This edition has a purpose, and one that I subscribe to wholeheartedly. That purpose is `to transform Coleridge's reputation, and find him a new generation of readers'. One hundred and one poems, including thankfully many fragments, are selected. They include, obviously, The Ancient Mariner, Christabel and Kubla Khan, but also sonnets, other ballads, the Asra poems to Sara Hutchinson, nature poems, the late `confessional' poems, political, satirical and humorous poems, and even one prose item The Wanderings of Cain. The editor Richard Holmes is a writer and broadcaster but not apparently an academic, and to my way of thinking the edition is all the better for that. One thing that I looked for but did not find was the brilliant and amusing poem on the city of Cologne, but one can't have everything and I know it by heart anyway.
As far as my poets are concerned, I would far sooner be sorry than safe. When I was at school Coleridge took very much of a back seat to Wordsworth, who was obviously a much safer bet. One was given The Ancient Mariner and Kubla Khan for study, and maybe Christabel too if one was lucky, but my impression always was that that was as much Coleridge as the English masters had read. Tennyson once said `I have the greatest command of English since Shakespeare, but to be sure I have nothing to say.' Leaving Milton aside as being a completely special phenomenon whose wonderful language was only just English by some extension of the term, I go along with the first part of that assessment. Between Shakespeare and Tennyson, still leaving Milton out of the frame, who would you say takes the next place for sheer command and virtuosity with the English language? The orthodoxy in my time was Keats, but my own vote goes to Coleridge. Housman himself, the very high priest of Wordsworth, said that the finest versification of the era was to be found `in the irregular and simple-seeming stanzas of The Ancient Mariner'. I don't dispute that, but if The Ancient Mariner has a rival in that respect it is none other than Christabel in my own view. Housman considered the audacious metrical experiment of Christabel to be unsuccessful, but while Housman's ear for language was preternaturally acute, his ear for music was dull, and an ear for music is needed to get the full value from Christabel. We find the lines
She kneels beneath the huge oak tree
And in silence prayeth she.
The lady sprang up suddenly,
The lovely lady Christabel!
It moaned as near as near can be,
But what it is she cannot tell.
The crucial line there is `The lovely lady Christabel'. It adds nothing to the sense, it has the function of marking time, measuring out a moment of startled horror, and in general Christabel, incomplete though it is, seems to me as notable an addition to the English language as it is to English literature. It is this experimental and unpredictable element in Coleridge that thrills me with him. Very properly, there are numerous of his fragments here, fascinating testimony to his out-of-the-way mental processes. The poets of that era took their social and historical role pretty seriously - Shelley pronounced poets to be `the unacknowledged legislators of the world', and Coleridge himself considered them to be no less than the elect who would unlock the mystery of the universe. Give or take most of that kind of thing, there is a real visionary element in Coleridge, and not only in the fragments, although I'm not so sure what kind of legislator he might have made.
The selections are subdivided into categories, something Coleridge was not too keen on, believing that a plain chronological sequence was the proper reflection of a poet's development. The editor sympathises with this view, but finds it simply not a realistic option, and I agree with him. His preface is very readable, less heavy going than many such, there is a short introductory section to each category of poems included, and there is a further note on each individual poem at the back. I hope this edition succeeds in what it is trying to do.