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.