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4.5 out of 5 stars
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4.5 out of 5 stars
Coleridge: Early Visions
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 22 September 2016
The first volume in a mesmerising two-part biography, Richard Holmes provides a fascinating psychological portrait of Coleridge (STC) and an exploration of the Romantic movement which enabled me to see beyond its often cloying sentimentality, all set in the context of the looming threat of the French Revolution, and the growing divisions in Britain over the need for political and social reform.

A young man of remarkable mental and physical energy, making a name for himself as a poet, political journalist, lecturer, preacher and budding philosopher, Coleridge’s charisma and eloquence gained him many admirers and staunch friends, only too often later alienated by his unreliable, extreme behaviour. Part of the problem was that his evident ability brought too many offers of work for him to handle. Combined with a tendency to be continually distracted by his own projects, STC was at times overwhelmed into inaction, increasingly fuelled by opium and alcohol, the list of unfinished work becoming a tragi-comedy even to him.

In his defence, STC still managed to produce an impressive quantity of poetry and prose. Opium was the main painkiller available to a man who seemed to suffer more than his fair share of ill health, plus it probably enhanced STC’s creative abilities except when overdoses proved catastrophic. Even without opium, he displayed classic symptoms of bi-polarity: mood swings, acute self-absorption, tendency to be easily distracted into a new project when he should have been doing something else, problems with sleep and organising his affairs, uninhibited displays of emotion, and a “grandiosity” over each new scheme, generally conceived on too ambitious a scale to be feasible in reasonable time.

The neglect of his wife Sara is often shocking, as when he left her pregnant with a small child to undertake what turned out to be almost a year spent in Germany, learning the language and studying the literature. Even news of his newly born son’s death did not bring him home. Having insisted on marrying Sara even after his need for a wife to help him sustain a utopian community in America had fallen through, he found living with her intolerable. Perhaps he was running away from the guilt of being unable to provide a steady income (having at one point turned down part-ownership of a newspaper which would have secured his wealth) plus he felt a compulsive need to wander at night through the moonlit Quantocks with the Wordsworths, travel to some exotic foreign land, or the stimulus of London gatherings. His attempted escape to live with the Wordsworths in the Lake District could not prove the idyll of self-sufficiency or “pantisocracy” of which he had dreamed as a young man, for his obsessive passion for Wordsworth’s sister-in-law “Asra” was a source of destructive tension. STC’s long periods spent apart from the children he professed to love is also disturbing evidence of the selfishness so evident alongside his intense sensitivity: again, he may have been evading the painful knowledge that they were being supported largely by his brother-in-law, the poet Southey.

Despite his obvious faults, his verbal magic and self-deprecating wit still leap from the page to win us over. Also, he could be generous, as when he set aside his own work to edit publications for Wordsworth. The latter is portrayed as a controlling egoist, who did not flinch from removing STC’s poem “Christabel” from a joint work, thus establishing dominance in their working relationship, which STC for humbly accepted for too long.

Part 1 ends with Coleridge still in his thirties, sailing off to Malta under the protection of a naval convoy, convinced he would die abroad, his honour saved by the life insurance taken out to benefit his wife. Had he perished at that point, he would have been remembered as a talented poet, author of “Kubla Khan” and “The Ancient Mariner”, his reputation less tarnished than was to prove the case, although a large body of his work would never have been written.
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on 15 October 2014
Very scholarly. Too much detail for me. But very interesting.
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on 19 August 2001
I read this book after seeing the film Pandaemonium (which deals with a highly fictionalised account of the relationship between Wordsworth and Coleridge) at the London Film Festival in November 2000. To find more inspiration and excitement from the facts of Coleridge's life, as Holmes excitingly lays them out, than from a film was a revelation, but that is what happened.
Holmes writes beautifully and with enormous sympathy for a man who made a fantastic first impression on everyone he met through his brilliance, his lightning way with words and the effulgence of his personality, but whose torments led him to alienate his closest companions and friends; a man who despite being a gifted poet was personally happier in 'normal' jobs-- as a soldier, a journalist, a government official-- than he ever was as an 'artist'. At the end of this first volume Coleridge is near death in his early thirties, has written almost all of his major poetry, although not the journalism and criticism of his later life which in some ways made a greater mark on the literary world, and Holmes thoughtfully speculates in an afterword, as to subsequent generations' view had he died young like his near-contemporaries Keats and Shelley. (Kind of like the contrast between how we view Dean and Brando...) This (along with its companion volume) is a beautifully written biography that will be given to many of my friends this Christmas.
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VINE VOICEon 27 May 2015
Very detailed biography of Coleridge.

A rather scholarly work that covers a lot of ground over two volumes.

A tad difficult to get into but stick with it and you will be rewarded.

There probably isnt anything you need to know about Coleridge that isnt in this book.
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on 5 August 2012
Richard Holmes writes in a way that is thoroughly accsessible and interesting to read as well as exploring his subjects in depth and with a scholarly attention to accuracy and objectivity. Coleridge had a fascinating life and Holmes brings him vividly to life and evokes a time when poets were also 'natural philosophers' i.e. scientists to us. I would reccomend this book to anyone who has an interest in poetry or the period.
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on 6 January 2011
Excellent book deservedly well received on first publication over a decade ago. Continues the first volume and puts a great, though ultimately unfulfilled life into sharp perspective. Has some pointed criticisms of Wordsworth's behaviour to make. Recommend to anyone interested in early romantics and their world.
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VINE VOICEon 22 September 2011
Not the orthodox interpretation of Coleridge. I am not Coleridge's greatest follower but living in the West Country and writing a piece on Coleridge in a local publication every month, room guiding in Coleridge Cottage in Nether Stowey I need something to fill in my gaps. This was recommended to me and whilst I'm having to re-think my background and academic knowledge of Coleridge this is giving me fun-time in a serious groove. Extremely readable both for the student of the Romantic Poets and for those who just wish to explore the early life of Coleridge for their own fulfillment.
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on 13 January 2013
Very interesting and informative. The author writes very well and maintains the interest. I will be buying the second part.
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on 30 March 2015
excellent value as usual.
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on 23 May 2016
Insightful.
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