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…

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