When one speaks of magisterial works, Richard Holmes's two-volume biography of Samuel Taylor Coleridge is what I think of. I just completed volume II,...moreWhen one speaks of magisterial works, Richard Holmes's two-volume biography of Samuel Taylor Coleridge is what I think of. I just completed volume II, Darker Reflections, and it is amazing. Just amazing.
The second volume begins as Coleridge leaves England for Malta. Coleridge's opium addiction is well documented, and Holmes is able to move Coleridge's addiction beyond the sparkling creativity of "Kubla Khan" to the often desperate, agonizing, embarrassing, and hellish addiction it was. All the signs we think of regarding modern addiction is there: the dissembling, the hiding, the borrowing, the broken promises, the desire to escape the addiction but caught in its throes. Holmes makes no case that the addiction hindered Coleridge's later career, but one can infer that.
We learn a great deal about Coleridge's lectures, about the break with Wordsworth (who comes off as cold and holier-than-thou), and his generosity despite his own hardships. Holmes gives us all the familiar stories (the meeting with John Keats) and much else. Holmes is also a careful reader of the notes, letters, fragments, and lectures. He never pushes their interpretation, but he skillfully quotes them to be a part of the narrative.
What does this all amount to though? A good biography gives the reader a good narrative with excellent detail. We see the subject of the biography from the perspective of a movie. Roderick Beaton's George Seferis: Waiting for the Angel is such a biography. This is not a criticism of Beaton's biography, which I found expertly done, well written, and with valuable insights to Seferis (one of my favorite poets). Additionally, Beaton's biography places Seferis in context to his time, his culture, his world. But I said earlier that Holme's biography of Coleridge is not just amazing but magisterial. What sets it apart from nearly every biography I have read is that we don't see Coleridge from the perspective of a movie, but we feel as if we're next to him, eavesdropping on conversations.
Coleridge is one of those that if you could go back in time and have dinner with would be on my list. I knew he was a great talker, but Holmes makes him into an amazing talker and able to enchant us in a paradoxically fluid but disjointed tale that touches on German metaphyics, elucidations of Shakespeare, the politics of power, and so on.
Another excellent Bryson book. I particularly like the way he argues against the anti-Stratfordians--whose positions I find non-starters. Bryson also...moreAnother excellent Bryson book. I particularly like the way he argues against the anti-Stratfordians--whose positions I find non-starters. Bryson also brings his characteristic wit to bear.(less)
An interesting read, particularly for fans of Adams' work. While the "biographical" detail is fairly minimal, particularly with more recent years, Ada...moreAn interesting read, particularly for fans of Adams' work. While the "biographical" detail is fairly minimal, particularly with more recent years, Adams' discussions on his own compositions, the works of others, and trends in modern orchestral music are enlightening.(less)
I just recently finished Stanley Plumly’s Posthumous Keats, which was quite a good read. The book is part biography, part memoir, part literary critic...moreI just recently finished Stanley Plumly’s Posthumous Keats, which was quite a good read. The book is part biography, part memoir, part literary criticism. Specifically, the book covers the last 18 months of Keats’s life and beyond, the moment from his first hemorrhage to final days in Rome. Each chapter covers in detail an aspect of Keats’s posthumous existence. For example, the first chapter deals with the epitaph on Keats’s tomb in the protestant cemetery in Rome. Keats wanted only “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.” But Joseph Severn and Charles Brown (the former nursed Keats in his final illness in Rome, the latter was a close friend who was with Keats at the time of his first hemorrhage) modified and altered Keats’s original epitaph to today’s version:
This Grave contains all that was mortal of YOUNG ENGLISH POET who on his Death Bed in the Bitterness of his Heart at the Malicious Power of his Enemies Desired these words to be engraven on his Tomb Stone
“Here lies One whose name was writ in Water.”
Feb 24th 1821
What Plumly reveals is the whole context for this modification, how the modifications represent more the desires and assumptions of Severn and Brown than Keats, how these sentiments fed and made legendary the common assumption that Keats was killed by the harsh critical response to his poetry.
Here in 2008 to fathom that Keats has not always been among the “immortals” of poetry is nearly impossible. For three-quarters of a century, Keats remained obscure, that “poor poet Keats.” Interestingly, Keats thought he was a poet to be forgotten because he had never completed a masterpiece of epic poetry in the vein of the Homer, Dante, and so on. He viewed his odes, which we consider his masterworks, but forgettable poems. His longer poems (e.g., “The Eve of St. Agnes”) were higher up the rung. But his Endymion, Hyperion, and The Fall of Hyperion were not successes, in his eyes.
When I first read the Romantics, Shelley was my idol. I labored over his poems, sought ever delight from them. Shelley was the Romantic poet. Keats was of interest, but not so inspiring. But slowly my view changed. Keats has become the premier Romantic poet. Shelley spoke to the public, railed against injustice, reflected on our purpose within society and to each other. Keats, however, speaks to himself and by doing so speaks to us as individuals. He does not care to comment on freedom or coercive state power; rather, he wishes to contemplate the nature of beauty before him or the impression of a translation of Homer. Keats achieves through this a greater connection to us than Shelley, though a great poet, can in the end only achieve less frequently and on a smaller scale. Keats is of the imagination; Shelley is of the society.
But back to Plumly’s book. Other chapters contemplate the various drawings and paintings of Keats (Severn’s, Brown’s, and Haydon’s in particular) or the progression of tuberculosis and how it was viewed by the medicine of the day. This book is enjoyable, insightful, and surprising. If you are interested in a fresh review of Keats’s work and life and the value of his poetry and the nature of an artist’s search for immortality, give this book a read.