Writing for Blackwoods in 1824, Alexander Blair argued that encyclopaedias, by and large, where ‘unavoidably confined’, ‘restrained’, even ‘embarrassed’. He pointed to the misconception that knowledge is ‘in itself limited, and already completed’, and argued instead that it is ‘indefinite’, ‘endless’, and ‘innumerable’: ‘the last discovery suggests the next’. Advocating for a diffusion of knowledge based on ‘mutual dependence and reciprocal action’, Blair concluded that by the encyclopaedia ‘we have found that within our own circle we follow a receding circumference […] our judgement is dazzled and overcome […] the knowledge for which we have no measure, has to our eye reached its bounds’. Blair’s article beautifully elucidates an impossible crux: encyclopaedic projects, brought to completion, must be contained within and yet extend beyond a series of bound volumes.

In this paper I explore the problems incumbent upon the pursuit and organisation of ‘complete’ knowledge in the early nineteenth century. I focus particularly on Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s abortive plans for the Encyclopaedia Metropolitana, begun and hastily abandoned in 1817, revised and enlarged for his periodical The Friend in 1818. As it was first printed in the Metropolitana, Coleridge was dismayed to find his plan ‘so bedevilled, so interpolated, and topsy-turvied’, so ‘egregiously mutilated’, that he soon denounced the whole project as ‘an infamous catch-penny’, ‘most worthless’, ‘most dishonest’. This was a sorry end for a project which the maligned poet ‘valued more than all [his] other prose writings’. I explore what was at stake in his publisher’s emendations, and argue that despite his professed abandonment of the project, a longstanding preoccupation with ‘encyclopaedic forms’ underpinned Coleridge’s poetic thinking and compilation practice. By extension, his work as a poet shaped a distinctive brand of encyclopaedism, one that stood in direct contrast to forerunners such as Diderot and D’Alembert and Ephraim Chambers who, according to Coleridge, produced a glut of ‘enormous nomenclatures’ founded on ‘dead, arbitrary arrangement’. Such a reading poses important questions about what is at stake when we look outside of a poet’s canonical oeuvre to examine their fraught relationship with failure and with the demands of the commercial book market. So too does it encourage us to re-examine what the encyclopaedia’s conventions make possible, and what they occlude.