28 May 2014
"Tremendous in sublimity" or "Plunging into whirlpools": Coleridge's German books
In an earlier ‘Anglo-German’ post I wrote about the German Romantic author Ludwig Tieck as a mediator of English literature in Germany, and mentioned his meeting with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who sought to play a similar role for German literature in Britain. Long before he met Tieck, Coleridge had been fascinated by German literature and thought: a late-night reading of Schiller’s play Die Räuber (in translation) as a student inspired a rather overwrought sonnet to the “Bard tremendous in sublimity!”.
But Coleridge still spoke hardly any German when in September 1798 he set out for Germany with William and Dorothy Wordsworth, hoping to improve his knowledge. Unlike the Wordsworths, who ended up spending an isolated and miserable winter in Goslar, Coleridge made the most of his time, travelling, observing, making contacts and eventually enrolling as a student at Göttingen University. By the end of his ten-month stay he claimed, with a hearty dose of self-deprecation, that he could “speak [German] so fluently that it must be torture for a German to be in my company … my pronunciation is hideous.”
Back home, although many of Coleridge’s plans for published works which would bring German writers and philosophy to a wider public never came to fruition, he continued to read and engage with German literature and philosophy, as is evident from his discussions and correspondence with Tieck almost two decades later and from the notes he made in his German books.
A selection of Coleridge’s German books in the British Library’s collections
Just as the British Museum Library bought many books from Tieck’s library, so it acquired many from Coleridge’s collection. Unlike Tieck’s books, these were listed in the Library’s printed catalogue under Coleridge’s name (“Books containing MS notes by S.T. Coleridge”). Of 198 titles with this heading, some 83 are in German, with an additional handful of translations of German works or Latin works by German authors. The idealist philosophers Kant, Fichte, Schelling and Hegel are best represented, but there are also works of German literature, theology and natural history.
Like Tieck, Coleridge liked to annotate his books, and was not afraid to take issue with what he read. Unlike Tieck, however, he seems to have preferred writing on fly-leaves or inserting separate sheets of comments rather than writing in the margins themselves. Reflecting on Herder’s Kalligone he criticises the German idealists for making their philosophy of nature “supersede the logical discipline”.
In his copy of Fichte’s Die Bestimmung des Menschen he gets more personal, arguing that Fichte “plunges head over heels into the … whirlpool of pseudosophy.”
These comments show Coleridge to have been an enaged and critical reader, but there’s at least one example of more frustrated and frankly baffling marginalia. In his copy of Novalis’s writings (C.43.a.18) he notes in the bottom margin of one page: “Strangely out of place. Why in a cavern? And by a ghostly old hermit?”. This does not seem to relate to anything on the page in question: perhaps it was something that occurred to Coleridge from another context or another book he had open. Or perhaps a person from Porlock interrupted his note-taking…
Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Studies
Richard Holmes, Coleridge: Early Visions (London, 1989) YH.1989.b.977.