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Romantic Rewrite: Scholar Begins 'Anti-Biography' of Coleridge

Story posted June 16, 2006

David Collings and students
Tyler Davis '07, left, and Peter "Mike" Igoe '07, meet weekly with David Collings to share their findings.

It takes a particular kind of daring to un-write the life of a great poet and critic such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge. For English Professor David Collings, however, it is the only way to truly understand the man.

Collings is spending the summer immersed in Coleridge's life and works to begin piecing together what he terms an "antibiography" of one of the most brilliant - and confounding - figures of English literature.

"Instead of relying on familiar notions of what an author and biography are, I want to throw them up in the air and subject them to intense questioning," says Collings. "I want to start over and ask what a person is, what an author is, what a poem is. When you ask these kinds of questions, all of the evidence changes in its significance."

Portrait of Samuel Taulor Coleridge, aged 42, painted by Washington Allson; engraved by Samuel Cousins, 1854. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, [reproduction number, LC-USZ62-104646]

Coleridge has tantalized readers and critics alike for centuries. Known for his epic poems "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" and "Kubla Khan," he is credited with launching the English Romantic movement with his sometimes collaborator William Wordsworth.

But he has borne the criticism of his peers - and history - for not completing works, a lifelong opium addiction, tortured personal relationships, and even charges of plagiarism.

Collings shifts the latter question to what he sees as a more accurate frame: "Coleridge says in his preface to 'Kubla Khan' that it is a psychological curiosity, that he wrote it when dreaming on opium. What happens when an author says it's not a poem, that his dream self wrote it? What does that do to our notion of authorship, of plagiarism?

"He's constantly, impishly undercutting our comfortable assumptions and poking us with a long stick from the grave, pointing out that neither authorship, nor life, is what we think it is."

"I want to start over and ask what a person is, what an author is, what a poem is."

Normally, such literary and biographical research is the sole province of advanced scholars. Collings, however, has enlisted the aid of two Bowdoin undergrads - Tyler Davis '07 and Peter "Mike" Igoe '07. Both took his recent advanced literary seminar where they began intensive exploration of Coleridge. Armed with summer stipends, the pair is now deepening their research.

Their newness to the subject is a boon, says Collings, allowing him to look at Coleridge with fresh eyes.

"It's an interesting kind of person who fills notebook after notebook of fragments and aphorisms and recipes and ideas, and was perfectly capable of producing journalistic work on a deadline," marvels Davis, "but when it comes to things that demand temporal address, like poetry, he really struggles."

Etching of poem
Detail from "Rime of the Ancient Mariner," New York: Harper, 1878, illustrated by Gustave Dore. Courtesy of Special Collections and Archives of Bowdoin College.

Adds Igoe: "I am experiencing Coleridge for the first time ... and while there is still a traditional tendency to represent a linear life - it begins, there's a middle and an end - with Coleridge there was a constant revision of his work, philosophy, and relationships. A chronological look becomes quickly problematic.

"Part of what we are trying to do is take those themes and analyze them individually, see how they change, how other people influence each other, and arrive at a more holistic picture of the man."

Collings grins widely at his students' assessments. "All of the work I'm doing arises from conversations I've had with them," he says. "They give me wonderful provocation for further thinking and work."

The students' research is supported by the Martha Reed Coles Arts and Humanities Fellowship and the Surdna Foundation Undergraduate Research Fellowship Program.

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