A Quest for the Real Coleridge

Wordsworth Trust/Bridgeman Images
Samuel Taylor Coleridge; portrait by James Northcote, 1804

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…

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