Troubled genius

This is my review of Coleridge: Early Visions by Richard Holmes.

The first volume in a mesmerising two-part biography, Richard Holmes provides a fascinating psychological portrait of Coleridge (STC) and an exploration of the Romantic movement which enabled me to see beyond its often cloying sentimentality, all set in the context of the looming threat of the French Revolution, and the growing divisions in Britain over the need for political and social reform.

A young man of remarkable mental and physical energy, making a name for himself as a poet, political journalist, lecturer, preacher and budding philosopher, Coleridge’s charisma and eloquence gained him many admirers and staunch friends, only too often later alienated by his unreliable, extreme behaviour. Part of the problem was that his evident ability brought too many offers of work for him to handle. Combined with a tendency to be continually distracted by his own projects, STC was at times overwhelmed into inaction, increasingly fuelled by opium and alcohol, the list of unfinished work becoming a tragi-comedy even to him.

In his defence, STC still managed to produce an impressive quantity of poetry and prose. Opium was the main painkiller available to a man who seemed to suffer more than his fair share of ill health, plus it probably enhanced STC’s creative abilities except when overdoses proved catastrophic. Even without opium, he displayed classic symptoms of bi-polarity: mood swings, acute self-absorption, tendency to be easily distracted into a new project when he should have been doing something else, problems with sleep and organising his affairs, uninhibited displays of emotion, and a “grandiosity” over each new scheme, generally conceived on too ambitious a scale to be feasible in reasonable time.

The neglect of his wife Sara is often shocking, as when he left her pregnant with a small child to undertake what turned out to be almost a year spent in Germany, learning the language and studying the literature. Even news of his newly born son’s death did not bring him home. Having insisted on marrying Sara even after his need for a wife to help him sustain a utopian community in America had fallen through, he found living with her intolerable. Perhaps he was running away from the guilt of being unable to provide a steady income (having at one point turned down part-ownership of a newspaper which would have secured his wealth) plus he felt a compulsive need to wander at night through the moonlit Quantocks with the Wordsworths, travel to some exotic foreign land, or the stimulus of London gatherings. His attempted escape to live with the Wordsworths in the Lake District could not prove the idyll of self-sufficiency or “pantisocracy” of which he had dreamed as a young man, for his obsessive passion for Wordsworth’s sister-in-law “Asra” was a source of destructive tension. STC’s long periods spent apart from the children he professed to love is also disturbing evidence of the selfishness so evident alongside his intense sensitivity: again, he may have been evading the painful knowledge that they were being supported largely by his brother-in-law, the poet Southey.

Despite his obvious faults, his verbal magic and self-deprecating wit still leap from the page to win us over. Also, he could be generous, as when he set aside his own work to edit publications for Wordsworth. The latter is portrayed as a controlling egoist, who did not flinch from removing STC’s poem “Christabel” from a joint work, thus establishing dominance in their working relationship, which STC for humbly accepted for too long.

Part 1 ends with Coleridge still in his thirties, sailing off to Malta under the protection of a naval convoy, convinced he would die abroad, his honour saved by the life insurance taken out to benefit his wife. Had he perished at that point, he would have been remembered as a talented poet, author of “Kubla Khan” and “The Ancient Mariner”, his reputation less tarnished than was to prove the case, although a large body of his work would never have been written.

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ 5 Stars

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