It is difficult to imagine a more complex and challenging literary life for a biographer than that of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. After completing a brief critical biography of Coleridge some 25 years ago as a "trial run" for a full-length life, Walter Jackson Bate concluded ruefully: "I couldn’t bear to live with him that long." Coleridge’s suffering was simply too much and too vivid. One can only admire, then, the courage of Richard Holmes in undertaking this two-volume life.
The first volume of Holmes’s remarkable biography of Coleridge, published in 1989, was titled Early Visions. This second and final volume is called, significantly, Darker Reflections. It begins with Coleridge’s departure from Malta in April 1804 aboard the ship Speedwell, whose name might be seen as either hopeful or ironic. For his part, Coleridge was ready to view it with hope. Struggling with his opium addiction, failing in his marriage and in love with Wordsworth’s sister-in-law, uncertain of his own poetic powers and his professional future, Coleridge hoped to find in government service a respite from his personal struggles and a new scope for his very considerable gifts. The year-and-a-half sojourn in Malta, brilliantly dramatized by Holmes, may be seen as a paradigm of the 30 years to come: genuine success and satisfactionin this case as an administratorclose friendships and creative thought, joined with periods of personal suffering and loneliness. This would be, in some measure, the pattern for the rest of his life.
This book could hardly have been written 30 years ago, for it stands on the shoulders of scholarly giants. The Coleridge scholarship of recent decadesespecially the Collected Coleridge and the Notebooks so painstakingly and generously shepherded by the great Kathleen Coburnhas made Coleridge’s work and the events of his life available to us to a degree never before possible. It is to Holmes’s credit that he has mined much of this material, particularly the notebooks Coleridge kept throughout his lifehis little "flycatchers"with insight and imagination.
Holmes is particularly perceptive and convincing on Coleridge’s relationship and lifelong obsession with Sara Hutchinsonthe famous "Asra" of his poems; on the much-vexed issue of plagiarism, taking a much more balanced and understanding view than that of Norman Fruman; and on the addiction problem, not completely excusing Coleridge but taking careful account of the medical issues involved, the reasons for Coleridge’s dependence and his lifelong struggle to free himself from his compulsion. The author also treats with sensitivity and compassion Coleridge’s often troubled relationship with his family, especially his wife and his beloved and troubled son Hartley. On the crucial relationship with William Wordsworth, some might judge that Holmes does not fare quite so well, coming down on Wordsworth too severely. Granted that Wordsworth was quite capable of being priggish and judgmental, he could also be a deeply generous friend, whose undoubted devotion to Coleridge was severely and frequently strained by Coleridge’s erratic behavior.
It may seem churlish to ask for more from a book that offers so much, but there is one major disappointment in this brilliant and generous-spirited book. When Jonathan Wordsworth reviewed the first volume of this work 10 years ago in The New York Times Book Review, he noted that Holmes "shows no capacity to enter into Coleridge’s spiritual life." God was, he goes on, "the center of the poet’s life," and his faith, which "was for him the source of all that is precious, and all that is hopeful, in human existence," is "never taken seriously by Mr. Holmes."
Some of us had hoped that in this second volume, which covers the years of Coleridge’s even deeper commitment to religious faith and theological reflection, Holmes would have given close attention to these issues. However, for all its virtues, the new volume sadly scants both the personal religious journey of this constantly questing soul and the profound theological writings of the period. On literary and political matters, Holmes is excellent; his use of Coleridge’s political journalism is first-rate, and his treatment of the BiographiaLiteraria is superb. But his consideration of Coleridge’s theologyand indeed his philosophyis disappointing. It is significant that two of Coleridge’s works most heavily freighted with theological reflectionsthe Statesmen’s Manual and Aids to Reflectionare covered in a total of less than 10 pages, while another important work, On the Constitution of the Church and the State, is given one paragraph. Unfortunately, Holmes gives no evidence of having read any of the many studies of Coleridge’s religious thought published over the past three decades, even the late Basil Willey’s great spiritual biography.
One can only conjecture that it is because of this failure to attend seriously to Coleridge’s religious journey that Holmes sees Coleridge’s death as "slipping into the dark." Surely this will not do. As Coleridge said to his dear friend Dr. Joseph Henry Green in his very last moments (in a passage in fact quoted by Holmes), his mind was "quite unclouded," adding that "I could even be witty...." No, Coleridge’s final journey was not into darkness but into light, the light he had always sought and often glimpsed.
But for all this, Holmes’s book is splendid and impressive. If not definitive, it is nonetheless magisterial. Perhaps no one can wholly encompass every dimension of the myriad-minded Coleridge, but surely Holmes has set a new standard.