Evelyn Toynton asks why Molly Lefebure, 40 years after passionately defending Coleridge, has now turned against the poetby Evelyn Toynton / November 14, 2013 / Leave a comment
A biographer’s relationship with a subject can be as turbulent as a love affair. If the subject is a great writer, the initial phase often has all the ecstatic elements of a romance. Sometimes, as research uncovers discreditable facts, disillusionment can follow. Robert Frost’s anointed biographer was so horrified by what he learned about Frost’s behaviour to his wife and children that he could not forgive him; his three-volume life of Frost devolved into one long, furious indictment. But, with any luck, disillusionment will be succeeded by a fuller sympathy, one that encompasses even the subject’s moral failings; a deeper admiration may emerge, through knowledge of the struggles undergone to achieve the artistic triumph.
In the case of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, much forgiveness is called for, though there is also likely to be awe. Apart from having revolutionised English poetry when he and his fellow Romantic, Wordsworth, published their Lyrical Ballads in 1798, Coleridge was the most metaphysically-minded of all English literary critics, with a far-reaching curiosity that took in everything from science to Sinology. Capable of immense sweetness and generosity of spirit, he was also a spell-binding talker, an enchanter. “Many men have done wonderful things,” said Wordsworth, long after he and Coleridge had fallen out, “but STC was the only wonderful man I ever knew.”
Yet even before his years of tormented opium addiction distorted his character, he was the most unreliable of men: throughout his life, he fled from his responsibilities, failed to pay his debts, scrounged off his friends and relations, reneged on his promises, and—saddest of all—never completed (or sometimes even started) the epic poems and great philosophical and religious works he discoursed on with such dazzling brilliance for hours at a time. Though he may have possessed the most brilliant mind in the roster of English literature—“The class of thinkers has scarcely yet arisen by whom he is to be judged,” said John Stuart Mill, who often trudged up Highgate Hill to listen to him talk—many of his ideas have come down to us as mere fragments jotted down by others. Still, for nearly 200 years he has attracted a legion of eloquent defenders, among them Henry James, who accused Coleridge’s denigrators of “pedantry, stupidity, want of imagination…failing to recognise that one must pay for him and that on the whole he…