Anna Letitia Barbauld: Voice of the Enlightenment

Seamus Perry writes:

Until 15 or 20 years ago most students of English literature would have known one thing about Anna Letitia Barbauld, which was her appearance in a droll anecdote told by Samuel Taylor Coleridge towards the end of his life and recorded in the posthumous volume of his Table Talk. ‘Mrs Barbauld told me that the only faults she found with the Ancient Mariner were – that it was improbable, and had no moral,’ Coleridge is reported as saying: ‘As for the probability – to be sure that might admit some question – but I told her that in my judgment the chief fault of the poem was that it had too much moral, and that too openly obtruded upon the reader.’ The poem should have been, he went on, as free of any moral coherence as an episode in The Arabian Nights: ‘the story of the merchant sitting down to eat dates by the side of a well and throwing the shells aside, and the Genii starting up and saying he must kill the merchant, because a date shell had put out the eye of the Genii’s son’.

(LRB 25 February 2010)