Session 4C: Coleridge between Press and Podium

Back To Program.

4C. Coleridge between Press and Podium

Robert Lapp (Mt. Allison): "Romanticism Repackaged: the New Faces of Old Man Coleridge in Fraser's Magazine 1830-32"
David E. Latané;, Jr. (Virginia Commonwealth): "Fraser's, Dr McGinn and Coleridgean Romanticism"
Sarah Zimmerman (Fordham): "Staging Instruction: Coleridge and the Emergence of the Public Literary Lecture"

Back To Program.

Staging Instruction: Coleridge and the Emergence of the Public Literary Lecture
Sarah M. Zimmerman
Fordham University

The bright top-coat and high white silk stock are in the latest fashion of the French Directory, and the radiant face of the young lecturer, with parted lips, glows with-'sensibility' and inspiration.

Richard Holmes on Peter Vandyke's 1795 portrait of Coleridge

My paper takes Samuel Taylor Coleridge's lecturing career as a crucial example for defining the emergence of the public literary lecture in early nineteenth-century England as an important cultural genre. By following his path from the 1795 lectures on politics and religion in Bristol to his literary critiques (which began in 1808 in London), I trace an important trajectory in the development from a tradition of English radicalism of a significant arena in which aesthetic criteria could be defined and debated, and from which a coherent literary canon might be drawn. My account of Coleridge's lecturing career (1795-1819) complements current investigations of the mid-18C and early 19C as a key period of English canon-formation. My broader (booklength) project, of which this paper is a part, brings together lectures by Coleridge and William Hazlitt that have long been recognized for their individual tenets, but the broader importance of which only becomes clear when they are viewed as a coherent cultural genre. I also pair Coleridge with John Thelwall, in order to demonstrate the public literary lecture's profound debts to the radical lectures of the 1790s. In this paper, I focus on Coleridge, but read him in relationship to Thelwall, thereby supplementing Judith Thompson's account of a meaningful poetic conversation between the two with an account of their sustained exchange as lecturers. Both were eventually driven from radical lecturing, but remained active in related public arenas, Coleridge in his literary lectures and Thelwall as a teacher of oratory and elocution who was in the audience for some of Coleridge's and Hazlitt's aesthetic critiques.

My paper focus on Coleridge's self-transformation from radical speaker to aesthetic critic, partly by elaborating his relationship to Thelwall. In late 1796, Coleridge wrote to Thelwall praising both his political views and his persistence in voicing them. Coleridge launched his own career as a lecturer in 1795, during the period when he and Robert Southey were planning the utopian social scheme they called 'pantisocracy.' Southey gave historical lectures while Coleridge spoke on the 'Advocates of Freedom,' including Thomas Paine, William Godwin, and Horne Tooke, a series temporarily disrupted when he, like Thelwall before him, received death threats. The period between these lectures and his 1808 series at the Royal Institution on the 'principles of poetry' witnessed a determined shift in focus from social politics to aesthetic criticism. Thelwall's 1790s lectures and Coleridge's 1795 "Moral and Political Lectures" and "Lectures on Revealed Religion" at first glance bear little if any resemblance to Coleridge's and Hazlitt's later literary lectures (which begin for Coleridge in 1808 and for Hazlitt in 1812). Moreover, there are decisive differences between Thelwall's and Coleridge's 1790s audiences, particularly those of the mass outdoor meetings that Thelwall sometimes addressed, and the subscribers who paid as much as two guineas to hear Coleridge's and Hazlitt's literary critiques. Yet Coleridge's career as a lecturer effectively bridges these marked differences in political climate and instructively links these diverse audiences. The chronological gap which divides the more emphatically political lectures from his talks on such topics as the "principles of poetry from Shakespeare to the present" can be read as a break or silence of profound and symbolic significance.

Coleridge's self-transformation as public lecturer represents an attempt to distance himself as aesthetic critic from himself as radical speaker, yet an examination of his lecturing career serves instead to emphasize the continuities between these two selves, and to formulate a coherent, if complex, cultural genre: the literary lecture inflected by its proximity to a tradition of radical speaking. The consistencies between Coleridge's political and aesthetic lessons emerge most clearly in the ways in which the genre's association with English radicalism haunted his and Hazlitt's literary lectures. Thelwall attended Hazlitt's first series of lectures (on philosophy) in 1812, presumably out of friendship, but perhaps also for useful material for his oratory and elocution lessons. The presence of a political past embodied in the figure of Thelwall, a man who suffered greatly for his political activities, informs Hazlitt's and Coleridge's literary critiques. Coleridge was himself a significant figure from that era, a figure still on display in England's National Portrait Gallery, in Peter Vandyke's 1795 portrait of Coleridge as political lecturer, described in my epigraph.

I approach the public literary lecture as a rich cultural genre, comprised not just of lecture notes or printed texts, but also of the forums in which lectures were given (fields, taverns, meeting rooms, lecture halls); the rhetorical traditions that speakers adopted; and audience members' myriad responses in published and private writings. Hazlitt himself provides a rationale for my approach, by making an important distinction between Thelwall's lectures as written and delivered. Observing that "[t]he most dashing orator I ever heard is the flattest writer I ever read,' he explains: "[i]n speaking, he is like a volcano vomiting out lava; in writing, he is like a volcano burnt out.' The importance the physical spaces in which the lectures were staged and the audiences who attended in considering the public lecture is starkly rendered in the history of the radical lectures of the 1790s. The vigorous efforts of government authorities to deprive Thelwall of a place to speak, in late 1792, he resorted to advertising and offering to pay for a lecture space, indicate how seriously these forums were taken as viable political arenas. For members of the laboring classes and for women, groups with little if any access to formal education, these arenas provided access to, if not full participation in, the period's political and aesthetic debates.

My paper develops an account of Coleridge's lecturing career by focusing on 1) the relationship between his lectures' manifestations as written and as delivered, paying close attention to accounts of his performances that appeared in numerous newspapers in London (the Morning Chronicle, the Times, and the Courier, the Sun, the Traveller, the Rifleman) and Bristol (Bristol Gazette, the Bristol Mercury, and Felix Farley's Bristol Journal), and in the published and private writings of his contemporaries; 2) the physical spaces in which he spoke (in London at such venues as the Royal Institution, the London Philosophical Society's Scot's Corporation Hall, the fashionable Willis's Rooms in the West End, the Surrey Institution, and the Crown and Anchor in the Strand; in Bristol at the White Lion); and 3) his audiences, both those he sought, as glimpsed in printed prospectuses and newspaper announcements, and those who came.

Although my paper focuses on defining the broader contours of Coleridge's career, rather than on readings of individual lectures, this more panoramic view will be complemented by a close attention to one important artifact: a notebook known as the 'clasped vellum notebook,' housed in the Berg Collection (New York Public Library). A holograph notebook kept by Coleridge ~1813-1826, its 337 pages contain materials for at two series of lectures (1818-19), including reading notes, quotations copied for reading aloud, and drafts of headnotes. The notebook will concretize my efforts to define a cultural genre by restricting my attention to the particular lectures for which it was used. Large and expensive (compared to Coleridge's other notebooks), it is itself a 'dramatic' artifact for considering the lectures as performances, since, as Kathleen Coburn suggests, Coleridge probably carried it with him into the lecture hall and spoke from its notes. The notebook will serve as my key example for gauging the relationships between Coleridge's compositional practices and his delivery, including differences between what he prepared and what he said, as gleaned from the myriad accounts of the lectures provided by friends and critics.

Back To Program.

Last updated May 31, 1999
by Kathleen McConnell