From the March, 2000 issue of Touchstone

Dark Poet by Dale Nelson

Dark Poet

Coleridge: Early Visions, 1772–1804
by Richard Holme
New York: Pantheon, 1999.
(409 pages; $17.00, paper)

Coleridge: Darker Reflections, 1804–1834
by Richard Holme
New York: Pantheon, 1999.
(622 pages; $32.00, cloth)

by Dale Nelson

The first half of Holmes’s lively, well-researched biography of the poet was published ten years ago; now the work is completed. Throughout the project, Holmes evidently was determined to win modern readers to Coleridge.

Holmes has an abundance of resources to draw on. Coleridge was immensely self-absorbed, exploring his own psyche at tremendous length in a series of notebooks—something sure to be attractive to modern people who take up “journaling” to enhance their sense of “spirituality.” Imaginatively preoccupied with Wordsworth’s sister-in-law, Coleridge neglected his own family and roamed. Regrettably, from Holmes’s point of view, Coleridge did not have sexual affairs, for example, with an Italian prima donna whom he met when he fled England to be secretary of state to the governor of Malta. He was fascinated by unusual states of mind, was addicted to opium, and, as a young man, was a political and religious radical. Like thirty-somethings who move back in with their parents today, Coleridge was taken in by a series of families. Moderns who love to read about the eating disorders and other maladies of the rich and famous will appreciate Holmes’s account of Coleridge’s numerous health problems. Academic readers troubled by burgeoning plagiarism will probably be interested in Coleridge’s transcription, even in his autobiography, of extensive passages of unacknowledged writing by others.

All these things come across with much imaginative power in Holmes’s account. He also shows us that Coleridge was a much more productive writer than is commonly known. The author of “Kubla Khan” and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner produced great quantities of verse and journalism, in both of which he was apt to become abstract and obscure.

While Holmes has gone to great pains in preparing his life of Coleridge, his arrangement of his material for dramatic effect must sometimes be criticized. For example, he lingers over the possibility that Coleridge found Wordsworth in bed with a partially naked Sara Hutchinson, the woman Coleridge wished he had married rather than his own Sarah Fricker. Coleridge himself, though, wrote on one occasion, “I knew the horrid phantasm to be a mere phantasm.” The scene, however, is so dramatically appealing to Holmes that he gives it undue emphasis. On the other hand, though Holmes attentively re-creates the drawn-out breakdown of Coleridge’s intense friendship with Wordsworth, he mentions almost as an aside the fact that, late in Coleridge’s life, they toured Germany together for six weeks. Did Holmes choose to minimize something that would brighten the picture he paints?

In the last twenty years of his life, Coleridge wrote philosophical defenses of political conservatism and works of religious apologetics. Holmes (presumably with an eye on his audience) is rather less at home with this material than with Coleridge’s inner and social conflicts. In the biography’s 900 pages of narrative, we get about two on Aids to Reflection and just one paragraph on Coleridge’s last book, On the Constitution of the Church and State.

John Henry Newman thought that Coleridge “indulged a liberty of speculation which no Christian can tolerate, and advocated conclusions which were often heathen rather than Christian, yet after all installed a higher philosophy into inquiring minds, than they had hitherto been accustomed to accept.” In this way, Newman said, the proto-Broad Church Anglican Coleridge succeeded in interesting readers “in the cause of Catholic truth.” For this important aspect of Coleridge’s achievement, one might turn to Stephen Prickett’s Romanticism and Religion: The Tradition of Coleridge and Wordsworth in the Victorian Church or studies by Basil Willey. Coleridge’s pilgrimage from materialism and pantheism to Trinitarianism is studied in Thomas McFarland’s Coleridge and the Pantheist Tradition, and Colin Gunton draws upon this in his Enlightenment and Alienation, a defense of Trinitarian faith addressed to today’s reader. 

Dale Nelson is associate professor of English at Mayville State University in Mayville, North Dakota.

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