This long pursuit, p.1
This Long Pursuit, p.1Richard Holmes
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This eBook first published in Great Britain by William Collins in 2016
Copyright © Richard Holmes 2016
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Source ISBN: 9780007386949
Ebook Edition © October 2016 ISBN: 9780008168711
To Arabella Pike
my wonderful editor for more than twenty years
6 Margaret Cavendish
8 Madame de Staël
9 Mary Wollstonecraft
10 Mary Somerville
11 John Keats the Well-Beloved
12 Shelley Undrowned
13 Thomas Lawrence Revarnished
14 Coleridge Misremembered
15 William Blake Rediscovered
List of Illustrations
Also by Richard Holmes
About the Publisher
Every so often I close one of my working notebooks (there are nearly two hundred of them now, dating from 1964, the earliest in soft blue crumpled cardboard from Woolworths, the most recent in glossy black spiral-bound A5 hardback, from Black n’ Red) and begin to reflect on the whole journey, and the time left, and what if anything I have learned along the way. I look back at the highways and byways of biography, my own Footsteps and my Sidetracks, and most of all on my strange, unappeased sense of some continuous, intense and inescapable pursuit.
I remember, for instance, the early summer of 1974, when I had just finished my first book, a biography of the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. It was eight hundred pages long and I was nearly thirty. I had travelled in England, Scotland, Ireland, France and Italy in search of my fiery, footloose poet. I felt like a veteran after a long campaign in the field. I felt grizzled, anecdotal, displaced. What’s more, I found that I had returned with two conclusions about writing biography that were certainly not taught back home in academia.
The first was the Footsteps principle. I had come to believe that the serious biographer must physically pursue his subject through the past. Mere archives were not enough. He must go to all the places where the subject had ever lived or worked, or travelled or dreamed. Not just the birthplace, or the blue-plaque place, but the temporary places, the passing places, the lost places, the dream places.
He – or she – must examine them as intelligently as possible, looking for clues, for the visible and the invisible, for the history, the geography and the atmosphere. He must feel how they once were; must imagine what impact they might once have had. He must be alert to ‘unknown modes of being’. He must step back, step down, step inside the story.
The second was the Two-Sided Notebook concept. It seemed to me that a proper research notebook must always have a form of ‘double accounting’. There should be a distinct, conscious divide between the objective and the subjective sides of the project. This meant keeping a double-entry record of all research as it progressed (or as frequently, digressed). Put schematically, there must be a right-hand side and a left-hand side to every notebook page spread.
On the one (the right) I would record the objective facts of my subject’s life, as minutely and accurately as possible (from the letters, the diaries, the memoirs, the archives). But on the other (the left) I would also record my most personal responses, my feelings and speculations, my questions and conundrums, my difficulties and challenges, my travels and my visions. Irritation, embarrassment, puzzlement or grief could prove as valuable as excitement, astonishment, inspiration or enthusiasm. The cumulative experience of the research journey, of being in my subject’s company over several years, thus became part of the whole biographical enterprise. Only in this way, it seemed to me, could I use, but also hope to master, the biographer’s most valuable but perilous weapon: empathy.
One incident from long before the Shelley days, during my novice pursuit of Robert Louis Stevenson in the Cévennes a decade previously, became an unlikely talisman. It never got into Footsteps, but lay quietly on the left-hand page of my very first notebook for over twenty years. Only much later, when I began to lecture about biography, did I find myself unexpectedly retelling it. To my surprise, it went through various versions, until it had finally metamorphosed from a traveller’s tale into a kind of biographer’s parable. In its developed form it went like this.
I first explained that I was eighteen, and in following Stevenson through the wild Cévennes, I usually slept out deliberately like him under the stars, in a small sleeping bag without a tent, à la belle étoile. But sometimes I was reluctantly forced (by the spectacular Cévennes storms) to spend a night at one of the little remote country inns or hostels. In those days you had to present a passport to be entered in the fichière, with your name, age and occupation included in the details. Under occupation, I had specified with great optimism ‘Writer’. Of course I had published absolutely nothing at that point.
When I handed over my passport to Madame at the reception desk, the same thing always seemed to happen. ‘Ah, Monsieur ’Olmez,’ she would exclaim grimly as she filled in the little buff index card, ‘I see you are a waiter.’ I reflected painfully on this for some days, and then thought of putting in ‘Travel Writer’. But then I could immediately hear the even grimmer response. ‘Ah Monsieur ’Olmez, I see you are a table waiter.’
This tale, suitably embellished with Gallic accents and hand gestures, became known as my ‘travelling waiter joke’. Yet it gradually revealed to me a serious lesson in professional humility. Because in a sense that’s exactly what a biographer is: someone who waits, who awaits, who pays attention, who is constantly alert, who attends upon his subjects, who is at their service for a long period of faithful employment. Waiting done well, I reflected, involves a lot of legwork.
Accordingly, my next pursuit, in the service of the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, lasted, on and off, for nearly fifteen years and progressed through some thirty two-sided notebooks. It took me to the English West Country and Lake District, to Germany, to Italy, to Sicily, to Malta, and finally to a quiet garden on Highgate Hill in London. It ended in nine hundred pages over two volumes. We both aged considerably in the process.
Coleridge was himself the master of the notebook – over seventy of them survive, thanks to the life’s work of the Canadian scholar Kathleen Coburn. The first was begun in Bristol in 1794, when he was twent
The notebooks are as multifarious, elusive and incorrigible as the man. They contain his fantastic reading lists, his extraordinary nightmares, his brilliant lecture notes, his hectic fell-walking diaries, his endless self-psychoanalysis sessions, his battles with opium addiction, his excruciating medical symptoms (teeth, lungs, bowels), his sexual hauntings and obsessions, his labyrinthine thoughts about science and religion, his ghastly puns and his moving prayers.
They are also full of wonderful oddities: the draft of a comic novel, the recipe for making waterproof shoe polish, accounts of erotic dreams (partially in Greek and usually connected with food), the sayings of his child Hartley, notes on the sounds of different birdsong, or observations on different kinds and modalities of rainfall. All the time, like the underground river of ‘Kubla Khan’, there is a continual bubbling up of images that would appear in both his poetry and his later criticism; but also a continuous stream of self-definition.
I remember discovering, like a sudden gold-strike, this description of a tiny waterfall on the River Greta, which he wrote when he first came to the Lake District in 1800: ‘Shootings of water threads down the slope of the huge green stone … The white Eddy-rose that blossomed up against the Stream in the scollop, by fits and starts, Obstinate in resurrection – It is the Life that we live.’
It instantly struck me that Coleridge was describing himself – ‘obstinate in resurrection’. Now I can never see a stream flowing over a stone, with that bubbling backwash of foam (so brilliantly defined as the ‘eddy-rose’), without thinking of his biography. There is his complex, mysterious and in many ways disastrous life, which was nevertheless perpetually renewed, miraculously foaming back in words, ‘obstinate in resurrection’. It was indeed the life that he lived. I gradually realised it was also the Life that I needed to write.
Coleridge’s travels were geographical as well as metaphysical, and true to the Footsteps principle I followed him faithfully. In exchange, Coleridge taught me many lessons about biography during these research trips or solitary pursuits. I followed his walk over the wild Quantock Hills and down to the tiny seaport at Watchet where he began The Ancient Mariner with Wordsworth in 1797. Here the Bristol Channel surges out towards the Atlantic, producing one of the most astonishing tidal swings in the whole of northern Europe, rising and falling over thirty feet in twelve hours. Watching the fishing boats locked in its muscular grasp, I understood something new about the submarine ‘Polar Spirit’ of the deep, that pursued the Mariner after he had killed the albatross; and more than that, something of the huge tides that had always swept through Coleridge’s own life.
I went out to Göttingen in Germany, where he had attended the scientific lectures of Johann Friedrich Blumenbach in 1799, read the Naturphilosophie of Friedrich Schelling, from which his own ideas about Nature, Form and the Unconscious would eventually develop in ‘genial coincidence’. He became fascinated by the story of the Walpurgisnacht (or Witching Night) on the nearby Brocken mountain, which later appears in Goethe’s Faust (1808). Typically, Coleridge had climbed the Brocken to interview the legendary ‘Brocken spectre’ for himself, in a mixed spirit of scientific and poetic enquiry. Clambering up after him through the dark colonnades of the Hartz forest, I came across a different kind of witchcraft.
Panting up through a clearing of pine trees, I burst upon a sort of surreal Faustian theatre set. It was decked with skull-like signs announcing ‘Halt! Hier Grenze!’, and promising imminent death. I had stumbled upon the huge, sinister double border fence, sown with landmines and automatic machine-guns, dividing East and West Germany. Like the moment twenty years before, when, naïvely retracing Robert Louis Stevenson’s Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes, I had come down to his symbolic river bridge at Langogne, and to my profound dismay found that it was broken and impassable, his time literally divided from my time. This was another sharp lesson in the irrecoverability of the past.
Another trip took me to Malta, where, in the unlikely role of wartime civil service secretary, Coleridge promulgated by-laws, visited military hospitals (appalled by the syphilitic cases, several to a bed), wrote political propaganda, and clean-copied the last despatches from Governor Admiral Ball to Nelson before the Battle of Trafalgar.
His shape-shifting during this period, 1804–05, is extraordinary, yet characteristic. At Valletta, I found that his lonely rooms in the Governor’s Palace directly overlooked the harbour. Having borrowed a naval telescope, the bustling secretary somehow disappeared for hours, studying the many ships arriving and departing, dosing his homesickness with opium and erotic poetry, and writing learned notes on ‘organic form’.
It was here I found Coleridge unexpectedly praying to the moon. His strange, metaphysical account of ‘Sabaism’, or sun- and moon-worship, had previously gone unnoticed. But it told me something crucial about his religious beliefs, always suspended – ‘a willing suspension of disbelief’ – between a punishing Christianity and pure, exhilarating Pantheism. It also reminded me how central the moon is to all his poetry, from The Ancient Mariner to ‘Limbo’.
In looking at objects of Nature while I am thinking, as at yonder Moon dim-glimmering through the dewy window-pane, I seem rather to be seeking, as it were asking, a symbolical language for something within me that already and forever exists … the dim Awaking of a forgotten or hidden Truth of my inner Nature … the Creator! the Evolver!
Back in England, I located the little lost house in Calne, Wiltshire, opposite the churchyard, where he went to ground in 1813, given up by almost all his friends – even by Wordsworth – as a hopeless opium addict who would achieve nothing. On the hillside above his house I saw the symbolic Cherhill White Horse, carved in the chalk around 1780, galloping towards London, which always gave him hope. Two years later he re-emerged with a draft of his prose masterpiece the Biographia Literaria, a fantastic mixture of humorous autobiography, brilliant psychological criticism, and plagiarised German philosophy. So much of this, like his lectures, is best read in fragments. For instance this inspired lecture note – a mere four words – summarising the opening of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. ‘Suppression prepares for Overflow.’ I came to think that this contained, or rather anticipated, all Freud.
Yet some of the most vivid lessons came from his childhood at Ottery St Mary in Devon, which reappears in so many of his best early poems, like the ‘Sonnet to the River Otter’ and ‘Frost at Midnight’. In the sonnet, he explores the infinitely subtle shifts of feeling between the immediate experience of the child and the recollections of the adult. The recreation of this movement remains one of the greatest challenges to biographical narrative. Coleridge succeeds in catching it with wonderful simplicity, using the stone-skimming children’s game of ducks and drakes, and the ‘bedded sand’ of memory:
What happy and what mournful hours, since last
I skimm’d the smooth thin stone along thy breast,
Numbering its light leaps! yet so deep imprest
Sink the sweet scenes of childhood, that mine eyes
I never shut amid the sunny ray,
But straight with all their tints thy waters rise,
Thy crossing plank, thy marge with willows grey,
And bedded sand that vein’d with various dyes
Gleam’d through thy bright transparence!
Then there was the time as a small boy that he ventured into a deep cave near the banks of the River Otter. This was a haunted place known locally as ‘the Pixies’ Parlour’. Greatly daring, he carved his initials in the stone at the very back. A decade later he returned as a young man, to crawl in again and admire these initials, as he put it, ‘cut by the hand of childhood’. After another two decades, n
… Yes, oft alone,
Piercing the long-neglected holy Cave,
The haunt obscure of old Philosophy,
He bade with lifted torch its starry wall
Sparkle, as erst they sparkled to the flame
Of odorous lamps tended by Saint and Sage.
When I crawled into that same sandstone cave almost exactly two hundred years later, I made a surprising discovery. Raising my trembling lighter, I spied at the very back of the cave the carved initials ‘STC’.
What actually happened, as recorded in my notebook, was that I was so delighted that I sprang up and almost knocked myself out on the low stone ceiling. A large sliver of sandstone came down. As I crouched there, seeing stars in the darkness, I suddenly realised that the cave stone was too soft to retain the original initials. Something else had happened to them, equally interesting. They had been recarved. I reflected on the implications of this idea in my notebook, and my eventual footnote read: ‘Such carvings and recarvings of his initials, ceremoniously repeated by generation after generation of unknown memorialists, suddenly seemed to me like a symbol of the essentially cumulative process of biography itself.’
Another informative place for me was Coleridge’s house at Greta Hall, Keswick, where he lived close to the Wordsworths at Grasmere between 1800 and 1804. Suitably enough, it had once been an observatory. The top-floor study has astonishing views of Derwentwater and the high fells spreading all round. He would climb out of the window and sit on the ‘leads’, or flat roof, gazing at the expanse and writing. One eloquent letter begins: ‘From the leads on the house top of Greta Hall, Keswick, Cumberland, at the present time in the occupancy and usufruct-possession of ST Coleridge Esq, gentleman poet and Philosopher in a mist.’ Another offers to send his friend, the young chemist Humphry Davy, the whole Lake District panorama wrapped up in a single pill of opium.
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