Pursuit through Xanadu


November 20, 1998

Nick Groom hails a fresh biography of Coleridge at his most complex

Spring 1813, and a "stout and well-dressed man" is found hanging from a tree in Regent's Park. He carries no identification papers, but his shirt is marked"S. T. Coleridge". Consternation: Coleridge has just enjoyed a remarkably lucrative success with his tragic drama Remorse playing at Drury Lane. Relief: it is not Coleridge after all, just his shirt. It transpires that five years previously, when lecturing at the Royal Institution, Coleridge had suffered a sartorial crisis. Having equipped himself with six shirts in which to lecture, he promptly lost three in the laundry, was sleeping in another, the fifth had been inadvertently used as a bathmat, and the last had no fastenings. One of these very shirts has now returned on the back of a dead man. Hearing that the suicidal doppelganger hanging in Regent's Park was wearing one of these garments, Coleridge drily observes that he is probably the first man "to hear of a lost shirt in this way".

Six months later, and a lonely traveller, soaked to the skin, with the most meagre possessions, arrives in Bath. He hammers at the door of the Grey Hound Inn, crawls upstairs to a garret room, and spends two weeks in a delirium, "wild with suffering". The landlady calls a doctor, who diagnoses the derelict's symptoms as a potentially fatal opium overdose. By a remarkable coincidence, Dr Parry recognises the wild sufferer as an old family friend, and nurses him back to health. The patient is, of course, S. T. Coleridge.

Dramatic reversals in fortune, a fatal and repetitive pattern of self-destruction, opium addiction, squandered genius and congenital weakness - such paradigms are apt to characterise the later life of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. But they are not quite true. In the case above, Coleridge had been living with the hospitable Morgan family during the revisions, rehearsals, and performances of his play Remorse - the most profitable work of his career. He had not dreamt away his profits in laudanum abuse, but had rescued his benefactors the Morgans from a sudden and calamitous collapse in their business investments, rapidly covering their losses with a fund-raising lecture series in Bristol. Exhilarated by his successes and generosity, Coleridge took the two Morgan girls, Mary and Charlotte, to Bath to prepare for a new series of lectures and it was only then that everything went wrong: tired, ill, and irritable, they had a passionate row, and Coleridge regained his senses a fortnight later in the Grey Hound Inn, with Caleb Parry sponging his fevered brow.

In 1813, then, Coleridge was variously a successful playwright and celebrity, a witty house-guest, a financial wizard, consort, and prostrate victim of opium. Such surprises are typical of Richard Holmes's brilliant new biography. Darker Reflections begins on Monday April 9, 1804, when the 31-year-old Coleridge left for Malta, and is soon examining his surprising successes abroad. In Malta, Coleridge penned position papers on Mediterranean strategy for the War Office, was given an official residence and became acting public secretary, only returning to England after three years.

Holmes's first volume of his Coleridge biography, Early Visions (1989), covered the early Coleridge: pantisocracy, life with the Wordsworths, hill walking, Lyrical Ballads, The Ancient Mariner, Kubla Khan, Christabel, marriage to Sara Fricker and snowballing opium addiction. The same woeful themes continue to unwind in Darker Reflections: rift with the Wordsworths, failure of his family, ill-advised political journalism (winning the rabid enmity of Hazlitt and Hunt), consistently scathing reviews, accusations of plagiarism, and everywhere the overwhelming feeling, "O, what a noble mind is here o'erthrown".

But throughout Darker Reflections, by the most judicious weighing of evidence and an almost preternatural sensitivity to his subject, Holmes avoids the traditional model of Coleridge as an inveterate junkie who treated his family with abominable callousness, and a moral weakling who frittered away his colossal gifts into prevarication, obscurantist prose, and unreadable poetry. Yes, Holmes's Coleridge is heedless and neglectful to the most hurtful degree, but his domestic recklessness also bears eloquent testimony to his passions and enthusiasms and his incoherent sense of destiny. In Darker Reflections there is something quietly heroic about Coleridge's dogged refusal to succumb to his devastating illnesses, his freakish bad luck, his sickening financial muddles.

Biographers (most recently Rosemary Ashton, 1996) have generally tended to take a dim view of Coleridge's ghastly self-destructiveness. Coleridge was desperately unfortunate in his later years, and his life was entangled in a number of tragedies. As he became increasingly estranged from the Wordsworths, so Sara Hutchinson, the "Asra" of his love poems, withdrew. The situation worsened a hundredfold when Coleridge either saw or hallucinated William in bed with Asra ("mammia pulcherrima aperta"), and became obsessed by the vision. Likewise, his family relationships broke down. Coleridge was separated from his wife and rarely saw his children. His beloved son Hartley lost his fellowship at Oriel College and seemed bent upon repeating the intemperances of his father's dissipated youth, before he eventually fled forever. Coleridge did not see Hartley for the last dozen years of his life.

But through all this, Coleridge continued to write, and publish, and talk - gaining a reputation as one of the most mellifluous and mesmerising talkers of the age. Despite the Wordsworths' total lack of faith in his powers, Coleridge ran his periodical The Friend for 26 weekly issues (it only collapsed when Asra decamped from the Lakes), gave seminal lectures on English literary criticism, and loquaciously dictated a succession of brilliant theoretical works, among them Biographia Literaria and Aids to Reflection.

Coleridge also continued to write poetry. Holmes, in his recent selection of poems, has already claimed that Coleridge's range and skill as a poet "has never been properly appreciated", and challenges the traditional view that his best work dates from his intimacy with the Wordsworths. Abandoning the usual chronology, Holmes argues for eight thematic sections that give us a new coherence, "virtually a new Coleridge". Notably, more than half of the poems in Holmes's 1996 selection date from after 1802 - when most other biographers tend to see Coleridge's poetic powers as gradually diminishing - and suggest recurrent bouts of creativity.

Consequently, Holmes never loses sight of Coleridge the poet in Darker Reflections, and threads the later verses throughout his story to extraordinary effect. It was only in these years that Coleridge received any sustained accolade for his poetry and yet his thoughts, images, and ideas underpin, in fact haunt, the work of Byron, Shelley, and Keats.

Holmes wrote Early Visions as an investigation into what made Coleridge so extraordinary, a thesis convincingly brought to a conclusion in Darker Reflections. He occasionally heralded his second volume (originally titled "Later Reflections") in a series of footnotes promising to elucidate various issues, which, unlike his procrastinating subject, he has generally honoured. There remains, however, a mystery between the two volumes. Why did Holmes delay Darker Reflections by writing Dr Johnson & Mr Savage (1993)? It seems perverse to have left Coleridge aboard the Speedwell, becalmed for almost a decade, "As idle as a painted ship / Upon a painted ocean".

What Holmes is apparently responding to is Coleridge's own strictures on biography. Coleridge himself wrote a life of Alexander Ball for The Friend, prefaced by an essay on biography that objected to tawdry inquiries into the minuscule details of a great life. Holmes confronts this charge in Johnson & Savage by up-ending the Johnson we know (about whom Boswell recorded so many passing trifles) and reimagining him as great in the Coleridgean sense as a direct historical force. Dr Johnson & Mr Savage reads like a sharply focused Enlightenment murder investigation, devoid of trivial detail. Holmes thus defends himself against charges of falsely representing Coleridge, and he consolidates his position by adopting Coleridge's own theory of composition. In Darker Reflections, Holmes has identified a subject who speculated on empathy and inspiration two centuries ago, for whom it is the very dynamic of the imagination, the whole nature of being.

If there is an image of biography for Darker Reflections, it is surely that of the Brocken spectre, the weird shadow cast ahead of walkers as they climb a hill: "gliding without tread, / An image with a glory round its head". Holmes projects his own being into the mists of time, and inevitably pursues the Coleridgean ghost he creates. Except that the portrait that emerges from these pages has the most lifelike complexity. It is as if Holmes has composed a dispassionate eulogy on a late, dearly beloved friend, as if the spectre has suddenly turned to face him. Coleridge put this strange communion thus: "If a man could pass through Paradise in a Dream, & have Flower presented to him as a pledge that his Soul had really been there, & found that Flower in his hand when he awoke - Aye! And what then?" Nick Groom is lecturer in English, University of Exeter.

Coleridge: Darker Reflections

Author - Richard Holmes
ISBN - 0 00 255577 8
Publisher - HarperCollins
Price - £19.99
Pages - 622

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