Suspending disbelief with Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, author of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Kubla Khan died on 25 July 1834. Europeana contains a great collection relating to Coleridge, from a variety of sources including institutions in the UK, Germany and Poland. Coleridge was an English poet, literary critic and philosopher, a friend of poet William Wordsworth, and an opium addict. His critical work on Shakespeare was highly influential. With his friend Robert Southey, he tried to found a utopian commune-like society called Pantisocracy – but it didn’t last long.
Coleridge’s longest poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner was first published in 1798 and marked the start of British romantic literature. It tells the tale of a sailor who has returned from a long and adventurous voyage at sea, which included an encounter with Death and being struck by a curse. The poem was the first to coin several phrases now in common use in the English language, including to have ‘an albatross around one’s neck’, meaning to be burdened by something you have done, ‘water, water, everywhere, but not a drop to drink’, and ‘a sadder and a wiser man’.
Coleridge also invented the term ‘suspension of disbelief’, which we use to describe how readers, film-viewers or audiences go along with a fantastical narrative – if the human interest and internal logic is sufficient, we will ignore the fantastical elements or the logic that doesn’t fit with our real world experiences. So, we don’t really believe that a woman has been cut in half in a magic act, but we gasp at the prospect anyway because we have decided to belief in it for the duration of the act.
This stunning copy of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner was given as a present to Countess Roman Potocka in 1912 by a John Lister-Kaye – see the handwritten inscription inside the book. Its illustrations are fantastic – well worth a browse, even if you’re not into the poetry – a selection of pages are displayed below. You can also read The Rime of the Ancient Mariner in French.
To find out more about Coleridge through Europeana, try The Life of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, his other famous works Christabel, Kubla Khan and The Pains of Sleep, or his Complete Works. Or if you’re interested in what his work means, try Confessions of an Inquiring Mind, which was discovered after his death and, in Coleridge’s own words, provides the key to the Biblical criticism in much of his work. Europeana also holds an extract from a handwritten letter to a Mr Alsopp as well as two printed volumes of letters and a fascinating publication called Specimens of the table talk of the late Samuel Taylor Coleridge which seems to me to be his musings on a huge variety of topics from politics to children and dogs. I’ll leave you with his thoughts on the latter…
January 1. 1832.
GRACEFULNESS OF CHILDREN. – DOGS.
How inimitably graceful children are before they learn to dance!
There seems a sort of sympathy between the more generous dogs and little children. I believe an instance of a little child being attacked by a large dog is very rare indeed.
Specimens of the table talk of the late Samuel Taylor Coleridge, page 40-41, The Bavarian State Library, CC0.