Lasting achievements of a hopeless Romantic

11th December 1998 at 00:00
COLERIDGE: Darker Reflections
By Richard Holmes
HarperCollins, #163;19.99.

This must be one of the finest biographies of the century. Very rarely has a biographer shown such passion and empathy for his subject and written in such flashing, energetic prose. It has taken almost a decade for the complete biography to appear. Holmes's first volume, Early Visions,was published in 1989. Darker Reflections is worth the wait.

The earlier volume was a sprightly, racy book. Born in Devon in 1772, Coleridge had a happy childhood until the deathof his charismatic father, when he was sent to board at Christ's Hospital School and had a miserable time.

He studied at Cambridge but led a riotous life of drinking and whoring, and his poetry wasn't any great shakes until he met the revolutionary young poet William Wordsworth in 1795. Together they wrote what must be the most important volume of verse of the past few hundred years: the Lyrical Ballads. Much of Coleridge's great poetry was written during this time, including "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" and "Kubla Khan".

Despite this success, his private life was troubled: he had a stormy relationship with his wife, he had fallen in love with the sister of Wordsworth's future wife, Sara Hutchinson, and had become addicted to opium.

The first chapter of Darker Reflections finds Coleridge, aged 32, on a boat bound for Malta, escaping his problems in England. It is a fast-moving, pacey chapter which skilfully manages to summarise the main points of the earlier life - so don't worry if you haven't read Early Visions.

It is the beginning of a roller-coaster ride: the dreamy poet becomes a top civil servant in Malta, writing strategy papers for Nelson, half falls in love with an Italian opera singer and then returns to England. Despite becoming the greatest lecturer of his age, he is assailed by personal demons: at one point, he suffers a druggy vision of Wordsworth making love to Sara Hutchinson. This leads, albeit indirectly, to a terrible row between the two poets.

The descriptions of the physical and mental effects of Coleridge's opium addiction make Irvine Welsh's drug-addled fiction seem tame. Holmes's exhaustive research reveals that Coleridge was consuming prodigious quantities of the drug. The addiction meant that disaster followed every triumph. A year after an unexpected West End theatre hit, we find the poet languishing in a pub outside Bristol after the worst overdose of his life.

But what is remarkable is the way that Coleridge always manages to pull himself back from the brink. A year after this ghastly overdose, Coleridge is writing the most important work of Romantic criticism and autobiography: the Biographia Literaria.

Holmes's controversial contention that Coleridge achieved a great deal of lasting literary significance in the last 30 years of his life is proved in Darker Reflections. The excerpts from the notebook, the lectures,journalism, prose works and later poetry are astonishing and have been unjustly neglected. This biography triumphantly rectifies the situation.

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