A Remarkable Notebook: Coleridge’s Companion in Malta

An open page of the Malta notebook

Contributor: Jeff Cowton

Location: Dove Cottage, Grasmere

Description: The ‘Malta Notebook’, as this manuscript has become known, measures 177 x 120 x 38mm and is bound in vellum. It has one hundred and eighty-six leaves of hand-made paper of different tints, written mostly on both sides, and holding about eight thousand lines of poetry of Wordsworth’s unpublished work at that time. It is the result of an intense period of sorting, assimilation and copying of verses involving William, Dorothy and Mary Wordsworth in February and March of 1804. Significantly, it is a gift of love from the Dove Cottage household to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, their close friend and fellow poet, to be his companion during his forthcoming time in the Mediterranean.

Taken together, it is one of the greatest treasures in the Wordsworth Trust’s Designated Collection.

This manuscript embodies the friendship of William, Dorothy and Coleridge which began nine years earlier in South West England. After the Wordsworths moved to Dove Cottage in 1799, Coleridge moved himself and his family to live nearby, settling in Keswick, thirteen miles further north of Grasmere. In late 1803, Coleridge, suffering severe ill health caused largely by an addiction to opium, decided upon a period living in the Mediterranean in search of better health. In lines composed at the time, William wrote: ‘Far art thou wandered now in search of healthAnd milder breezes’ (The Prelude).

Coleridge left Dove Cottage on 14th January after a three week stay, during which time Wordsworth had read him the two-book Prelude. This whetted Coleridge’s appetite for more: ‘transcribe all William’s MS poems for me’ he begged ‘Think what they will be to me in Sicily’. And so Dove Cottage became a place of work from ‘morning till night’. However, this was not a straightforward task of simply copying fair copies of poems; it required Wordsworth’s ‘almost constant superintendance’ as lines were brought together from a variety of sources in what proved exhausting work for the poet. Dorothy, when copying the poems for the notebook, wrote in a letter, ‘They are scattered about here and there, in this book and in that. One stanza on one leaf, and another on another. [It wa]s an intricate and weary job’, such that it was doubted whether it could ever be repeated if this copy was lost. So, as a safety measure, a second copy was made to be kept at Dove Cottage.

The poems were copied onto stitched bifolia, using a bird feather quill and home-made ink, probably on the table in the sitting room of Dove Cottage. Two parcels of manuscripts reached Coleridge prior to his departure, in time for them to be what Dorothy called his ‘companions in Italy’. After the last packet had been sent to Coleridge, Wordsworth then wrote a subsequent letter (and typically of Wordsworth) containing suggestions for revisions to the lines that he had only just sent. Coleridge numbered the sections to maintain their order; instructions to the binder in Italian in Coleridge’s hand suggest he had the pages bound when abroad.

The Malta Notebook is the most comprehensive record of Wordsworth’s unpublished poems in early 1804. It contains 43 sonnets, 41 shorter pieces, begins with ‘The Pedlar’ and ends with five books of The Prelude.  Within, is the only surviving manuscript of ‘Ode: Intimations of Immortality’. Significantly, it marks a turning point in the development of The Prelude. In early March, Wordsworth planned a poem in ‘five parts or books’; this changed by mid-month, when work towards the longer poem we now know began, growing to thirteen books by May the following year.

Coleridge left England for the Mediterranean on 9th April, sailing on The Speedwell, part of a thirty-five-ship convoy. As Dorothy had hoped, the pages and lines of poetry did provide a companion for Coleridge: as he lay in his cabin, on a night that was for once a little calmer, he read the poem that the circle knew as the Poem to Coleridge, (The Prelude). In his own notebook, Coleridge wrote: ‘Oh bless you, all you, Mary, William, the babe, Dorothy, Sarah, and the little ones’.

The return journey in 1806 was, by all accounts (like the outward journey), a terrible ordeal for Coleridge. At one point during an attack by Spanish privateers, boxes of government papers in which Coleridge has entrusted his own, were thrown overboard as a safety measure. When he got back to England, he was in a poor state: “I am shirtless and almost penniless. My manuscripts, excepting two pocket notebooks, either in the sea or taken back to Malta.” But this notebook, his ‘companions in Italy’, somehow survived. Later that same year Coleridge returned the notebook to Wordsworth, and with it, his comments on passages in The Prelude. Wordsworth then made his own alterations to the poem as part of a process of revision that didn’t stop until 1839.

So, a remarkable manuscript, and one that demonstrates that the meaning of manuscripts go beyond the words on the page. In the presence of it, we can imagine the long hours spent copying around a table in a candlelit Dove Cottage, Mary with a very young baby to care for too. We can imagine Coleridge’s delight in receiving the packages, this gift of love, the comfort in having the pages as a tangible link to his beloved Wordsworths and Grasmere, and his reading the latest composition of the poem dedicated to himself (another gift of love). Coleridge’s comments on the poem add another collaborative element, to go with that of the Wordsworth household. It turns into a unique record of Wordsworth’s poems to that point. Despite the perilous journeys to and from Malta, this notebook has survived when the ‘copy [made] for ourselves’, hasn’t.

I wish to record my gratitude to Prof Julia Carlson for her invaluable scholarship which she generously shared during my preparation of this article.

Date: 1804

Creator: Dorothy Wordsworth, Mary Wordsworth, and William Wordsworth

Subject: Samuel Taylor Coleridge; William Wordsworth; Dorothy Wordsworth; Mary Wordsworth

Media rights: The Wordsworth Trust

Language: English

Object type: notebook

Format: 177 x 120 x 38mm, vellum and hand-made paper

Publisher: The Wordsworth Trust