A New Life of Coleridge
Rosemary Ashton, Samuel Taylor Coleridge: A Critical Biography.
(The Coleridge Bulletin New Series No 7 (Spring 1996), (pp 49-55)
We have all been waiting a long time for a full biography of
Coleridge, one which tells the story from its beginnings in
Rosemary Ashton is already distinguished as an historian of the impact of German thinking on English culture (in The German Idea ), and as a student of George Eliot and her circle ( George Eliot  and G.H.Lewes: A Life ; and both of these accomplishments mark her out as a likely biographer of Coleridge. The German expertise speaks for itself; and while it is true that Eliot is a very different creature, nevertheless, as John Beer has remarked, of all the Victorians she comes nearest to Coleridge's potent mixture of enormous learning and imaginative power. The richness and complexity of both writers lies in their conjunction of cerebral strenuousness and emotional intensity; and both looked to Wordsworth as an exemplary genius, for he had, they would have agreed, achieved exactly that ' union of deep feeling with profound thought' (Biographia Literaria) which they sought themselves. Coleridge's heart swelled with pride when Humphry Davy called him 'the poet—Philosopher', while Eliot thought of herself as an 'aesthetic teacher': in both, brain—power and creative power are not competitive, but collusive. So we can confidently expect a Life of Coleridge by Ashton to avoid the wrongheadedness exemplified by Chambers, who ended his book with a lament that the author of a few golden poems should have wasted so much time on all that metaphysical nonsense. At the same time, Eliot's
greatest novels, while clearly drawing strength and material from her career as an ethical theorist, cannot be seen simply as dramatisations of the essays: just so, we would expect this biographer of Coleridge not to present Coleridge as a straight 'thinker' and ignore the poetry, or bring it in at odd points 'as explications of the 'philosophy', as (for all his virtues) a scholar like Muirhead tends to.
On the whole, Ashton's new Life happily fulfils our high expectations. The facts of
Coleridge's life (and there are a lot of them) are here presented with
exemplary clarity, a vast amount being packed in without the book losing its
readability; and Ashton has deployed her German expertise adeptly, providing
brief but excellent accounts of Coleridge's appropriation of Kantian
terminology. The commentaries on the poems are shrewd and suggestive, and her
synopses of the prose works accurate and useful. The sense of Coleridge's
times, of a life lived in a particular culture, is sharp throughout: she
rightly emphasises, for example, that Coleridge's early left—wing politics were
pursued at considerable personal and professional risk, a fact which, as she
points out, adds a certain edge to his subsequent. career as a civil servant on
I should like to have seen more stress placed on Coleridge's early involvement with Unitarianism, which is, after all, the doctrine dominating his thoughts while he writes the great poems. Although Ashton discusses the reasons Coleridge gives for abandoning it around 1805 or 1806, there isn't a great deal on why it was so exhilaratingly exciting for him in the first place; and, as with the Unitarians, the place of Hartley and Berkeley in his
formative thinking is rather
underplayed, perhaps because of the gleam shed by the German illuminations to
come. I do not deny that the Germans are hugely important in his development;
nevertheless, to say that 'perhaps because of his desire to dissociate himself
from atheism, [Coleridge] had moved from Hartleian necessitarianism to
Berkleian idealism' is importantly to misrepresent the pattern of his thought
in the late 1790s, and it was his thinking of this period which made him so
unusually receptive to the Kantian school in the first place. Also,
But these are minor points. This Life of Coleridge is a work of great learning, and all Coleridgeans will want to have a copy: Ashton obliquely refers to herself at one point as an 'experienced Coleridge-watcher', and one quickly believes that she is. Of course, to know Coleridge is not necessarily to love him: in fact, as Ashton points out in her introduction, the majority of his most important relationships ended more or less miserably - one thinks of Saras Coleridge and Hutchinson, the Wordsworths and Southey, as well as less intense acquaintances, like Josiah Wedgwood or Hazlitt (a difficult customer at the best of times, it is true). Coleridgeans are apt to be rather judgmental about Wordsworth's treatment of the man, but one realises from Ashton's book how much—and for how long—the Wordsworths themselves patiently tolerated Coleridge's increasingly erratic behaviour. Only the excellent Lamb, who, with a truly Elian combination of sharpness and tenderness, seems positively to have relished what everyone else considered Coleridge's failings, remained true to the end; and even they had a bad falling-out, Coleridge receiving about the only spiteful letter Lamb ever wrote (c.23 May - 6 June,1798). Lamb comes out of this biography very well, as usual, sane and satirical without being disenchanted.
Interestingly, Ashton herself seems to follow this great Coleridgean tradition of disillusion, moving gradually from indulgence and wonder to irritation and, as she freely admits, repulsion. This isn't because Coleridge changes his spots: on the contrary, the problem is that he stays the same, the reckless and unreliable wonder of the inspired charity boy persisting incongruously into garrulous middle age in an increasingly undignified way. As anyone who has read headmasters' reports on university admission forms will recognise, 'full of potential' is good news about an idiosyncratic youngster, but less encouraging when applied to someone who has just failed all their A-Levels: well, mutatis mutandis, a description of ageing Coleridge's enormous, though apparently unfulfilled, powers can seem more and more like an example of old fashioned under-achievement.
The biographer's natural interest in his moral failings, weaknesses and inadequacies, which are manifest enough (though far less spectacular than Shelley's or Byron's for all that), inevitably ties up with the question of his permanent status in literary and intellectual history. 'Coleridge wrote as he lived,' Ashton remarks,
—compulsively, brilliantly, confusingly, contradictorily. Responses to his person and to his work are bound to be connected and bound to be problematic.
Certainly, Ashton pulls no punches in describing the limitations of the works produced by this problematic genius: 'No one,' she write movingly of The Friend, 'could read through all the numbers consecutively without fearing for his or her sanity or falling into boredom' (does one 'fall' into boredom, by the way?); and while Biographia is declared 'most extraordinary', it is an odd kind of triumph
that compendium of genius and obscurity, a book well—nigh impossible to read and yet impossible to do without, contains the finest single account of
Wordsworth's poetry, some over-detailed negative criticism notwithstanding. And it does so in addition to being a treasure-house of insights into poetic genius, the psychology of both poet and reader[...] and the characteristic genius of Shakespeare and Milton, as well as Wordsworth.
This is rather a good description of Biographia : I like the way Ashton's prose keeps adding on one last clause, so that her sentence mimics the shapelessness which the desire for inclusiveness similarly inflicts on Coleridge's book. But 'compendium' and 'treasure-house' are terms of praise obviously somewhat at odds with Coleridge's own ambitions for 'systematic' and philosophically authoritative coherence. Did he just let himself down?
I suppose this is the big question about Coleridge: what we are to make of his rather public form of failure? At the half—way point of her biography, recalling Wilhelm Meister, Ashton calls Coleridge's first thirty years the 'years of apprenticeship' and the last thirty the 'years of wandering', which made this reader think of Michael Foot's comment on Sir David Steel, that he'd gone from rising hope to elder statesman without troubling himself with any intervening period of achievement. Coleridge seems sometimes rather like that in this biography: Ashton says in her introduction that the jury is still out on whether Coleridge is actually great or not, and she seems undecided too. This is not necessarily a disqualification for the task, of course: Coleridge, an extremist himself, is the cause of extremism in others, and, historically, Coleridgeans have tended to either the hagiographic (like Gillman) or the iconoclastic (like Carlyle or Norman Fruman). Ashton's policy of 'alert scepticism' adroitly avoids both failings; but, at the same time, it does rather take for granted that Coleridge's doings are worth scrutinising so closely for over four hundred dense pages. When, a few years ago, Michael Foot published a book
subtitled A Vindication of Byron, one of the reviewers politely wondered whom on earth Byron needed to be vindicated against- the satiric point being, I suppose, that his sensational brand of transgression is practically de rigeur in a hero these days. Coleridge, on the other hand, whose sins (unheroic ones like self-hatred, despair, pride and cowardice) have no redeeming flamboyance to offer his reputation, does stand in need of something like a vindication, an apologia for his intellectual and imaginative life. Everyone agrees that for the first thirty years of his life he was the most brilliant creature- at the close of which period, most biographers stop. Looking at the wider picture, Ashton is eloquent on the excellence of Coleridge's criticism of Wordsworth, and places him foremost amongst our Shakespearean critics (though I would have thought Dr Johnson runs him a close race there); but I'm not sure one puts the book down with a sense of having seen Coleridge's last thirty years exactly justified.
As Ashton excellently remarks in the course of her book, negative criticism of Coleridge is normally anticipated in private by the man himself —'being beforehand with his critics,' she nicely puts it - and foremost amongst these criticisms is his self-analysis of inadequacy and protestation of under-achievement, one emphasised by the endlessly announced postponement of the really great work. But failure and achievement have a much more intricate relationship in Coleridge than that might suggest: his moral failings, as Margoliouth once said, were the failings of his virtues, and the same applies to the 'failure' of his intellectual life. The great systematiser, first and most subtle theorist of art's organic unity and wholeness, writes his masterpieces as fragments, or immethodical miscellanies - treasure houses - but the immethodical works still rely on the conception of 'method' they play around. We may be coming to see as his great life's work, not the totalising completeness of the Opus Maximum, but the onrunning scatter of the Notebooks, an
inconsequential omnium gatherum which justifies its existence with the reassurance that the grand synthesis of this miraculously diverse treasure is imminent: again, kinds of failure and kinds of spectacular success are utterly intertwined.
Ashton's new Life will not be quickly surpassed; but it rather lacks (due, perhaps, to restrictions of space?) a developed sense of his fiercely passionate and strenuous interior life, one still being led as he begins to transmute into a fattening sage dressed in black - and it is here that a vindication would begin. Still, the book is exemplary, a kind of 'public life' complement to the more private histories told in John Beer's Coleridge the Visionary and Walter Jackson Bate's Coleridge, and we shall be referring to it for a long time to come.