Anyone remember Frankie Goes to Hollywood? Their first single, Relax, banned by the BBC, went on to make number one in the UK singles charts – nothing like a bit of controversy to stir up public interest! Their second single also topped the charts, as did their third. But it’s the fourth single, Welcome to the Pleasure Dome, that ‘only’ reached number two, which interests me, or rather Holly Johnson reciting “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a pleasure dome erect.” Not a faithful quote from the poem, admittedly, but nonetheless I count it my second encounter with Coleridge.
My first was my mum’s slightly odd habit of declaiming “water, water, everywhere nor any drop to drink” whenever something was spilled. She never explained it was a line from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, or if she did I don’t remember; and I was clearly intellectually incurious back then, because I don’t recall ever having asked her about it.
At university I read Frost at Midnight and Dejection: An Ode – I know this because the page numbers are circled in the index of my copy of The Portable Coleridge – but by the end of the course I remembered nothing of Coleridge apart from that he was friends with William Wordsworth and overly familiar with a certain substance derived from the poppy.
So when I heard of Richard Holmes’s Coleridge: Early Visions, which won the 1989 Whitbread Book of the Year, I decided it might spur me on the plug the gap in my literary education. The book arrived gift wrapped on Christmas Day courtesy of my mother-in-law (thanks, Norma).
Here are four things I’ve learned:
- Coleridge wasn’t only a poet: he was a public speaker, a journalist, an editor, a critic, and a prolific letter writer. He was no stranger to controversy himself: his early public speaking career, marked by “wild enthusiasm and “’flame-coloured epithets’” ending up “arousing such passions” that his lectures had to be moved from a public building to a private house!
- He was a radical thinker. He tried to set up an “experimental society” with like-minded friends, “in pastoral seclusion”. He devised a whole system for daily living: husbands would do all the housework to free women from “domestic drudgery”; ‘servants’ would have equal status to their ‘masters’. He called it Pantisocracy “from the Greek roots pant-isocrania, an all governing society.” Trouble was he couldn’t get his male friends to go through with it…
- His charisma, enthusiasm, talent and ideals, attracted not only William and Dorothy Wordsworth into his circle. He was variously friends with Humphrey Davy, William Hazlitt, Charles Lamb, Robert Lovell, and Robert Southey; and the wealthy Wedgewood family were his patrons.
- He fizzed with ideas. But despite that (or perhaps because of it) he lacked the focus to follow them through. So too much talent is not a good thing!
Early Visions is an immensely enjoyable read. Biography isn’t ordinarily a genre I go for, but then Richard Holmes isn’t your run-of-the-mill biographer. How many biographers invite the reader to imagine his subject dying half-way through his life, to “consider the position dramatically, as it were”? Or call attention to biography itself as a literary form? “If we could stop biography, as we can stop fiction, as the chosen moment, we could – it seems – change history. And yet biography cannot stop…”
The book also provided the push I needed to dust off The Portable Coleridge and discover, or rediscover, some of Coleridge’s most famous poems. (Frost at Midnight is beautiful – how did I not remember it?)
Early Visions is not the whole story: Holmes has also written Coleridge: Darker Reflections, which picks up where Early Visions leaves off, covering the second part of Coleridge’s life. I note, too, he’s written Shelley: The Pursuit and Dr. Johnson and Mr Savage. All of these books are prize winners. Did I really say I don’t go for biographies?
*** Highly recommended