|Coleridge as an Enemy
of Intimate Biography
copyright © 2005
in The Guardian
01 October 2005
I gave a lecture not long ago in London in
which, at the end, I asserted with a flourish that Wordsworth
killed off Romantic biography. At the end of the session I was
rebuked by a dear friend, who pointed out that I never seemed
to pass up the opportunity to be rude about Wordsworth, and
that what I had said on this occasion was ignorant and untrue.
Well, I had overstated the case. Wordsworth (as I mentioned
recently in these pages) was an articulate enemy of frank biography.
He attacked an indiscreet life of Burns, encouraged the suppression
of Crabbe's letters, and crucially influenced the first biography
of Keats. But he was not alone in his attitude. Coleridge was
of the same party, and articulated his position some years before
Wordsworth did. Wordsworth's "Letter to Friend of Burns"
is dated 1816. Coleridge's "Prefatory Observation on Modern
Biography" appeared in The Friend in 1810.
It is in this essay that Coleridge called the age he was living
in "emphatically the age of personality" -- and so
indeed its great writers appear to us. They are great personalities,
and that is how they come across in, for instance, the essays
of Hazlitt. But some of them at least seem to have suffered
an intense queasiness about the way they were going to be viewed,
if biography was to take its cue from Boswell, and show them
in intimate detail.
"An inquisitiveness into the minutest circumstances and
casual sayings of eminent contemporaries, in indeed quite natural,"
writes Coleridge, in his worst moralising vein; "but so
are all our follies, and the more natural they are, the more
caution we should exert in guarding against them. To scribble
Trifles even on the perishable glass of an Inn window, is the
mark of an Idler; but to engrave them on the Marble Monument,
sacred to the memory of the departed Great, is something worse
A genuine biography, in Coleridge's view, should be distinguished
by "the firmness with which it withstands the cravings
of worthless curiosity, as distinguished from the thirst after
useful knowledge." For "the great end of Biography"
is "to fix the attention and to interest the feelings of
men, on those qualities and actions which have made a particular
Life worthy of being recorded."
Biographical facts should have a certain dignity, just as in
the eighteenth century there was a view that history itself
should preserve its proper dignity. Preserving the "dignity
of history" meant the conscious suppression of trivial
or circumstantial details, as being "matter of inferior
grade and texture." This view was apparently articulated
by the Scottish historian William Robertson. It is the opposite
of that favoured by both Johnson and Boswell. But it is a view
of great antiquity. It was challengingly epitomised by another
Scot, Sir James Mackintosh: "A life which is worth reading,"
he said, "ought never to have been written."
The point of bringing this up is to show that it was not Victorian
morality which made the frank biography impossible. It was a
strain of thought, a line of debate, stretching back to the
eighteenth century and beyond. It was an issue at the heart
of Romanticism, for it was thought that knowledge of a man's
shortcomings would taint or even destroy the reader's admiration
of his art.
But even if the trivial facts recorded by the biographer were
in no way to the discredit of his subject, the notion of the
dignity of history would prevent their being set down. We find
this principle nobly expressed in the dedication of John Toland's
life of Milton. "I shall not be too minute in relating
the ordinary circumstances of [Milton's] Life," writes
Toland, "and which are common to him with all other Men.
Writings of this nature should in my opinion be design'd to
recommend Virtue, and to expose Vice; or to illustrate History
and to preserve the memory of extraordinary things. That a Man,
for example, was sick at such a time, or well at another, should
never be mention'd; except in the Causes or Effects, Cure or
Continuance, there happens something remarkable, and for the
benefit of Mankind to know. I had not therefore related Milton's
Headachs in his Youth, were it not for the influence which this
Indisposition had afterwards on his Eys, and that his Blindness
was rashly imputed by his Enemies to the avenging Judgment of
Today we implore the biographers of the past, give us Milton
with his headaches, give us the chilblains, tell us everything,
everything you can recall. But to them it would have seemed
a betrayal, or at best a professional shortcoming, to burden
their account with irrelevant minutiae. What mattered were the
achievements and the virtues. We would say: what mattered was
the Big Picture.
"Letter to Friend of Burns"
[sic] by Wordsworth, an attack on Currie's life of Burns,
dated by Wordsworth from Rydal Mount, January 1816, is
reprinted in Wordsworth's Literary Criticism, edited
with an introduction by Nowell C. Smith, London, Oxford
University Press, 1905 (1925 reprint).
For Coleridge's essay in The Friend
I was using the Bollingen edition. An extract can be found
in the useful volume Biography as an Art, Selected
Criticism 1560-1960 edited by James L. Clifford, London,
Oxford University Press, 1962. This also runs a short
excerpt from Toland's life of Milton, but for anyone interested
in building up a library of life-writing the source for
the full text of Toland is The Early Lives of Milton
edited with introduction and notes by Helen Darbishire
London, Constable, 1932.