Biographies: Coleridge

In a lot of ways I like the idea of reading biographies more than I like the actual reading of them; it sounds so nice to learn more about authors, find out what their life was like, learn a little bit about their time and place, but the reality is that biographies are often too long, they can get dull, and I forget much of what I read. Sadly, I’m not good with fact-filled nonfiction and prefer the kind that is narrative- or idea-driven.

But in spite of the above, I still do read biographies now and then, and I do get something from them, especially when they are written by someone great, which is the case with Richard Holmes and his biography of Coleridge. I read the first volume last summer (apparently, I don’t like super-long biographies, unless they are written by Richard Holmes), and just finished the second volume a week or so ago (a good 500+ pages long).

The books are enthralling. It’s partly that Coleridge is a great subject, but more that Holmes does such a good job with the story. He somehow manages to make Coleridge’s story suspenseful. Of course the final ending is never in doubt, but in the meantime, I didn’t want to put the book down because I had to know whether Coleridge was finally going to make good on his creative and intellectual promise, whether he would kick his terrible opium habit, whether his latest publication would sell, whether he would find another friend to care for him when the last one abandoned him. There are tons of facts in the books, but they are all part of the narrative, and Holmes never loses sight of it.

He also writes a lot about Coleridge’s writings and his philosophy, so there’s a strong focus on criticism as well as the life. Coleridge was not only a poet, but a journalist, a playwright, and a philosopher, so there is a lot of intellectual material to make sense of. Coleridge’s thinking was often abstract and metaphysical (so much so that people began to mock him for it), and Holmes does a good job explaining the ideas and also situating Coleridge in his historical context. It’s great fun to read about Coleridge’s relationships with other writers and philosophers, William and Dorothy Wordsworth most obviously, but also Lamb, Hazlitt (who loved Coleridge and then viciously attacked him), Southey, Keats, Shelley, and lots and lots of others. Coleridge was an extremely gregarious person, which makes him a great subject for a biography — there are just so many good stories to tell.

Coleridge had such great promise as a writer that reading the second half of the biography was sometimes hard because his opium addiction and other aspects of his personality kept him from living up to his potential. It’s a story of Coleridge again and again abandoning this scheme and that plan because he had another bad spell with his health. As flawed as the man was (the story of how he treated his wife and family is a little hard to take sometimes, although complicated), I couldn’t help but fall under his spell. It was a book that was hard to put down and sad to finish.

I hated the Romantics in college, but grad school changed my mind completely, and now I’m eager to read more. Fortunately, Holmes has another super-long biography of Percy Shelley, and I have books about Dorothy Wordsworth and Keats on my shelves, not to mention some primary texts by those writers as well. And now I really want a copy of Daisy Hay’s Young Romantics: The Tangled Lived of English Poetry’s Greatest Generation. I don’t think I’ve ever read this kind of group biography before, but I have at least one other on my shelves (Partisans), and I’m curious how I will like them.

10 Comments

Filed under Books, Nonfiction

10 responses to “Biographies: Coleridge

  1. I thought Holmes’s Shelley biography was excellent, and really helpful with the poetry (it’s a critical biography, as I assume the Coleridge books are).

  2. That speaks well to Holmes’s writing that he can make you want to keep reading to find out what happens when you essentially already know. I’ve got to get around to reading him one of these days. He has several books that look really good. And now I’m going to have to consider the monster bio of Colerdige. Thanks. I think. ;)

  3. I’m very interested to hear that you hated the Romantics in college but changed your mind in graduate school! I wouldn’t say I “hate” them, certainly not all of them, but it’s not my favorite literary movement. I have a hard time taking some of their overwrought hand-wringing very seriously. On the other hand, they were so influential, it’s hard to deny that they’ve added a lot to the books that I do love.

    Anyway, good to know that there’s such a fantastic bio of Coleridge out there. I do enjoy a good biography.

  4. Nan

    Excellent review. I’m so interested in all those folks and it sounds like the biog. gives a good overview of them. I’d be interested to know what you have on your shelf about Dorothy W. I have a little book of her journals I bought many years ago at one of the Wordworth houses but still haven’t read it. Isn’t that sad? I must, and soon.

  5. I wonder if this is the reason why I read so little nonfiction even though I generally enjoy it when I do. There is so much to remember and it’s all fascinating, but I know the details will slip away as I read and I hate that. I do like a biography that reads like that–that’s so interesting. When the information is presented in a dry way it makes for a slog!

  6. Amateur Reader — I’m looking forward to getting to the Shelley bio, in my leisurely way, of course. The Coleridge books are critical biographies, if my understand of what that is is correct.

    Stefanie — oh, glad to help! :) The other Holmes book I’ve read so far is Footsteps, which I adored. I’m also looking forward to reading his Dr. Johnson and Mr. Savage. And his book Sidetracks. And his Shelley bio. Etc.

    Emily — my college class had altogether too much poetry and I thought that was all the time period was about, until my grad school class included more genres, and I learned that people were writing novels, essays, and plays at the time. I liked getting a little more context, both historical and literary. That helped make some sense of what the “major” poets were doing. They seemed too abstract and ungrounded before.

    Nan — the book on Dorothy W. is The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth: A Life, by Francis Wilson. Interesting title, right? I’ve read some of her diaries, but would like to read more and to reread them. She’s a fascinating person.

    Danielle — at that length, the book would have been horrible if it were dry! But fortunately it wasn’t; Holmes really keeps the story going. I agree about the details slipping away — I hate that. even during the year I spent between the two volumes, I forgot quite a bit of what happened in the first part.

  7. “In a lot of ways I like the idea of reading biographies more than I like the actual reading of them”

    I couldn’t agree more. I have had Claire Tomalin’s biography of Thomas Hardy on my shelves since 2008, but haven’t begun it yet. I used to love reading biographies, so maybe my attention span is decreasing with age?

  8. Mike — or maybe it’s just that your tastes are changing? I read different types of things now than I used to; I think over time our feelings about books shift.

  9. Jenny

    Thanks for this recommendation — I loved Tomalin’s biography of Pepys, and a *good* biography is a rare pleasure. I’ll keep an eye out for this one. The Hay book sounds good — are you interested in the Hooblers’ book The Monsters, about that same group?

  10. Jenny — I loved that bio of Pepys as well. I’d forgotten about The Monsters — thanks for reminding me!

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