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Young Coleridge by Martyn Wade

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BBC Radio 7, 26 October 2008
 

Although the title of the play suggested that this might be a biography, it actually turned out to be a study in egotism, of a man so preoccupied with his own self-image that he found it difficult to relate to the world around him. Poetry for him as a way of expressing what he believed to be his innate genius; and woe betide anyone who dared to criticize him. His wife; his fellow poets Wordsworth and Southey (Gary Bond); his publishers; everyone had to praise him or risk a savaging from Coleridge’s acerbic tongue.

 

Young Coleridge was constructed around a day in the life of the poet, who looked back on his achievements so far, while considering his stormy relationship with Southey. On several occasions it seemed as if Coleridge was trying to convince the listener of the validity of his point of view; having exhausted his friends’ patience, he was now looking for others to talk to. However he did not seem a particularly attractive personality; not only was he obsessed with himself, but he delivered his lines with a perpetual sneer in his voice, as if believing in his own superiority. The casting of Tom Wilkinson was an inspired move; for many years the actor has specialized in this type of role (remember his Pecksniff in the television version of Martin Chuzzlewit).

 

Eventually circumstances turn against him: Southey calls him lazy and indolent (on account of his opium addiction), his wife ignores him, and he even begins to doubt his value as a poet. Coleridge’s only solution is to create an idyllic world of the imagination, where he lives in a small house surrounded by roses with a wife who adores him. However even this fantasy cannot sustain him; at the end of the play he is left on his own, a bed-ridden figure without any companions, full of self-pity at the circumstances causing him to live like this. At no point does he ever admit that he alone is responsible for his fate.

 

Young Coleridge exposed the seamy side of English romanticism: while focusing on the power of the imagination, it could also lead its practitioners into self-indulgence. This is precisely what happened to Coleridge. The fact that he recovered, to write some of the greatest poems in the language, is testament to his strength of character – a quality not evident in this play. One can only assume that he discovered it later on.