Samuel Taylor Coleridge is one of the most fascinating figures in the intellectual history of England. He was a man of great and varied genius: He gave to English literature half a dozen of the finest poems in the language, he was a literary critic whose lectures on Shakespeare still provide starting points for discussion of the plays, and he developed theories of the origins of creativity that have proved endlessly stimulating for generations of writers and scholars. Later in his life he emerged as a speculative religious thinker who had a seminal influence on many of the great minds of the nineteenth century. In addition, Coleridge was a political journalist whose analyses of British foreign policy and the government of William Pitt were among the most brilliantly incisive political commentaries of the day. He was also a radical Unitarian preacher, with such command of his subject that the young William Hazlitt likened him to “an eagle dallying with the wind.”
Possessed of an astonishingly capacious and all-embracing mind, Coleridge gave the impression of having read almost everything, whether it was poetry, science, philosophy, or out- of-the-way topics such as mysticism, travel literature, and mythology. It was this wide range of knowledge, and Coleridge’s ability to connect everything he knew to everything else he knew, that made him such a wonderful conversationalist, able to hold an entire room spellbound for hours.
Yet Coleridge was also a tormented and unhappy man who believed (as many others have) that he had not achieved as much as his talents and learning demanded. Ideas for many a grand project found their way into his notebooks or his correspondence but were never brought to fruition. In addition to procrastination, Coleridge suffered from emotional insecurity, which was aggravated when he found himself trapped in a bad marriage and in love with a woman he could never possess. To cap it all, Coleridge was a plagiarist who learned to cover his tracks behind him, deceiving even himself and an opium addict. Such is the paradox of this quintessentially romantic figure.
Richard Holmes, who is also the author of a biography of Percy Bysshe Shelley entitled Shelley: The Pursuit (1974) and a short critical introduction to Coleridge, has now written what is probably the most satisfying biography of Coleridge to date. Coleridge: Early Visions is the first installment of a projected two-volume work, and it takes the story up to 1804, when the thirty-one-year-old Coleridge departed to Malta in an attempt to repair his failing health.
Coleridge’s biographers and commentators have usually fallen into two distinct categories: the hostile and the sympathetic. Thomas De Quincey; E. K. Chambers, who wrote Samuel Taylor Coleridge: A Biographical Study (1938); and Rene’ Wellek are among those who fall in the first category. James Gillman; Matthew Arnold; I. A. Richards; Lawrence Hanson, whose fine The Life of S. T. Coleridge: The Early Years (1938) unfortunately does not cover Coleridge’s life beyond June, 1800; and Thomas McFarland, who defended Coleridge’s integrity and his courage in adversity in Romanticism and the Forms of Ruin (1981), are among the sympathizers. Before Holmes, the two most recent full-length biographical works fall into the two opposing camps. Norman Fruman’s controversial Coleridge: The Damaged Archangel (1971) documented Coleridge’s plagiarisms, and the alleged weakness of character that produced them, in painful detail. Molly Lefebure’s Samuel Taylor Coleridge: A Bondage of Opium (1974) described in similar detail the devastating effects of Coleridge’s addiction to opium. In contrast to Fruman, however, Lefebure was able to present Coleridge in a positive light.
Richard Holmes is an admirably fair-minded and objective biographer, giving full weight to the less admirable sides of Coleridge’s character, but succeeding brilliantly in his stated intention: “to recapture [Coleridge’sl fascination as a man and a writer. . . If he does not leap out of the these pages—brilliant, animated, endlessly provoking—and invade your imagination (as he has done mine), then I have failed to do him justice.”
Samuel Taylor Coleridge was born on October 21, 1772, in the market town of Ottery St. Mary, in Devonshire. The youngest of ten children in the family, he was an intellectually precocious child, able to read a chapter of the Bible by the age of three and becoming enthralled by the Arabian Nights at the age of five. In tracing Coleridge’s early years, Holmes is particularly good at discovering the first glimpses of the ideas and preoccupations that would dominate Coleridge’s later life and his poetry. The imagery of “Kubla Khan” (written in 1798, although not published until 1816), for example, is found in an early letter to Coleridge’s brother, and Holmes has even unearthed a passage in an adventure...
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