By the time I had finished my eight-hundred-page biography of Percy Bysshe Shelley in 1974, I was nearly thirty.1 I had traveled in France, Switzerland, and Italy in search of my fiery, footloose poet. I felt like a veteran after a long campaign in the field. I felt grizzled, anecdotal, displaced. Moreover I had returned with two conclusions about writing biography that were certainly not taught in academia.
The first was the footsteps principle. I had come to believe that the serious biographer must physically pursue his subject through the past. Mere archives were not enough. He must go to all the places where the subject had ever lived or worked, or traveled or dreamed. Not just the birthplace, or the blue-plaque place, but the temporary places, the passing places, the lost places, the dream places.
He must examine them as intelligently as possible, looking for clues, for the visible and the invisible, for the history, the geography, and the atmosphere. He must feel how they once were; must imagine what impact they might once have had. He must be alert to “unknown modes of being.” He must step back, step down, step inside.
The second was the two-sided notebook concept. It seemed to me that a serious research notebook must always have a form of “double accounting.” There should be a distinct, conscious divide between the objective and the subjective sides of the project. This meant keeping a double-entry record of all research as it progressed (or as frequently, digressed). Put schematically, there must be a right-hand side and a left-hand side to every notebook page spread.
On the one (the right) I would record the objective facts of my subject’s life, as minutely and accurately as possible (from the letters, the diaries, the memoirs, the archives). But on the other (the left) I would also record my most personal responses, my feelings and speculations, my questions and conundrums, my difficulties and challenges. Irritation, embarrassment, puzzlement, or grief could prove as valuable as excitement, astonishment, or enthusiasm. The cumulative experience of the research journey, of being in my subject’s company over several years, thus became part of the whole biographical enterprise. Only in this way, it seemed to me, could you use, but also master, the biographer’s most valuable but perilous weapon: empathy.
Accordingly, my pursuit of Samuel Taylor Coleridge lasted nearly fifteen years and progressed through some thirty two-sided notebooks.2 It took me to the English West Country and the Lake District, to Germany, to Italy, to Sicily, to Malta, and finally to a quiet garden on Highgate Hill in London. It ended in nine hundred pages over two volumes. We both aged considerably in the process.
Coleridge was himself the master of the notebook—over seventy of them survive, thanks to the life’s work of the Canadian scholar Katherine Coburn. The first was begun in Bristol in 1794 when he was twenty-two; the last was left incomplete at his death in Highgate in 1834. They provide a wonderful underground river for the biographer, an entry into Coleridge’s mind and feelings, his inner life, not least in his relations with William and Dorothy Wordsworth, and with his secret beloved or femme fatale, his “Asra,” Sara Hutchinson.
The notebooks are as multifarious, elusive, and incorrigible as the man. They contain his fantastic reading lists, his extraordinary nightmares, his brilliant lecture notes, his hectic fell walking diaries, his endless self-psychoanalysis sessions, his battles with opium addiction, his excruciating medical symptoms (teeth, lungs, bowels), his labyrinthine thoughts about science and religion, his ghastly puns, and his moving prayers.
They are also full of wonderful oddities: the draft of a comic novel, the recipe for making waterproof shoe polish, accounts of erotic dreams (partially in Greek and usually connected with food), the sayings of his child Hartley, notes on the sounds of different birdsong, or observations on different kinds of rain. All the time, like the underground river of “Kubla Khan,” there is a continual bubbling up of images that would appear both in his poetry and his later criticism; but also a continuous stream of self-definition.
I remember discovering, like a sudden gold strike, this description of a tiny waterfall in the river Greta, which he wrote when he first came to the Lake District in 1799:
Shootings of water threads down the slope of the huge green stone…The white Eddy-rose that blossomed up against the stream in the scollop, by fits and starts, obstinate in resurrection—It is the Life that we live.
It instantly struck me that Coleridge was describing himself, “obstinate in resurrection.” Now I can never see a stream flowing over a stone, with that bubbling backwash of foam (so brilliantly defined as the “eddy-rose”), without thinking of his biography. There is his complex, mysterious, and in many way disastrous life, which was nevertheless perpetually renewed, miraculously foaming back in words, “obstinate in resurrection.” It was indeed the life that he lived. I gradually realized it was also the life that I needed to write.
Coleridge’s travels were geographical as well as metaphysical, and true to the footsteps principle I followed him faithfully. In exchange, Coleridge taught me many lessons about biography during these research trips or solitary pursuits. I followed his walk over the wild Quantock Hills in Somerset and down to the tiny seaport at Watchet where he began “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” with Wordsworth in 1797. Here the Bristol Channel surges out toward the Atlantic, producing one of the most astonishing tidal swings in the whole of northern Europe, rising and falling over forty feet in twelve hours. Watching the fishing boats locked in its muscular grasp, I understood something new about the submarine “Polar Spirit” of the deep that pursued the Mariner after he had killed the albatross; and more than that, something of the huge tides that had always swept through Coleridge’s own life.
I went out to Göttingen in Germany, where he had attended the scientific lectures of Johann Friedrich Blumenbach in 1799, and first encountered the new dynamic Naturphilosophie of Friedrich Schelling, from which his own ideas about Nature, Form, and the unconscious would eventually develop in “genial coincidence.”3 He became fascinated by the story of the Walpurgisnacht (or Witching Night) on the nearby Brocken mountain that would also appear in Goethe’s Faust (1808). Typically, Coleridge had climbed the Brocken to interview the legendary “Brocken spectre” for himself, in a mixed spirit of scientific and poetic inquiry. Clambering up after him through the dark colonnades of the Hartz forest, I came across a different kind of witchcraft.
Panting up through a clearing of pine trees, I suddenly burst upon a sort of surreal Faustian theater set. It was decked with skull-like signs announcing “Halt! Hier Grenze!” and promising imminent death. This was the huge sinister double border fence, sown with land mines and automatic machine guns, dividing East and West Germany. Like the moment twenty years before, when naively retracing Robert Louis Stevenson’s Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes, I had come down to his symbolic river bridge at Langogne, and to my profound dismay found that it was broken and impassable, his time literally divided from my time, this was another sharp lesson on the irrecoverability of the past.
Another trip took me to Malta where, in the unlikely role of wartime civil service secretary, Coleridge promulgated bylaws, visited military hospitals (appalled by the syphilitic cases, several to a bed), wrote political propaganda, and oversaw some of the last dispatches from Governor Admiral Ball to Nelson before the Battle of Trafalgar.
His shape-shifting during this period, 1804–1805, is extraordinary, yet characteristic. At Valletta, I found that his lonely rooms in the Governor’s Palace directly overlooked the harbor. Having borrowed a naval telescope, the bustling secretary somehow disappeared for hours, studying the many ships arriving and departing, dosing his homesickness with opium and erotic poetry, and writing learned notes on “organic form.”
It was here that I found Coleridge unexpectedly praying to the moon from his garret window. His strange, metaphysical entries on “Sabaism,” or sun and moon worship, had gone previously unnoticed. But it told me something crucial about his religious beliefs, always suspended—“a willing suspension of disbelief”—between a punishing Christianity and a pure exhilarating pantheism. They also reminded me how central the moon is to all his poetry, from “The Ancient Mariner” to “Limbo”:
In looking at objects of Nature while I am thinking, as at yonder Moon dim-glimmering through the dewy window-pane, I seem rather to be seeking, as it were asking, a symbolical language for something within me that already and forever exists…the dim Awaking of a forgotten or hidden Truth of my inner Nature…the Creator! the Evolver!
Back in England, I located the little lost house in Calne, Wiltshire, opposite the churchyard, where he went to ground in 1813, given up by almost all his friends—even by Wordsworth—as a hopeless opium addict who would achieve nothing. On the hillside above his house, I saw the symbolic Cherhill White Horse, carved in the chalk around 1780, galloping toward London, which always gave him hope. Two years later he reemerged with his prose masterpiece, the Biographia Literaria, a fantastic mixture of humorous autobiography, brilliant psychological criticism, and plagiarized German philosophy. So much of this, like his lectures, is best in fragments. For instance this inspired lecture note—a mere four words—summarizing the opening of Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “Suppression prepares for Overflow.” I came to think that this contained, or rather prophesied, all of Freud.
Yet some of the most vivid lessons came from his childhood at Ottery St. Mary in Devonshire, which reappears in so many of his best early poems like the “Sonnet to the River Otter” and “Frost at Midnight.” In the sonnet, he explores the infinitely subtle shifts of feeling between the immediate experience of the child and the recollections of the adult. The recreation of this movement remains one of the greatest challenges to biographical narrative. Coleridge succeeds in catching it with wonderful simplicity, using the stone-skimming children’s game of “ducks and drakes” and the “bedded sand” of memory:
What happy and what mournful hours, since last
I skimm’d the smooth thin stone along thy breast,
Numbering its light leaps! yet so deep imprest
Sink the sweet scenes of childhood, that mine eyes
I never shut amid the sunny ray,
But straight with all their tints thy waters rise,
Thy crossing plank, thy marge with willows grey,
And bedded sand that vein’d with various dyes
Gleam’d through thy bright transparence!
Then there was the time as a small boy that he ventured into a deep cave near the banks of the river Otter. This was a haunted place known locally as “The Pixies’ Parlour.” Greatly daring, he carved his initials in the stone at the very back. A decade later he returned as a young man, to crawl in again and admire these initials, as he put it, “cut by the hand of childhood.” After another two decades, now nearly forty, the physical fact had become a metaphysical one. In the poem “A Tombless Epitaph” (1809) he compared his crawling into this dark cave with his later exploration of the cave of philosophy. The mineral glitter of this reimagined mental cave, the cave of his own mind and imagination, adds a whole new dimension to the “caverns measureless to man” of “Kubla Khan”:
Yea, oft alone,
Piercing the long-neglected holy Cave,
The haunt obscure of old Philosophy,
He bade with lifted torch its starry walls
Sparkle, as erst they sparkled to the flame
Of odorous lamps tended by Saint and Sage.
When I crawled into that same sandstone cave almost exactly two hundred years later, I made a surprising discovery. Raising my trembling lighter, I spied, at the very back of the cave, the carved initials STC.
What actually happened, as recorded in my notebook, was that I was so delighted that I sprang up and almost knocked myself out on the low stone ceiling. A large sliver of sandstone came down. As I crouched there, seeing stars in the darkness, I suddenly realized that the cave stone was too soft to retain the original initials. Something else had happened to them, equally interesting. They had been recarved. I reflected on the implications of this idea in my notebook, and my eventual footnote read:
Such carvings and re-carvings of his initials, ceremoniously repeated by generation after generation of unknown memorialists, suddenly seemed to me like a symbol of the essentially cumulative process of biography itself.
Another informative place for me was Coleridge’s house at Greta Hall, Keswick, where he lived close to the Wordsworths at Grasmere between 1800 and 1804. Suitably enough, it had once been an observatory. The top-floor study has astonishing views of Derwent Water, and the high fells spreading all around. He would climb out of the window and sit on the “leads,” or flat roof, gazing at the expanse and writing. One eloquent letter begins: “From the leads on the house top of Greta Hall, Keswick, Cumberland, at the present time in the occupancy and usufruct-possession of ST Coleridge Esq, gentleman poet and Philosopher in a mist.” Another offers to send his friend the young chemist Humphry Davy the whole Lake District panorama wrapped up in a single pill of opium.
Here he wrote the famous “Dejection: An Ode” (1802), which we now know exists in two drafts, the first as a secret love letter to Sara Hutchinson, the second as a formal ode on the powers of nature and the imagination to heal personal grief and depression. Sara was the sister of Wordsworth’s wife Mary Hutchinson, no melting Muse, but a small, handsome, capable woman who strode about the fells, looked after the Wordsworth children, and copied both poets’ manuscripts. She had a determined chin, kindly eyes, and thick golden hair. Coleridge (who had married in 1795) had fallen fatally in love with her at first sight in 1799, and given her the dreamy soubriquet “Asra” in his notebooks and poetry.
There she remained as a fantasy figure for the next twenty years, though she never quite went to bed with him. Instead she did secretarial work, accompanied him on walks, nursed him when ill, and tried to prevent him from taking opium, which led to their eventual estrangement in 1812.
In the formal ode, Sara is simply an unnamed “virtuous Lady.” In the draft verse letter (not published in full until 1988) she is “O Sister! O Beloved!…dear Sara…My Comforter! A Heart within my Heart!” In a memorable bird image, Coleridge also describes her voluptuously as “nested with the Darlings of [her] Love,” and feeling in her embracing arms
Even what the conjugal & mother Dove
That borrows genial warmth from those, she warms,
Feels in her thrill’d wings, blessedly outspread!…
Here too, in pursuing him, I had an instructive experience. I discovered that Greta Hall had become a small girls’ boarding school, so I wrote to the headmistress asking permission to visit. It turned out that Coleridge’s study on the top floor had become the sixth-form girls’ dormitory. Accordingly I was granted a half-hour afternoon inspection, under Matron’s watchful eye, while the girls were safely away, out in the fields playing hockey.
After we inspected the room, I asked Matron if I might climb out of the dormitory window onto the flat roof, where Coleridge had often sat writing. As I stood examining the magnificent view, and thinking of his secret beloved Asra, I suddenly saw at my feet two bottles of Vladivar vodka and a box of Black Russian cigarettes.
When I climbed back in, Matron asked if I had found “anything biographically interesting.” As I prepared to answer—“a biographer is an artist upon oath”—an angelic-looking blond sixth-former appeared in the doorway behind Matron, and fixing me with a mute appeal, silently shook her head. “Yes, Matron,” I replied, “clear signs of artistic inspiration!” Still standing behind Matron, the sixth-form angel mouthed at me a silent “thank you,” spread her arms in a strange unforgettable gesture, and slipped away.
Of course I felt the subversive spirit of Coleridge’s Asra had been in close attendance. Yet on reflection, not merely as the adorable angel, but also as the kindly matron, who possibly knew more than she was letting on. This reminded me that Asra was both angel and nurse to Coleridge. Paradoxically, the incident went down in the left side of my notebook as a warning against “romanticizing.” Places of “inspiration” might genuinely retain something of their force over time, and it was vital to capture this. But the biographer should be on guard against vodka.
A different kind of alchemy transfused Coleridge’s friendship with the young chemist Humphry Davy, who would eventually become president of the Royal Society in London. When they were both in their twenties, Coleridge volunteered to take part in Davy’s early experiments with the intoxicating nitrous oxide—laughing gas—at the Bristol Pneumatic Institute. Davy’s scientific account of gas euphoria turned out to have extraordinary parallels with Coleridge’s poetic account of opium hallucinations, as described in “Kubla Khan.”
“I lost all connection with external things,” recorded Davy,
trains of vivid visible Images rapidly passed through my mind…. With the most intense belief and prophetic manner, I exclaimed…“Nothing exists, but Thoughts!—the Universe is composed of impressions, ideas, pleasures and pains!”…I was now almost completely intoxicated…I seemed to be a sublime being, newly created and superior to other mortals….
Davy and Coleridge also corresponded about the nature of pain and the possibilities of gas-based anesthetics for use in surgical operations. He reflected: “[Davy’s] Science being necessarily performed with the passion of Hope, it was Poetical.”
Coleridge later attended Davy’s chemistry lectures and enthused:
I attended Davy’s lectures to enlarge my stock of metaphors…. Every subject in Davy’s mind has the principle of Vitality. Living thoughts spring up like Turf under his feet….
This led me to look at Davy’s biography, and more generally at the relations between science and literature. For the first time I began to consider how a scientific biography might differ from a literary one. In particular, in my own field of Romantic literature, the connection between Coleridge and Davy made me wonder: Why were the poets and writers of the Romantic period so often presented as hostile to science? Had we unknowingly imported twentieth-century ideas about the notorious split between the “Two Cultures,” into Romantic biography? In fact, was there such a thing as Romantic science, and a vital new form of biography to go with it? This is what I explored in my next book, The Age of Wonder (2009).
The idea of Romantic science is perhaps a paradox, even an oxymoron. Its contradictions are well represented by William Blake’s engraved image of Newton in 1795 as a demonic figure sitting on a rock, measuring out the world with metal compasses. I am reminded of this every time I walk into the British Library in London, going under the shadow of Eduardo Paolozzi’s bronze statue (1995), a modern version of Newton with its unmistakable echoes of Dr. Frankenstein’s Creature. As Blake wrote, “Art is the Tree of Life. Science is the Tree of Death.” Similarly the young French mathematician Évariste Galois, himself an intensely Romantic figure who died in a lover’s duel, observed icily in 1831: “La vie de science est brute et ressemble à celle des minéraux.” This might be rendered: “The life of science is brutish, raw, impersonal, like the life of minerals.” In remarks like these we might trace the beginnings of the historic division between the arts and sciences, the notorious “Two Cultures.”
Yet here is Byron on the subject of Romantic science in 1819:
He thought about himself, and the whole Earth,
Of Man the wonderful, and of the Stars,
And how the deuce they ever could have birth;
And then he thought of Earthquakes, and of Wars,
How many miles the Moon might have in girth,
Of Air-balloons, and of the many bars
To perfect Knowledge of the boundless Skies;
And then he thought of Donna Julia’s eyes.
Here is one of the leading poets of the Romantic Age freely celebrating the sciences of astronomy, geology, physics, aeronautics, meteorology…and even possibly the “erotic chemistry” of Donna Julia’s eyes. Later I discovered that Byron was elected to the greatest scientific institution of the age, the Royal Society of London. He even had strong views on vivisection. So I wanted to think again about what science in general signified for Romantic writers and poets.
What I concluded in the left-hand side of my notebook was that scientific biography was more about teamwork and the social impact of discovery. It demanded something closer to group biography, and a sense of the extended “ripple effect” of science throughout a community. It also raised the pressing question—in the figures of the astronomer Caroline Herschel, the novelist Mary Shelley, and the mathematician Mary Somerville—of why women had been excluded from science, in contrast to the way they were establishing themselves in literature.
So from a narrow initial study of Coleridge and Davy, The Age of Wonder expanded to become the biography of a whole generation, including over sixty writers and scientists, and the very moment when the word and concept of “scientist” itself actually emerged in 1834.
I have now come to feel that the meeting of the two great modes of human discovery—imaginative literature and science—has become one of the most urgent subjects for modern biography to study and understand. I believe this is particularly so in America. You could say that if our world is to be saved, we must understand it both scientifically and imaginatively.
I often think of something Sylvia Plath once said: “If a poem is concentrated, a closed fist, then a novel is relaxed and expansive, an open hand.” This leads me to suppose that a biography is something else again: a handshake. A handshake, across time, but also across cultures, across beliefs, across disciplines, across genders, and across ways of life. It is an act of friendship.
It is a way of keeping the biographer’s notebook open, on both sides of that endless mysterious question: What was this human life really like, and what does it mean to us now? In this sense, biography is not merely a mode of historical inquiry. It is an act of imaginative faith.
Richard Holmes, Shelley: The Pursuit (Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1974). ↩
Richard Holmes, Coleridge: Early Visions, 1772–1804 (Pantheon, 1989) and Richard Holmes, Coleridge: Darker Reflections, 1804–1834 (Pantheon, 1998). ↩
Besides the later question of plagiarism, the philosophical impact of Schelling on Coleridge is brilliantly summarized by Isaiah Berlin in The Roots of Romanticism (Princeton University Press, 1999). ↩