Richard Holmes’s Coleridge: Early Visions is a fantastic book. I found myself enthralled by the story the whole way though. This is only the first volume and I haven’t had a chance to begin the second one yet, but I’m eager to get to it when I can. I don’t usually enjoy biographies quite this much; I like reading them now and then, but when I’m in the middle of them they can sometimes feel the tiniest bit like a chore, especially when they are long. I’m not particularly good at retaining facts, so I sometimes read biographies wondering how much of them I will forget very shortly. But Holmes does such a good job here those uncertainties didn’t bother me.
In his preface Holmes discusses one of his techniques that makes his biography stand out: he has:
attempted, from the very start, to set Coleridge talking, to tell his story through his own magnificent — and constantly humorous — flights of phrase and metaphor. I have tried to make his voice sound steadily through the narrative, and indeed in the end to dominate it.
And this is exactly what he does, using quotations from poems, letters, journals, and essays liberally throughout. It helps to create a rich picture of who Coleridge was and what he must have been like to know.
But Holmes was helped by having such a wonderfully interesting subject to write about. Coleridge was a great poet, but he was also a great personality and managed to wrap nearly everyone he met around his finger, at least for a while. Holmes tells the story of Hazlitt’s obsession with Coleridge, a story that illustrates what seems to have been a common dynamic: Hazlitt met Coleridge when he was a young, very awkward boy and was immediately overawed by Coleridge’s colorful personality. As he got older, though, he changed his mind, deciding that Coleridge’s mystical and metaphysical turn of mind was just a lot of balderdash and becoming thoroughly disillusioned and bitter. Coleridge had a history of very close, very intense friendships that eventually went awry, with Hazlitt, but even more famously with Robert Southey and William Wordsworth.
Coleridge was a great talker, both in private conversation and in his popular, if politically controversial, public lectures. He also had a flair for political journalism, for literary criticism, for letter-writing, and for private journal-keeping. Holmes greatly admires his poetry, but praises his prose style almost as highly. He also was one for big schemes and plans, including one called Pantisocracy that would have taken him and his family and a small group of friends over to America to found a utopian society on the banks of the Susquehanna. It didn’t work out, but Coleridge never lost his idealism and Holmes argues that Pantisocratic ideals shape Coleridge’s thinking for the rest of his life.
He was a genius, Holmes makes clear, at coming up with brilliant ideas and plans, but rarely did he follow through on them; in fact, he became notorious for his lists of ideas and dreams that remained unaccomplished. He held so much potential, so much of it unrealized, although Holmes emphasizes the brilliance of the things he was able to accomplish and argues that his ability to dream is in and of itself worthy of admiration.
This first volume takes us through the first 32 years of Coleridge’s life, from 1772 to 1804. The second volume is ominously subtitled “Darker Reflections,” although we can already see the beginnings of the darker part of Coleridge’s life in the first volume. He began taking opium in the first volume, the habit that will shape the second half of his life in dramatic ways. He also struggled with unhappiness in his marriage, uncertainty about his career path, and uncertain finances, although he did receive financial support from patrons who had great faith in his abilities.
I also admired Holmes for doing an excellent job of placing Coleridge in his intellectual context, describing his contributions to the literary and philosophical trends of the time. Coleridge knew so many important people and was good friends with many of them, so learning about Coleridge is a great way of learning about the time period itself.
So when I can, I’ll be on to volume 2, and I’ll have to prepare myself for some difficult times.