Samuel Taylor Coleridge's anti-slavery poem

More than £20,000 is needed to save this anti-slavery poem written in ancient Greek by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) for the nation.

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The Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) has temporarily blocked the export of the manuscript to give a UK institution time to raise the £20,400 needed.

The 18th century manuscript was sold at Sotheby’s London in July last year.

The decision to block the export follows the advice of the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest.

The poem gives an insight into the early thinking of one of Britain’s most significant literary figures and is important for biographical studies of the poet, who wrote classic poems including The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Kubla Khan.

“Emotive relic”

Committee member Peter Barber said: “This insignificant seeming, annotated draft of a poem in Greek is an emotive relic of one of this country’s greatest poets and sages.

“It dates back to the time when, as a Cambridge undergraduate in May-June 1792, Coleridge was hoping, by winning a university prize for the verse, to prove to his sceptical parents that he had the makings of a scholar. Its content reflects his heartfelt – and lifelong – commitment to one of the burning national issues of the time, the abolition of slavery, and he continued to refer to the poem throughout his life.”

Barber added: “The draft also throws light on his close but hitherto little explored relationship with his revered eldest brother, George, to whom he sent it for comment. For all these reasons I fervently hope that a way can be found to keep the draft poem in this country.”

Family descent

Prior to the poem being sold last year it was also auctioned at Sotheby’s in 1995. Before that it had been passed through the family of the poet’s brother, the Rev George Coleridge, who had been sent the copy in 1792. It contains some variant readings compared to the submitted copy that remains in the Cambridge University Archives (the only other known manuscript of the poem).

The poem, a Greek Sapphic ode in 24 quatrains described as ‘lamenting the wretched fate of slaves on the Middle Passage’ won Coleridge the Browne Medal for Classical composition in his first year at Cambridge.

Museums have until May 16 this year to make an expression of interest to buy the poem valued at £20,400 (plus VAT of £4080 which can be reclaimed by an eligible institution). A second deferral period will commence if a museum comes forward with plans to raise the funds and an option agreement will be signed allowing three months for the funds to be raised.