The Frost performs its secret ministry,
Unhelped by any wind. The owlet’s cry
Came loud —and hark, again! loud as before.
The inmates of my cottage, all at rest,
Have left me to that solitude, which suits
Abstruser musings: save that at my side
My cradled infant slumbers peacefully.
‘Tis calm indeed! so calm, that it disturbs
And vexes meditation with its strange
And extreme silentness. Sea, hill, and wood,
This populous village! Sea, and hill, and wood,
With all the numberless goings-on of life,
Inaudible as dreams!
—————————–From ‘Frost at Midnight’
I am sitting, laptop open, to let the false moon of the screen perform its secret ministry. The windowed world darkens. A skateboarder floats by, unhelped by any wind, turning grit underwheel; twilight unravels its silks noiselessly, and all the silent mouthings of the street accrue. A sign above a dark doorway pulses in neon – blue! – and then again, blue as before. All the inmates of my head have left me to my solitude.
I have been reading Richard Holmes’ biography of Coleridge, Early Visions, which follows the great man through precocious youth into frustrated adulthood. It’s a sympathetic, reassuringly complicated account of a man whose genius never quite overcame his dreaminess. Coleridge wrote most of his really important poems while still young, in short bursts of intense creativity which punctatued much longer periods of indecision, prevarication or mute incapacity.
The poet is presented in such a humane way that it is impossible not to like him. Holmes’ Coleridge is a tragi-comic character, a mess of contradictions, gregarious yet lonely, worldly, earnest, often incredibly naive: a silly genius. He is something of an exile and a wanderer, not really ever bedding down or settling in, never quite ready to commit. And yet he feels a profound sense of vocation as a poet, and a spiritual longing for resolution as a man. One gets the impression of someone who feels, who deeply feels, the horror and the joy of living. Perhaps this depth of feeling is the key to his famously addictive personality, the attraction being to both poles at once, to the extremeties, anywhere where the air is thinner and more intoxicating.
Early Visions is the first volume of a biography in two parts (I’m now onto the second, Darker Reflections), and is most compelling as Holmes tries to follow Coleridge’s reluctant slide from adolescent daydreams into adult responsibilities, mostly because of the difficulties this presents the biographer. The temptation is to expunge complexity, to order and standardise, and to build a pleasingly symmetrical subject: Holmes is, more often than not, alive to the danger. In truth, I’ve never understood the taxonomy of growing up. It doesn’t seem to me as easy as shedding one skin for another: I still blunder about like an adolescent most of the time. Likewise, Coleridge periodically emerges as a new man – revolutionary, public speaker, itinerant scholar, father – but in reality flickers between these roles without ever fully acheiving his ambitions or satisfying his sense of duty. He falls in and out of love with women, with places, and with ideas. He makes friends and estranges them. He is, in other words, a quite exemplary human being.
One of the most seductive properties of any biography is its offer of evidence and data in order that we might dissect a life. Lay yourself on the table Mr Coleridge, drowsy sir, and let us get to the bottom of this. And yet just as we cannot ever reach the solitude in the centre of a person by cutting him up, we must accept that dates are no more compelling witnesses to a life than a few airborne flakes of dust in the corridor are to the last words of a conversation. In the end, the most fascinating thing about Coleridge, lost poet, is that he is as unknowable as any of us, and that we will never know his passions or his fears, his abstruser musings, just as you will never know mine. We will all of us live and die in strange and extreme silence, inaudible as dreams.