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The Tragi-Comedy of S. T. Coleridge

Coleridge: Early Visions

by Richard Holmes
Viking, 409 pp., $22.95

Nature sometimes throws up aberrant artists like Samuel Taylor Coleridge who become the walking wounded of the intellectual world, possessed of apparently limitless talent and intelligence, yet who seem almost genetically unable ever to make the most of their natural endowments. No matter how great their eventual achievement, it seems only a tithe of what it might have been.

At the end of this first of two volumes of Richard Holmes’s new biography, Coleridge is glimpsed on the quarterdeck of a vessel bound for Malta, sitting on a stack of duck coops before a mahogany rudder case that he used for an improvised desk, on which he wrote while the occupants of the cages noisily quacked through the bars at his legs. He was thirty-one, and Richard Holmes pauses to speculate on what his reputation would have been had he died then and had “always remained as that youthful, archetypal figure on the ship sailing south.” He had already written “This Lime-Tree Bower my Prison,” “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” “Christabel,” “Frost at Midnight,” “Kubla Khan,” and “Dejection”; most of us probably think he would have taken his place in the train of meteoric talents like Keats and Shelley and Byron, blazing to spectacularly early extinction but spared thirty succeeding years of misty, unfulfilled literary life in which occasional great peaks of genius appeared through the clouds. Holmes’s belief is that the succeeding three decades were even more fascinating than the ones chronicled here. I hope he is not simply drumming up trade for the next volume, for it would be a delight to look forward to a book even better than this one.

If he does not leap out of these pages—“ Holmes writes at the beginning of this volume, “brilliant, animated, endlessly provoking—and invade your imagination (as he has done mine), then I have failed to do him justice.” At first glance it seems a remarkably cocky assertion, but by the last page the reader feels that Holmes is wholly justified in his self-confidence. Lord David Cecil used to say that he finally judged the quality of a biography by whether it had prepared him for instant recognition of its subject if he were to walk into the room and begin talking, and by that standard this one succeeds without question. But Lord David’s test sounds as if it were concerned primarily with character and idiosyncrasy, while Holmes has the added advantage of being equally at home with Coleridge’s personal history, his intellectual activity, and his poetic genius. The result is the deceptively easy immediacy that comes from deep knowledge and an uncommon ability to present it. Among the many pleasures of this book are its imperturbably mature view of man’s flawed nature and the calm acceptance of the imperfections of its subject, more fallible than most and quite capable of deceit or masquerade. Holmes displays no trace of the peevish moral compulsion to slap Coleridge’s wrists that spoils such an otherwise impressive study as Norman Fruman’s Coleridge: The Damaged Archangel. The marks of damage show less on human beings than on archangels, of whom there have been remarkably few good biographies.

Coleridge tried on ideas as one might try on shoes in a shop, making an appallingly fragmented task for anyone who sets out to recreate his life. The number of his intellectual interests was enormous, their frontiers ill-defined, their staying power slight. In his notebooks of 1796, for example, between recipes for Lancashire Hot Pot and ginger wine, are lists of the works he intended to write: essays on Bowles, Godwin, Pantisocracy (a classless utopian society in which all are equal and all rule), marriage, Boehme, Swedenborg, “as well as an opera, a tragedy, and an epic poem on ‘The Origin of Evil,’ ” with a host of shorter poems to fill in the time. And Coleridge had not yet made his visit of 1798 to Germany, where he absorbed the work of contemporary philosophers.

For a biographer the difficulty is not only one of mastering a body of speculation that includes theology, metaphysics, political theory, Romantic philosophy, literary criticism, and poetry, but also of choosing which of those activities to emphasize if the book is not to seem as diffuse as Coleridge himself: How does one give shape to a cloud of smoke? Or how to put the pieces of Coleridge together to make it credible that his works proceeded from one man, and not a committee?

In a critical study of Coleridge the problem of cohesion is perhaps simpler than in a biography, since it is possible to limit the area of consideration and so endow him with a specious unity. In a specialist study, too, the writer can assume that his readers have a general understanding of Coleridge’s ideas, and that there is room enough and leisure for explanation of any of those he cannot count on the reader’s knowing. But a biographer must cover most of the subject’s life, which in Coleridge’s case is acted out as often within the confines of his skull as in the Lake District and the Quantocks, and the author could be hobbled by having constantly to stop and explain those references that are not part of the small change of most readers’ information.

The approach to the problem that Richard Holmes proposes in this volume and in the succeeding one is to “examine his entire life in a broad and sympathetic manner, and to ask the one vital question: what made Coleridge… such an extraordinary man, such an extraordinary mind?” As the statement is probably meant to imply, his study tends more to the personal than to the public, to the poetic rather than the philosophic, to the concrete rather than the theoretical. Inevitably, this will mean that some scholars will feel that he has been inadequate in his treatment of their own little corners of Coleridge. I suspect, however, that the difficulty here is inherent in the nature of the subject rather than in Holmes’s treatment of it.

More than merely implying that his biography is to be a personal one, Holmes is also indicating that the problem of understanding creativity is a finally insoluble one and that it can be approached only if one asks in what sort of mind it has taken up its habitation, without trying to define the process itself.

Most of us who still read Coleridge out of love or admiration do so because of his poetry, his criticism, his letters, and his Notebooks, but the past thirty or forty years have seen a spurt of studies of those parts of his writings that are at least in the suburbs of philosophy. To his everlasting credit, Richard Holmes treats Coleridge as a begetter of ideas, not a puppet of those already flapping aimlessly around in the hot air above the Lake District and calling themselves the Zeitgeist. I suspect he may not endear himself to all contemporary Coleridge scholars and critics by moving so easily between Kant, marital difficulties, Lessing, shortage of money, Jacobinism, house hunting, empiricism, flirtation, radicalism, and opium eating, but all those were important in Coleridge’s life, and they are treated here as parts of a whole, which is the Coleridgean mind.

Since a really complete biography of the man and his intellect would occupy several dozen volumes, I think Holmes has been wise in so often displaying Coleridge’s ideas in his relations with other people. The idea of Pantisocracy, for instance, comes alive by example when we see Coleridge and his contemporaries in the midst of their casually shared lives, darting in and out of their friends’ houses, eating at their tables, or falling in love with their wives. And what a group it was—with Dorothy and William Wordsworth, Hazlitt, Southey, the Beaumonts, Lamb, Davy, Godwin, the Wedgwoods, to mention only the most visible members.

The fervor of the friendships within the circle was too intense to last forever, and those of Coleridge seem to have been especially unstable. William Hazlitt, like others of the young men who attached themselves to Coleridge, thought of him initially with something approaching adoration. In turn Coleridge did everything he could to draw out his new disciple, who he said was “strangely confused & dark in his conversation, & delivers himself of almost all his conceptions with a Forceps, yet he says more than any man, I ever knew.” But within a few years Hazlitt had become one of the most virulent of Coleridge’s detractors. Charles Lloyd, who was admittedly unstable himself, ultimately became so vindictive about his former mentor that he wrote a novel in which a thinly disguised Coleridge appears as an opium-addicted volunteer in the dragoons.

My guess is that Coleridge’s affections lacked staying power, and that his disciples became deeply resentful for having given their allegiance to someone whom they suspected of not having been sincere. After considering how quickly he wore out friendships, Holmes concludes, “One might suggest that part of Coleridge’s genius was for wholly disrupting the lives and expectations of most of those who came in close contact with him.”

The pattern of his relations with women, which were no more satisfactory than those with men, was probably set when he was a child. Holmes believes that he never felt loved by his mother to whom, coming after his nine elder brothers and sisters, he always believed he was a disappointment. Southey recorded that when she was over seventy, she saw Sam arguing with his brothers and automatically assumed that he was in the wrong, although she could not hear what was being said. She cried out in reproof, “Ah, if your poor father had been alive, he’d soon have convinced you.” He used to say that he had never known what it was to have a mother. He turned for comfort to his sister Nancy, who became a surrogate mother in one of those suffocatingly close brother-and-sister relationships characteristic of other Romantic poets, as with the Lambs, the Wordsworths, and Byron and Augusta. After Nancy’s death, he wrote the touching lines about his loss: “O! I have woke at midnight, and have wept / Because she was not!”

The adult Coleridge’s sexual feelings were most often in tune with sisters like the three Evanses or the Frickers (Sara Fricker was to become his wife in a mismatched marriage), the wives of his friends who were in a sisterly relation to him, and perhaps even Dorothy Wordsworth. As Holmes suggests, he was probably looking most of his life for a mother substitute.

Coleridge’s impact upon his contemporaries was as often physical as intellectual, and he burst upon them with the random energy of an incarnation of the Romantic spirit itself. Although he was not conventionally handsome, his attraction for both women and men was probably partly sexual. The first thing new acquaintances took in was his large and disturbingly mobile mouth; Hazlitt said it was “gross, voluptuous; open, eloquent.” Wordsworth called him

A noticeable Man with large grey eyes
Heavy his low-hung lip did oft appear,
Deprest by weight of musing Phantasy….

More mundanely, Coleridge said of himself, “I cannot breathe thro’ my nose—so my mouth, with sensual thick lips, is almost always open,” a fact not without significance for a man who was one of the great talkers of his day and who contributed the “conversation poem” to our canon of literary forms. (“Lecture poem” might be more accurate, for we seldom hear even an echo of an answering voice in the verse. The frequent interjection of “Well!” into the text, although it is intended to vary the pace of the poems and emphasize their informality, usually seems a transparent way of fending off any interruption. All we hear is Coleridge, and none the worse for that.) “In conversation I am impassioned, and oppose what I deem error with an eagerness, which is often mistaken for personal asperity—but I am ever so swallowed up in the thing, that I perfectly forget my opponent.”

When he came upon a new idea, he temporarily clung to it with all the tenacity that he might be expected to exhibit for a lifelong belief. To William Godwin he sent his apologies for drinking too much the previous evening, since

…tipsiness has, and has always, one unpleasant effect—that of making me talk very extravagantly; & as when sober, I talk extravagantly enough for any common Tipsiness, it becomes a matter of nicety in discrimination to know when I am or am not affected.—An idea starts up in my head—away I follow it thro’ thick & thin, Wood & Marsh, Brake and Briar—with all the apparent Interest of a man who was defending one of his old and longestablished Principles—Exactly of this kind was the Conversation with which I quitted you.

In his talk he was captivating in both senses of the word, and at least in early manhood almost completely incapable of boring: a Youthful Mariner blessed with endless fascination. One of Holmes’s achievements is to make believable the charm of the flashing eye of the compulsive talker.

The truth, is that indolence was as much a part of his makeup as his energy, and his wonderful talk was often a substitute for more demanding thinking and writing. As an older man he became a cautionary example of the thinker who dissipates his ideas in talking about them. Even before then, however, there were times when his auditors feared drowning in the flood of words. “Don’t ask me so many questions, Papa!” begged his sorely beset son, Hartley. “I can’t bear it.”

Holmes is shrewd about the connection between body and mind in Coleridge, and he quotes Hazlitt’s account of a winter’s walk during which Coleridge characteristically held forth on a host of subjects, jumping without effort from one to another, unrelated as they often were. So easy was his movement between topics that Hazlitt said he seemed “to slide on ice.” At the same time, with his attention on his discourse rather than on his feet, he was drifting from side to side on the half-frozen mud of the footpath. “This struck me as an odd movement,” wrote Hazlitt, “but I did not at that time connect it with any instability of purpose or involuntary change of principle, as I have done since.”

Holmes is also good at the comical side of Coleridge, who was an extraordinarily funny man, both consciously and unconsciously. When he was an undergraduate at Cambridge he once hauled a very drunken freshman out of the shallow gutter of King’s Parade, and then reported that the rescued man insisted that he save a friend instead: “Never mind me—I can swim.” But any close friend of Charles Lamb could hardly be earnest, however serious he might be.

Even his improbable four months as a volunteer private in the 15th Light Dragoons in 1793–1794 had more than a touch of the low comedy that so often intruded on his misfortunes. He had left Cambridge to take the bounty paid to volunteers as a slightly preferable alternative to suicide, hoping to be rid of bad debts, unrequited love, and academic disgrace. The real pain of his remorse over his misdoings is indicated in a letter to his brother: “Where Vice has not annihilated Sensibility, there is little need of a Hell!”

But his taste for the ludicrous is also apparent in his choice of the name under which he entered the army, Silas Tomkyn Comberbache. He was a bad horseman, and he developed saddle sores and boils, “dreadfully trouble-some eruptions, which so grimly constellated my Posteriors.” On parade his untrained horse regularly ran away with him, and three times in a week he was thrown. It was probably more than his powdered military pigtail and presumably ill-fitting (if we can judged from the sloppiness of his civilian dress) uniform that made Trooper Comberbache unrecognizable to a friend who came to visit him. After six weeks of negotiation he was bought out of the army: the record reads “discharged S.T. Cumberbache, Insane, 10 April 1794.”

Near the end of this volume, Holmes quotes a passage from the Notebooks, written at Greta Hall, which encapsulates the fatal mixture of high-mindedness and the incongruously mundane that is often apparent in Coleridge: “I went to the window, to empty my Urine-pot, & wondered at the simple grandeur of the View.” No wonder that Holmes calls him “a comic hero beset by tragic visions.”

Few poets were more autobiographical than Coleridge. “Seem to have made up my mind to write my metaphysical works, as my Life & in my Life—intermixed with all the other events / or history of the mind & fortunes of S.T. Coleridge,” he wrote in his notebooks in the autumn of 1803. He was referring here to future works, but the description applies as well to those he had already written.

When he was a student in Göttingen, his friend Clement Carlyon noticed how he would fix his prominent eyes upon his reflection, “as he was wont to do, whenever there was a mirror in the room,” and say that his negligent clothing would be lost sight of the moment he began to talk. Holmes points out that Coleridge’s fascination with his own image indicates the self-reflective and self-dramatizing element of his nature. It is the same quality that made him record the sight of a dusky flock of birds from the window of the coach in which he bowled along to London to begin his life as a journalist:

Starlings in vast flights drove along like smoke, mist, or any thing misty without volition—now a circular area inclined in an Arc—now a Globe—now from complete Orb into an Elipse & Oblong—now a balloon with the car suspended, now a concave Semicircle—& still it expands & condenses, some moments glimmering & shivering, dim & shadowy, now thickening, deepening, blackening.

It was a self-image of protean energy, without outline or definition or even fixed identity, that occupied his imagination for years, in its illumination of his shifting sensibility “both stimulating in its sense of freedom…and menacing in its sense of threatening chaos or implosion.”

Coleridge was a true Romantic, of course, in so defining his own personality in images from nature. It was a complex two-way traffic in which he was both receiving what he took to be the significance of nature and in turn projecting his own conceptions back upon nature, forming it in his own image. The cloud of starlings that had drawn his attention by intruding from the outside took on for him a perceptible and significant relationship to his own ill-defined powers of creativity, which could thus be evoked in his mind and writings by reference to the flights of wheeling birds. Nature had formed him, and he had formed nature. In his own practice, he was anticipating the “esemplastic power” of the imagination long before he defined it in the Biographia Literaria.

Most of us hope to make a whole out of the fragments of our lives by looking for connections between disparate points of our experience; a parallel process becomes the stock in trade of the literary biographer, trying to understand the relationship between his subject’s life in the external world and the imaginative life expressed in his works. Richard Holmes is sensibly wary of simple “source hunting,” but in his enthusiasm he is sometimes tempted into tooeasy statements linking elements of the poetry with events in Coleridge’s life that he believes may have inspired them.

In 1775, for example, Coleridge’s elder brother John wrote home from India describing a sacred well there. Holmes quotes the letter, then hazards, “It may have been glimpses like this that first turned Coleridge towards his lifelong fascination with travel books.” Indeed it may have been, but since Samuel was not yet three at the time, it seems less than probable, and the likeness between the “wild, romantic situation” of the well and the location of Kubla Khan’s pleasure-dome is surely more complicated than Holmes suggests.

When Coleridge writes that entering the ministry would exempt him from military service, Holmes suggests parenthetically, “those ‘ancestral voices prophesying war,’ perhaps.” The last word shrugs off his responsibility for the guess, but the mention of such a remote likeness does momentarily shake our confidence in his judgment of the way a poet’s mind works. There are several lapses of this sort in which Holmes momentarily seems to neglect any intermediary between sensation and poem, reducing the process (and the poet) to a kind of automatic recorder of fortuitous likenesses in which mind and personality have no part, a doctrine with which Coleridge would have had little truck.

Coleridge said that his memory was like a palimpsest, overwritten two or more times; when we can decipher part of the crisscrossed record it is tempting to make more of it than it is worth. There can be no question of how deeply rooted his poetry was in his day-to-day life, but the road from experience to artifact is considerably more circuitous than Holmes often suggests, and that seems to me the only blot in this fine book: it is a small one.

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