Why should we commemorate Samuel Taylor Coleridge? The obvious reason is his high status as a poet, but a better one might be his exuberance as a wordsmith. As a poet, after all, he is widely known for only two relatively short works: ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ and ‘Kubla Khan.’ While the academy would no doubt add four or five others prized by specialists, the total number is still small. On the other hand, Coleridge’s creative output as a word worker—inventing, importing, adapting, and generally messing about with language—is enormous, his impact incalculable. His collected works now fill 50 volumes in the standard scholarly editions, and his mastery of the arts of language is evident in every one of them.
Coleridge in the OED
Since his prose had a respectable following in the nineteenth century, when much of his informal writing (letters, notebooks, and marginalia) also found its way into print, his works were a mainstay of James Murray’s NED (New English Dictionary on Historical Principles; a forerunner of the Oxford English Dictionary [OED]). Even today, with the whole of the twentieth century to account for on top of Murray’s labours, the OED ranks Coleridge 55th of its top 1,000 sources, which is to say he is very frequently quoted. More to the point, as an innovator in diction, he ranks 35th by providing ‘first evidence for word’ in 619 entries, and is arguably top-ranking among modern literary figures. Though Chaucer, Shakespeare, Lydgate, and Browne stand ahead of him, they represent much earlier periods and normally count as pre-modern or early modern.
Coleridge took liberties with words in various ways and for various motives—intellectual, aesthetic, social. His letters to like-minded friends bubble with puns. Wordplay was something of a competitive sport for him. Thus, if Donne had offered the word omni-pregnant (pregnant with everything) to the language, he could top it by describing himself—a notoriously fertile thinker but bad finisher—as omni-pregnant but nihili-parturient(producing nothing). He certainly delighted in multilingual jokes and learned allusions. The most striking proofs of his way with language are coinages. The index to the full-scale edition of his marginalia includes over three columns, in fine print, of coinages, and another half-column of words which are to this day not in the OED. The word marginalia was itself Coleridge’s introduction, taken from Latin in what I think may have been a spirit of tongue-in-cheek grandiosity. The OED credits Blackwood’s magazine ahead of him, but that Blackwood’s article was contributed by Coleridge himself under a pseudonym.
Obscurity and verbal precision
Coleridge’s reputation for obscurity notwithstanding, verbal precision was important to him, and if the mot juste did not present itself, he was well equipped to make one up. He had a good classical education (with some Hebrew), an excellent working knowledge of German and Italian, and at least a reading knowledge of French; he read a great deal of language theory, which gave him a passing acquaintance with other languages from outside Europe. Many of Coleridge’s alleged coinages have a scholastic, even pedantic effect and never achieved common use—aureity, mesothesis, esemplastic—but others, such as bisexual, boastfulness, clerisy, dream world, dynamic, factual, motiveless, pessimism, and a whole slew of terms derived from psychology (psychoanalytical, psychologically, psychologize, psychosomatic) caught on.
When you study these introductions in context, it’s clear in almost every case that they could not have been generated out of laziness or an incapacity to find a more apt existing term. One of the winners, the clunky but useful desynonymize, reveals the reason: Coleridge was trying to sharpen the meaning of words that had been so blunted by use as to become practically interchangeable. A new word could be tailored specially for the job it had to do, free of the unwanted accrued associations of its alternatives. In ‘Kubla Khan,’ for example, his source (Purchas) might have offered a ‘palace’ with ‘a stately garden,’ but what Coleridge gave us was, for the first time on record, a ‘pleasure dome.’ English already had housemate and yokemate, but when Coleridge advised a young lady about marriage, he formulated, by analogy, the infinitely more important soulmate.
Much as he loved individual words and much as he enjoyed generating new ones, Coleridge understood that words, in any language, were of secondary importance to syntax. They needed to be deployed with care, with strict attention to context. Poetry he defined simply as ‘the best words in the best order.’ In the debate started by Wordsworth on the subject of poetic diction, he successfully argued against his old friend, demonstrating in Biographia Literaria not only that Wordsworth’s policy of seeking to reproduce ‘the real language of men’ had been misguided in the first place, but that Wordsworth was the great poet he was precisely because he did not practice what he preached. (We owe the phrase practical criticism, too, to Coleridge.)
Coleridge’s dexterity with language sets an inspiring example best honoured, I suggest, not merely by using the words he gave us, but by internalizing and imitating his way with words in general.
Image Credit: “O sleep, it is a gentle thing’ by Thalita Carvalho. CC BY NC 2.0 via Flickr.