Coleridge on the Couch
Review of: His Brother’s Keeper: A Psycho-biography of Samuel Taylor Coleridge
By Stephen M. Weissman
(FROM BOOK WORLD, WASHINGTON POST FEBRUARY .4, 1990)
Reviewed By James Engell (Coleridge Scholar and Professor of English at Harvard University)
OCTOBER 4 meant so much. On that date in 1781, Coleridge's clergyman father suddenly died after having seen off an older son, Frank, to naval service. Coleridge was 8. And Frank himself would never return, a victim of fever and suicide in India 12 years later. At 7, Samuel had quarreled with Frank and came at his brother violently with a knife, ostensibly over some cheese. But the deeper cause was a constitutional difference (he was dreamy and bookish, Frank dashing and military-like), troubled by competition for love of two women, their mother and nurse Molly. Coleridge and Wordsworth's Lyrical Ballads was first published on Sept. 18, 1798, then transferred to another firm that issued it on Oct. 4. In 1800 Coleridge arranged to read to Wordsworth his unfinished "Christabel" -- on Oct. 4. It was set for the second edition of the Lyrical Ballads. But Wordsworth was not pleased, told Coleridge, and had the printer strike the poem. Wordsworth and Mary Hutchinson married on Oct. 4, 1802. And one more anniversary fell then. Coleridge's own union to Sarah Fricker began Oct. 4, 1795.
Stephen Weissman's psychobiography of Coleridge convincingly analyzes the significance of this date, as well as many other elements in Coleridge's tangled personal relationships. The imprinting and formation of those psychic archetypes that shape life from childhood enter the narrative of his career repeatedly, including the flux of his creating energy and themes in his best-known verse. We receive a fine portrait of the painful, notoriously crossed inner life of a genius with stunning capacities for poetry, criticism, metaphysics and intellectual conversation, but also for self-delusion, remorse, dependence, reined-in envy and depression.
His Brother's Keeper acutely describes Coleridge's personal relations with Wordsworth -- ranging from worship ("the latch of whose shoe I am unworthy to unloose") to proud anger vented in private notebooks. Weissman establishes Coleridge's first heavy, addictive opium use in late 1800, when Wordsworth's friendship grew strained.
With narrative and psychological skill, and relying on Coleridge's letters and notebooks including records of his own dreams, Weissman also charts Coleridge's penchant for romantic foursomes -- himself, a friend and two sisters: Robert Allen and the Evans sisters at Christ's Hospital school, Southey and the Frickers after Cambridge, Wordsworth and the Hutchinsons, John Morgan and the Brents. The Malta voyage (1804-06) becomes a test when Coleridge tries to kick the laudanum habit (opium in alcohol) and first calls on a personal God's suffering Son, rather than a man of strong will such as Southey or Wordsworth, as a support and redeemer. A complex, sad picture of Coleridge's marriage emerges, including a careful sketch of Coleridge as father, particularly in dealings with, and on behalf of, his son Hartley.
Weissman makes no excuse for Coleridge's weaknesses. He was frequently self-deluding and neurotic, which gives added dimension to the plea in Biographia Literaria for "Know thyself" as the highest philosophic insight. Weissman's approach aims to elucidate "The Wanderings of Cain," "Dejection" and "Christabel," which he decipers as Christ Abel. "Osorio," an early play, receives suggestive treatment. Where Weissman identifies works that register Coleridge's "personal unconscious myth," he reveals underlying psychic patterns. Above all, he sees submerged themes of the loss or murder of a brother, guilt at one's own survival and attraction to a brother substitute.
Weissman argues that the Ancient Mariner would become part of Coleridge's own self-image: "Was Coleridge adopting the myth of his character as part of his unconscious sense of identity as he made the transition into midlife?" In less guarded moments, he summarizes too quickly and naively to preserve the nuance he shows elsewhere: " 'Kubla Khan' expressed Coleridge's bisexuality, 'Christabel' told the tale of his love for William Wordsworth, and 'The Pains of Sleep' confessed his opium addiction." Some phrases seem oddly inappropriate to the generally high level of analysis. Coleridge is "pickled in laudanum from his gizzard to his zatch." But the touch of reductionism -- such a pitfall for psychobiography of creative talent -- infects Weissman's analysis rarely and his literary criticism only in short stretches. While showing how the poems might be read against Coleridge's unconscious, he reminds us that reading them that way is neither a definitive nor exclusive interpretation. Parts of this book hit like shafts of light, others -- especially where direct criticism of the writing is concerned -- are more limited and controversial. While Weissman appreciates Coleridge the poet and understands his psyche with unprecedented insight, he does not address (nor claim to address) Coleridge's intellectual career generally. The more we have of Coleridge's writing, some now being published for the first time, the more we justly regard him as important in religion and theology, political theory, psychology, cultural life, language study and aesthetics.
While this book articulates the private myths that helped both fuel and thwart Coleridge's genial spirits, especially in personal relations up to 1810, it does not measure the scope of Coleridge's myriad-minded achievement. No new sense is gained of the varied mass of Coleridge's prose writings. Criticism of the poetry is plausible but limited to psychobiographical perspectives. Discussion of his religious odyssey does not plumb -- it barely recognizes -- his central anticipations of theology of the last 150 years.
Yet, if His Brother's Keeper is not a full-length portrait and must be read with other studies (for example, by Barfield, Bate, Chambers, Holmes, Magnuson and Willey), and alongside other criticism of Coleridge's writing, it should also be concluded that His Brother's Keeper must be read.
James Engell, professor of English at Harvard, is author of "The Creative Imagination" and co-editor of Coleridge's "Biographia Literaria."