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Biographia Literaria by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Biographia Literaria by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Edinburgh University Press, 2014
608 pp., 250.00

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Alan Jacobs

Coleridge and the Maker

Revisiting the "Biographia Literaria."

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Coleridge's self-judgment and the judgment of posterity have often been one. In 1814, when he was forty-two and in the midst of a long nightmare of bodily pain, the side-effects of laudanum addiction, and repeated mental affliction, he wrote to his friend Joseph Cottle: "The object of my present reply, is, to state the case just as it is—first, that for ten years the anguish of my spirit has been indescribable, the sense of my danger staring, but the consciousness of my guilt worse—far worse than all! I have prayed, with drops of agony on my brow; trembling, not only before the justice of my Maker, but even before the mercy of my Redeemer. 'I gave thee so many talents, what hast thou done with them?' " Of all the darts that stabbed Coleridge's heart, the greatest was that conviction of great gifts neglected, enormous talents betrayed. And this verdict has been shared by many since: so many talents, and what to show for them? A handful of great poems; a number of intermittently brilliant lectures on poetry and philosophy and theology; a great many books started and left unfinished.

Cottle's answer to Coleridge's cry of misery, though clearly well-intentioned, offered little more than a generous heaping of salt into his friend's many wounds. "Did you ever hear of Jesus Christ? That he came into the world to save sinners? … Pray! Pray earnestly, and you will be heard by your Father, which is in Heaven." Coleridge, making every effort to be forbearing and grateful—he never lost the earnest and deep desire to please his friends, to please everyone—could only reply,

You bid me pray. O, I do pray inwardly to be able to pray; but indeed to pray, to pray with a faith to which a blessing is promised, this is the reward of faith, this is the gift of God to the elect. Oh! if to feel how infinitely worthless I am, how poor a wretch, with just free-will enough to be deserving of wrath, and of my own contempt, and of none to merit a moment's peace, can make a part of a Christian's creed; so far I am a Christian.

"Just free-will enough to be deserving of wrath"—a chilling word. The matter of freedom and bondage was much on Coleridge's mind at this time. A few weeks after his exchange with Cottle he wrote to another friend, John Morgan, to confess his many lies and deceptions: "And yet," he continued, "all these vices are so opposite to my nature, that but for the free-agency-annihilating Poison, I verily believe that I should have suffered myself to be cut in pieces rather than have committed any one of them." The laudanum, which he had once chosen to take, "annihilated" the freedom of his will. The paradoxes here were so deep, and the suffering (moral and physical) so intense, it is little wonder that Coleridge sought at this time to commit himself to an insane asylum.

Instead, he went to live with John Morgan in the countryside near Bristol. And there he began the hard and dark task of trying to put himself back together.

For Coleridge, "putting himself back together" meant, among other things, reclaiming the public's attention through publication. It seemed to him that a likely option might be to publish a collection of his poems. Though poetry had never been the chief focus of his attention—once, commenting on his limitations as a poet, he wryly noted that "Like the ostrich, I cannot fly, though I have wings that give me the feeling of flight"—poetry continued to be what he was best known for, thanks to his association with Wordsworth in the Lyrical Ballads of 1798. But he had fallen so far out of touch with the poetic world that he had no idea how even to choose a likely publisher: he wrote for help to Lord Byron, fifteen years his junior but dramatically more famous and influential, in a letter so fawning that it can scarcely be read without blushes. Byron responded graciously but not in a way that made it obvious what Coleridge should do next.

Moreover, that very association with Wordsworth that constituted the chief source of his reputation worried at him, for he and Wordsworth had fallen out; and, for Coleridge equally seriously, he had come to realize how thoroughly he now dissented from the theory of poetry that Wordsworth had laid out in the famous "Preface" to the Lyrical Ballads. So it occurred to Coleridge that, were he to publish a collection of his poems, it might properly be accompanied by a preface in the form of an intellectual autobiography—an account especially of how his literary views had been formed, and then, over the years, changed.

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