“[I]f the life of S.T. Coleridge were filmed, no one, positively no one but Buster Keaton could play the lead.”
Odd casting. Coleridge was chubby for much of his life, an Olympic-class gasbag and longtime devotee of laudanum – tincture of opium, the tipple of choice for tormented poets. Keaton for most of his professional life was trim and athletic in an understated way. His finest work is silent, and alcohol, not dope, helped scuttle his career.
The suggestion at the top is made by Hugh Kenner in an August 23, 1963 letter to Guy Davenport. Kenner goes on:
“S.T.C. in the King’s Light Dragoons, under the pseudonym of Silas Tomkyn Comberbacke: ‘Whose is that rusty musket?’ ‘Is it very rusty, Sir? because if it is, I rather fancy it must be mine.’ A couple of years later his Watchman lasted 10 weeks, losing 500 subscribers at a blow because of an essay against fasting, to which a motto from Isaiah [16:11]: ‘Wherefore my bowels shall sound as an Harp.’”
Coleridge, like Gibbon and Proust, is one of literature’s improbable soldiers. In the first volume of his Coleridge biography, Richard Holmes describes the “outlandish” pseudonym as “somehow so expressive of his total inability to ride a horse . . . He had saddle-sores and boils: ‘dreadfully troublesome eruptions, which so grimly constellated my Posteriors.’”
In other words, the cinematic Coleridge is ripe for comedic treatment. He’s a klutz, a dreamer and procrastinator. Keaton seems to have been a competent equestrian and all-around athlete. Famously, like Harold Lloyd, he performed his own stunts. He needed no special effects. He was a special effect. If Fred Astaire embodies witty, Mozartian grace, Keaton is stoical grace.
Five days after the letter quoted above, Davenport replied to Kenner: “Buster Keaton as Coleridge! Manifique! The resemblance is magical.” Davenport would soon draw a caricature of Keaton for use in Kenner’s The Counterfeiters: An Historical Comedy (1968). After undergoing surgery, Davenport writes in a letter to James Laughlin on April 15, 1993: “I crepitate about in jammies and dressing gown. My pain pill is something Coleridge could have done wonders with: six-track dreams going by at 70 mph.”
Coleridge was born on this date, October 21, in 1772, and died, against all odds, on July 25, 1834. That he hung on until age sixty-one is an improbably poetic miracle.
[The letters quoted above can be found in Questioning Minds: The Letters of Guy Davenport and Hugh Kenner (2018) and Guy Davenport and James Laughlin: Selected Letters (2007).]