Coleridge, The Damaged Archangel
It is difficult to write a short review of Coleridge, The Damaged Archangel that will be fair both to Mr. Fruman and to his subject. The book is formidably long—scholarly and well documented, as the professional journals say (434 pages of text, plus 132 pages of closely printed notes), sometimes repetitious, and not remarkably well organized.
Mr. Fruman moreover occasionally drops a critical clanger that sets up disturbing reverberations in the mind of the conscientious reviewer who is trying to keep his attention fixed on the argument: Coriolanus—that great play—is “generally considered one of the Bard’s lesser triumphs.” Regret is expressed that although Coleridge analyzed many of Wordsworth’s poems, “he does not perform the same task for any of his own.” “A detailed analysis of any of his own important poems, and especially of the great fragments ‘Kubla Khan’ and ‘Christabel,’ would have been of incalculable value to later readers and critics.” (Tell that, one might say, to the author of The Waste Land!) Most daunting of all is the remark (p. 165) that “the task of establishing sources is one for the entire scholarly community, and it is a pursuit that never ends”—at which point some members of the scholarly community may think of handing in their union cards.
Mr. Fruman, however, is not intent on source-hunting simply as a scholarly pastime. He believes that the current high estimate of Coleridge is wrong, and that the only way to put the record straight is to present a complete dossier of “borrowings”—unacknowledged or only obliquely acknowledged—together with an intimate biography drawing on every scrap of available evidence, from the testimony of friends and acquaintances to the most cryptic jottings in the Notebooks. “The resulting portrait of Coleridge the man, artist, and thinker” is, he claims, “clearer and richer, more internally consistent—and very much darker emotionally and morally—than has hitherto been drawn.”
The claim is exaggerated: we already knew a good deal about the “dark” side of Coleridge’s troubled life. Mr. Fruman does, however, give a convincing description of the complicated frustrations that drove him to invent for himself a kind of false identity. In spite of his generous recognition of greatness in others Coleridge had a compulsive need not only to be loved but to be admired. His self-confidence impaired, first by an unhappy childhood, then by the addiction to opium and a disastrous marriage, he could not be content with his own great gifts. He had to portray himself as even more precocious than he was, to assert spontaneous inspiration even when an “impromptu” effusion had been labored at for months (or was simply lifted), above all to conceal his obligations to other critics and philosophers when acknowledgment would have cast doubt on his own originality.
All this is amply illustrated in Fruman’s book, and I myself learned a very great deal that I had not known before. If the revaluation is finally unconvincing it is not …