Review of Donald Sultana, Samuel Taylor Coleridge in Malta and Italy.

[Review article on Donald Sultana, Samuel Taylor Coleridge in Malta and Italy. Modern Language Quarterly 32.1 (Mar 1971): 115-19.]


This book, ill-mannered and lifeless despite the author’s industry, suffers from having no organizing center of effort.  At times Sultana deals exclusively with the details of Maltese and Mediterranean history, at times with Coleridge; he seldom brings the two into satisfactory focus toward fulfilling the promise of his title.  Considering that Coleridge’s Mediterranean sojourn lasted only from April 9, 1804, to August 17, 1806 (including the sea passage both ways), the author takes a long time to get to his subject – forty-nine pages on “The Historical Background” and on “Malta in 1804,” then two more detailed chapters (another sixty-three pages) before we come to “Passage to Malta.”

The historical information, both in the introductory chapters and later on, is interesting in its own right; Sultana has worked hard at the documents that help to reconstruct the military and political circumstances into which Coleridge set sail.  Unfortunately, the historical introduction is written in a style so monotonous that the information is difficult to grasp unless one is accustomed to grim quarrying.  But the effort is worth making as far as it illuminates the part Coleridge was to play in political and military affairs, and particularly his relationship with Alexander Ball, Major Adye, and Stephen Decatur.  Sultana is more at ease with history than with his biographical material or with literature; the biographical impulse is never strong enough to impart a shaping principle of exclusion to his zeal for historical research.

Sultana’s difficulty with the biographical elements seems to be temperamental rather than simply technical.  He evidently wants to show, above all, that Coleridge was a “failure” as a man and as a public servant.  Yet the historical information has the opposite effect: it increases Coleridge’s stature by implying how easily and effectively he turned his hand to private and public duties and responsibilities in a crucial place at a crucial time.  Not least impressive is the continuous evidence it gives of the respect that Coleridge’s intelligence, learning, and personality commanded among men of action and decision at that juncture in time.

As a biographical essay on Coleridge, the book is a disaster.  At the outset Sultana announces that he is radically unsympathetic to Coleridge and is proud to have taken as spiritual guide Sir Edmund Chambers’s “biographical study” of 1938 – a book for which (somebody has said) all enemies of Coleridge are eternally grateful.  But Chambers’s cold disliking attitude, forthright and unrelenting from beginning to end, gives a certain acrid unity to an itinerary of events; Chambers had considerable skill in documentary housekeeping, even if his method of documentation is irritating in the extreme.  Though Sultana covers a small compass of time, his purpose is much less modest than Chambers’s; and his claims to priority, accuracy, originality, and finality in what he considers a “virgin field” are rather larger than serious scholars of Coleridge are likely to endorse without hesitation.  Indeed, there are disquieting signs that Sultana is less than fully conversant with the major Coleridge scholarship of the last thirty years – which may account for the pugnacious epigraph in which he dismisses as “idolatry” (it would seem) all the work of American and Canadian Coleridge scholars.

In general, Sultana’s impression that he was working in a “virgin field” about which “all the scholars had lamented that we knew next to nothing” (p. ix) is a little surprising.  The Mediterranean notebooks – about 1,000 entries arranged in chronological order – have been in print since 1961; the surviving letters have been in print since 1956, and several of them much earlier than that; the large collection of documents that Coleridge brought back from Malta for his own use have been in the Victoria College Library since 1953, and a detailed list of them was published in Appendix B to Notebooks II; some time before 1956, Kathleen Coburn had identified in Malta a group of bandi and avvisi issued by Coleridge and had discussed these in Notebooks II.  The published primary material scarcely leaves the Mediterranean period a terra incognita; and even before there was any complete edition of the notebooks or letters, Chambers (1938) had written several trenchant pages on the Mediterranean period, liberally documented.  Again, Sultana implies (rather than states) in his preface that he has had to work in minute detail because of the “new” material he has discovered – as though this in itself necessarily involved substantial reconsideration of all that had previously been written on the subject.  But the list of new documents that have a primary bearing on Coleridge is not long: a transcript of Coleridge’s first version of his Observations on Egypt among the Nelson Papers in the British Museum (the final version is well known); a translation of a testimonial dated October 15, 1804, made by Coleridge and written in his hand; two official notes, one in Coleridge’s hand, the other with Coleridge’s signature only: and a letter from Ball to Nelson written in Coleridge’s hand at Ball’s dictation.  These items, and other documents from the Ball and Nelson Papers, are certainly not without interest, and they sometimes clarify a few details in Coleridge’s biography; but they provide a slender basis for a demand for wholesale revision of the accepted accounts.

Sultana announces a series of aims in his preface: (1) to propose, on the evidence of new material, extensive revision of dates and annotation of entries in Notebooks II; (2) to trace the origins and development of Coleridge’s “ideas in politics, literature, religion and art in Malta and Italy”; (3) to trace “the whole history of [Coleridge’s] addiction” to opium; (4) to treat the “subject” of Sara Hutchinson “in detail in the light of new material in the notebooks”; (5) to trace Coleridge’s Italian studies.  The first of these claims needs to be considered in some detail; the others can be dealt with summarily.

I find in this book no serious attempt to trace the history of Coleridge’s “ideas,” beyond some examination of Coleridge’s political papers written in Malta for Ball and for Daniel Stuart.  Sultana’s few notices of Coleridge’s reading, of his Italian studies, and of his literary and religious reflections are occasional and superficial, and make only slight use even of the quantity of evidence on these matters contained in the notes to Notebooks II.  (He seems also to have overlooked Appendix A to that volume.)

As for the opium, Sultana has included a number of notebook entries referring to opium, but at no time does he attempt a topical or analytical discussion of the matter.  His claim to have told at last the “true” story seems to turn entirely upon his rejecting as “untenable” a statement made by Earl L. Griggs in 1954: “it was certainly several years [after 1803] before [Coleridge] recognized the deleterious effects of opium or viewed his habit with moral disapprobation.”[1]  Sultana is right to correct this statement, which was made some time before the Malta notebooks had been published.  In any case I am not aware that Griggs’s article on Coleridge and opium has (as Sultana says) “hitherto been accepted as authoritative” (p. ix).  To be authoritative in the matter of opium addiction requires clinical information and a knowledge of pathology both in its physiological and psychological aspects.  The only extensive account that I know of that is based on such evidence is Elisabeth Schneider’s Coleridge, Opium, and “Kubla Khan” (1953) – a title not included in Sultana’s bibliography.  Even from the descriptive non-technical point of view, much more light can be thrown upon the opium question by the Mediterranean notebook entries that Sultana manages to evince.

Again, the claim – which Sultana has stridently reiterated in the Times Literary Supplement since his book was published – to give “the true facts” of Coleridge’s marriage and to tell the story of Coleridge and Sara Hutchinson “in detail in the light of new material in the notebooks” (p. x) is misleading, even if his attempt to do so were not fruitless and subject to serious distortion.  There have been three previous studies of Coleridge and Sara Hutchinson: T. M. Raysor’s important article of 1929 (included in Sultana’s bibliography), the introduction to Coburn’s edition of the Sara Hutchinson letters (1954), and my own small book (1955).  All three of these were written with full access to the notebooks even though Notebooks I was not published until 1957 and Notebooks II in 1961 – Raysor having the disadvantage of working from the notebooks before any editorial work had started.  Whatever Sultana has set down about Sara Hutchinson in his attempt to show that she was “at the root of [Coleridge’s] undoing in Malta and afterwards” contains no new material.  Sultana’s notion that Coleridge’s marriage was perfectly satisfactory until he met Sara Hutchinson is simply not supported by the documents.

Sultana’s most serious claim – in his preface and in later correspondence to the TLS – is that he has made manuscript discoveries which demand a radical reconsideration of the Malta, Sicily, and Rome notebook entries.  Those familiar with Coburn’s edition of the Notebooks will recall that the entries are arranged chronologically – as far as that is possible in dealing with a group of intricate and difficult manuscripts. As long as every entry has to have a physical location, each entry will have to be printed after one entry and before another.  The physical location of an entry in the original manuscript is often – but by no means always – reliable evidence for relative order; but because of the way Coleridge used his notebooks, the degree of chronological accuracy ranges between complete certainty and informed guess.  Some entries have to be recognized as of “undetermined date,” and in the edition these are grouped together under a year or a wider span on time (see, for example, 2761-83 under 1805); wherever the entries of undetermined date are actually placed in the chronological sequence, they need to be handled cautiously by a reader.  In considering the date of a difficult entry as printed, account has to be taken not only of the location of the entry in the printed sequence of the text and in the chronological table of the text-volume, but also of the evidence for dating discussed in the editor’s note to the entry and sometimes also the evidence discussed in the General Note on the particular manuscript notebook.  Sultana, distracted apparently by his low opinion of the editor’s accomplishment, does not always keep a clear head in dealing with questions of dating.  For example, one group of entries that he refers to contemptuously as “spurious Rome entries” (Notebooks II, 2761-65, 2769-80, 2775-78) are not in fact assigned by the editor to the Rome period; here, as in other cases, Sultana’s alleged correction of a date turns upon either misunderstanding or misrepresentation of the editorial text of Notebooks II.  Sultana’s method of footnoting and indexing, the paucity of detailed presentation of evidence for redating notebook entries, and the way this is scattered in text and notes throughout the book make it difficult to locate and examine as a group of textual problems the entries that he insists need redating and reannotating.  Considering the strident emphasis placed on this matter in preface and correspondence, one would have expected at least some consolidated discussion in detail somewhere in the book; but if Sultana had consolidated these questions, he might have seen that his claim is not a strong one.  There are some 975 Mediterranean entries in Notebooks II.  Sultana challenges the dating (as far as I can make out) of some 33 entries.  Of these, 13 are not assigned by him to dates other than those assigned by the editor of Notebooks II; another 10 are based on conjectural internal evidence, and the redating – if correct – does not involve any change of substance.  That leaves 10 brief entries, all in Notebook K – the MS of which Sultana has not been able to examine: of these ten, three suggested alterations are probably correct, the others may be; but again, even if they were all correct, they make no substantial change in the edition of the NotebooksNotes and Queries would seem an appropriate place to have recorded “findings” of this order; if included in a book, then they should have been introduced with appropriate modesty.

The personal record of Coleridge’s sojourn in the Mediterranean as we have it in the notebooks (for few letters survived) is brilliant, vital, and charged with human anguish.  It is a pity that Sultana’s diligent reconstruction of the historical and political background should inform the intimate record as little as it does, and that from impatience and lack of wonder the author fails to bring us for an instant into Coleridge’s presence – as a poet, as an active intelligence, as a husband, as a lover, as a man.

[1] “Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Opium,” HLQ, 17 (1954), 358.