BOOKS: FLIGHT OF AN ENCHANTER

Early promise, late excuses. Two hundred years on, Samuel Taylor Coleridge - 'the model for all writers who can't deliver' - is revived for our age by three new books

COLERIDGE is the first great failure in English literature. Idler, junkie, sponger, flunkey, profligate, procrastinator, beggarman, thief: whatever name you choose, he is the model for all writers who can't deliver, whose promise gets lost in the post. Hazlitt called him "the Prince of preparatory authors", and there was indeed something almost regal about his missed deadlines and unopened letters, his airy promises and frank untruths. Tomorrow, for sure, he was going to finish his magnum opus - but tomorrow never came.

It could all have been so different if he had died at 30. By then he had already written the poems he's remembered for - "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner", "Dejection: An Ode", "Frost at Midnight", "Christabel" and "Kubla Khan" - and could have taken his place as a tragic genius like Keats or Shelley. Instead, living on into his sixties, he wrote more but achieved less, diluting rather than adding to his achievement. Where Wordsworth, his friend and rival, has left us a deep sea of poetry, all Coleridge offers is the odd tantalising spurt and jet - little STCs, not measured joy.

So the story goes - got started in Coleridge's lifetime, and has run on ever since. De Quincey and Hazlitt played their part in creating the legend, but no one did more to contribute than the poet himself. He dramatises himself as "the sole unbusy thing" while others buzz purposefully around. His letters and notebooks, full of agony, apology, depression and self- reproach, tell a tale of waning powers: the fountainhead has dried up, the candle's been snuffed, the bottle's stoppered, the songbird has flown. The prefaces to his poems, though intended to be disarming, draw attention to insufficiencies: "the following humble fragment", this "trifle [of] primitive crudity", and so on - even "Kubla Khan" is offered as "a psychological curiosity" rather than a work with "poetic merits". Introducing one late prose fragment, Coleridge suggests that a younger poet "may find a pleasure in restoring [it] to its original integrity by a reduction of the thoughts to the requisite metre". There could hardly be a more poignant cry for help - someone else do it, please - or a plainer confession of failure.

Yet 200 years to the month since he published his first collection, Coleridge goes on attracting admirers. Perhaps no age could be more receptive than ours to what he does well: the fragment, the soundbite, or what Ted Hughes in a brilliant phrase calls his "amputated kind of completeness". Perhaps, now that we're beyond the Eliotic or Leavisite obsession with organic unity, it's less shaming to admit that Coleridge's notebook entries make better reading than some of his contemporaries' well-shaped poems. Perhaps we're far enough away to appreciate how energetic and imaginative his complaints of loss of energy and imagination are:

"I was once a Volume of Gold Leaf, rising & riding on every breath of Fancy - but I have beaten myself back into weight and density, & now I sink in quicksilver, yea, remain squat and square on the earth amid the hurricane, that makes Oaks and straws join in one Dance, fifty yards high in the Element."

Whatever the reasons for the revival, three new books confidently set about the task of resuscitating Coleridge: Rosemary Ashton in a solid intellectual biography which emphasises the value of his later criticism and opinion-forming; and Ted Hughes and Richard Holmes in fresh editions of (and lengthy commentaries on) the poems - selections which present him in a new, less unforgiving light.

Coleridge's troubles, all agree, started early. The youngest of ten children, he lost his father when he was nine, and his mother's attention and love even before that. In one traumatic, Cain-like incident, fearing his mother's reaction after he'd pulled a knife on an older brother, Coleridge ran away and spent the night, in storm and rain, on the bank of the River Otter. He was seven at the time, and was to run away again many times as an adult. The image of the lost child calling for his mother recurs throughout his work. More importantly, Ted Hughes believes, the incident underlies the mythic drama of his three greatest poems, with their confrontations of Mother, Nature and God.

At ten, Coleridge was sent from his Devon home to Christ's Hospital in London - a school for orphans and the gentry poor. He did precociously well there, but wasn't happy, and visited his mother only three or four times in nine years. "He loved no other place, and yet / Home was no home to him" runs one of his poems. Orphan-like, he continued for many years to seek out families who'd love and adopt him.

At Cambridge, Coleridge settled into a familiar pattern. He escaped his old self through "abstruse research". He escaped research by writing poetry. He escaped poetry in drink and debauchery, which ran him into debt. He escaped debt, or tried to, by buying a ticket in the Irish Lottery. He escaped further debt by enlisting with a regiment. He escaped the regiment through a plea of insanity. He escaped insanity by embracing the radical Jacobinist ideas of friends in Cambridge. He escaped Cambridge on a walking tour with Southey, and dreamt of escaping England to found a Pantisocratic colony on the banks of the Susquehannah. Then he met Sara Fricker, Southey's sister-in-law - and escaped into marriage instead.

He might have escaped that, too, if he had been less impulsive ("A moment's reflection might have told me, Love is not a plant of so mushroom a growth"). But the marriage went ahead, under pressure from Southey, and proved a disaster. If the 1986 biography of her by Molly Lefebure is to be believed, Sara doesn't merit the nasty and condescending portrait Coleridge left behind. But there was never much chance she'd hang on to this night-wandering man, even after the birth of their children.

As a Romantic and Pantisocrat, Coleridge venerated children, and believed that a childlike nature was essential to the poet (he once wrote that poetry should work like "the touch of a blind man feeling the face of a darling child"). But looking after his own children, he found, wasn't easily compatible with nurturing the child within. His delight in his first two sons, Berkeley and Hartley, was genuine enough: few fathers have written so tenderly and domestically as Coleridge does in the Conversation poems. But he was always somehow away from home (even for their births), and while they were still toddling took off on a lengthy trip to Germany. There he was informed of Berkeley's death: "Heaven and Earth!" his friend Thomas Poole wrote, seeking to console by diminishing the tragedy, "I have myself within the last month experienced disappointments more weighty than the death of ten infants." Duly comforted, Coleridge procrastinated for months before returning home.

He had gone to Germany with William and Dorothy Wordsworth, who absorbed him, emotionally as well as intellectually, far more than did Sara. Coleridge was quick to recognise Wordsworth's greatness - he wrote that he felt "a little man by his side" - and at first the admiration was mutual. For a year or more they lived in and out of each other's pockets, swapping lines and plundering some of Dorothy's freshest observations: "She gave me eyes, she gave me ears," Wordsworth wrote of his sister; she gave the chaps some of their best images, too. But there were two quite different poetic temperaments at work (Wordsworth believed in the naturalistic, Coleridge in the supernatural), and though the first edition of the Lyrical Ballads, the high point of their collaboration, obscured these differences, for the second edition two years later Wordsworth insisted on making them plain: he would not include "Christabel" and would have left out "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" if he could.

The relationship flickered on for many years, but it was never the same. Coleridge's confidence had been shattered. Self-demeaning rather than openly resentful, he began portraying himself as a mere metaphysician, a poet with flashy power but no depth or strength. The self-doubt contributed to his use of opium, and surely explains most of his plagiarisms as well: "a library cormorant" anyway, he filched from others because he didn't think he was good enough on his own. Accusations of plagiarism - by him and against him - shadowed the rest of his life, and beyond.

Ironically, at the time of the split with Wordsworth, Coleridge had been writing some of his most moving poetry, born of his love for William's sister-in-law, Sara Hutchinson. The Asra poems, as they're known, look the richer for being grouped together in Richard Holmes's selection, which prints "The Dejection Ode" back-to-back with an earlier, longer version addressed as a letter to Sara. In this Coleridge sings his love-song "with my breast against a thorn" - the thorn of his marriage, that is - and, conscious of a happiness that "might have been", half-wishes his children had never been born. Years later, more sceptically, he wondered if his love for Sara had been a delusion, another of his supernatural inventions.

About the unworkability of marriage to the other Sara he had no doubt, and by 1806 he had separated from her. How much this affected him, for good or ill or even at all, is hard to say. The tone of his poetry, what little new there is of it, darkens after he's past 30, but solitude and depression had always been part of his temper. His gloomy introspectiveness may be one reason why he appeals to a post-Freudian age. Stretched out on the rack of himself, he watches happiness flitting away from him like children leaving the nest. Caught in a spider-web, he feels the world close in on him. Hope, or the lack of it, is an abiding theme: backward- looking hope in a race with blindfold time; visionary hope, which gives work a purpose beyond drone-like repetition; hope of love, without which life becomes a limbo, "the mere horror of blank Naught-at-all". There's a touch of Beckett in some of this later work, which Richard Holmes groups as the "Confessional Poems". Limping on through the vale of tears, the poet seems at best gloomy and at worst close to suicidal despair.

Though he did contemplate suicide on several occasions, the outward circumstances of his life were less crepuscular than the poetry suggests. "Why was I made for Love and Love denied to me?" one poem asks, but - surrounded by generous patrons, and friends who'd take him in at a moment's notice - he had little cause to feel unloved. There were fallings-out, as his admirers and supporters became exasperated by his opium- addiction, and lack of gratitude, and general failure to deliver. There were astonishingly hostile ad hominem reviews. But even at the worst of times he inspired feelings of protectiveness.

He also worked to more purpose than he liked to concede. Rosemary Ashton pays particular attention to his lectures: between 1808 and 1819, he delivered some 120 of them - on Shakespeare, on education, on philosophy, on European literature. Some of these recycled his own and others' material but even so, on top of his journalism, poetry and the Biographia Literaria, it's not the record of a sluggard. His table-talk was legendary, and as the sage of Highgate he attracted numerous visitors and disciples. What contemporaries saw as his spendthrift conversational eloquence ("his mind," said Hazlitt, "keeps open house, and entertains all comers"), Ms Ashton prefers to see as a valuable engagement in the intellectual climate of his day, and she patiently elucidates his debt to Kant, Schelling and other German thinkers. Her solid, respectful life makes Coleridge look more solid and respectable than he's done for many a year.

Solidity is also a preoccupation of Ted Hughes, in the essay which introduces his selection of the verse. Picking up a metaphor from the notebooks, he argues that Coleridge too often lacks solidity, or oak-like strength, because afraid of and in flight from turbulent feelings. Only in the "three- act tragic opera" of 1797-8 - "Kubla Khan", "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" and "Christabel" - was he able to confront his inner demons (who in his dreams take the form of grotesque women) and release his visionary power. Only here, in this "triple exposure photograph", does his "unleavened" pagan self triumph over his fearful, intellectual, Christian self. Hughes's essay is sometimes more revealing about his own shamanistic preoccupations than about Coleridge. But it's full of fascinating insights, and a kind of dramatic fable in its own right.

Feeling as he does about Coleridge's fierce but narrow beam of power, Hughes allows only 15 poems into his canon, adding a further 12 as a supplement. Richard Holmes casts the net much wider, with 101 poems compiled over the 10 years he's been working on Coleridge's Life (the compilation began as a loose-leaf binder intended only for his own use). Some of the poems are barely worth having in themselves, but Holmes's footnotes to them, and his ordering of them into eight distinct categories, are wonderfully illuminating and enlarging. Who would have believed, for example, that Coleridge wrote over 2,000 lines of ballad (even if only three of his ballads were completed)? Another section is given over to what Holmes calls Hill Walking poems: Coleridge is not good at describing landscapes, but "the upward, striding airy quality of these poems" reminds us that he was literally as well as metaphysically a wanderer - a man who may have had a ponderous "alderman-after-dinner" gait by the time Keats met him in 1819, but who at 30 walked 263 miles through the Scottish Highlands in eight days. Coleridge wasn't much of a political or occasional poet, either, but it's good to have from both Holmes and Hughes "The Devil's Thoughts", a satire which retains its topicality:

"He saw a certain minister

(A minister to his mind)

Go up into a certain House

With a majority behind."

Southey complained that Coleridge was always nosing for nettles in hedgerows, when he should have gone like a greyhound for the hare. In the end, though, Coleridge's shambling habits, nettled anguish and flibbertigibbet flashes of genius are precisely what endear him to us.

! 'The Life of Samuel Taylor Coleridge' by Rosemary Ashton (Blackwell pounds 25); 'A Choice of Coleridge's Verse' ed Ted Hughes (Faber pounds 7.99). 'Coleridge: Selected Poems' ed Richard Holmes is published on 21 March (HarperCollins pounds 20).

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