Coleridge: Darker Reflections by Richard Holmes - review by Juliet Barker

Juliet Barker

Such a Joy to Make Sense of Coleridge

Coleridge: Darker Reflections


HarperCollins 622pp £19.99

Richard Holmes ended the first volume of this biography, Coleridge: Early Visions, with a fascinating speculation. ‘Suppose Coleridge had indeed died, as he and his friends clearly expected he would, aged thirty-one, somewhere in the Mediterranean in 1804? Suppose his grave now lay, not in the leafy confines of Highgate Cemetery, but in the remote volcanic foothills of Mount Etna? Suppose his life had never actually had a part two? How would his reputation now stand?’ Holmes’s conclusion, rightly, was that we might be tempted to think of him as greater than the man he eventually became.

Unfortunately for everyone concerned (including himself and his biographer), Coleridge did not do the decent thing. Unlike Keats, Shelley and Byron, who ‘lived and died in a premature blaze of talents’, he belonged to the hardier, older generation of Wordsworth and Rogers. He did not die in 1804 but lived on for another thirty years, during which his literary achievement, as Holmes tacitly admitted, was overshadowed by failure, opium addiction and charges of plagiarism and apostasy. These were also the years of his greatest personal griefs and humiliations: his unrequited passion for Asra, his quarrel with Wordsworth and the abandonment of his wife and children.

‘Part Two’ would never be an easy book to write, particularly for a biographer like Holmes, who identifies so instinctively and closely with his subject that, on at least one occasion, he uses ‘us’ instead of ‘me’. Still, a nine-year interval between volumes must be something of a record. Did Holmes acquire Coleridge’s habit of procrastination, and become, like his subject in Hazlitt’s famous phrase, ‘a past master of the prospectus’? Or did he follow so many of Coleridge’s contemporary friends and disciples along the route from initial enchantment and bedazzlement to gradual disillusionment?

Tantalising though such speculations are, Holmes offers no explanation, apology or prefatory remarks. Darker Reflections begins at exactly the point where Early Visions breaks off, with Coleridge aboard the Speedwell on his way to Malta. The transition is so seamless, both chronologically and stylistically, that the book cannot stand alone and must be read as a sequel. What a joy, though, to be immersed in Holmes’s Coleridge once again! And this is, indisputably, Holmes’s Coleridge. His greatest skill as a biographer is not his empathy with his subject, great though this may be, but his ability to make sense of him.

Fundamental to this process is his mastery of Coleridge’s chaotic private notebooks. They enable us, as Holmes points out, to listen in to a Coleridge conversation (notoriously a monologue), giving a taste of the verbal skills with which he so often dazzled and seduced his auditors. They also reveal the inner man in a way that was denied even to his closest friends and sympathisers. Holmes uses them repeatedly to expose the disparity between Coleridge’s outward behaviour and his private feelings. In the summer of 1810, for instance, while wife and brother-in-law reported him in better health and excellent spirits, the notebooks reveal Coleridge in such depths of despair that he was actually contemplating suicide. His ability to hide such feeling so completely has the unexpected effect of making one fully appreciate the dilemma faced by his friends. It is all too easy to condemn the Wordsworths or Southey for believing that his behaviour could be managed and that, if only he left off opium and got down to some hard work, all would be well. Such beliefs appear facile and explain why Coleridge so often complained that he was not understood; but none of his friends were privy to the genuine state of his mind as revealed in the notebooks. Nor were they aware, as we are today, that his opium addiction had become a physical one, which mere strength of mind alone could not overcome.

What comes across so strongly in Darker Reflections is the devotion Coleridge inspired in so many friends. However low he sank, there was always someone there ready to pick him up again and help him make a new start: the Wordsworths, Josiah Wade, the Morgans, and finally the Gilmans. For years on end they endured all the sordid elements of his addiction, his deceits, unpredictable emotional outbursts, financial dependence, scatological nightmares and frequent enemas. They also had to accept what Holmes aptly calls his ‘cuckoo-like propensities’, his rejection of his own family but also his extraordinary need to be accepted as a fully-fledged member, if not the dominant male, of the families he adopted. With both Wordsworth and Morgan this to ok a particularly insidious form: Coleridge fell in love with their sisters-in-law and grew jealous of the attention lavished on the man of the house. Nevertheless, they all persevered with him, not out of a sense of duty, but quite simply because they loved him.

Holmes’s triumph is that he makes this explicable. He rarely attempts to excuse or conceal Coleridge’s flaws and remains admirably impartial even in charting the deep waters of his abandonment of his family and his quarrel with Wordsworth. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, Coleridge’s virtues shine forth in all their glory: his coruscating wit, his unquenchable curiosity and enthusiasm for new ideas, his poet’s eye for the perfect metaphor. His skills were as multifarious as his interests: he could transform himself from poet to trusted political adviser, from literary critic and lecturer to journalist and philosopher. (His German-influenced metaphysical speculations, I confess, leave me cold; Holmes insists on their brilliance and accessibility, but his own summaries are infinitely more comprehensible.) Wordsworth’s description of Coleridge as ‘the only wonderful man I ever knew’ at last seems justified.

In the light of such an achievement it seems churlish to complain that the end of this book does not live up to its beginning. From about the year 1818, and certainly for the last fourteen years of Coleridge’s life, there is a change of pace and tone which seems to reflect a disengagement with the subject. Holmes’s wonderful, leisurely, discursive prose gives way to a hurried summary of Coleridge’s last years – a few more lectures, a few more books, a brief sketch of life with the Gilmans. The reader is left feeling cheated and (which is a compliment to Holmes) wanting more. There is also a sense of omission: Coleridge’s Christianity, which had always been important but now became central to his life, is brushed aside: so is the relationship with Wordsworth, which, from this biography, one might believe ended completely in 1812. And it is difficult to believe that Holmes, usually the most perceptive of biographers, does not even mention Asra’s visit to Coleridge on his deathbed. This biography may be, like Coleridge himself, ‘an Archangel a little damaged’, but it is both an outstanding study and a mesmerising read.

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