An LRB review by Barbara Everett of several Coleridge publications contains the following striking passage:

…it is interesting that the Notebooks contain an entry for November 1802 that gives us casually a surprising piece of information: ‘Kublaikhan ordered letters to be invented for his people.’ Kubla’s name may have been ‘a byword for cruelty and oppression’, but Coleridge sustained also—indeed, by vocation as a writer had to sustain—a belief in the saving power of the truly civilised, the civilised as an ideal; so that he could use ‘alphabeted’ as a word almost meaning ‘saved’. When he made one of his infrequent and unhappy visits back to the village where he was born, he was enraged to find Ottery people ‘Bigots, unalphabeted in the first Feelings of Liberality!’ The word is an insistence that people need to be civilised to be in some real sense good—generous, open-minded, capable of learning from experience, capable of blessing unaware.

This use, by the way, is unknown to the OED, which for the verb “alphabet” has only Johnson‘s “To range in the order of the alphabet.”


  1. The use of the word in the quote about the Otteryians (heh) feels to me like there’s some connection to literacy or education, like the French word “analphabète” for “illiterate”.

  2. It was actually Chinggis/Genghis Qan/Khan, far more barbarous than Khublai, who alphabeted the Mongols. The script was adapted from Uighur Turkish script, which traced back through Sogdian to Aramaic. Khublai was a reasonably civilized, somewhat Sinified guy. Someone who wanted to could probably write a fairly detailed book about Shang-du/Xanadu, though I doubt that it would illuminate Coleridge’s poem any. Xanadu was the summer capital where the Chinese Mongols escaped the heat, had fun and acted like Mongols (hunting, etc.)

  3. Yeah, I thought Kublai was getting a bad rap in the review, but I was too lazy to fact-check Coleridge’s Chinese/Mongol history. Thanks for the clarification. (And I, for one, would love to read such a book.)

  4. Well frankly I say “humph” to her last sentence. It seems an interpretation entirely unjustified by the evidence put forward. Why can “unalphabeted” not be a slightly more polysyllabic way of saying “unlettered”? Which meant then, and still does as far as I am aware, “Not instructed in letters; not possessed of book-learning”. I can’t imagine the Coleridge who took such pains to distinguish “reason” and “understanding” would have endorsed this judgement which seems to imply there is no “understanding” without “reason”.

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