Addictive genius

This is my review of Coleridge: Darker Reflections, 1804-1834 by Richard Holmes.

The second part of this remarkable two-volume biography covers the last half of Coleridge’s life, from his self-exile to Malta to escape his unhappy marriage, debts and impossible love for Wordsworth’s sister “Asra”. Although much of the poetry for which he is now most remembered had already been written, and he sometimes mourned the loss of his ability in this area, often in lyrical terms which ironically belied this view, he still produced some striking verses, also writing a good deal of philosophical work, which was not fully appreciated in his lifetime.

Richard Holmes shows how Coleridge continually ricocheted between the depths of despair and degradation to moments of high achievement. On the downside, he had a dramatic falling out with Wordsworth which became the subject of London gossip, which also began to feast on his failures as a husband and father, and the squandering of his early great talent through his opium addiction, no longer a secret. His metaphysical writing was mocked by the critic Hazlitt, in terms with which one can sympathise judging by some of the quotations provided. Less acceptable were his cruel personal attacks, which seem particularly ungrateful since Coleridge had once smuggled him out of the Lake District to escape justice for having molested a local girl. The negative feedback naturally made publishers wary, so that Coleridge was forced to use a firm which went bankrupt, denying him much-needed earnings from several years of work which he had managed to sustain against the odds. To some extent reunited with his two grown-up sons, it was a bitter blow when the older boy Hartley proved too like his father in his intensely imaginative but addictive personality, so that he was deprived of his Oxford fellowship because of his drunken habits.

On the plus side, when in Malta, Coleridge proved a competent civil servant, although he had mixed feelings about a role which distracted him from his “true calling” of creative writing. On another occasion, he wrote a highly successful play for the London stage. He always seemed to have enough admirers to bale him out in his hour of need, such as the surgeon Morgan with his wife and sister, who became a kind of replacement copy of his intense relationship with Wordsworth, his sister Dorothy and Sarah Hutchinson (Asra). For the last eighteen years of Coleridge’s life, he lived with the family of a successful London doctor, Gillman, who understood how to regulate his opium addiction, receiving in return the reflected “kudos” of managing a man who, although always controversial, ended his life as a “national treasure”, visited by a succession of admirers of romantic poetry, of the glittering conversation which never faded, and writing, considerable despite all the stillborn and uncompleted plans.

Coleridge is at time maddening in his apparent “lack of will” in resisting opium. On the one hand able to analyse his failings with remarkable candour and insight in his calmer moments, he also believed that the addiction which induced nightmares, inertia, embarrassing outbursts and despair bordering on suicide was beyond his control, due to something in his personality or perhaps early experience. It seems likely that he was manic-depressive at a time when laudanum was the sole, over-used painkiller for both physical and mental ailments. Despite all this, it is hard not to share Richard Holmes’ admiration for his resilience and the fact that he never “gave up” for long. Many aspects of his thinking all seem remarkably modern, so that one can imagine him joining in some current intellectual debate.

Part Two is in some ways sadder and more sombre as Coleridge, no longer the energetic young man running down Lake District fell-sides, becomes heavy, shambling, and prematurely aged, often haunted by the destructive effects of his addiction. Yet, as his astute long-standing friend Charles Lamb observed, it was wrong to dismiss as “Poor Coleridge” a man who had in fact experienced and created so much. He even suggested that the addiction was in part necessary to Coleridge’s originality, and enhanced it. Following his death, Lamb wrote: “I feel how great a part he was of me, his great and dear Spirit haunts me. I cannot think a thought, cannot make a criticism of men and books, without an ineffectual turning and reference to him. He was the proof and touchstone of all my cogitations….Never saw I his likeness, nor probably can the world see it again.” Richard Holmes’ lasting achievement is to enable us to understand and relate to these sentiments.

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ 5 Stars

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