Books: O God save me - from myself

Blake Morrison
Saturday 17 October 1998 23:02

Coleridge: Darker Reflections

by Richard Holmes HarperCollins pounds 19.99

People gave up on Coleridge once he reached 30. "He neither will nor can execute anything of important benefit either to himself, his family or mankind," said Wordsworth. Dorothy felt the same: "We have no hope of him." With friends like these, Coleridge didn't need enemies, though there were plenty of those, too, including Hazlitt, who vilified him as a political traitor and declared his poetry and philosophy to be "absolutely incomprehensible". Even those well- disposed to Coleridge have found it hard to say much on behalf of his later years. The story is of youthful hope and promise giving way to waste and failure: STC = Ecstasy + Stasis.

Richard Holmes, having written brilliantly about the sunny uplands of Coleridge's life, now returns, nearly a decade on, to explore the troughs. The mood is darker, certainly. But Holmes finds his subject much less prodigal than reputation suggests. Through generous quotation - from poems, letters, lectures, articles, notebooks and lesser-known bits of the oeuvre - he resusciates the later Coleridge as a tortured but inspirational figure.

He begins in the years 1804-6, with Coleridge adrift in the Mediterranean. Most observers have seen this time as characteristically idle and malingering. It's true that Coleridge was running away from problems at home. But he also forged important friendships, and made such a favourable impression in Malta that he became Acting Public Secretary, a stimulating if stressful job at a lavish pounds 600-a-year salary. Coleridge the wartime bureaucrat sounds unlikely. But by all accounts he acquitted himself well.

Back home he delayed confronting his wife Sara, troubled relations with whom were, he thought, "at the bottom of all my irresolution, procrastination, langour and former detestable habit of poison- taking": he had "cut the throat of my Happiness" by marrying her. In truth, the opium habit and all the rest went on much as before after he'd separated from her. But he did finally make the break. It brought him moral opprobrium but freed him to live in ways more suited to his fidgety, childlike nature. The pattern had been set earlier, when he'd moved in on the Wordsworths. From now until his death, he lived like a baby cuckoo in others' nests.

To support himself and his estranged family wasn't easy, since publishers showed little interest in his work. His solution was to embark on a series of lectures. Anxiety at having to perform increased his opium-taking, and many lectures were cancelled through illness. Those he did give have sometimes been ridiculed: a Max Beerbohm cartoon of him stupefying his audience gives the picture. But Richard Holmes, trawling through lecture- notes and quoting widely from those who attended, suggests he became very good at holding forth, especially when he improvised and digressed. In 1813, the fees and contacts he made from spouting in Bristol enabled him to raise about pounds 250 - twice his annual income - for his friends the Morgans (in whose house he'd been lodging), saving them from bankruptcy.

His other form of revenue was journalism. In 1809, he launched The Friend, which ran for 28 weekly issues, even if didn't come out quite every week, and which he wrote, edited and proofread himself, with a little help from the beloved but finally elusive "Asra", sister of Wordsworth's wife. Running The Friend from his then home at Grasmere meant overcoming printing difficulties and shortages of paper, trailing through the snow to Keswick and Penrith to deliver copy, and writing some140,000 words in nine months - about the length of two novels. As Richard Holmes rightly says, it was an astonishing achievement, not least because Coleridge had little interest in news, preferring the eternal verities of introspection. "I have been giving," he wrote, "the History of my own mind."

Back in London, after the split with the Wordsworths, Coleridge had a second shot at journalism, writing for the pro-Government Courier. Dorothy thought it "sullying and perverting" of him, and his eagerness to take on anything, however humble, does suggest how badly his self-confidence had been shaken. The various plagiarisms to be found in his work of this time (most of them thefts from German critics and philosphers) also stemmed from self-doubt - though as Holmes points out, plagiarism in Coleridge is a complex matter, and however guiltily he concealed and denied it, he was eloquent in defence of the practice: "I regard truth as a divine ventriloquist: I care not from whose mouth the sounds are supposed to proceed."

Blocked as a poet (in the bowels, too), mocked as a hack and plagiarist, and unable to kick his opium habit (the moment before relapse was, he confessed, "like the pause in the balancing of a Javelin"), Coleridge might easily have died 20 years before he did. But, unusually for someone paranoid and overwrought ("like a Volcano beneath a sea always burning"), he had a talent for hanging on - and believed in the idea of resurrection. The stubborness paid off. In 1813, his verse-play Remorse had an extraordinary success at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane. A run of a week or two was the best he'd hoped for, but it stayed on for months, was regularly performed in other cities over the next few years, and made him at least pounds 400, a considerable sum by his standards. Feted and applauded, Coleridge saw that his many stalled projects now had a chance to flourish - the reader feels like cheering. True to form, he chose this moment to disappear for six months, blowing his earnings on opium and brandy and plunging to new suicidal lows: "O God save me - from myself," he prayed. Still, Remorse was a watershed, proving that failure wasn't his inevitable lot.

There were to be several more crises in the remaining years: bad luck with publishers, who had a habit of losing heart or going broke on him; cruel onslaughts from reviewers, who behaved like vicious day-birds attacking a night-owl; problems with his son Hartley, who showed the same addictive tendencies as him; moments of a very modern-sounding existential despair ("We all look up to the Sky for comfort, but nothing appears there - nothing comforts nothing answers us - & so we die"). But he achieved a new stability once he moved into the home of James Gillman, a doctor who regulated his opium intake. Younger writers, including Byron, praised and encouraged him. His conversational gifts, bestowed on the endless visitors to his Highgate eyrie, soon became the stuff of legend. And though his politics may have disappointed Hazlitt, with one campaign at least - to reduce the hours worked by children in factories - Coleridge was passionately and progressively engaged.

He was writing, too: poetry, sensuous thought-fragments, "the hooks-and- eyes of memory". Not everyone thinks as highly of the main achievement of his later years, the autobiographical-cum- aesthetical Biographia Literaria, as Richard Holmes does. But the story of how it came to be written is fascinating and, as with so many episodes here, told with a flair that makes the sedentary trade of authorship seem almost exciting. The missed deadlines, the promises to be more business- like ("I am no poet day-dreamer you know"), the last-minute insertion of the famous distinction between Fancy and Imagination, and the printing bill he was sent for pounds 284.18s.4d because of the appalling state of his manuscript - all this makes lively and instructive reading. Sensibly, since it was far less productive, Holmes doesn't draw out the final phase: the last 15 years are dealt with in 50 pages

The miracle of this biography is that, without playing down Coleridge's many faults or taking his part against enemies (a certain coldness towards Wordsworth is hard to miss, however), it gets you completely on his side - inside, too. It's partly that so many of the words used are Coleridge's own: there can be few books that make better use of quotation. But it's also that Holmes has an instinctive understanding of his subject - not a matter of research (though he has put in two decades or so of that), but of inhabiting Coleridge's mind and heart. No other biographer I know of has been there or described the look of the place so well.

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