A Moral Idiocy, an Imbecility of the Will, a Haunting, an Emptiness, a Posthumous State, a Writing Block

by Susan Eilenberg

  • The Life of Samuel Taylor Coleridge by Rosemary Ashton
    Blackwell, 480 pp, £25.00, December 1996, ISBN 0 631 18746 4
  • Coleridge: Selected Poems edited by Richard Holmes
    HarperCollins, 358 pp, £20.00, March 1996, ISBN 0 00 255579 4
  • Coleridge’s Later Poetry by Morton Paley
    Oxford, 147 pp, £25.00, June 1996, ISBN 0 19 818372 0
  • A Choice of Coleridge’s Verse edited by Ted Hughes
    Faber, 232 pp, £7.99, March 1996, ISBN 0 571 17604 6

He knew not what to do – something, he felt, must be done – he rose, drew his writing-desk before him – sate down, took the pen – – found that he knew not what to do.

Fond readers who dream of the poems Keats might have written had he lived past 25 and speculate about what works died with Shelley at 29, humane readers who deplore tuberculosis and drowning (together with rheumatic fever, arsenic and other wasters of Romantic genius), entertain a different and darker regret when they turn their attention to Coleridge, wishing, not that he had lived longer, but that he had died sooner. While no one will admit to a wish for any particular form of death – drowning, say, on the way to Malta, or an intestinal catastrophe still more catastrophic than the ones which figured in the psychosomatic melodrama of his life – there is a widespread feeling that it would have been better for all concerned, better even for Coleridge himself, had he simply ceased to exist during the first years of the 19th century.

In certain respects it is as if he had. After the first glorious days of his friendship with Wordsworth, Coleridge set about – or perhaps only resumed – a course of procrastination and ruin from which it seemed decent to avert one’s eyes. His life grew complicated and his poetry sparse, and his achievement took forms that required sometimes unreasonable effort to value.

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