New biography offers balanced rendering of an English Romantic
THE poet who gave us the beautiful conversation poems: ``Frost at Midnight,'' ``The Eolian Harp,'' ``Dejection: An Ode,'' and the mesmerizing fantasies of ``Kubla Khan,'' ``Christabel,'' and ``The Rime of the Ancient Mariner'' is still in many ways the most immediately appealing of the six great English Romantics. Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) lives on in literary history as the devoted friend of the poet Wordsworth, allowing the latter's genius pride of place before his own. We also remember Coleridge as he appears in his own poems: the generous friend wishing joy for those he loves even as his own heart sinks in dejection. More colorful and emotionally expressive than Wordsworth, Coleridge cuts a more dashing figure with his eloquence, his immense learning, his flights of fancy, and his powerful conception of the creative imagination. At moments, he takes on the glamour of the Orphic bard who appears out of nowhere at the close of ``Kubla Khan'':
I would build that dome in air, That sunny dome! those caves of ice! And all who heard should see them there, And all should cry, Beware! Beware! His flashing eyes, his floating hair! Weave a circle round him thrice, And close your eyes with holy dread, For he on honey-dew hath fed, And drunk the milk of Paradise.
But in his own time and thereafter, Coleridge emerged as a bundle of contradictions. A youthful radical who planned to set up an egalitarian utopian community on the banks of the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania, Coleridge lived on to become a defender of the established order. A champion of originality, he plagiarized - consciously and unconsciously - throughout his career. (He had a peculiar propensity for taking material from his readings in German philosophy and rendering it, unacknowledged, into English). He was, by almost all accounts, the most fascinating conversationalist of his time, but in his later years he struck many who met him as a pompous bore.
Biographer Richard Holmes finds it ironic, yet understandable that ``many of the best writers on Coleridge are to some degree hostile towards him.'' What with his plagiarism, his opium addiction, his general fecklessness, his seemingly deliberate choice of a wife he suspected he could not love, his hopeless, unconsummated love for another woman (Wordsworth's sister-in-law, Sara Hutchinson), and the increasing opacity of his prose and his metaphysics, Coleridge is as exasperating as he is lovable. In this two-volume biography (the first taking us as far as Coleridge's departure from England to Malta in 1804, the second not yet published), Holmes aims to recapture for today's readers a sense of what made Coleridge seem so special to his contemporaries.
Having attempted something of the same in his 1974 biography ``Shelley: The Pursuit,'' Holmes now seems on firmer ground. Where the biographer of Shelley was a little too eager to serve up a subject dripping with radical machismo to please palates nurtured on countercultural heroes of the 1960s, Holmes on Coleridge is more balanced, less speculative, but no less lively and engaging. As a biographer, he is psychologically acute without descending to Freudian reductionism. As a critic, he shows appreciation of Coleridge's complexity without allowing the narrative to become bogged down in the more abstruse aspects of the poet-critic's thought.
Holmes emphasizes the continuities in Coleridge's character: His early radicalism and his later orthodoxy are seen as facets of his Christian idealism. His indolence and vaulting energy are two sides of the same coin. His fecklessness takes on shape, as Coleridge demonstrates his odd talent for achieving spiritual liberation through practical disasters: ``He makes the worst of everything, brilliantly,'' Holmes comments. Throughout his life, the solicitude of the sickroom and the tenderness of nursing were the forms of love he found most comfortable giving or receiving.
This volume breaks off with the ailing poet's departure for warmer (and, as he hoped, more salubrious) climes. Holmes takes the liberty of imagining what might have happened had the 31-year-old Coleridge, like so many of the next generation of Romantics - Byron, Shelley, Keats - died young. Like them, he would have left a brilliant body of work, not only in poetry, but in letters, diaries, criticism, and journalism. He would have been one of the first English Romantics to perceive the importance of German Romanticism. ``He would have been one of the Promethean figures, still moving upwards on the parabola of genius...,'' muses Holmes. ``Indeed ... we might be tempted to think of him, paradoxically, as already greater than the man he eventually became.''
It says something about the sheer panache of this biography that the biographer, having made this dramatic claim, goes on to promise even more for the second volume: ``... in human terms the next 32 years are more fascinating,'' he insists. ``Not only does [Coleridge] emerge as a controversial public figure ... but the inner man, the spiritual voyager, enters far wilder and deeper seas.'' One sincerely hopes this may prove to be the case. In any event, Holmes's first volume of Coleridge's life is in itself a promise fulfilled.