Richard Holmes’s Coleridge

Richard Holmes’s Coleridge: Early Visions is a fantastic book. I found myself enthralled by the story the whole way though. This is only the first volume and I haven’t had a chance to begin the second one yet, but I’m eager to get to it when I can. I don’t usually enjoy biographies quite this much; I like reading them now and then, but when I’m in the middle of them they can sometimes feel the tiniest bit like a chore, especially when they are long. I’m not particularly good at retaining facts, so I sometimes read biographies wondering how much of them I will forget very shortly. But Holmes does such a good job here those uncertainties didn’t bother me.

In his preface Holmes discusses one of his techniques that makes his biography stand out: he has:

attempted, from the very start, to set Coleridge talking, to tell his story through his own magnificent — and constantly humorous — flights of phrase and metaphor. I have tried to make his voice sound steadily through the narrative, and indeed in the end to dominate it.

And this is exactly what he does, using quotations from poems, letters, journals, and essays liberally throughout. It helps to create a rich picture of who Coleridge was and what he must have been like to know.

But Holmes was helped by having such a wonderfully interesting subject to write about. Coleridge was a great poet, but he was also a great personality and managed to wrap nearly everyone he met around his finger, at least for a while. Holmes tells the story of Hazlitt’s obsession with Coleridge, a story that illustrates what seems to have been a common dynamic: Hazlitt met Coleridge when he was a young, very awkward boy and was immediately overawed by Coleridge’s colorful personality. As he got older, though, he changed his mind, deciding that Coleridge’s mystical and metaphysical turn of mind was just a lot of balderdash and becoming thoroughly disillusioned and bitter. Coleridge had a history of very close, very intense friendships that eventually went awry, with Hazlitt, but even more famously with Robert Southey and William Wordsworth.

Coleridge was a great talker, both in private conversation and in his popular, if politically controversial, public lectures. He also had a flair for political journalism, for literary criticism, for letter-writing, and for private journal-keeping. Holmes greatly admires his poetry, but praises his prose style almost as highly. He also was one for big schemes and plans, including one called Pantisocracy that would have taken him and his family and a small group of friends over to America to found a utopian society on the banks of the Susquehanna. It didn’t work out, but Coleridge never lost his idealism and Holmes argues that Pantisocratic ideals shape Coleridge’s thinking for the rest of his life.

He was a genius, Holmes makes clear, at coming up with brilliant ideas and plans, but rarely did he follow through on them; in fact, he became notorious for his lists of ideas and dreams that remained unaccomplished. He held so much potential, so much of it unrealized, although Holmes emphasizes the brilliance of the things he was able to accomplish and argues that his ability to dream is in and of itself worthy of admiration.

This first volume takes us through the first 32 years of Coleridge’s life, from 1772 to 1804. The second volume is ominously subtitled “Darker Reflections,” although we can already see the beginnings of the darker part of Coleridge’s life in the first volume. He began taking opium in the first volume, the habit that will shape the second half of his life in dramatic ways. He also struggled with unhappiness in his marriage, uncertainty about his career path, and uncertain finances, although he did receive financial support from patrons who had great faith in his abilities.

I also admired Holmes for doing an excellent job of placing Coleridge in his intellectual context, describing his contributions to the literary and philosophical trends of the time. Coleridge knew so many important people and was good friends with many of them, so learning about Coleridge is a great way of learning about the time period itself.

So when I can, I’ll be on to volume 2, and I’ll have to prepare myself for some difficult times.

11 Comments

Filed under Books, Nonfiction

11 responses to “Richard Holmes’s Coleridge

  1. I believe you – his Shelley biography is so good. I should definitely read this one.

  2. Oh this sounds wonderful! I’m sold, Dorothy. Going to see if I can find a cheap copy from amazon once I’ve finished this comment!

  3. Mel

    I read Richard Holme’s biography of Coleridge a few years ago and it is a great literary biography. I would like to also read his biography of Shelly. Thanks for reminding me of these books.

  4. I haven’t read this, but Holmes more recent book, ‘The Age of Wonder’ about the scientific revolution of the late eighteenth century is superb.

  5. What an intriguing review. I love a good literary biography, although I would never have thought to revisit the Romantics – they’re so frustrating to me! But having read your thoughts on this one, I might just reconsider…

  6. This sounds interesting. Don’t you wonder what would have happened had Coleridge came to America? I think if I had lived back then I would have been messed up in those sorts of societies and experiments. They sound a little bit strange, but appealing in their own way, too. And I think I don’t read as much NF as I would like for the reason you mention–an overload of facts. I think I retain very few of the details as well–just major themes. You’ve probably read lots about and by Coleridge now that it’s all building up in your memory, though.

  7. Coleridge sounds like such an interesting character! Not that I’m advocating this, but I bet if someone did his TV biography, and just changed the clothes and other objects in it for today’s audience, it would be more interesting and fun than any reality show.

  8. This sure sounds like one fantastic book. I like it that a biographer does not patronize the one she/he is writing. Looks like Holmes is very objective, yet appreciative of his subject. I just found out about Newsweek’s top 100 books of all time and posted it. Wonder what your view is.

  9. Amateur Reader — I have the Shelley biography ready for whenever I can get to it … glad to hear it’s so good.

    Litlove — excellent! It’s really worth it.

    Mel — I’m looking forward to getting to the Shelley biography as well. I really loved his book Footsteps as well, if you want more Holmes.

    Emily — well, Holmes might make you change your mind about the Romantics! I wasn’t always a fan myself, but somewhere along the way I changed my mind and now I love them, as well as other writers of the time we don’t necessarily think of as romantic (especially novelists).

    Danielle — you’re absolutely right that knowing a bit about Coleridge makes it easier to retain the details; I almost wrote about that in my post. And Holmes doesn’t overload you with facts, even though the biography is long; I think another thing I like about his style is that he focuses on ideas a lot, and those are easier to remember. About nonfiction in general, I prefer the more idea-driven sort rather than the kind with tons of facts — and I also prefer character-driven nonfiction, such as memoirs or personal essays — for just the reasons you mention.

    Debby — now that WOULD be interesting! I wonder who they would get to play Coleridge … :) He would be a great role for an actor who wanted a challenge.

    Arti — Holmes does a very good job of staying objective, of keeping Coleridge’s flaws in mind while also celebrating his strengths. I’ll check out your post on the Newsweek list.

  10. Oh this sounds wonderful. I’ve always had a bit of an interest in Coleridge as a personality. I will have to put this on my list and hopefully one day I will be able to actually get to it!

  11. I began with “The Age of Wonder”, picked it up by chance at an airport and then couldn’t stop reading it. I knew I had to read more by Richard Holmes. The joke was that I thought the “Darker Reflections” was the entire biography, so I read volume 2 about STC first. But I was dazzled, as much by the depth of Holmes’ scholarship and writing style, as Coleridge himself. But — not having read Volume I, I kept wondering about why certain subjects such as his love of Asra, his political views, life in Germany and relationship with the Wordsworths were not clear!!
    But I soon realized my error and have had the odd experience of reading the 2 volumes in reverse. I’ve nearly finished the very exciting first volume and I have the bio of Shelly by my side.
    I think I’m pretty well in love with Richard Holmes, and secondarily, with STC.

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