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Coleridge: Early Visions, 1772-1804 by…
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Coleridge: Early Visions, 1772-1804

by Richard Holmes

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The cover of Coleridge: Early Visions by Richard Holmes is promising – Winner of the 1989 Whitbread prize and a hypnotic portrait of Coleridge that captures the archetypal romantic poet – large grey eyes, sensual thick lips and long dark hair. Holmes begins with an allusion to Coleridge’s preface of ‘Kubla Khan’: ‘Anyone who presumes to write about Coleridge runs the grave risk of sounding like the person on business from Porlock, a prosaic interrupter of marvels’. He outlines how critics have tended to concentrate on his faults – ‘his opium addiction, his plagiarisms, his fecklessness in marriage, his political apostasy, his sexual fantasies or his radiation of mystic humbug’ – and wants to empathetically portray ‘his fascination as a man and a writer’, ‘his physical presence’ and ‘to make his voice sound’.

The book covers the first thirty-one years of Coleridge’s life (1772-1804), when he wrote his most memorable poetry. There is a further volume entitled Coleridge: Darker Reflections covering the second half of his life and Holmes draws on material from his Biographia Literaria written in 1814-15 and the writings of his circle of friends and acquaintances such as Hazlitt, Lamb, Southey, Dorothy and William Wordsworth. Holmes follows a traditional sequence – what Holroyd terms ‘the prison of chronology’ – through Coleridge’s childhood, schooling at Christ’s Hospital and Cambridge University, his time as a radical Pantisocrat and journalist, marriage to Sara Fricker, collaboration with Wordsworth, travel and study in Germany, relationship with Sara Hutchinson and ends with his departure for Malta.

Holmes brings to light a number of recurring themes that give coherence to Coleridge’s life story. He was a character of complexity and contradiction – a precocious child prodigy, a voracious reader and articulate conversationalist but insecure, plagued by self-doubt and anxiety. His chaotic approach to life follows patterns of exuberant, impetuous behaviour then remorseful, self-deprecating apologies until the next enthusiasm. Holmes likens him to a comet leaving a trail of unfinished projects among the brilliance with ‘dreamlike ascents, and whirling descents into the abyss’. He conveys his movement and energy, relating anecdotes recorded by the Wordsworths of Coleridge walking forty miles, leaping over a gate and bounding down through a field of corn to meet them.

Coleridge’s letters and notebooks show his self-mocking humour – Holmes quotes from a note sent with the manuscript of ‘The Nightingale’ to Wordsworth, (a ditty that perhaps parallels Coleridge’s career):

In stale blank verse a subject stale
I send per post my Nightingale
And like an honest bard, dear Wordsworth,
You’ll tell me what you think, my Bird’s worth.
My own opinion’s briefly this –
His bill he opens not amiss;
And when he has sung a stave or so,
His breast, & some small space below,
So throbs & swells, that you might swear
No vulgar music’s working there.
So far, so good; but then, ’od rot him!
There’s something falls off at his bottom…

To his wife he outlines his travel plans ‘Cornwall perhaps, - Ireland perhaps – perhaps Cumberland – possibly, Naples, or Madeira, or Teneriffe. I don’t see any likelihood of our going to the Moon, or to either of the Planets, or fixed Stars - & that is all I can say’. Holmes also shares this disparaging style – Coleridge’s father was appointed vicar of Ottery St Mary’s ‘on the death of the incumbent, the Rev. Richard Holmes MA (a man who left no significant trace)’. Coleridge often used images of birds and flight in his letters and notebooks – he describes himself as a ‘library-cormorant’ and ‘I lay too many eggs in the hot sands…with ostrich carelessness’. Holmes also uses these metaphors to describe his fluctuating schemes as a ‘flock of starlings’ expanding and contracting at will and his ‘cuckoo-like invasion of other people’s households’.

Although the biography is structured around the chronological bones, the heart of the story is the evolution of Coleridge’s poetry and Holmes shows how ‘the life of the writer is part of the text of his work’, without diverting into critical analysis. He includes a series of stimulating footnotes that give another perspective or speculation which he likens to the marginal gloss of ‘The Ancient Mariner’. Despite Coleridge’s lack of maritime experience, images of solitary, perilous sea-voyages or dreams and hallucinations recur frequently in his letters and notebooks. In 1801 during an imaginative crisis he describes his ‘Mind shipwrecked by storms of doubt, now mastless, rudderless, shattered – pulling in the dead swell of a dark and windless Sea’. The origin of the much debated ‘Kubla Khan’ and its fascinating preface is the central chapter. Although it wasn’t published until 1816, Holmes suggests it was ‘one of his wonderful enchantments, known by heart, and chanted in private company’, and shows how the geographical imagery of the poem lies in the topography of the Quantock Hills of Somerset – a hidden stream, and a thick wooded chasm that runs down to the sea. He alludes to this imagery in describing Coleridge as ‘a huge river; while Wordsworth was a mighty rock’.

Hazlitt described ‘Kubla Khan’ as ‘not a poem, but a musical composition’, and Holroyd says letters and notebooks are ‘faint score sheets scripted by the dead from which the biographer tries to conjure sounds, rekindle life’. Holmes allows Coleridge’s voice to soar and sing from the pages – ‘brilliant, animated, endlessly provoking’. His enthusiasm for his subject is neither adulation nor denigration but an understanding of his life that gives meaning and sense to his writing. Holmes immerses himself in following ‘his journey through the world’ to the extent of climbing on to the roof at Greta Hall, Keswick as Coleridge had done. Kipling described biography as ‘a higher form of cannibalism’ but Holmes sensitively balances the private and public persona and does not fabricate possible hidden aspects of character. He gives the impression of a posthumous dialogue with his subject, ‘a handshake across time’, that has not ‘added a new terror to death’ but rather lets him live again.
  effrenata | Feb 12, 2011 |
I have never before read a biogrpahy of Coleridge, so I thought I should. But since I have no interest in Coleridge as philosopher, I do not intend to read volume 2 which covers his life from 1804 to his death on 25 Jul 1834. In fact, much of this book did not engage my interest. I suppose my main interest in Coleridge is that he wrote Kubla Khan, which I have memorized, and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, which is full of great lines including:
"Like one, that on a lonesome road
Doth walk in fear and dread,
And having once turned round walks on,
And turns no more his head;
Because he knows, a frightful fiend
Doth close behind him tread." ( )
  Schmerguls | Nov 5, 2010 |
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A biography of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the 19th century British poet who wrote The Ancient Mariner and Kubla Khan. The book examines his neuralgia, which turned him into an opium addict, and the influence this had on his writing. It follows his career in the civil service, his failed marriages and a trip to Germany where he came under the influence of German idealism, becoming its principal conduit in England.… (more)

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