Inside the Head

John Barrell

  • Coleridge: Darker Reflections by Richard Holmes
    HarperCollins, 512 pp, £9.99, October 1999, ISBN 0 00 654842 3

The popularity of what is known as ‘literary biography’ suggests that there is a large audience eager to read about literature, but one that is not to be persuaded that the works of their favourite authors can be understood only in the detailed historical context in which they were produced, or only in reference to some elaborate theory of writing or reading, or only in comparison with the work of dozens of other writers whose names are known only to professional scholars. If this is true, however, it does not do much to resolve the paradox of modern literary biography. Only famous writers attract biographies, writers who are famous because their writings are. But the more space a literary biographer devotes to discussing an author’s writing, the less commercial the biography will seem to be, to those who decide which books to publish and push. It looks as though the word is out that readers will happily read about famous writers as long as they don’t have to be troubled much about what they wrote. ‘Literary biography’ has come a long way from the book which supposedly gave it its name, Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria, which he subtitled Biographical Sketches of My Literary Life and Opinions.

Richard Holmes, by reputation anyway, is different; and certainly his magnificent life of Shelley makes time, in the course of unravelling the threads of Shelley’s emotional, intellectual and imaginative life, to introduce its readers to writings that most of them will never have heard of, and to set them in a generous cultural and political context. I am thinking, for example, of the ten pages or so devoted to the superbly thoughtful account of the till then almost universally unread essay A Philosophical View of Reform, one of the tributary texts which fed into the Defence of Poetry. But Shelley: The Pursuit was published a quarter of a century ago, before the fashion for the blockbuster literary biography, which it did much to create, was well established, and before the commercial rules of the genre had become fully clear. On the evidence of his two volumes on Coleridge, Holmes, if he wants to swim against the tide, is finding it harder and harder to do so.

The rules that Holmes observes, in the present volume especially, seem to be as follows. Coleridge’s poetry may be quoted where it appears to throw light on his private life. His prose writings may be discussed only so long as that discussion does not interrupt or retard the narrative: so long, that is, as the writing of a work can itself be presented as a story – as a struggle with circumstances, as another episode of Coleridge’s psychic life, as another qualified success snatched from the jaws of yet another abject failure. The periodical the Friend, which Coleridge produced all but single-handedly, is marked out for elaborate treatment: there is the extraordinary resourcefulness Coleridge showed in overcoming a host of production difficulties; there is the determination with which he stuck at a task which cost him so much, but also offered him so much in terms of a renewed self-respect; there is the opportunity for intimacy with the woman he always loved but never possessed, Sara Hutchinson, who acted as his amanuensis while he was writing it. All this is very well done, if a touch sentimental, a bit too insistently part of Holmes’s attempt to give us a Coleridge ‘to claim our hearts’, as the blurb has it. But apart from some pages on Coleridge’s life of Sir Alexander Ball, his former boss in Malta, there is very little indeed on what the Friend was actually about.

Biographia Literaria is the other text to receive extended treatment here, mainly as a story of the miraculous, willed recovery Coleridge made in writing it, from the worst collapse of his life in 1813-14. The story of that collapse, of how Coleridge, with the help of the Morgans and others, managed to piece himself together again; of how he did this partly by patching together an account of his own life: all that is so gripping and so moving that only a reviewer with a heart of stone would ask for more. But what of the Biographia itself? Holmes’s treatment of it is perfunctory even at its most extended. It culminates in a discussion of the long account, which occupies most of the first volume of the Biographia, of Coleridge’s ‘philosophic conversion’ from the materialism of Locke and Hartley to ‘the new “dynamic” German philosophy of Kant and Schelling’: a conversion ‘from a materialist to a religious view of the world’, as Holmes airily describes it, though it was then perfectly possible for a materialist to have ‘a religious view of the world’. Hartley did. So did the early Coleridge. According to the orthodox version of the composition of the Biographia, now enshrined in the Princeton edition of the text, this philosophical section was the last to be written. There is another version, however, which in his urge to shoot a swift narrative line Holmes has chosen to ignore, and which puts the writing of this section much earlier. This other version is based on a letter written by Coleridge to a Dr Brabant. Oddly, Holmes quotes this letter as evidence for his version of events, slipping inexplicably from quotation to (mis)paraphrase at the point where it contradicts his account.

The ‘philosophic’ section of Biographia ends with the brief chapter of definitions: of the primary and secondary imagination and of the fancy. The placing of these definitions begs the question of their relation to the long discussion of poetry, poetic genius and Wordsworth that occupies much of Volume II, supposedly written earlier. The question is whether, when the terms ‘imagination’ and ‘fancy’ appear in the second volume, they are used in accordance with those definitions or according to some less precise, less theorised notion of their meaning and function. The exigencies of Holmes’s narrative, however – its breathlessness at this point miming Coleridge’s race against his printer’s deadline – has no time for such considerations. The chapter of definitions, as he sees it, is the end of a story, a finishing-line. It ‘summed up seven chapters of argument, and defined for the English-speaking world the Romantic concept of creativity. It … formed the vital bridge between the two halves of the Biographia, so bringing the philosophical principle to bear on the critical practice.’ Though the account of this chapter continues for a page or so, this arguable but highly contestable assertion – contested in particular by Paul Hamilton – about the main crux in Coleridge’s most important critical work, is never returned to, explained, argued for, and the problems it involves never acknowledged. Equally oddly, Holmes’s account of these definitions, which magically unified the hitherto disparate sections of the Biographia, is so casual that he says nothing at all about the distinction Coleridge proposes between the primary and secondary imagination, but writes as if all that was at stake was the (by then rather more conventional) distinction between imagination and fancy. The author of Shelley: The Pursuit would have done better.

The few other books Coleridge published during his lifetime are not sufficiently susceptible of being presented in narrative form, or in terms of Coleridge’s most private concerns, to cut much of a figure here. There are about four pages on the content of Aids to Reflection, about four more on the two Lay Sermons, and virtually nothing about the new, newly bitter, political divisions of the late 1810s without which the nearly impenetrable sermons are still more difficult to understand. Indeed, the political concerns that drove so much of the Friend and the Biographia are barely touched on (in the case of the Biographia, they are summed up, unless I have missed something, in one sentence about one chapter), and by virtually ignoring the political dimension of these writings, Holmes’s account of the hostility with which Coleridge’s publications of the late 1810s were received by radical critics largely misses the point.

Incredibly, Coleridge’s last book, On the Constitution of the Church and State – a book whose influence on later thinkers such as John Stuart Mill and Matthew Arnold was immense – is despatched in 15 lines, with no mention at all of the most essential circumstance of its production and reception, the imminence of Catholic emancipation. When you think how important Coleridge was becoming as theorist of the established church – indeed, when Holmes describes the central section of the Biographia as being all about his conversion ‘to a religious view of the world’ – it is surprising how little Coleridge’s views on religion are of interest to Holmes. The ‘Apologetic Preface’ to his ‘jacobinical’ poem ‘Fire, Famine, and Slaughter’, which Coleridge told his son Derwent was his ‘happiest effort in prose composition’, is mentioned once in a subordinate clause, but with no hint of what it might have been about. The controversy it participated in, about the relation between poetry and politics sparked by the unofficial publication of Southey’s own ‘jacobin’ dramatic poem Wat Tyler, is not glanced at, though it elicited some of Coleridge’s most intriguing remarks on poetry and was an important moment in the relationship between the two poets – a relationship very well handled, however, elsewhere in the biography.

This is, in short, most definitely, not a ‘literary biography’, a ‘Life and Writings’. Just as emphatically, it is not a ‘Life and Times’: insofar as it gives us a sense of the period when Coleridge lived, it is, except on a few occasions, in terms of who else happened to be alive at the same time rather than of any more general sense of cultural or social or political history. This is much more true of this volume than of its predecessor, Early Visions.[*] It is, very largely, a vie privée, even a ‘secret life’, and if approving reviewers have not expected a ‘literary biography’ to be anything else, that may be a measure of how far the notion that biography is the new novel has become established, and has persuaded us that, as in the novel, ‘real’ life is lived within – in private, inside the head, though not, especially, in the part of the head that does the thinking. The paperback edition begins with three pages of excerpts from 23 enthusiastic reviews. No doubt many of the reviews expressed great satisfaction with Holmes’s treatment of Coleridge’s writings, but whoever excerpted them did not appear to think that point mattered at all.

I think it’s sad, and for this reason. I was brought up, as many readers of my age were, to regard Shelley as a poet whom those in search of the very best in literature would not spend much time reading. All vague phraseology, half-baked philosophy, adolescent revolt. And though I taught a bit of Shelley for one week every year (and was puzzled to find myself admiring it enormously) it wasn’t until I was in my thirties that I sat down to read his works, verse and prose, from one end to the other. What prompted me to do so was Shelley: the Pursuit, which now (I’ve been rereading it) seems to me a more amazing achievement even than it did in the 1970s. I can’t imagine Coleridge: Darker Reflections sending anyone away to read Coleridge. The lesson it teaches is that Coleridge’s writing has significance chiefly as an exhalation from his most private anxieties, and is to be read mainly as a key to understanding them. But why struggle to understand them from the original writings when they are already so fully laid out in the biography?

At times to be sure the book is much more than this. The story of how Coleridge became – so unexpectedly, it might seem – a thoroughly competent diplomatic servant in his brief stay on Malta is very well told; so is the story of how he rescued his friend Morgan’s collapsing silverware business. Holmes describes with wonderful verve how Coleridge came to take the risk of lecturing extempore, obliging his audience to share the risk that he would suddenly break down or go on for ever, incapable of finding a place to stop. And more than that, any reader content with the parameters Holmes works within will find this a fascinating account of Coleridge’s struggles with opium, his disastrous relationships with women, the patience and understanding of his wife, the too much maligned Sara Fricker, the hopelessness about his prospects felt by so many of his friends, the optimism of a few others, the amazing resurgences of Coleridge’s spirit from the deepest despair. If you don’t miss what you don’t get, this is obviously a compelling read.

One thing about the book puzzled me. It opens with an account of Coleridge’s thoroughly uncomfortable voyage in 1804 from England to Malta on board the Speedwell. Curious about Holmes’s method, I began reading with the notebooks and letters open alongside the biography. On Thursday 19 April the Speedwell anchored at Gibraltar, and while Coleridge waited to get clearance from the quarantine authorities, he noticed on shore ‘a sweet English Lady’, and wondered ‘how straggled that angel Face hither?’ The next day he disembarked, and was enthralled by the variety and appearance of the inhabitants: ‘dirty’ Spaniards, Greek women with huge ear rings, ‘Jews with university Bumbazine Dresses’ – that is, with robes made of the same bombazine as academic gowns. In Holmes’s version, the English lady is bumped from Thursday into Friday and, as if in sympathy for one so obviously in need of protection, Holmes props her on the arm of ‘a senior English officer’ of whom Coleridge makes no mention. The Jews coalesce into one, ‘a learned Jew’ apparently with a degree, for he sports your actual ‘university dress’. After wandering up to Europa Point and down again, Coleridge kept an appointment with the captain of the Speedwell at Griffith’s Hotel, where according to Holmes he learned news of various naval disasters which, according to Coleridge, he had already known about for a day or more. According to Holmes he then had a conversation about the politics of the Mediterranean which, according to Coleridge himself, would not take place until three days later.

When the Speedwell resumed its journey to Malta, Coleridge was assailed by the constipation which was a continual effect of his use of opium. Holmes quotes him describing at length the horrors of one excruciating evacuation, and, four days later, in the course of a long, painful, desperate account of the agonies of constipation, shows him urgently praying that God will give him the strength to break his habit. Coleridge then crawled onto the deck to find the ship in sight of Sardinia; an exhausted hawk, reminiscent of the devoted albatross, landed on the bowsprit; the sailors shot at him five times but missed, and the hawk fluttered heavily away to try the other ships in the convoy, each equally unwelcoming. Coleridge ate some rhubarb as an aperient. Gradually he became calm enough to make notes on the nature of poetry. In a few days he was ‘quite restored’, and enjoying a first view of Etna. In short, things were bad but slowly got better.

According to Coleridge, however, most of this happened in a much more disorderly order. The notes on poetry, evidence for Holmes of Coleridge’s incipient recovery, were written the day after the ghastly evacuation, but days before his most agonised account of his constipation and the prayer it prompted. It was the day after he wrote the notes on poetry that he ate the rhubarb; it was the following day that he saw Sardinia and the vagrant hawk; and it was the day after that that he made his desperate prayer for strength.

These examples and the next are collected from the first 15 pages of the book; I could produce one or two more. I have no idea how representative of Holmes’s general method they might turn out to be – comparing Holmes with his sources made me feel like an overzealous PhD examiner and I shut the notebooks before Coleridge reached Malta. And surely I had been wasting my time? These are trivial rearrangements, the product either of some pardonably loose note-taking, or of a laudable instinct for economy, or even of an artist’s desire to reshape his material where it can be done without violence to it. I’m not sure: loose note-taking seems to me the most pardonable of these possibilities; the others, to me, suggest a lack of respect for the order and the mess of Coleridge’s life and of the writings in which he recorded it. And supposing the tendency to rearrange the micro-events in Coleridge’s life were matched by a tendency to rearrange his ideas?

Take this paragraph by Holmes, developed from a long note made by Coleridge on the morning of the day when the Speedwell reached Gibraltar. He is musing, Holmes tells us, on the

strange difference between human and natural geography, how human associations form our landscapes and boundaries far more than Nature herself. The power of human association with physical places and objects was perhaps the foundation of biography – ‘a Pilgrimage to see a great man’s Shin Bone found unmouldered in his Coffin’. Yet surely in this biography was a form of stupid superstition. ‘A Shakespeare, a Milton, a Bruno, exist in the mind as pure Action, defecated of all that is material & passive.’ He could look at the fabled mulberry tree that Shakespeare planted without emotion. Yet as he gazed out into the moonlit path between two continents, Coleridge recognised deeper feelings of connection within himself. ‘At certain times, uncalled and sudden, subject to no bidding of my own or others, these Thoughts would come upon me, like a Storm, & fill the Place with something more than Nature.’

The notebook entry apparently paraphrased here must be of real importance to Holmes, for in it, only seven pages into the book, we seem to overhear Coleridge meditating, not just about biography, but about a practice that Holmes has made central to his own version of the art: dogging the footsteps, the ‘vestigia’, of his subjects, hoping to be illuminated by the aura their presence has left in the places they passed through. It is as if the biographer and his subject are opening a dialogue on the huge project to which Holmes has devoted so much of his life. At first, Coleridge appears to suggest that Holmes’s method is like a Catholic pilgrimage in search of phoney relics, all ‘stupid superstition’. But then, but then – isn’t that too shallow an answer, he muses: isn’t there a deeper connection between the natural and the human, which, when it is felt, strikes like a storm? Reluctantly, with a second ‘yet’, a double twist in the argument, Coleridge concedes the argument to Holmes. Yes Richard, you win: the power of association between places and the great men who have inhabited them is sometimes irresistible.

If we turn, however, to the notebook entry which this paragraph represents itself as paraphrasing, we find that Coleridge was aware of entertaining no thoughts about biography at all. He is meditating on why he remains unmoved at the thought of standing where great men had stood before him, and considering whether there might be times and ‘conceivable circumstances’ when, in spite of himself, he would find himself moved, and would experience, for example, the tree Shakespeare planted as something more than Nature, as made more than itself by its association with the poet. No, he finally decides: there might be times when he might be so moved, were it not that the contrast would be so great between the triviality of the natural object and the greatness of the name associated with it (and of course the same argument goes for holy relics, hence the mention of ‘stupid superstition’). Those who would be moved, he declares, are like the readers who find Paradise Lost boring except where alleviated by ‘a few entertaining Incidents’. Yes Richard, the power of association between places and great men is irresistible, but only for ‘the mass of mankind’ who, ‘from Error of Rearing & the Worldliness of their after pursuits’, are ‘rarely susceptible to any other pleasures than those of amusement’.

So how did Holmes make plausible his claim to Coleridge’s endorsement for his way of doing biography? Partly by shuffling the order of his reflections so that the provisional suggestion, that he might occasionally be moved, which was posed for the sake of developing the argument, becomes the place the argument has been trying to reach all along. To clinch the point, Holmes tells us that this provisional suggestion was the place where ‘deeper feelings’ are to be found, though Coleridge appears to believe the exact opposite. More than that, however, the endorsement is secured because Holmes, more than most biographers, believes he has the right to speak for his subjects. Look at the remark that ‘the power of association with physical places and objects was perhaps the foundation of biography.’ To readers of Holmes who also read Coleridge, nothing will seem more like Holmes, less like Coleridge, than this thought. At first it is uncertain, the way Holmes introduces it, to which of them the thought belongs. The doubt is apparently resolved, however, two sentences later, when the persuasive tone of ‘yet surely’, the tense of ‘was’ and the phrase ‘stupid superstition’ – evidently not Holmes’s own – firmly attribute this idea about biography to Coleridge himself. As we have seen, however, the thought of biography had never crossed Coleridge’s page: instead, Holmes has made it seem as if it had by the ventriloquial magic of the free indirect style, which allows him to pass off his own thoughts as the thoughts of Coleridge. Holmes’s eagerness to identify with Coleridge throughout the two volumes of this biography sometimes seems to persuade him that he can speak Coleridge’s mind for him, and, when he does, the effect is uncanny: two minds with but a single thought.

At one point, Holmes reflects on Coleridge’s unforgettable analogy, in Chapter 7 of the Biographia, which compares the action of the imagination with the way a water-boatman walks upstream. ‘This is how creativity actually works,’ Holmes tell us, apparently just down from Sinai; ‘a mental (ultimately spiritual) rhythm which arises from the primary physical conditions of the natural world’. Not only do Coleridge and Holmes agree completely, but their joint opinion is congratulated for being wonderfully consonant with the way things really are. It is unfortunate that once again they seem to be talking about different things. For Holmes, the analogy describes ‘the actual process of creative inspiration’: for Coleridge, it describes how the imagination works even in the performance of routine mental tasks, like ‘trying to recollect a name’.

[*] Coleridge: Early Visions was reviewed by John Bayley in the LRB (7 December 1989).