Coleridge’s fits of idleness

1 Feb|Tom Hodgkinson

Tom Hodgkinson on Coleridge’s attempts to run a subscription-based media company – and why we would all do well to follow in his footsteps

In January 1796 a 23-year-old Samuel Coleridge set off on a speaking tour of the Midlands. His plan was to sell subscriptions to a new magazine he was planning called The Watchman. It was a sort of The Week of its day – but politically radical – and promised to deliver non-fake news. He handed out a one page printed prospectus which bore the motto:

“That All may know the TRUTH; And that the TRUTH may make us FREE!!”

The tour was a success: in Birmingham Coleridge sold 100 subscriptions and he came home to Bristol with 1,000 sign-ups. The motto was not well received by everyone, however, as the following anecdote, later related by Coleridge, a great lover of italics and exclamation marks, attests. At an event in Nottingham, an aristocrat apparently glanced at the prospectus, which had been handed to him by Coleridge’s friend Mr Fellows, and was outraged:

“A Seditious beginning!” Quoth he [the aristocrat]. “Sir!” Said Mr Fellows – “the motto is quoted from another Author.” – “Poo!” Quoth the Aristocrat – “what odds is it whether he wrote it himself or quoted it from any other seditious Dog?” “Please,” replied Mr F., “to look into the 32nd [Verse of the 8th] Chapter John, and you will find, Sir! That that seditious Dog was – JESUS CHRIST!”

Coleridge was initially buoyed by the success of his subscription campaign but then plunged into a depression when he realized he had committed himself to producing a weekly newspaper for ever. His friends predicted that the magazine would be short-lived:

“You know how subject Coleridge is to fits of idleness,” said one. “Now, I’ll lay any wager … that after three or four numbers the sheet will contain nothing but Parliamentary debates.”

In fact the indolence-prone Coleridge managed to produce ten issues of The Watchman before giving up and writing Lyrical Ballads instead. Ten years later he launched another magazine called The Friend with his pal William Wordsworth, but that is another story.

It’s interesting to note that subscription-based media companies were all the rage in the late 18th century, and that that particular business model is returning. When the mighty Facebook has such a monopoly on advertising – and its latest results show growing profits yet again – the rest of us do well to revert to Coleridgean methods.

To receive editor Tom Hodgkinson’s free weekly newsletter, click here.