Highs, lows and hill-walking poems

July 26, 1996

The enduring image of Richard Holmes can be found in the opening pages of his autobiographical travel book, Footsteps. Aged 18, he set out on foot to follow Robert Louis Stevenson's journey through the Cevennes, sleeping under hedges and surviving on a bohemian diet of wine. "All that night I heard footsteps," he recalls, "but I saw nothing except the stars, hanging over me where I wanted to be, with my head on a rucksack, and my rucksack on the grass, dreaming of the dead coming back to life again."

Since that pilgrimage, Holmes has repeatedly and hauntingly managed to bring the dead back to life again, capturing the hectic urgency of Shelley's enthusiasm, the sympathetic absurdity of Coleridge's early experiments with different public roles, and the hidden fascination with disorder in Johnson's orderly and restrained life. In each case, he combines a sophisticated and revolutionary reflection on the art of biography, the shaping of a life, with an exquisite prose style and an unashamed passion rarely encountered today.

The Holmes hallmarks, the passion and the reflection, are present again in his latest production, the magically numbered 101 poems of Coleridge. Holmes emphasises his personal investment in the selection, admitting that the poems began as a kind of desert-island-discs compilation, "as a treasured collection of notes and photocopies in a scarlet binder, which went with me to the Quantocks and the Harz mountains, to Etna and to Highgate". And in a classic move of Holmesian identification, he implies that his favourite poems were also the most precious to Coleridge. The poems he selects are frequently autobiographical - leaving school, contemplating life without Sara Hutchinson, and addressing new artists in old age or "handing on the creative torch from one generation to the next".

The emotional response to Coleridge never lapses into sentimentalism, however, for Holmes has some serious things to say, both about individual poems and, through the very organisation of the selection, about Coleridge's literary life. Primarily he is anxious to transform the traditional view of Coleridge, initially promulgated by Hazlitt, that Coleridge wrote only a few fragmentary poems in his youth and then deteriorated into a life of opium addiction and prose. To strive for a sense of coherence and continuity in Coleridge's life, Holmes has organised his selection thematically rather than chronologically, so that Coleridge's formal sonnet writing or experiments with fragmentation emerge as lifelong interests rather than the products of youth or waning creative powers. The Asra love poems, collected here together, become works of art, skilfully moving between the personal and the public, as engaged in the possibilities of poetic constraints as the better-known Conversation poems. Confessional poems transcend the merely autobiographical when read in sequence as a poetic form, while only Holmes could have the daring, the combined humour and earnestness, to gather together a Coleridgean genre entitled "Hill Walking Poems".

Holmes is chiefly attracted by Coleridge's interest in the workings of the mind, the often tortuous attempt to capture and examine the act of creative inspiration that sometimes tied Coleridge up in the solipsistic knots mockingly caricatured in Peacock's Nightmare Abbey. In the beautifully phrased notes to each poem, Holmes tries to explain the creative process behind the writing. Coleridge's bird imagery, which in its fleeting and flocking nature echoes the elusiveness and clustering explosiveness of creativity, stands out most startlingly in his analysis. Throughout there is an overriding sense of authority, which stems from one fine writer talking about the struggle of creativity in another.

The weakest parts of the collection emerge when Coleridge is unavoidably unHolmesian. Holmes is clearly unhappy about Coleridge's pamphleteering poetry, and he relegates the political squibs to the end, apologising for their lack of literary merit. He also dislikes the Coleridge of dependency, both pharmaceutical and literary. One of the main difficulties in interpreting Coleridge arises from the need to confront his frequent unacknowledged plagiarism, his "translation" or creative reworking of other texts. The reliance on the work of others complicates Coleridge's search for the origins of creativity and the power of the imagination. His writing, which attempts to capture the immediacy of inspiration, is mediated in often imperceptible ways through the writing of others. It is perhaps this aspect of Coleridge, particularly found in his later life, that has delayed the long and eagerly awaited second volume of Holmes's Coleridge biography, of which this selection is the hors d'oeuvre. Similarly Coleridge's constant textual revisions resist the image of the spontaneous poet and can make more problematic the appreciation of the poems as isolated works of art. And now Coleridge himself is being modified year by year, as the literary archaeologist J. C. C. Mays unearths still more lost writings.

But these are problems Holmes leaves to professional scholars. Readers wanting to pursue these questions are referred by Holmes to Mays's forthcoming edition and to the excellent Everyman edition by John Beer, which includes all but ten of Holmes's selection. (Holmes's ten other poems are drawn from Biographia Literaria extracts, H. N. Coleridge's 1834 collection and Coleridge's notebooks edited by Kathleen Coburn). Holmes is writing not for the scholar but for the general reader. He wants to introduce readers to a poet who is not important for what he reveals about life and thought 200 years ago, but who matters now, for his creativity, for his engaging witness to the exhilaration and despair involved in writing. And that evocative bringing back to life is something to which we all should, and can, respond, however cynical or cautious or enmeshed in the prosaic thoughts of new historicism we have become.

Jennifer Wallace is a fellow and director of studies in English, Peterhouse, Cambridge.

Coleridge: Spiritual Poems

Author - Richard Holmes
ISBN - 0 00 255579 4
Publisher - HarperCollins
Price - £20.00
Pages - 358

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