Coleridge: Volume II, Darker Reflections

by Richard Holmes

From Critical Distance to Passionate Account: The Biographer's Art

Review by Brigitte Frase

When Samuel Taylor Coleridge died of heart disease in July of 1834, he was in midsentence. By every contemporary account, he was a brilliant, seductive, spellbinding talker. His friend Crabb Robinson described his lecture on education (Coleridge wanted universal education and state-supported schools) as "delivered with great animation and extorting praise from those whose prejudices he was mercilessly attacking. And he kept his audience on the rack of pleasure and offence two whole hours."

When I came to the end of Richard Holmes's magisterial, detailed, yet always elegant biography, I found myself grieving at the loss of an ebullient, enchanting, exasperating man I'd come to like and admire. Poet, critic, philosopher, metaphysician and political pamphleteer, Coleridge was one of the last compleat polymaths. He could legitimately claim as his intellectual turf the whole of human knowledge, including literature (in at least five ancient and modern languages), philosophy, history, economics, political philosophy, mathematics, physics, and medicine. He was able to incorporate a breathtaking range of thought in his poetry and prose.

In both life and work, Coleridge was a mercurial, protean, sometimes maddeningly contradictory figure. He was a grand systematizer whose major prose works are fragments. His influence on Shelley, Byron, Keats, and a whole generation of poets was profound, yet he thought of himself as a failed poet. Addicted to opium, booze, and several idealized and unattainable women, he managed to read and write tirelessly, ferociously, through almost constant physical and emotional pain, mastering new subjects and languages with mind-boggling speed and thoroughness. He was an original thinker and a plagiarist. His life was a continual shipwreck-failed marriage, failed friendships, failed attempts to earn a living, the hostility of influential critics who repeatedly called him a pathetic has-been-yet he kept setting out on mental voyages and bringing back new thoughts, new work. He was an absentee father who delighted in the company of his three children and took pride in their talents. (His daughter, son-in-law, and grandson repaid his genuine though unreliable affection by devoted stewardship of his work and posthumous literary reputation.) He was a generous friend and an emotionally needy baby. Like the cuckoo, he made his domestic nest in the homes of other families, often trying their patience and their finances.

But he was the only "wonderful" man Dorothy and William Wordsworth ever knew. They meant by it far more than the tired word delivers to us now: charismatic, brilliantly alive, observantly feeling and thinking, making felicitous connections in his wide-ranging, free-associative conversations and lectures. Coleridge and Wordsworth had the deepest of friendships, and then a bitter break. When his own marriage broke down, he was for a time part of the Wordsworth family and fell in love with William's sister-in-law (to no personal avail, though she inspired some of his best lyric poems). Before their rupture, Coleridge championed and edited Wordsworth's work, and was in turn stimulated by his friend's poetic discipline to write trailblazing ballads-"The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" and "Kubla Khan." Lord Byron couldn't have written his "Childe Harold's Pilgrimage" or "Don Juan" without their examples.

He inspired great love and great hatred, both in his contemporaries and in later generations of critics and biographers. William Hazlitt, an early worshiper, became Coleridge's implacable enemy, calling him a windbag, a fraud, a man who had squandered his gifts. Wordsworth, a steely character, grew contemptuous of him. In the twentieth century, the influential critic F. R. Leavis thought him a moral disgrace, the young T. S. Eliot was unimpressed, and biographer Norman Fruman castigated him for intellectual dishonesty: Coleridge wove into his public lectures extensive unacknowledged quotations from Schlegel and Kant. Coleridge himself often conspired in his public image as a hollow, deceitful, lazy, undisciplined wastrel-accusing himself, in talk and in print, of not living up to his promise. In 1804 he wrote "Dejection," a coolly modulated philosophical poem based on a wildly emotional letter to his unattainable "Asra" (Sara Hutchinson). The beautiful ode is, ironically, about depression, failure, the loss of creative power.

By the time he was in his early thirties, he had largely given up poetry, or rather, I gather from Holmes's account, poetry abandoned him. He was too critical and too demanding of himself. He had thought and written so much about the creative imagination that he intimidated and silenced his own gift for poetry.

Holmes tells us that in his famous lecture of May 1808, he had begun to develop a new theory of perception, his "central idea of the imaginative power suspending rational law, by analogy of children's modes of thinking." He posited that the mind does not, as the then-dominant classical tradition held, passively receive imprints, whether from the outside world or an imaginative text, but actively shapes and negotiates "like an electrical current, pulsing between objective and subjective polarities." This doctrine, a subtle interweaving of dream and reason, intuitive leaps and rational processes, is now, in our post-Freudian age, the common coin of criticism and psychology. Coleridge, as popularizer of Kant and the German idealists, went to intellectual war with French rationalists and British empiricists and so became one of the important shapers of the modern self and its relation to reality. The "I am," as he put it, could never penetrate the "it is" of nature. We exercise our imagination upon it, continually devising new models and languages of science and art, religion and philosophy to describe it.

In his marvelous-though sometimes indigestible-patchwork of memoir, criticism, and philosophy, the Biographia Literaria (a work he dictated at feverish deadline-pressing speed over a period of months in 1815), he applied the theory of "'the suspended state' of Imagination to poetry as a whole . . . to produce one of the most influential of all his critical formulations, 'the willing suspension of disbelief.'" The imaginative writer doesn't imitate reality, or persuade an audience with clever uses of the rhetorical arsenal, but shapes an alternate world. If it is a compelling world, the reader accepts it on its own aesthetic and moral terms. Sadly, Coleridge the critic was by this time rarely able to suspend his analytic powers in favor of Coleridge the poet.

Holmes loves the poet more than the critic. It's a measure of Holmes's assiduity and fairness that I've come to admire the critic above all. Holmes does what the best biographers do: bring to life the subject in his own time, and for ours. That nervous, self-doubting exhibitionist and self-examiner, the specialist of unfinished works, is our Coleridge; just as Holmes's Shelley (Shelley: The Pursuit, 1974) was no ethereal Victorian angel, but a radical in politics and love who makes new sense to the children of Woodstock and Vietnam. Coleridge was a man who lived his emotional and intellectual crises in public. Richard Holmes makes this lovely and compassionate assessment of him: "He was living out what many people experience, in the dark disorder of their hidden lives, but living it on the surface and with astonishing, even alarming candour that many of his friends found unendurable or simply ludicrous. Moreover, he continued to write about it, to witness it, in a way that makes him irreplaceable among the great Romantic visionaries. His greatness lies in the understanding of these struggles, not (like Wordsworth perhaps) in their solution."

Holmes has written a traditional narrative biography, birth to death, with some low-key, but crucial innovations. He plunges into the minutiae of daily life as much as possible, constantly weaving Coleridge's voice-in letters, journals, and reported talk-into the narrative. The aim, largely successful, is to bring Coleridge physically close, to let us hear, see, almost smell Coleridge as he goes about his life and work. It's true that if you're not already interested in Coleridge, there's a whole lot more here than you need to know. The long, packed book I'm reviewing covers the second half of his life. The first volume, Coleridge: Early Visions, 1772-1804, first published in 1985, is being reissued with the new one. Not having read Coleridge since college-though Holmes's advocacy made me read him again-I meant to skim the first volume judiciously, but got inveigled in, page by page, and I'm not the least bit sorry. I've made the acquaintance of two men well worth knowing, Coleridge and his biographer.

Two of the other innovations Holmes has made are very satisfying to a literary reader. His few footnotes are not references or justifications of text, but sidelines, off-stage commentary, and other excursions. In footnotes, for example, he deals with the emerging nineteenth-century medical view of drug addiction as disease rather than moral failing, and, changing subjects in the subtext, with Shelley's posthumous reputation: bad, except for Coleridge's warm appreciation. There is an unexpected treat at the end of the book, where scholarly references and indexes swarm, as of course they should, this being a scholarly text. The bibliography is a quirky list of Coleridgiana, from Walter Pater's and Swinburne's essays on him; to Henry James's story about a person very like our hero, "The Coxon Fund"; to Stevie Smith's poem, "Thoughts on the Person from Porlock." He includes Virginia Woolf's "The Man at the Gate," and Camille Paglia's "The Daemon as Lesbian Vampire: Coleridge." I mean to read them all.

Biography since Freud has become a difficult art. Readers are no longer satisfied by the diligent recounting of public acts and documented thoughts. We're voyeuristic and emotionally greedy; we want the hidden motives, the childhood traumas, the conflicted sexuality.

Richard Holmes understands the new obligations and the problems attendant on them. How do you render the rhythms of a mind and heart when all you have are journals and letters (self-censored maybe, pages lost or destroyed) and third-party evidence: the friends and reporters who wrote something down, the published work and responses to it? Leon Edel, the biographer who took hold of Henry James in five volumes, is a useful foil to Holmes. Edel psychoanalyzes James to the point where it's hard to understand how the poor sap ever wrote a decent book or even managed to make a friend. Holmes can't escape the pressure of psychobiography, but he speculates intelligently and modestly-marshalling all available facts and witness reports, always staying close to the evidence-on Coleridge's emotional dependencies, his sexual idealisms and fears, his grandstanding self-pity, and on how and why he plagiarized the German idealist philosophers whose grand abstract schemas of intelligence and imagination formed the base of his original, seminal, and much more user-friendly ideas.

In his passionate account of his own vocation, Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer (1985), Holmes makes a strong case for the biographer's emotional engagement. If you're not in love with your subject, Holmes points out, you won't stay for the long, tedious gathering and interrogation of materials. But the "true biographic process begins precisely . . . where this nave form of love and identification break down." When the romantic spell breaks, the biographer begins to create a mature relationship with his subject. This, as Holmes demonstrates in his treatment of Coleridge, is not "merely a point of view or an interpretation, but a continuous living dialogue between the two as they move over the same historical ground, the same trail of events."

The biographer is forever in pursuit, fully aware he can't fully seize or understand his subject. How to "produce the living effect, while remaining true to the dead fact. The adult distance-the critical distance, the historical distance-had to be maintained. You stood at the end of the broken bridge and looked across carefully, objectively, into the unattainable past on the other side. You brought it alive, brought it back, by other sorts of skills and crafts and sensible magic."

The good biographer remains tactful. I admire Holmes's interpretive restraint. Not for him those insultingly intrusive "It is fair to assume that he would have felt, thought, said . . ." Unlike the novelist, the biographer cannot share or re-create the feel of ordinary life, family intimacy, the talk over meals or in bed, the shared jokes, the games with the children. In the absence of witnesses or documents, the biographer should hold his tongue. What this means, Holmes realizes, is that biography is bound to be unbalanced. "The private, domestic world, the stuff of daily happiness" tends to leave few records. "It is only when arguments occur, separations, confrontations, crises-or the sudden revelation in a letter to a friend, or a melancholy diary-entry-that the biographer's trail warms up again."

And yet, after being in Coleridge's presence for several weeks and some 800 pages, I feel I know him more deeply than I know my friends or even my husband. It is ironic that a rich, detailed biography brings me closer to a person's inwardness than I can hope to achieve in living relationships. The artful biographer gives me the satisfying illusion that Coleridge is thinking out loud in my presence. "Subjects sprout up with the tropical speed and variety of jungle plants: 'Why is True Love like a Tree?'; 'Essay in Defence of Punning'; 'What was the origin of philosophy?'; 'When did Time begin?'; . . . 'Property clearly natural to man . . . manifest in animals-the Swans on Hawkshead Lake'; 'Absolute Truth is always a mystery.'" He is a wonder-full man.

HMR Critic-at-Large Brigitte Frase writes for Salon and other publications. At seventeen she embarked on a year-long pursuit of T. E. Lawrence. She has every intention of getting back to her notes for a biography some day soon.