Walter Jackson Bate’s Coleridge

Of all the Romantic poets, perhaps only the prophet William Blake achieved as much in a discipline outside of poetry as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, poet, critic, and amateur theologian, and, like Blake, Coleridge found himself overshadowed in his own lifetime by his more popular contemporaries. Posterity has been kinder to both men: Blake is properly revered as a poet and painter of genius, and Coleridge’s literary criticism – much of it produced between opium highs, and in a desperate bid for money – ranks among the finest in the English language. Given the variety of Coleridge’s interests, and the legendary breadth of his reading, synthesizing all that he thought into a single biography is an immense challenge, but Walter Jackson Bate, five years after completing his magisterial Keats biography, was more than prepared.

As in any competent biography, Bate charts the life of his subject with sympathetic understanding: Coleridge was born in 1772, the youngest of fourteen children, to a vicar and grammar school teacher, circumstances that Bate credits for producing his unusually self-effacing personality:

Dependant as he was on almost everyone else and with practically no one dependent on him, the need to ingratiate himself became especially strong, and with it, as corollaries, a readiness of guilt, a chronic fear of disappointing others, and a fascinated admiration for people of firm – or at least apparently self-sufficient – character.

He excelled in school, easily outclassing his peers, and consumed books like manna, reading every volume in a cherished aunt’s book shop. After the untimely death of his father, when Coleridge was just nine years old, the charity of family and friends enabled him to attend a London school, and in that great city – with its great libraries – he blossomed, first thanks to an early friendship with Charles Lamb, and later thanks to his readings in philosophy and politics. His social circle encompassed some of the most impressive minds of the age, from William and Dorothy Wordsworth to William Hazlitt and Thomas De Quincey, and every last one of them spoke of his brilliance in conversation. As a perfectionist with a pathological sense of his own inadequacy, writing required more self-confidence than Coleridge could regularly muster, but in conversation he could speak freely, unleashing the awesome powers of his mind on any subject.

From his twenties till his late forties he could move into any circle and talk with equal ease to a group of butchers, to scholars and critics, to political gatherings, to Unitarian meetings, or to people assembled in an inn or a hall for a lecture on anything – education, Shakespeare, the history of philosophy.

After meeting with Coleridge in the spring of 1833, Ralph Waldo Emerson would declare that he “wrote and spoke the only high criticism of his time,” (italics mine), and another visitor, Thomas Colley Grattan, would be even more succinct: “He seemed to breathe in words.”

The most consequential friendship of Coleridge’s life was with William Wordsworth, whom Coleridge regarded as the finer and more natural poet, and who – Bate argues – breathed life into Coleridge’s own concepts and ideas. The Prelude, Wordsworth’s great poem, began as the humble “Poem to Coleridge,” and can be read as one all-encompassing meditation on their lengthy dialogue as friends. But the same friendship that proved so inspirational to Wordsworth often stymied Coleridge, and it is here – in the discussions of Coleridge the poet – that Walter Jackson Bate the literary critic intersects most fruitfully with Bate the biographer. Bate believes that the more conversational poems for which Coleridge is justly praised – “Frost at Midnight,” “The Eolian Harp” and “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison” – and which were so hugely influential on the direction of Wordsworth’s poetry, represented a kind of path of least resistance for the stymied Coleridge, who longed to write in the high, formal style of English epic poetry, from Shakespeare’s tragedies to Milton’s Paradise Lost.

More than any English poet of his time except Keats – perhaps more than any other poet of the last two centuries – Coleridge from the beginning looked back with almost overwhelming admiration to what the eighteenth century had called the “greater genres” – the epic and, above all, the tragic drama: poetry that could unite scope and depth, philosophical range and immediacy of detail, psychological insight and emotional suggestiveness of phrase and image.

But it was precisely his uncommon insights into these poets and poems, and the skill with which they were executed, that made writing in that tradition so difficult for him. How do you best Shakespeare in tragedy, or Milton in an English verse epic? Thus the “meditative mode, deliberately relaxed in manner, in which the poet, though speaking in the first person, stands aside and views things somewhat ab extra” proved attractive, offering a kind of reprieve from the incredible burdens of tradition. It’s a powerful argument, one that Bate developed further in his The Burden of the Past and the English Poet, and that was subsequently taken up, even more famously, by Harold Bloom in The Anxiety of Influence. Coleridge is an exemplary subject for this “anxiety of influence,” because he wrote very frequently about the dejection he felt in comparing himself with Wordsworth: “If I die, and the Booksellers will give you any Thing for my Life, be sure to say – ‘Wordsworth descended on him like the γνῶθι σεαυτόν [“Know Thyself”] from Heaven; by shewing to him what true Poetry was, he made him know, that he himself was no Poet.”

In another, even more sorrowful letter, he would denounce his entire poetic enterprise: “I have abandoned it [poetry], being convinced that I never had the essentials of poetic Genius, & that I mistook a strong desire for original power.” Every aspiring poet, every hopeful writer, shares this exact fear, that desire and passion do not encompass talent or power, but the genius of Bate’s biography is that it demonstrates how terribly unreliable a narrator Coleridge could be.