Books: Alone on a wide sea

Miranda Seymour traces the progress of a poet's life steeped in sadness, but flashlit by genius; Coleridge: Darker Reflections by Richard Holmes HarperCollins, pounds 19.99, 622pp
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The wonderful and under-celebrated Katherine Coburn spent 33 years editing Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Notebooks. One wonders whether the thought appalled or comforted Richard Holmes as 1998 arrived to remind him that it was 16 years since he had written his first brief book on Coleridge, and noted in it the absence of a biography which dealt satisfactorily with both the poet's life and the work.

Seven years on, Holmes produced Early Visions. He gave his readers what they have come to expect. Here, as in his books on Shelley and Johnson, was a celebration of youth, energy and literary ambitions, memorably set in locations which gathered interest from Holmes's own exuberant enthusiasm - his almost mystic faith that to be in the place is to understand, almost to become, the subject of biography.

It worked beautifully. Then there was a long silence, broken only by Holmes's short, marvellous appraisal of Samuel Johnson's friendship with Richard Savage and, in 1996, by a selection of Coleridge's poetry. That, it began to seem, was going to be it as far as Coleridge was concerned. It almost made sense. What more graceful tribute could there be to the master of the unfinished work than to present him incomplete, caught before the fall? Or had Holmes, so powerfully connected by his lives to the young, shrunk away from the grinding sadness of presenting a man whose creative powers were waning and who looked, as he mournfully noted, 20 years more than his age?

Those speculations were wrong; and it was worth the wait. While no other biographer will envy Holmes the burden of charting a life so dreadfully steeped in sadness, disappointment and self-loathing, he has succeeded brilliantly.

This - and I can't remember ever thinking this before so strongly - is a biography to grow old with. It deserves to be read, not just by those who like the Romantic period, or enjoy literary lives, but by everybody interested in the way the creative mind works. This is a life, in the most literal sense. Events are of secondary importance. First, and rightly so, comes the story of mental revolutions, of the daily workings of a most extraordinary mind.

Most of us think of Coleridge as he was when he first arrived to stay with the Wordsworths at Racedown, a big-eyed, plump-faced young man in such a hurry to reach them that he jumped clean over a gate and came bounding across a field. Wordsworth was already calmly preparing himself for glorious achievements, paring down everything superfluous to his poetic needs.

Coleridge was just the opposite, bursting with information and ideas, watching everything, taking notes. His mind could have been compared to the whirling fragments at the end of a kaleidoscope; all was well if the cylinder was carefully turned. This was the beginning of the glorious period which saw the publication of the Lyrical Ballads in 1798 and the writing of "Christabel", "Kubla Khan" and "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner".

This period is over when Darker Reflections opens. Wretched in his marriage, obsessed with his deteriorating body and heavily addicted to opium, Coleridge was persuaded to leave England in 1804. Between his return in 1806 and his decision to put himself under Dr Gillman's care and attempt to break the addiction in 1816, he went to hell and back again, several times.

"Kind good soul... wants will. He has no resolution," Carlyle wrote after visiting Coleridge in his old age. Holmes shows how painfully Coleridge was aware of this flaw, and of how he struggled to overcome it. We know him as the master of the unfinished work: "Christabel', "Kubla Khan" and his vastly ambitious Biographia Literaria were all published uncompleted. Coleridge was defiant. "By what I have done am I to be judged," he wrote. "What I might have done is a matter for my own conscience."

Notorious for his plagiarisms from contemporary German writers, Coleridge defended himself by claiming the right for all to communicate shared truths. ("I care not from whose mouth the sounds are said to proceed, if only the words are audible and intelligible"). Reluctance to publish his own greatest poems before they reached a finished form resulted in Coleridge himself being plagiarised. Scott's immensely popular "Lady of the Lake" was, as Coleridge painfully noted, plundered from the unpublished "Christabel". But Scott can hardly be blamed.

Coleridge delighted in reading his poems aloud to admirers; the effect was said to be mesmerising. Byron, one of Coleridge's most generous supporters, was probably echoing the recital Coleridge had given him when he read the ghostly "Christabel" to his friends by Lake Geneva and sent Shelley, screaming with terror, from the room.

The book is full of magnificent set pieces of imaginative recreation. Memorably, Holmes describes the nightmares and horrors of Coleridge's continuing addiction, the sense of serpents coiling after him, plucking him back to momentary ease, and the shame which followed. But he also gives us the setting for Coleridge's one, unexpected financial triumph, when his play, Remorse, became a London hit, and put much needed money in his pocket. Typically, he gave it all away, not to his absent family but to his kindly protectors, the Morgan family. Six months later, he was penniless again.

Picking jewels out of such a box of treasures is hard. One would be the pathos of Coleridge when he discovered that his old friend Wordsworth had confided to a mutual friend that he thought him a hopeless case.

Weeping in Mary Lamb's parlour, he endlessly repeated the dreadful words he had heard, that Wordsworth "has no hope of me". Mary, Holmes quietly adds, poured her old friend a large glass of brandy.

Another must be the year 1818, when Hazlitt and Coleridge were both lecturing in London. Hazlitt, lucid, pithy, sure of his audience, devoted his last talk to an attack on the poet he had once adored and now despised for having abandoned his radical beliefs. Having rubbished everything Coleridge wrote, he suddenly changed tack and told his listeners that Coleridge was the only genius he had ever met, the only man from whom he had learnt, the greatest talker in the world, the man who could talk, whom he would wish to talk, for ever.

This is the aspect of Coleridge which gives buoyancy to what is often an unbearably sad second volume. Against the lies, the betrayals, the procrastinations, Holmes always keeps us in mind of the enchantment of Coleridge at his best.

Hazlitt had been enthralled in 1798; meeting Coleridge 20 years later, when he had become the white-haired magus of Highgate, living in kind Dr Gillman's care, young Keats was equally spellbound. They walked for two miles together while Coleridge talked, among other things, of poetry, dreams, the difference between will and volition, monsters and metaphysics.

They never met again, but Holmes notes that Keats wrote the most Coleridgean of his works, "La Belle Dame Sans Merci", a few days later. It is one of a hundred cases, not all so instantly plausible as this one, in which he shows Coleridge's influence rippling out - and on.