Entrancing the passers-by

The Life of Samuel Taylor Coleridge: A critical biography by Rosemary Ashton, Blackwell, pounds 25; He was a genius afflicted by guilt and opium. But metaphysics got him in the end. By Lachlan Mackinnon
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Most readers now only remember Coleridge for two works, ''Kubla Khan'' and ''The Rime of the Ancient Mariner'', probably written in 1797 and 1798 respectively. His was not, though, a meteoric career ending in early death. A generation older than Shelley, Keats and Byron, he outlived them all. Much of his best poetry is too little known: his political and religious thought has a persistent but subterranean influence, and his critical writing still colours the whole way in which we think about literature.

Coleridge's precocious brilliance was evident when he was a boy at Christ's Hospital. Charles Lamb, who was at school with him, described how the ''casual passer'' would ''stand still, entranced with admiration'' as ''the inspired charity-boy'' unfolded classical philosophy and poetry to his friends. Rosemary Ashton brings out well the trauma which underlay this self-assurance, an effective nine-year separation from his west country family: he was sent to school at nine, after his father's death, and hardly went home again.

At Cambridge, Coleridge seemed destined for high achievement but, burdened by debts, he ran away to join the army under the name Silas Tomkyn Comberbache. Rescued by his elder brother George, Coleridge fell in with the poet Robert Southey.

Southey wanted to set up a commune in America, a scheme called Pantisocracy. Part of the scheme was that Southey and Coleridge were to marry sisters. Coleridge's marriage to Sara Fricker, with whom he had almost nothing in common, was a disaster which dogged the rest of his life.

Now set up as a radical poet and speaker in Bristol, Coleridge attracted the attention of local and metropolitan intellectuals, but his life was transformed by his meeting William Wordsworth. Within a fairly short time, the two men were collaborating on the volume Lyrical Ballads, the publication of which in 1798 is usually taken as the start of the revolution we call English Romanticism. This should have been the beginning of Coleridge's major phase, but as a poet he was almost finished by 1803. He continued to write, but never so well as in his golden early years, when he produced almost a dozen poems of major importance.

What went wrong? Undoubtedly, Coleridge's addiction to opium played a part. He was not, in fact, a taker of very heavy doses, but the drug weakened his will to accomplish the creative tasks he set himself. It also exacerbated a pervasive sense of non-specific guilt which he had felt from youth. Coleridge's self-esteem was badly dented by meeting Wordsworth, a far more assured and single-minded character. His feeling that Wordsworth was a far better poet than himself was dispiriting, although Wordsworth in fact owed a great deal poetically to Coleridge. Marital unhappiness certainly did not help. Coleridge's family and friends laid most of the blame, though, on his interest in philosophy, his determination to be a metaphysician. Rosemary Ashton seems to support this view.

Certainly, after 18O3 most of Coleridge's work was in prose. From an increasingly conservative perspective, Coleridge wrote until his death in 1834 about poetry, politics, philosophy, religion and himself. The most famous of his later books, Biographia Literaria (1817), contains, amongst other things, some of the acutest critical attention Wordsworth has ever received and the most teasing yet penetrating definition that exists of what the Romantics understood by "Imagination".

Coleridge also contributed to the development of conservative thought about the relations between church and state, became one of the four or five pre-eminent readers Shakespeare has had, and bequeathed us the notion of the ''clerisy'', the nearest thing to an English intellectual class. The latter notion influenced Matthew Arnold in particular, while Coleridge's creation of ''practical criticism'' has, through I.A. Richards, T.S. Eliot and F.R. Leavis, dominated the teaching of English literature in schools and universities until nearly the present day. At the moment, the rage is for literary theory and Coleridge is again a precursor. The models now are French, but his work on German philosophy and aesthetics was of equal, if not greater, depth.

The problem here is that Coleridge at some points was guilty of plagiarism, and this vice is only one to add to many others. Supported through his life by friends, he never had to earn a living and never showed financial responsibility. He contributed to the decay of his marriage by neglecting his wife and children. He could, as Professor Ashton says, have been a model parent, but he was too much away. He analysed his own weaknesses unsparingly but was impotent to overcome them. Virginia Woolf wrote of him that ''Dickens would need to be doubled with Henry James, to be trebled with Proust, in order to convey the complexity and the conflict of a Pecksniff who despises his own hypocrisy, of a Micawber who is humiliated by his own humiliation." It is brave of Professor Ashton to quote these words, for this biography is sadly lacking in empathy with its subject, whom she keeps rebuking for immaturity.

Professor Ashton's remarks on Coleridge's poems are briskly conventional. She conveys little sense of the richness that they possess at their best, and her critical remarks are further vitiated by her tacit acceptance that philosophy was Coleridge's poetic undoing. His great poems are, in fact, informed throughout by philosophical concerns about the problems of morality and of knowledge. To ignore this is to underrate them. Equally, as critic and as thinker, he was always motivated by philosophical concerns: he was not a great philosopher, but without aiming in this direction he might never have done anything else.

It may be that a true ''critical biography'' of Coleridge is impossible. As Rosemary Ashton herself observes, nobody has done the reading Coleridge did. None the less, to understand Coleridge at all we must see that his life was finally a unity, and although this book is extremely useful for factual reference it cannot explain why its apparently self-dissipating subject should matter to us now as much as he does.