Coleridge Rediscovered New Biography Offers Balanced Rendering of an English Romantic

Article excerpt

THE poet who gave us the beautiful conversation poems: "Frost at Midnight," "The Eolian Harp," "Dejection: An Ode," and the mesmerizing fantasies of "Kubla Khan," "Christabel," and "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" is still in many ways the most immediately appealing of the six great English Romantics.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) lives on in literary history as the devoted friend of the poet Wordsworth, allowing the latter's genius pride of place before his own. We also remember Coleridge as he appears in his own poems: the generous friend wishing joy for those he loves even as his own heart sinks in dejection. More colorful and emotionally expressive than Wordsworth, Coleridge cuts a more dashing figure with his eloquence, his immense learning, his flights of fancy, and his powerful conception of the creative imagination. At moments, he takes on the glamour of the Orphic bard who appears out of nowhere at the close of "Kubla Khan": I would build that dome in air, That sunny dome! those caves of ice! And all who heard should see them there, And all should cry, Beware! Beware! His flashing eyes, his floating hair! Weave a circle round him thrice, And close your eyes with holy dread, For he on honey-dew hath fed, And drunk the milk of Paradise.

But in his own time and thereafter, Coleridge emerged as a bundle of contradictions. A youthful radical who planned to set up an egalitarian utopian community on the banks of the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania, Coleridge lived on to become a defender of the established order. A champion of originality, he plagiarized - consciously and unconsciously - throughout his career. (He had a peculiar propensity for taking material from his readings in German philosophy and rendering it, unacknowledged, into English). He was, by almost all accounts, the most fascinating conversationalist of his time, but in his later years he struck many who met him as a pompous bore.

Biographer Richard Holmes finds it ironic, yet understandable that "many of the best writers on Coleridge are to some degree hostile towards him." What with his plagiarism, his opium addiction, his general fecklessness, his seemingly deliberate choice of a wife he suspected he could not love, his hopeless, unconsummated love for another woman (Wordsworth's sister-in-law, Sara Hutchinson), and the increasing opacity of his prose and his metaphysics, Coleridge is as exasperating as he is lovable. In this two-volume biography (the first taking us as far as Coleridge's departure from England to Malta in 1804, the second not yet published), Holmes aims to recapture for today's readers a sense of what made Coleridge seem so special to his contemporaries. …