his first appearance in print, The Fall of Robespierre: An Historic Drama (a 1794 play co-written with Robert Southey), to Poetical Works (1834), the last collected edition issued during Coleridge’s lifetime. The manuscript holdings, which have since grown to include 15 holograph poems and 26 engaging letters written to friends, family, publishers, and editors, chronicle Coleridge’s personal and professional life, and cover the period 1792 to 1833. The latest dated manuscript is a holograph draft of “Love’s Apparition and Evanishment,” one of the last poems Coleridge composed before his death on July 25, 1834.

Corrected proof of "Sonnet: To the Author of the 'Robbers'"

Coleridge's poem "Sonnet: To the Author of the 'Robbers'" corrected in his hand circa 1797, with a fresh transcript of the first four lines. This fragment served as the printer's copy for the second edition of Poems (1797).

Pforz MS MISC 0074. Pforzheimer Collection, NYPL
Click here to see enlarged image.

The largest and most significant subsection of these manuscripts is the papers of Mary Evans, Coleridge’s first love interest. Purchased by Carl H. Pforzheimer at the auction of English collector Alfred Morrison’s library of autograph letters and historical documents in 1919, the papers consist primarily of nine letters sent from Coleridge to Mary, her sister Anne, and their mother Charlotte between 1792 and 1794. These letters remain important to scholars of the Romantic period because they contain seven of Coleridge’s earliest surviving poems and a record of his fervent relationship with Evans. Coleridge met Evans through her brother Tom, whom Coleridge had befriended during his schooling at Christ’s Hospital and Cambridge, and quickly fell in love. Their relationship, sadly, was not meant to be. Writing with passionate sincerity to Evans in November 1794 Coleridge describes his four years of “ardent attachment,” during which he “clung with desperate fondness to this Phantom of Love, it’s mysterious Attractions and hopeless Prospects,” and asks her to confirm her engagement to another suitor, Fryer Todd (Pforz MS MISC 0072). Coleridge is finally set free from the “torture house of Suspense” on December 24, 1794 when he receives a letter confirming Evans’s engagement and her lack of anything more than “common friendship.” A brief note in reply written the same day brings the love affair to a close: “To love you Habit has made unalterable. This passion however, divested, as it now is, of all Shadow of Hope, will lose its disquieting power. Far distant from you I shall journey thro’ the vale of Men in calmness. He cannot long be wretched, who dares be actively virtuous. I have burnt your Letters—forget mine—and that I have pained you, forgive me! May God infinitely love you!” (Pforz MS MISC 0073).

Manuscript fair copy of "The Sigh" sent to Mary Evans from Coleridge

First two stanzas of Coleridge’s “The Sigh” in the manuscript fair copy sent to Mary Evans.

Pforz MS MISC 0085, Pforzheimer Collection, NYPL
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Coleridge’s poem “The Sigh,” first published in Poems (1796), is a testament to the intimate affection Coleridge once felt for Mary Evans, the Mary named in the poem. The Pforzheimer Collection’s manuscript of the poem, here titled “Song,” was copied out by Coleridge and sent to Evans sometime between July and December 1794, a time when he came to regret ever agreeing to marry Sara Fricker, a woman he admittedly did not love. The last stanza in particular makes clear his remorse: “And tho’ in distant climes to roam, / A Wanderer from my native home, / I fain would sooth the sense of Care / And lull to sleep the Joys, that were! / Thy Image may not banish’d be– / Still, MARY! still I SIGH for thee.” 

NYPL’s Berg Collection also holds an important grouping of printed and manuscript materials relating to Coleridge, including an early manuscript draft of one of his better-known poems, “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison,” contained in a letter to his friend Charles Lloyd.

For published versions of Coleridge’s works and letters with scholarly commentary see the 16 volume Collected Works and E. L. Griggs’s 6 volume Collected Letters

For more on Coleridge’s early life see the first volume of Richard Holmes’s two-volume biography Coleridge: Early Visions.