Magazine article The Spectator

When Inner and Outer Reality Collide

Magazine article The Spectator

When Inner and Outer Reality Collide

Article excerpt

COLERIDGE'S NOTEBOOKS: A SELECTION edited by Seamus Perry OUP, L19.99, pp. 264, ISBN 0198712014 Coleridge's Notebooks have been a companion during most of my mature life and this is a marvellously judged and varied selection, 1794 to 1820, from his 22nd year to his 48th. By that time he had become the loquacious Sage of Highgate, `an archangel, a little damaged'. To the end he was a self-observer, still making, as it were, entries in his Notebooks, although it was now up to others to write them down. On his deathbed (1834), reports Richard Holmes his biographer, he told a visitor that his mind was quite unclouded and, closing his eyes, added, with growing interest, 'I could even be witty ...'

Seamus Perry's introduction quotes another Coleridge scholar remarking that `the Notebooks record the collisions of a hugely developed inner reality with a hugely developed sense of outer reality, with neither sense giving ground'. Perry adds that it is as much collusion as collision. This 'interfusion' (a favourite Coleridge word) of inner and outer, made him, unlike Wordsworth, a rootedly religious man.

To him, therefore, nothing was irrelevant. Says Perry:

His response to Kantian philosophy stands here next to exquisite accounts of the sun setting in Borrowdale, his remarkable dream analysis beside his responses to politics, close reading of poems and high-spirited etymological speculations next to jokes and puns and Irish bulls, next to delightful (and delighted) observations of his children growing up, and desperate outpourings of love-forsaken grief.

Unhappily married, he was in love with Wordsworth's sister-in-law. His beloved Wordsworths could hardly be expected to encourage him in this. Sara Hutchinson was in effect a part of William's household; he was responsible for her, and apart from his friend's married state there was his growing dependence on laudanum. There was also brandy-drinking and a noticeable habit, when under strain, of disappearing for long periods into `pot-houses'. (There are many reasons for loving Coleridge, his innocent debaucheries, his inability to be stuffily correct are among them.) The laudanum was certainly poisoning him and, even worse, what he construed as water-- drinking William's selfish desire to keep all three women to himself - wife, sister and sister-in-law - poisoned the most famous and fruitful friendship in English literature. …

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