BOOKS

Rime and reason

A new biography celebrates a great poet

Richard Holmes April 16 1990
BOOKS

Rime and reason

A new biography celebrates a great poet

Richard Holmes April 16 1990

He is perhaps best known for the mournful lines “Water, water everywhere/Nor any drop to drink.” They are part of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s epic 1798 poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, a classic of English literature written when he was 26. Biographies of Coleridge have tended to emphasize negative aspects of the great poet—his opium addiction, his infidelities and betrayals, and even his occasional plagiarism. All that has overshadowed other sides of Coleridge, a complex hybrid of political journalist, theologian, dabbler in drugs and master of languages. Now, British writer Richard Holmes injects vibrant life and humor into a long-misunderstood figure with his glorious biography, Coleridge: Early Visions. Winner of England’s prestigious Whitbread Book of the Year prize in 1989, it is brimming with admiration for the subject. “If he doesn’t leap out of these pages—brilliant, animated, endlessly provoking—and invade your imagination,” writes Holmes, “then I have failed to do him justice.”

The initial instalment of a projected two-volume biography of the poet, Holmes’s stylishly written book chronicles Coleridge’s life from his 1772 birth in Ottery St. Mary, in the southwest English county of Devon, through to his departure for Malta in 1804 for health reasons. From his subject’s diaries as well as recollections by Coleridge’s friends and enemies, Holmes constructs a rich account of the poet’s fascinating but often agonizing life. By the time he reached his 30s, he had established a reputation as an important poet and become hero and mentor to a younger generation of writers. “He would be seen as part of that meteoric, Romantic tradition of young writers, like Keats, Shelley, or Byron (or even Arthur Rimbaud), who lived and died in a premature blaze of talents,” writes Holmes.

Born the youngest of 10 children to a scholarly clergyman and an indifferent mother, Coleridge had a miserable childhood. He was often forced to sleep under a hedge all night as punishment for some minor transgression. As a lonely adolescent, he took solace in books and writing. At school in London, he proved himself to be habitually antagonistic—both in organized debate and in his relations with his schoolmates. Later, that combativeness, coupled with his forceful intellect, made him an envied upstart in the fashionable coffeehouses of 18th-century London. In a setting where men made their mark, and often their living, by their verbal dexterity, Coleridge became known for his arrogant wit.

That arrogance also extended to his private life. Coleridge was cavalier with the women he courted and often abandoned them for long periods with no explanations. Even after marrying the attractive, hot-tempered Sara Fricker in 1795, he sometimes travelled on his own, indifferent to her pleas to stay with her. He was also notorious for letting down his allies—including fellow poet William Wordsworth, a constant companion who learned to expect little from his friend. His siblings, too, received little acknowledgment, even though they repeatedly came to his aid.

Holmes rejects the popular wisdom that an unhappy childhood justifies or explains all his adult behavior. He looks elsewhere to interpret Coleridge and attempts to understand why the wronged Wordsworth could still describe him as “the most wonderful man” he had ever known. Holmes says that Coleridge’s utopian, romantic nature was inextricably linked with his inability to relate to others over a long period of time. He points to his all-embracing, absurdly extreme friendships with such writers as Charles Lamb and William Hazlitt. On one occasion, Coleridge refused to leave the Wordsworths’ household, saying that he wanted to become part of their family. Holmes dwells on Coleridge’s many unrequited loves and recounts how, at 21, he volunteered for the army under a pseudonym simply to escape debts and an unhappy romance.

As a political thinker, Coleridge was a man of contradictions. Essentially a conservative who firmly believed in British imperialism, he still became involved with the Pantisocratics, a radical movement of rural communes. He embraced the ideals of the French Revolution but later expressed his disillusion with its excesses in polemical poems and newspaper articles.

Coleridge the artist, meanwhile, was simply too freethinking and anarchic for his era, Holmes says. His taste for fantasy, dream and imagination alienated his contemporaries. Their often-virulent criticism of his work brought on periods of misanthropy—and depression. During the black periods, Coleridge resorted to opium, eventually becoming a hopeless addict. Yet, as Holmes points out, it was during those bleak episodes that he created his finest poetry, including Kubla Khan.

Coleridge was also addicted to travel. For the restless poet, wandering through Europe was a form of education. “Coleridge seemed to learn as much from landscape as from literature,” writes Holmes, “as much from children’s games as from philosophical treatises; as much from bird-flight as from theology.”

For all his intellectual powers and inexhaustible curiosity, Coleridge realized that he did not possess the literary gifts of Wordsworth or Percy Bysshe Shelley. He knew that he had to squeeze every drop of inspiration from everything and everyone he encountered. According to Holmes, that practice made him something of an artistic vulture, a man who would analyse a dinner guest or coldly scrutinize a lover with a writer’s eye. His inability to emulate the best of the Romantic poets pained him until his death in 1834.

Still, as the author points out, Coleridge made a profound contribution to English literature, particularly with The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. While his work may not be as popular as Wordsworth’s, or as hot-blooded and immediate as Shelley’s, it possesses an enduring power and lyricism. Coleridge achieved his lifelong desire that his work leave a lasting impression on the world. And now, with Coleridge, his biographer has made the man himself equally unforgettable.