The prevalence of print in the early nineteenth century did not mean that it was the only means of disseminating literary works. Many writers continued to produce and circulate texts in manuscript, often among a select coterie. This practice had its benefits. It gave authors and poets the opportunity to test new material and to revise and refine it before committing it to posterity. Similarly, manuscript circulation allowed writers a level of control over the exposure and consequent reception of their works that is impossible to achieve with the wider, more public dissemination that comes with print. There were, of course, problems and complications. This section takes one case, the relationship of Coleridge’s Christabel and Byron’s Siege of Corinth, and examines the complexities of manuscript transmission. The limited access to manuscript copies meant that many ‘readers’ only heard the text read aloud by another party. This meant that the audience of a given text often had to rely on (imperfect) memory, and errors often appeared in the later reception of such texts.
In a letter postmarked 30 March 1815, Samuel Taylor Coleridge requested Lord Byron use his influence to procure a publisher for some of Coleridge’s hitherto unpublished works. Byron replied in a letter dated 31 March 1815 that he would pleased to lend his influence to the project, and went on to offer an apology for lampooning Coleridge’s “To a Young Ass” in English Bards and Scotch Reviewers (1809).
Their correspondence resumed in the autumn of that year. On 15 October, Coleridge forwarded two volumes printed by friends in Bristol, Sibylline Leaves and “Biographical Sketches of my own literary Life and Opinions on Politics, Religion, Philosophy and the Theory of Poetry.” As is mentioned in Byron’s earlier letter, Coleridge hoped the Peer’s support would enable both these texts to be distributed widely.
Coleridge’s letter set off a brief flurry of correspondence: five letters were sent over the next fortnight. These later letters are of particular interest for the present exhibition, as they point to the influence of ‘Christabel’ on Byron’s The Siege of Corinth. During a visit with Sir Walter Scott in June 1815, Byron heard the poem read aloud from a manuscript copy of Coleridge’s 1798 poem.
Byron explained the situation in a letter to Coleridge dated 18 October 1815:
Dear Sir,—Your Letter I have just received. I will willingly do whatever you direct about the volumes in question—the sooner the better: it shall not be for want of endeavour on my part, as a negociator with the ‘Trade’ (to talk technically) that you are not enabled to do yourself justice. Last spring I saw Wr. Scott. He repeated to me a considerable portion of an unpublished poem of yours’the wildest and finest I ever heard in that kind of composition. The title he did not mention, but I think the heroine’s name was Geraldine. At all events, the ‘toothless mastiff bitch’ and the ‘witch Lady’, the description of the hall, the lamp suspended from the image, an more particularly the girl herself as she went forth in the evening—all took a hold of my imagination which I never shall wish to shake off. I mention this, not for the sake of boring you with compliments, but as a prelude to the hope that this poem is or is to be in the volumes you are now about to publish. I do not know that even ‘Love’ of the ‘Antient Mariner’ are so impressive—and to me there are few things in our tongue beyond these two productions. [ . . .]
Ever yours truly,
Byron, George Gordon Noel. “Letter to Coleridge, 18 October 1815.” Byron, a Self-Portrait. Ed. Peter Quennel. Vol 1. New York: Humanities Press, 1950. 316-17. PR A3Q4 1950 v.1 Humanities and Social Sciences Library