Last night I started reading the second volume of Richard Holmes’s superb biography of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who probably is best known for his poems “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and “Kubla Khan.”
My first encounter with Coleridge came in 1966, when our seventh-grade English teacher assigned “Ancient Mariner” as a reading. As might be expected, we 12-year-old boys weren’t ready for it. In fact, we were so not ready that we didn’t simply ignore the poem, as we did with most of our assigned readings. Instead, we made fun of it. Inspired no doubt by Mad magazine, my smart-ass buddies and I wrote our own version of the beginning of Coleridge’s classic. It was exactly what you’d expect:
It is the Ancient Mariner
Who walketh down the street
He cometh across the Wedding Guest
And smelleth of his feet
He droppeth dead as he smelt of them
They doth not smell so sweet.
It’s more than a little troubling that I remember that doggerel from nearly 50 years ago, but that’s a tale for another time. Anyway:
As soon as I started reading Holmes, a fly buzzed past my ear. I can’t recall a summer when so many green bottle flies have made their way into the house. Their buzzing is particularly obnoxious. After the fly made a couple of more buzz-bys, I knew I couldn’t read further until I terminated it with extreme prejudice. I set the book down.
I had misplaced my fly swatter, which has a yellow and green camouflage pattern, so I grabbed a nearby newspaper, rolled it up, and starting scanning the room. The green demon had landed on the living room door. I nailed it, but as I did, two more flies took off from the same area.
They started buzzing around. One of them landed on the floor—a fatal mistake. The remaining one kept stunt-flying around the room, flitting past my head every half-minute or so as if to torment me.
“Sit down and read,” a voice in my head said. “Ignore it.” This sounded reasonable—I mean, why should a mere insect be able to distract me?—but almost as if it had read my mind, the fly defiantly took pass after pass. I stood up to reach for the newspaper but instead spotted the fly swatter on a windowsill. The fly touched down on an end table. It had no chance.
I sat down and picked up the Coleridge biography again. It’s richly informative and as readable as a good novel, largely because Holmes builds the book around Coleridge’s writing instead of what he or others think of Coleridge’s writing. Here’s one of Coleridge’s observations from a trip to Sicily—a tourist’s note that packs much bigger matters than simple sightseeing:
I recollect when I stood on the summit of Etna, and darted my gaze down the crater; the immediate vicinity was discernable, till lower down, obscurity gradually terminated in total darkness. Such figures exemplify many truths revealed in the Bible. We pursue them until, from the imperfection of our faculties, we are lost in impenetrable night.
During the same trip, Coleridge, a married man, sent poetry home to a woman he loved—but not his wife. Here’s a passage:
For never touch of gladness stirs my heart,
But tim’rously beginning to rejoice
Like a blind Arab, that from sleep doth start
In lonesome tent, I listen for thy voice.
Beloved! ’tis not thine; thou art not here!
Then melts the bubble into idle air.
And wishing without hope I restlessly despair.
Coleridge was a literary giant, and his work alone merits the massive attention it has received. His life, though, reads like fiction: a life full of complicated personal relationships; an expansive circle of friends and other writers who are significant literary figures on their own—William Wordsworth, most notably; extensive travels; a career as a writer, diplomat, and—egads!—a journalist, among other pursuits; and an addiction to opium. This is the stuff of compelling biography.
As I finally settled in for an hour of reading, the lamps glowed. My chair embraced me. In the silence of my spacious office, I settled into my reading rhythm, savoring pages at a steady pace.
Then came a fourth fly.