5 March 1997
Richard Holmes' intent in his biography on Coleridge is apparent from the opening pages. In fact, even his title implies his purpose of showing Coleridge as a visionary hero. In his preface Holmes clearly spells out his plan for achieving this purpose. He explains that much of the previous work done on Coleridge has focused on the more negative aspects of his life--his "opium addiction, his plagiarisms, his fecklessness in marriage, his political 'apostasy', his sexual fantasies, [and] his radiations of mystic humbug" (xv). Holmes sets out to write a different type of biography; his attempt examines Coleridge's "entire life in a broad and sympathetic manner" and reconciles his faults with the "extraordinary man" and the "extraordinary mind" (xv). In the process he hopes to show that Coleridge's visionary genius alone makes him "worth rediscovering" (xv). In this first volume of a planned two part biography, Holmes traces Coleridge's life up to the year 1804. Throughout his work he consistently emphasizes the spirit, energy, and unrelenting power of imagination that made Coleridge unique. He examines the highs and lows of his life and leaves his reader with both a vivid image of Coleridge, the man, and a number of questions and possibilities to ponder.
Holmes' structure and style are essential to his success at bringing Coleridge alive for his reader. His biography follows a traditional narrative structure, and his language is direct and unpretentious. This style brings a novelistic quality to the biography; it reads quickly and enjoyably. Holmes encourages his reader to forget all that he has heard about Coleridge in the past and discover him again as a fresh character in Holmes' story. Holmes moves quickly through the early part of Coleridge's life, stopping along the way to focus on specific instances which exemplify Coleridge's early intellectual and imaginative powers or which later influence aspects of his life or literary work. Holmes discusses Coleridge's enormous appetite for reading and the early age at which it began; he focuses on a specific night Coleridge nearly froze to death along the River Otter; and he examines the emotional and practical consequences of the death of Coleridge's father. Holmes repeatedly returns to these moments throughout the biography as they become relevant. In chapter four, with his discussion of Coleridge's friendship with Robert Southey and their plans for their utopian Pantisocratcy, Holmes makes a transition from Coleridge's youth to his adult literary life.
In his examination of this literary life--the final two thirds of the biography--Holmes looks at the various and constantly changing interests, careers, and places of residence that exemplify Coleridge's adventurous spirit. He supports his narrative and shows the reader a truer sense of Coleridge's character by linking the events in Coleridge's life with his poetry. In his work, Holmes focuses on five specific poems. He traces Coleridge's life from the early visionary power of "Kubla Khan" to the domestic happiness which accompanied "Frost at Midnight." He examines Coleridge at the pinnacle of his early literary success with the composition of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and then follows his subsequent fall from glory which accompanied Wordsworth's rejection of "Christabel" from the second edition of Lyrical Ballads. Finally, he examines Coleridge's personal life--his marital problems, his love for Sara Hutchinson, and his depression over his stagnant literary career--through "Dejection: an Ode." By using Coleridge's own poetry as an underlying link for his biography, he allows Coleridge's own artistic expression to speak for itself.
In his actual narration, Holmes similarly allows Coleridge to tell his own story. Throughout the biography, by using excerpts from journals, letters, essays, and poems, Holmes seamlessly blends his own voice with that of Coleridge's and, thus, more ably presents Coleridge's imagination and visionary spirit. On the second page of Biography, Holmes writes, "Samuel Taylor Coleridge first 'sprang to light' in the vicarage of the small market- town of Ottery." Subtle details such as "sprang to light" bring a Coleridgean quality to the work. Coleridge's words are most impressive in the many descriptions of nature which are scattered throughout the latter half of the biography:
Moving on in increasingly exultant mood, he observed the waterfall of Scale Force, "which glimmered thro' the Trees, that hang before it like bushy Hair over a madman's Eyes", then climbed over the uncharted fells towards Ennerdale, watching the sunset from a remote sheepfold, "for of all things a ruined Sheepfold in a desolate place is the dearest to me, and fills me most with Dreams & Visions & tender thoughts of those I love best" (328).
Holmes' goal is to show his reader Coleridge's "extraordinary mind;" he recognizes that Coleridge's own words are more effective than his own as a means to this end.
Wordsworth obviously played a significant role in Coleridge's life. Holmes, thus, devotes a significant part of his work to the relationship between the two men. In his examination of their relationship, Holmes expresses a bias against Wordsworth. This bias arises from what Holmes sees as a subversion of Coleridge's artistic powers by Wordsworth. Holmes implies throughout the text that Coleridge's life--literary, emotionally, and even physically--could have been far more positive without Wordsworth's influence. He asks his reader to consider what might have happened if Coleridge had published The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, "This Lime Tree Bower," and "Frost at Midnight" in the same volume, under his own name, rather then contributing to Lyrical Ballads (187). Holmes further implies that from early on in the relationship certain tensions existed between the two poets. At one point, he describes Wordsworth's account of his own contribution to the plot of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Holmes subtly undercuts this account with a reminder of Coleridge's true sources for the poem: "What Wordsworth could not have known was how long Coleridge had been unconsciously gathering the incidents and images for the poem in his own life" (172). Holmes is far more direct near the end of biography as he relates the incident in which Wordsworth rejects "Christabel" from Lyrical Ballads. Holmes is unrelenting in his condemnation of Wordsworth:
What happened was clear: Wordsworth, from a position of apparent weakness, had ruthlessly come to dominate the terms of the collaboration. Having used Coleridge . . . as advisor and editor, drawing him up to the Lakes for that very purpose, he had entirely imposed his own vision of the collection on the final text. . . in terms of their friendship, their shared vision of a life dedicated to poetry in the Lakes, it was little short of a catastrophe. . . Wordsworth had shown extraordinary insensitivity to the effect that this rejection would have on Coleridge's powers and self-confidence. (285) Holmes' treatment of Wordsworth at times seems excessively harsh; however, he always justifies and supports his claims. Furthermore, one must remember that Holmes is writing a book on the visionary power of Coleridge; thus, anything that directly infringes upon this power would logically be an object for his denunciation.
Because a focus on Coleridge's spirit and vitality entails an examination of his constant desire to travel, explore, and meet new and exciting people, a problem of keeping track of both Coleridge's locale and acquaintances arises in the biography. Holmes includes helpful resources to assist his reader in following Coleridge's chaotic life. He provides detailed maps of the West Country, Germany, and the Lake District at the beginning of the respective chapters on those subjects. Coleridge's many excursions and walking tours take on a more realistic feel as one actually traces and visualizes his travels on the map. At the end of his biography, Holmes includes a detailed list of "Coleridge's Circle." Within this list, Holmes gives brief biographic notes on the people Coleridge either associated with or was influenced by. The circle includes everyone from good friends of Coleridge--Robert Southey and Charles Lamb--to influential thinkers around Coleridge--Immanuel Kant and David Hartley. Holmes even lists Robert Southey's dog, Rover, under a heading for "Pantisocrats, and Potential Recruits." Not only does this list serve as a reminder of who different people are as one reads the biography, but it also often refers the reader back to specific chapters where a fuller discussion of the individual takes place.
Holmes' final chapter and postscript bring the biography to a satisfying finish yet, at the same time, leaves the reader questioning and desiring more. After describing Coleridge's tumultuous early life, Holmes leaves the poet on the Speedwell ready to travel to the Mediterranean in search of improved health "gazing up at the stars, while the caged ducks 'quacked at' his legs companionably" (361). Holmes establishes a definite sense of closure; one part of Coleridge's life is complete. A sense of continuation, however, also exists in this final chapter. Like a good novel, the biography begs to be continued. In his postscript Holmes comments on his unfinished biography which he finds "appropriate homage . . . to the great master of the suggestive fragment" (362). He speculates on what Coleridge's reputation would have been if he had died in the Mediterranean in 1804 as he and many of his friends had expected. He wonders if Coleridge would have been remembered for the visionary genius of his youth rather than the faults of his later life. He ultimately asks his reader to reflect on the value of Coleridge's "extraordinary mind" based solely on what he presented so far in this first part of his biography.Return to English 650 Syllabus