COLERIDGE by Richard Holmes


Darker Reflections, 1804-1834
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This long-awaited second volume completes the definitive biography of the great Romantic; it illuminates how, in the course of great struggles with the demons of addiction and despair, the poet became a philosopher. Many of Coleridge’s contemporaries saw him as an indolent, impecunious, opium-addled political turncoat, issuing wild literary pronouncements while urging that the government prosecute the Napoleonic wars abroad and persecute the English radicals—his erstwhile allies—at home. All this was true enough, Holmes shows. Yet he also shows how Coleridge struggled to overcome his passions with the consolations of philosophy. From a vast array of journal and notebook entries, letters, table talk, and later reminiscences, Holmes assembles a convincing history of the tortured interior life of the thinker who, had he never composed his epochal verses—“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” “Kubla Khan,” and “Christabel”—would still stand as the presiding genius of the Romantic movement. Holmes details Coleridge’s tempestous relationship with Wordsworth, his unhappy marriage, his unrequited love for Wordsworth’s sister-in-law, his propensity for drink and laudanum, his horrible bowel ailments, and the disastrous disregard for publication deadlines that left him poor and underpublicized. But the focus is on Coleridge’s indomitable imagination and on the enthusiasm that his ideas generated in friends, like Wordsworth and Charles Lamb, in enemies, like William Hazlitt, and in younger writers like Keats and the Shelleys. Holmes steers his reader through all the moments of crystalline brilliance that eddied out of the stream of Coleridge’s life, while giving a full sense of the messy turbulence of his existence. His critical readings of Coleridge’s verse and prose are pointed and judicious; psychological speculation is clearly marked and kept to a minimum. In a way, Holmes himself needed to speculate little, given the plethora of revealing fantasies scattered through his subject’s poems, prose, notebooks, and monologues. An original among modern egomaniacal geniuses, Coleridge is an ideal subject for biography; yet while he would seem an inexhaustible subject, Holmes’s masterful volumes will probably take at least a generation to digest. (Volume One, Coredidge: Early Visions: 1772—1804, is being simultaneously reissued in trade paperback by Pantheon.)

Pub Date: April 15th, 1999
ISBN: 0-679-43847-5
Page count: 640pp
Publisher: Pantheon
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15th, 1999


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