ART & LIFE

POSTCARD BIOGRAPHIES FROM THE NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY: 5. T S Eliot (1888-1965) on Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834)

From the late 1920s, the National Portrait Gallery invited leading writers to create 70-word biographies, of subjects whose portraits hang in the Gallery, for the backs of postcards. In this 12-week series, we present some of the most exceptional and unexpected of these unknown literary gems

When five years old had read the Arabian Nights. Christ's Hospital and Cambridge. Metaphysician and poet. His life was ill-regulated: weak, slothful, a voracious reader, he contracted an unhappy marriage and much later the habit of taking laudanum. Described his own character in his great "Ode to Dejection" (1802). The greatest English literary critic, he was also the greatest intellectual force of his time. Probably influenced Newman, Maurice and the Young Tories; and died the guest of Mr Gillman of Highgate. T S Eliot

T S Eliot's brief sketch of Coleridge appraised his genius warmly while casting a cold eye over his personal faults. The enigmatic last comment may need an explanation. James Gillman, an apothecary of Highgate, was approached by the poet in 1816 for help with his opium addiction. STC proposed to stay in the household for one month, going cold turkey under Gillman's supervision. But even before the month was up, Coleridge was giving him the slip and procuring the drug elsewhere. This eccentric, demanding yet charming houseguest stayed on for the next 18 years, until his death; Gillman, physician, philanthropist and fan, must rank as of one of literature's most devoted patrons.

Portraits, drawings and letters from the "postcard biography" archives are on display at the National Portrait Gallery, St Martin's Place, London WC2. Free.

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