Thursday, 8 November 2012

'In the family': living with the Coleridge surname

In her memoir In Pursuit of Coleridge, Kathleen Coburn remembered her first visit to the then Lord Coleridge in 1930. Lord Geoffrey Coleridge (a descendant of Samuel Taylor’s elder brother James and nephew John ‘Justice’ Coleridge) was less than enthusiastic about the memory of his famous ancestor. Coburn recalled his somewhat intrepid response:
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1795
Old Sam was only a poet, you know, never did anything practical that was any good to anybody, actually not thought much of in the family, a bit of a disgrace in fact, taking drugs and not looking after his wife and children. Of course STC must have been a wonderful man – in a way – he was somehow clever enough to take in so many great men – but why a young girl like you should spend your time on the old reprobate, I can’t think! All those badly-written scribblings – couldn’t even write a decent hand that ordinary people can read – full of stuff and nonsense. But all you pedants live on this sort of thing. Useless knowledge, perfectly useless. Now I at least know something about beef cattle... 
Lord Geoffrey unwittingly encapsulated the trouble with his great-great-uncle: simultaneously ‘a bit of a disgrace’ and a ‘wonderful man’, Samuel Taylor cannot be an easy ancestor to bear the brand of. His surname could act as a powerful talisman for the Coleridges who followed him. His daughter Sara suggested that they would be of interest to posterity only as ‘psychological curiosities’, and that is, perhaps, still where the interest begins, even if it is not where it ends up. Literary agent Gill Coleridge, a descendant of Lord Justice Coleridge, kindly spoke to me about her experiences of her surname. ‘When she set us poetry to write for homework, my English teacher used to say to me, ‘I shall expect something extra special from you,’’ Gill remembered. ‘Of course, she completely put me off.’  Gill’s childhood experiences of the expectations invoked by her surname recall Sara’s complicated responses to it; because of her surname, Gill, too, became another Coleridgean ‘psychological curiosity’, for her English teacher at least. ‘But it was not a curse,’ Gill is careful to reiterate; for her and other family members it has been far more a blessing than otherwise.
Lord John 'Justice' Coleridge

Anthony Coleridge, whose career titles are diverse enough to rival his polymathmatical ancestor’s, includes in his Twitter description the titillating accolade ‘Poet Relation’, and has blogged under the title ‘The Proclamations of A Young Opium Eater’. Here, of course, the drug-taking Samuel Taylor is invoked as a point of something like pride; Anthony, we can assume from this title, has inherited the visionary, artistic side-effects which allegedly resulted in poetic masterpieces like ‘Kubla Khan’ and ‘The Pains of Sleep’. In the dual invocation of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Thomas De Quincey, Anthony self-consciously styles himself as a modern Romantic, moving through an artistic scene just as his ancestor did two-hundred years ago.

Jacques Derrida suggested that a surname,
risks to bind, to enslave or to engage the other, to link the called, to call him/her to respond even before any decision or any deliberation, even before any freedom.
A surname – any surname – can trap the individual, can ‘bind’ them to a specific idea that is constructed even before they are born; it is this nominal slavery that Sara and Hartley Coleridge’s critics responded to; that, in the 1890s, responses to Mary Elizabeth Coleridge continued; and that, well into the twentieth century,  Gill Coleridge’s English teacher persisted in maintaining.  It is, then,  other people who use the name as an enslavement; for the bearers, it is a site of engagement, a place of recalling and reinterpreting past associations of the name, and challenging them until they become, once again, individual.


  1. IDLE Curiosity led me to this post! This was an entertaining blog, nonetheless, and you even slipped in an affectation of Metaphysics via Derrida. STC would be delighted....

    1. Thanks Ian! The Derrida quotation is one of my favourites, so it had to appear sooner or later; and I hope STC would like it, he's closely affiliated to it in my thesis!

  2. Hi Jo! I came across your blog today, and am very happy to see another blogger interested in the Romantics and especially STC. I run a blog myself ( which I am proud to describe as Coleridgean--that is, it is wonderfully erudite and basically without readership. I also have written a good deal about Coleridge himself, who is one of my literary, even one of my human lights. I linked to this blog on mine, and I hope that's alright; and if it's alright with you, I might even write a feature about your blog by way of promoting internet scholarship about Coleridge. Finally, I was wondering if you would be willing to e-mail me (my address is on the blog, on the "About This Blog" sub-page) so we could have a conversation about the place of the Coleridge scholar in academia today. I would really appreciate it, as I am a grad student "between programs" and I'm trying to locate a program that would be conducive to my interests (which are broad but focus around STC). Thanks, and keep up the cormorant work!