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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1707

The leading writers of the second generation of English Romantics—George Gordon, Lord Byron; Percy Bysshe Shelley; John Keats—died at the peak of their careers. The major figures of the first generation of English Romantics were not so fortunate. William Wordsworth sank into respectability and unmemorable verse, and Coleridge descended further still. In the “Postscript” to the first volume of his Coleridge biography, Coleridge: Early Visions, 1772-1804 (1989), Richard Holmes observes that had Coleridge died in 1804, as many expected he would, his reputation would have been high as both poet and prose writer. Coleridge had written all but one of his blank verse “Conversation Poems” and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798). He had composed, though not published, “Kubla Khan,” and he had produced a substantial body of journalism, translations, letters, and nature writing.

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In 1804 Coleridge stood in the middle of the journey of his life. The second half of that journey would take him through some very dark woods indeed. Among the shadows besetting Coleridge was his love for Sara Hutchinson, sister-in-law of Coleridge’s closest friend and early literary colleague, William Wordsworth. Coleridge had married another Sara, née Fricker, but that marriage had proved unhappy; Coleridge would separate from his wife in 1806 shortly after he returned to England from Malta, where he had gone to recover his health. Sara Hutchinson was living with the Wordsworths at Grasmere, and Coleridge joined them upon leaving his wife. Hutchinson did not reciprocate Coleridge’s feelings, and on March 5, 1810, she left Grasmere to live with her brother in Wales. Her departure devastated Coleridge, who soon afterward left the Wordsworths as well.

Coleridge’s departure resulted from his loss not only of Hutchinson’s affections but also of Wordsworth’s. Together in 1798 they had published their revolutionary Lyrical Ballads, that herald of English Romanticism. By 1807 their friendship was cooling, in part because of Coleridge’s feelings for Hutchinson; Coleridge believed that Wordsworth was his rival, and at one point he fled Wordsworth’s house after seeing, or thinking he saw, Wordsworth in bed with Sara. Coleridge’s opium addiction also contributed to the rift between the former friends. After listening to Wordsworth’s reading of the thirteen-book The Prelude: Or, The Growth of a Poet’s Mind (not published until 1850), Coleridge wrote the last of his “Conversation Poems,” this one addressed “To William Wordsworth.” Here Coleridge praises his fellow poet, but in other verses Coleridge wrote he was less flattering. Wordsworth opposed Coleridge’s decision to deliver a series of lectures in 1808 and to publish a periodical, The Friend (1809-1810, 1818).

In a letter to Thomas Poole in May, 1808, Wordsworth stated that Coleridge had so undermined “his intellectual and moral constitution” that Coleridge would never again “execute anything of important benefit either to himself, his family or mankind.” Some two years later, on April 12, 1810, Dorothy Wordsworth, William’s sister, expressed the same sentiment in a letter to antislavery activist Thomas Clarkson: “We have no hope of him.” After Coleridge left Grasmere, he was offered a home by the Basil Montagus. Wordsworth warned them against taking Coleridge into their household. When the Montagus heeded Wordsworth’s advice and informed Coleridge of his friend’s perfidy, another light in Coleridge’s life was extinguished.

Adding to the darker reflections of Coleridge’s life was the behavior of the poet’s talented but eccentric son Hartley. In June, 1820, Hartley lost his fellowship at Oriel College, Oxford, because of his drunkenness; his subsequent efforts to support himself through journalism also proved unsuccessful. The fact that Hartley’s fecklessness mirrored Coleridge’s own added to the father’s concern.

Financial difficulties dogged Coleridge as well. In 1816 Byron persuaded his own publisher, John Murray II, to bring out a slim volume of Coleridge’s poetry containing the unfinished “Christabel,” “Kubla Khan, “ and “The Pains of Sleep.” Subsequently recognized as one of the most important books of the Romantic period, the work was at the time attacked by Thomas Moore (another former friend of Coleridge) in theEdinburgh Review and ignored by the influential Quarterly Review. Murray had considered publishing two other, more substantial titles by Coleridge, a collection of his poetry (Sibylline Leaves) and the proseBiographia Literaria. The response of the reviews convinced Murray not to bring out these volumes, driving Coleridge to another publisher, Rest Fenner. Fenner published the two works in 1817, but he cheated Coleridge of his royalties on these and other works. In 1819 Fenner went bankrupt, denying Coleridge any legal redress for the deception. Coleridge’s verse tragedy Remorse (pr., pb. 1813) earned four hundred pounds, but much of this money went to help Coleridge’s friend John Morgan and family after Morgan’s business failed in 1813.

Beset as Coleridge was by poor health, intemperance, defection of friends, and familial difficulties, Holmes reveals that he still exhibited periods of intense creativity. On Malta in 1805 he revealed administrative talent, serving as Sir Alexander Ball’s secretary, a post that made him the second highest- ranking civilian on the island. Sir Alexander had such confidence in Coleridge that the governor offered the poet an appointment to oversee the 1805 expedition to secure grain for the English garrison; Coleridge would have been responsible for seventy to eighty thousand pounds. In 1808 Coleridge worked diligently to secure the release from the navy of Henry Hutchinson, brother of Coleridge’s beloved Sara. In 1813 Coleridge again revealed his organizational skills when he rescued the Morgans from their financial difficulties.

Despite Wordsworth’s doubts, Coleridge credibly discharged his series of lectures on poetry at the Royal Institution in 1808, and for nine months he regularly wrote the sixteen pages, some six thousand words, for each of the twenty-six issues of The Friend. In May, 1811, he began writing for the progovernment newspaper The Courier; over the next five months he provided ninety-one articles. From November, 1811, to January, 1812, Coleridge delivered a series of seventeen lectures on William Shakespeare and John Milton, and in November, 1812, he began another series on Romanticism. To raise money to help the impoverished Morgans, he lectured at Bristol and Clifton in late 1813. From January 17 to March 13, 1818, he spoke on European literature; in December of 1818 he began two series of talks on the history of philosophy and on Shakespeare.

These lectures, together with the Biographia Literaria, proved immensely influential. Critics at the time and subsequently have faulted Coleridge for his plagiarism, since many of his ideas and even his phrasing derive from Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling, August Wilhelm Schlegel, Johann Ludwig Tieck, and other German Romantics. Holmes acknowledges extensive borrowings, though he defends Coleridge by arguing that except in the case of Schelling, Coleridge “never stole slavishly.” Thus, Holmes credits Coleridge with borrowing from Schlegel only the expression “organic form” in his ninth lecture on Shakespeare and Milton; Holmes claims that Coleridge had arrived at the concept independently in 1805. Like Schlegel, Coleridge associated Ariel in Shakespeare’s The Tempest (pr. 1611) with air, Caliban with earth; but Holmes points out that Coleridge went beyond Schlegel to argue that Caliban is sympathetic because the monster is enslaved.

Even if Coleridge did steal ideas as well as phrases from the Germans, he deserves credit for introducing these thoughts to English audiences unaware of developments on the Continent. Coleridge was as much a popularizer as he was an innovator, but his formulas are the ones that have endured. One of the best-known and most frequently anthologized sections of the Biographia Literaria is the discussion in chapter 13 of the distinction between fancy, the faculty of combining existing elements, and imagination, the creative force, which Coleridge memorably described as “the living Power and prime Agent of all human Perception, and . . . a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM.” Holmes observes that similar thoughts had long circulated in both England and Germany, but it is Coleridge’s 199-word description that memory retains.

While Coleridge was lecturing on European literature in London in 1818, William Hazlitt was presenting a competing series of talks in which he dismissed the older writer as no longer worth attention. Holmes observes that even Coleridge’s lesser works belie that assessment. The 1825 Aids to Reflection, an anthology based on the writings of the seventeenth century divine Robert Leighton, archbishop of Glasgow, influenced John Stuart Mill and Lewis Carroll. John Keats developed his idea of negative capability from Coleridge’s argument that the poet must suspend his own feelings when he creates. On April 11, 1819, Keats met Coleridge at Highgate and later recorded their conversation. Keats’s account justifies the mock epitaph Coleridge composed for himself: “In truth, he’s no beauty!’ cried Moll, Poll and Tab,/ But all of them owned—He’d the gift the Gab.” Keats recorded that among the “thousand things” Coleridge discussed during their two-mile walk were “Nightingales, Poetry.” A month later at Hampstead, Keats composed his “Ode to a Nightingale.”

The hero of Holmes’s second volume is Dr. John Gillman, who took Coleridge into his own house in 1816 and managed the writer’s opium addiction for the next eighteen years. Gillman allowed Coleridge to develop into the sage of Highgate in the 1820’s, the man whom many of the rising generation visited despite Hazlitt’s strictures. Coleridge’s most productive period was over by 1820; Holmes devotes fewer than a hundred pages to the last sixteen years of his life. Yet during this period Coleridge conducted a weekly seminar for men between the ages of nineteen and twenty-five, and in December, 1829, he published On the Constitution of the Church and State, According to the Idea of Each: With Aids Toward a Right Judgment on the Late Catholic Bill, in which he writes of the need for a “clerisy,” an intellectual elite to guide the nation.

Holmes’s volume thus records substantial achievement and heroic struggle. The diarist Henry Crabb Robinson once dropped the phrase “Poor Coleridge.” Charles Lamb, one of Coleridge’s staunchest lifelong friends, rejected the epithet. “Call him Coleridge,” he told Robinson; Coleridge did not deserve the condescension Robinson implied. Holmes’s account vindicates Lamb’s judgment.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist 95 (March 15, 1999): 1274.

Library Journal 124 (March 15, 1999): 79.

Publishers Weekly 246 (March 29, 1999): 79.

New Criterion 17 (June, 1999): 68.

The New York Review of Books 46 (June 10, 1999): 7.

The New York Times Book Review 104 (April 11, 1999): 7.

The Wall Street Journal, April 15, 1999, p. A20.

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