Copyright © The Malta Historical Society, 2005.

Source: Melita Historica. [Published by the Malta Historical Society]. 5(1969)2(184-187)

[p.184] Reviews 1969

DONALD SULTANA — Samuel Taylor Coleridge in Malta and Italy, Oxford, Blackwell, 1969, pp. xviii-429.

Dr. Sultana's basic achievement in this book is to fill a biographical gap. In spite of the vast accumulation of material relating to Coleridge during the past two decades, virtually no investigation had been made into the brief period of his stay in Malta and Sicily. The reason for this neglect was partly a lack of knowledge of Malta on the part of English and American scholars, and partly the assumption that records of his work in Malta had been destroyed. In regard to the first point, Dr. Sultana had the advantage over any other Coleridgean specialist; and his indefatigable patience and industry were to prove the second point to be largely unfounded.

The result is that a new and fascinating light is thrown upon Coleridge at a critical period of his life. Dr. Sultana lays his stress equally upon the 'public' Coleridge, working on official documents for Sir Alexander Ball, and on the 'private' Coleridge, helplessly in the grip of drug-dependence and his passion for Sara Hutchinson. Concerning the former, the most disquieting revelation is of the extent of Coleridge's imperialistic zeal, and his complete acquiescence in his employer's predatory notions concerning Algiers and Sicily; however, this acquiescence at times caused him discomfort and bitterness, a humiliating sense of being a mere instrument in someone else's hands, which make his later eulogistic references to Ball in The Friend seem a less than accurate transcript of his feelings at the time. Concerning drug-dependence, we have a harrowingly documented account of the vicious circle of indulgence and remorse, each accentuating the other. The claim is made that as a result of this emotional distress, Coleridge came for the first time actually to prove on his pulses the Christian concepts of the Fall and Redemption, instead of merely accepting them theoretically. But the Ancient Mariner and the fragmentary Wanderings of Cain surely indicate that at a much earlier date than this such concepts had a more than theoretical interest for him. What in fact happened at this period was that he lived out his earlier imaginative insights with much greater intensity than ever before.

Though Coleridge is the central figure, one of the most impressive features of the book is the massively detailed establishment of a context for him. The first two chapters form a prologue, describing the historical background and Coleridge's life in the years immediately preceding his Mediterranean journey. Both chapters have a density and fullness that at first seems excessive, until one realizes just how crowded the later chapters are with names and documents that would have been unintelligible without such an introduction. Not that there is anything confused — or, to the attentive reader, confusing — about this lavishness. On the contrary, the author compels our admiration not just through his industry in assembling such a staggering amount of material, but through his ability to order it [p.185] coherently; and the result is a most remarkable example of meticulous scholarship.

Nevertheless, there is a reservation I have to make, and it is an important one. While I was reading the book I had recurring doubts as to whether the author had been wise in adopting a purely chronological 'narrative' method for presenting his material. The result of his uncompromising use of this method is that the aims he set himself in the preface are not realized with a perfect sharpness of focus. These aims are as follows: to emend the text of The Notebooks and to establish the canon more accurately than had been done previously; to trace the development of Coleridge's ideas; to 'trace the whole history of his addiction (to opium) from England to Malta, to describe its symptoms and to dwell at length on the sufferings that it caused him'; to emphasize Coleridge's feelings for Sara Hutchinson and the Wordsworth’s and — as a corollary — to trace the development of The Prelude; and to describe Coleridge's Italian studies, 'about which nothing of merit has so far been written'. In addition to this variety of topics there is the richly detailed presentation of the contemporary scene that I have already mentioned! and, in spite of the coherence that the narrative possesses, and to which I have paid tribute, the result is that the central themes seem dissipated rather than conveyed with full clarity. The problem is especially acute in regard to the first aim, to emend the notebooks. This is what Dr. Sultana says about the matter in the preface:

In addition to writing a, biography, therefore, I have attempted to emend the text of THE NOTEBOOKS without disturbing the continuity of the narrative or detracting from the human interest of Coleridge's story. For this purpose only the more important corrections have been incorporated in the narrative; the rest have been inserted in notes, with references at the end of each chapter. Originally I had also intended to make use of the footnotes to explain my differences with the editor on matters especially of history and topography in the Notes of Volume II, but lest the book should grow too long I have contented myself with stating the facts objectively in the narrative, leaving it to the reader to refer to the Notes of the editor, if he cares to, for different information."

Would it not have been better, however, to have engaged in this scholarly dispute with full explicitness in the body of the text, even if this meant dispensing with pure narrative? After all, the book will inevitably appeal mainly to the Coleridgean specialist. The non-specialist is interested in Coleridge primarily, if not exclusively, as a poet and a literary critic. Except marginally, this book avoids discussion or evaluation of the poetry as such — quite rightly, as Dr. Sultana already has enough on his plate; but this at once limits the readership, especially since in spite of its being a 'narrative' the book requires extremely close and attentive study to be appreciated. For these reasons, I feel that other methods of presentation in addition to the purely chronological one would have been desirable.

[p.187] However, this must not obscure the fact that this book is a product of the most scrupulous scholarship, and will have a permanent importance in Coleridge studies.

R.J. Rayson.