I happened upon the second volume of Richard Holmes’ biography of Coleridge at the library, Darker Reflections. I read the first volume, Early Visions, years ago, and loved it.
Holmes continues the approach that he took in the first volume, using footnotes to ruminate and extend upon the facts and observations delivered in the text. These two books are as good as biography gets.
Of the Romantics, Coleridge is the most difficult for me to read. He is wilder of imagination than Wordsworth, or any of them, and less plain spoken. I’ve read his journals, which are fascinating. You see the use of opium crowding into his life, at first medicinally, but then with fierce grip. Biographia Literiaria is thick reading, but a valiant effort in something new and engaging. And this brings me to Charles Olson.
These two writers bear some interesting similarities. Both are brilliant, with wide-ranging minds. The idea that poetry could embrace science, history, philosophy, and more, which I got from Olson, made writing possible for me. Coleridge had a similar embrace.
For all their brilliance, they were hard to understand. Guy Davenport has a wonderful essay about how so many people who profess to love Olson’s work don’t exactly know what he’s talking about. I number among them. There is a wonderful intensity, and a glimmer of something exactly intelligent, that causes one to persevere. So also with Coleridge. I just call it crazy, this sort of emanating efflorescence, but it is exciting too. John Keats will tell you that you don’t need to have everything explained. I know, he aimed that at Coleridge, but it has to be faced: Coleridge could talk.
Both Coleridge and Olson were eminently sloppy in their lives. This seems their natural condition, not helped by drugs and alcohol. They remained curious in their work.
Wordsworth is a great poet but he freezed up as he aged, becoming a state poet. He just couldn’t be crazy wonderful. It is interesting how he relied on Coleridge and Dorothy not just as sounding boards but as native brilliance that he could transform. He wanted to write well-formed poems. Coleridge, like Olson, reached for something more comprehending and stranger.