I’ve been reading H.J. Jackson’s Marginalia (2001) and found a really interesting story.

Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge was rather famous, among other reasons, for his marginalia (his annotations in the margins of other people’s works). His insights were so amusing or engaging that friends even used to lend him their books for him to mark up. A number of his annotations have been published in edited collections.

Coleridge annotated so much that he eventually developed his own alphabet of symbols or abbreviations which serve as shorthand to indicate common problems: by way of just two examples, one symbol indicated that a passage gave him pleasure, another that it was the lowest form of writing.

(On a side note, I used to do a lot of work in theatre and this was common practice when auditioning people: you’d come up with a bunch of symbols beforehand that illustrate a variety of things: wrong looks, too quiet, overacting, perfect casting choice, etc. so that way you can jot down exactly what you think of a person without them being able to read/interpret it on your notepad.)


In 1801, Coleridge marked up the manuscript of his fellow-writer and friend(?) William Godwin‘s play, Abbas. There, too, “he adopted a set of symbols for common problems, ‘false or intolerable English’, ‘flat or mean,’ ‘common-place book Language,’ and ‘bad metre’.

“He did the same for a copy of Joan of Arc that he annotated in 1814. Joan is an epic poem, revolutionary in its politics, that had been jointly written by Coleridge and his brother-in-law Robert Southey and published in 1796. Nearly twenty years later, with a history of difficult family relations between them, Coleridge devised and used a shorthand system to criticize Southey’s part of the poem:

S.E. means Southey’s English, i.e. no English at all.

N. means Nonsense.

J. means discordant Jingle of sound – one word rhyming or half-rhyming to another proving either utter want of ears, or else very long ones.

L.M. = ludicrous metaphor.

I.M. = incongruous metaphor.

S. = pseudo-poetic Slang, generally, too, not English.” (28-29).

Ouch. There had to be some tense family dinners after that. Could anyone tell me what was the nature of their “difficult family relations” leading up to this harsh criticism?

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