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Richard Holmes concluded his first, magisterial volume on Samuel Taylor Coleridge with an image of his hero--a not-yet-ancient mariner--departing for the Continent on the Speedwell. The poet was, at this point, an unhappy man. In 1804 his marriage was in a shambles, his deeply Romantic rapport with William Wordsworth was on the wane, and he seemed no closer to shaking off his devastating opium addiction. Settling into his cramped berth with his books, lemons, shaving gear, and portable inkstand, he must have hoped for smoother sailing, in every sense of the phrase. But it's clear from the very beginning of Coleridge: Darker Reflections that English literature's greatest polymath had a turbulent time ahead of him. After an unlikely interval as a Maltese civil servant, Coleridge returned to England in 1806. He was in the latest phase of a rather flamboyant depression, which Holmes describes with typical acuity:
He was living out what many people experience, in the dark disorder of their hidden lives, but living it on the surface and with astonishing even alarming candour that many of his friends found unendurable or simply ludicrous. Moreover he continued to write about it, to witness it, in a way that makes him irreplaceable among the great Romantic visionaries. His greatness lies in the understanding of these struggles, not (like Wordsworth perhaps) in their solution.Certainly Coleridge never suffered from a shortage of struggles. On the heels of his return he had an (initially) happy reunion with Wordsworth, helping his comrade-in-arms to knock The Prelude into shape. Yet this dicey ménage--which also included Coleridge's supreme love object, Sara Hutchinson--soon fell to pieces again. (By 1812 he would be denouncing Wordsworth in print as his "bitterest Calumniator.")
Now the poet veered off into publishing his own newspaper, The Friend, followed by a stint as a formidable public lecturer. In all of these ventures, he displayed his peculiar, rapid-fire brilliance. Still, just about every episode in Holmes's vast chronicle seems to end with a similar dying fall: "Coleridge took a deep breath, opened his laudanum decanter, and collapsed." Crisis follows upon crisis, opium binge upon opium binge--and by the time the poet begins his massive Biographia Literaria in 1815, you wonder at the fact that he's still alive and kicking.
The capstone of Coleridge's later years, the Biographia functioned as a confessional, autobiography, and omnium-gatherum of everything he had thought about in the preceding decades. "In all this," Holmes writes, "the Biographia has an acute psychological interest, and its shape-shifting and paradoxes, its intimacy and disguises, its frankness and its fraudulence, make up a genuine literary self-portrait. Anything less complicated, less fascinating and less maddening, would really not be Coleridge at all." The same might be said of Darker Reflections itself (minus the fraudulence, of course). The author has crammed an unbelievable amount of detail into his magnificent, double-barreled portrait, and expertly mimicked the dizzy, stop-and-start rhythms of his subject's life. But anything less complicated--and less endowed with authorial sympathy and tact--would really not be Richard Holmes at all. --James Marcus [via]