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Having reviewed over 1100 books on this blog, I have now written one myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. It is available on Kindle through Amazon. Read it and find out whether this critic can write. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Friday, 24 June 2016

"Coleridge: Early Visions" by Richard Holmes

This is the first of a two-volume biography of the 'father of romanticism' Samuel Taylor Coleridge, author of classic poetry such as Xanadu, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and Christabel. It covers his life from his birth in 1772 in St Mary Ottery in Devon and childhood as one of many brothers, growing up in a rural parsonage, and his subsequent schooling at Christ's Hospital and Cambridge after his father had died, to 1804 when he travelled to Sicily during the Napoleonic Wars.

It is an extremely well-written book, easy to read (the chapters aren't very long and they are further divided into beautifully short sections), and comprehensive without being exhaustive. There is a very good cast list at the back ("Coleridge's Circle"). I particularly liked the fact that Holmes touched upon literary theory although in my opinion he did not go far enough. It seems to me, from what Holmes does say, that Coleridge was an avant garde young Turk rebelling against the literary establishment which means that he presumably had ideas about what was good and what was bad; Holmes tells us that Coleridge reinvented the traditional ballad form but I wanted to know the details of this. (This is one of those moments when I acknowledge that my tastes are probably as far from mainstream as you can get; despite this cavil the biography is still a damn fine book).

Coleridge knew everyone, including the young poet and chemist Humphrey Davy, who appears in The Age of Wonder, an even more brilliant book by Richard Holmes

He was a 'bit of a lad' at Cambridge, getting drunk and whoring and getting into debt; he left by joining the army but was discharged 'insane' (he must have been totally unsuited to military life; he could not even ride a horse without repeatedly falling off); it sounds as if he was manic-depressive. He then became a political radical (he and Wordsworth were tracked by a government spy (brilliantly called Nozy!) who was very concerned that the notes the poets were making about the countryside were designed to be sold to Napoleon). He made several plans to start artistic communities in the wilderness, believing implicitly in Rousseau's 'Noble Savage'. He was an avidly read and very astute political journalist. He adored long (often 20 miles or more each day for several days) country walks and began both Kubla Khan and Ancient Mariner whilst walking in Devon (I have just spent a week in Watchet where they claim that Ancient Mariner was inspired by a visit to their harbour).

There were so many quotable moments in the book (mostly by Coleridge but still quite a few by Holmes):

  • In literary life "'success' and respectability are delusive concepts" (Ch 1.4) - I love 'delusive'!!!
  • Coleridge was "uncertain whether he was the Benjamin or a black sheep" (Ch 1.4)
  • Coleridge developed a "plain style, expressing emotion in run-on lines, musical alliterations, and bold monosyllabic statements of personal feeling" (Ch 2.6)
  • Coleridge used "suspended rhythmic devices with brilliant effect in his ballads" (Ch 6.6)
  • Xanadu is a "myth of creativity" (Ch 7.10)
  • Coleridge "plunged like a Red Indian ... into the woods" (Ch 8.10)
  • Coleridge in Germany was delighted that kids got presents from "a mysterious forerunner of the modern Father Christmas" (and that older kids kept the secret from their younger siblings) (Ch 9.4)
  • "No animal but man appears ever to be struck by wonder" (Ch 9.9, quoting Carlyon)
  • "With his fatal genius for being all things to all men, for trying to please everyone at once, and for trying to fulfil expectations on every hand, he fell into a pattern of prevarication and fragmentation in much of his work. He dreamed more than he planned, he planned more than he could execute, leaping from one brilliant conception to the next, never still or concentrated for more than a few weeks at a time." (Ch 10.3)
  • He laid out political debate in two columns "so that the closed, mirror-thinking of both sides was effectively demonstrated" (Ch 10.8)


  • "Chasing chance-started friendships" (Ch 1.2)
  • "Love is a local Anguish" (Ch 4.4)
  • "When a Man is unhappy, he writes damn bad Poetry, I find." (Ch 4.8)
  • "soul-gelding Ugliness" (Ch 5.8)
  • He was unable to write when he was depressed below the "writing-point in the thermometer of mind" (Ch 5.11)
  • He described the habit of philosophers of demanding that every concept be exactly defined as "Barricading the road to truth ... setting up a turn-pike at every step we took". (Ch 8.4)
  • A fisherman explained why he and others had risked their lives in a vain attempt to rescue a drowning boy as "we have a nature towards one another." (Ch 8.10)
  • "No one can leap over his Shadow" (Ch 12.8)

"And the Devil thought of his old Friend
Death in the Revelations" (Ch 10.1)

A beautifully written book. I just wanted more! (Yes, I am aware there is a second volume. I will get it.)

June 2016; 371 pages

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