Samuel Taylor Coleridge is probably best remembered by modern readers for his poetry. The exotic imagery of “Kubla Khan” (1816) and the nightmarish scenes from The Ancient Mariner (1798) are among the more choice items in the typical undergraduate survey course of English literature. More astute readers may remember him as the coauthor of a book of poems called Lyrical Ballads (1798), the Romantic manifesto that heralded the increasing emphasis upon the subjective experience in literature. Yet, as Rosemary Ashton reveals in this excellent biography, Coleridge was much more than this. He was the first modern literary critic, and his influence has continued long after his demise.
It might seem the height of arrogance or foolishness to profile a literary figure who died in 1834. Coleridge in part chronicled his own life in Biographia Literaria (1817), and there have been numerous biographies since then. Another objection that might be raised is the dearth of new material on the subject. There are no new revelations about Coleridge’s life to pique the reader’s interest. Essentially, then, this is a repackaging of material already well known to Coleridge scholars, with much of the primary source material having been committed to print some time ago. One reason Ashton succeeds, however, is that she manages to craft a solid narrative that will serve to disseminate this specialized knowledge to a wider audience.
It is worth noting that Ashton’s book is part of the Blackwell Critical Biographies series. Under the general editorship of Claude Rawson, the intent is to analyze the works of a particular author within the historical context of that writer’s life. The series’ stated goal is to avoid “programmatic assertions” and “strenuous point- making.” This would seem to be an effort to eschew such strident critical approaches as Marxism and feminism. Although a biographer’s political viewpoint can never be fully effaced, Ashton should be lauded for creating a practical text for the student and the general reader. As one would expect from such a stance, Ashton’s book adopts a strict chronological structure, with each of the fifteen chapters devoted to a specific time period in the poet’s life. Appropriately, every chapter is preceded by a quotation from her subject in that particular time period. A more asymmetrical route might have stressed Coleridge’s intellectual development outside a rigid time frame. Yet Ashton’s course is justified given the series’ emphasis upon the historical context.
Any approach to Coleridge’s life must of necessity include more than a smattering of history. Coleridge was very much a man of his time. Although he is now remembered for his contributions to literature, young Samuel initially made his reputation in the field of politics. Recognized as a genius from an early age, he matriculated at Cambridge as a superb classical scholar. By the time he entered college in 1791, the French Revolution was already underway and he was a confirmed radical. (Ironically, he would later become a staunch conservative.) Ashton demonstrates that Coleridge reveled in the intellectual fervor of the period; he was a much admired political speaker. Yet even in his youth, Coleridge displayed a recurring pattern of erratic and self-destructive behavior. As with many projects in his life, his education remained incomplete. He dropped out of college in order to form a utopian community in America (pantisocracy), which also failed to materialize.
Great things were expected from Coleridge all his life, but it was his inability to fulfill his potential that fascinates the reader. What convinced his contemporaries of his brilliance consumes much of Ashton’s book, and rightly so. It is true that his scholarly abilities were never in doubt; he won the Browne Gold Medal for a Greek ode in 1792. It was as a conversationalist, however, that Coleridge was most impressive. Like the hero of The Ancient Mariner a character with whom he increasingly identified himself in later years—he could hold people spellbound with his words. He did so with Robert Southey, his one- time friend and fellow pantisocrat, and with William Wordsworth, a later addition to his circle. Coleridge’s verbal skills not only enhanced his reputation, they ensured his survival. Although his career provided great literary fame, Coleridge rarely achieved gainful employment: He secured some journalistic assignments and a brief stint as Public Secretary to the Governor of Malta. Throughout his lifetime he was subsidized by a succession of friends and admirers, most notably through an annuity from Josiah and Thomas Wedgwood. Conversation, by its very nature, is that most ephemeral of arts, but Ashton gives the reader more than an inkling of what it was like to sit in the poet’s presence. It was...
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