My thanks to NetGalley and Fairlight books for a review copy of this one.
The Second Person from Porlock is a novel of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, of his life and relationships, and of his poetry (particularly Kubla Khan, the Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Christabel), and also of two young men who embark on a search for Coleridge, each for a different purpose. Our story follows parallel narratives and timelines.
On the one side we follow Coleridge himself in the 1820s, residing in the home of Doctor and Mrs Gillman who are helping cure him of his opium addiction, or so they think for Coleridge has his means of getting access. Coleridge’s younger son Derwent is ill, in the depths of a fever and on the verge of death, and Coleridge in his own way is helping to keep watch. He has hopes of his older son Hartley, who he believes has the makings of a great poet, but Hartley struggles with his own addictions (alcohol), and shares a difficult relationship with his father. Meanwhile Coleridge is also estranged from his wife Sarah who lives with her sister and brother-in-law Robert Southey, as also does their daughter Sara. He is haunted by dreams of the past and by a mysterious ‘revenant’ who appears and disappears. In Coleridge’s narrative, we also go back in time to the early 1800s a time he spent in Italy as personal secretary to the Governor of Malta, and when he allegedly had an affair with opera singer Cecilia Bertozzi.
Alongside, in the 1820s we follow the stories of two young men in search of Coleridge. In Jesus College, Cambridge, Coleridge’s alma mater, undergraduate George Scrivener is a sizar, allowed free board and lodging in return for work—in his case, assisting in the library. And it is in the library that he comes across a copy of a book with three of Coleridge’s poems (Kubla Khan, Christabel and The Pain of Sleep) and alongside, a clever but mysterious annotation. This starts him of on a ‘search’ for Coleridge, or rather the things that inspired his poetry for the book makes him believe that Coleridge must be his mentor (through his work), and make him as good a poet.
A second young man, Samuele Gamboni in Italy is the son of Cecilia Bertozzi, and comes to believe from the story his mother finally tells him that Coleridge is possibly his father. He sets off on a journey to England, in search of Coleridge the man, a journey in which he meets various people in the poet’s life—Charles Lamb, his friend; William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy, with whom Coleridge once made great plans; Thomas Poole, another friend; and finally Southey, and Coleridge’s daughter Sara, a remarkable young woman. From these he tries to form a picture of the man who may be his father, with the plan of ultimately confronting Coleridge. In this journey he also crosses paths with and befriends Scrivener.
I should start off by saying that before I read this book, I knew next to nothing about Coleridge. I had read The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (a school text) and something of his involvement and interest in scientific experiments with Humphry Davy in Richard Holmes’ excellent The Age of Wonder. So this book for me, was more about finding out about Coleridge, the person and the poet; while not having known anything about him was no barrier to enjoying the book and the poetry mentioned and discussed, it also meant that I couldn’t assess the picture that the book presented. But that said, I did enjoy the book overall.
The book certainly does not form the most flattering picture of Coleridge; he was a man who essentially dreamt of many things, was passionate about his dreams, but little concerned with practical things or any form of responsibility. Somewhat like Dickens’ Harold Skimpole, he seemed gladly to live off his friends, and while they may have done much for the love of him or for the charm he cast on them, he was also estranged from more than one of them. The same applied to his wife, one he married in pursuit of a dream rather than for love, imposed on, treated rather shabbily and then pretty much abandoned. But then there is his poetry, as admired as the man is disliked.
The book takes us into Coleridge’s poetry, and the inspirations behind many of them; I enjoyed finding out about the real-life inspirations behind the Ancient Mariner, and how Coleridge converted that story into a poem; the gothic and rather frightening aspects of Christabel, also rather forward for its day, and of course, how his opium addiction was behind some of his work, leaving him too, feeling lost and uncertain about some of it. Before reading the book, I didn’t know that Hartley his son, and Sara his daughter were both poets in their own right, and in the book we get a glimpse of some of Sara’s poetry as well. Sara is a rather remarkable person, and I was very glad to be introduced to her.
Besides these forays into Coleridge’s poetry, through Scrivener’s (and really also Coleridge’s) story we also explore the question of what poetry is and where it comes from; a dream or one’s soul, one’s whole being, everything or nothing. In Scrivener’s attempts to write his own poetry, we see some of these questions thrashed out.
I enjoyed meeting the various real-life characters in the book, and getting an idea of who Coleridge really was and his poetry; the various other writers and poets (Wordsworth, Southey, but especially Charles Lamb and Sara Coleridge) we meet in the course of the story. But I think, slightly more than the Coleridge track, I enjoyed the journeys of Scrivener and Samuele, tracing out the Coleridge that concerned each of them; not only did these together with the Coleridge track help us form a better picture of him, I liked seeing how the things they discovered on their searches lead them to choose their paths in life; each takes something from Coleridge and builds on it, but it turns out very different from what one expected.
A very enjoyable read which left me wanting to read more of Coleridge’s (and indeed Sara’s) poetry, and perhaps more about him as well.