The Second Person from Porlock

Written by Dennis Hamley
Review by Marilyn Pemberton

1824. In London, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, now in his fifties and totally addicted to opium, sits by his seriously ill son, Derwent, and reflects on his life; his failed marriage; his broken relationship with his other son, Hartley; his wrecked friendships and his poetry, the characters of which haunt his waking and dream life.

Meanwhile, in Cambridge, George Scrivener, a sizar (this being a student who has free board and lodging but who has to work) discovers handwritten marginalia in a small book of Coleridge’s poems. Scrivener is intrigued by this ambiguous text by an unknown hand and believes it is speaking directly to him, although he doesn’t understand what the words mean. Scrivener desperately wants to be a poet and decides that Coleridge will be his guiding light and goes in search of answers.

At the same time in Sicily, Samuele Gambino’s father dies suddenly. At the funeral, his mother, once a renowned opera singer, admits that Samuele may in fact be the son of Coleridge, with whom she had had a short love affair. Samuele, who had hated his father, decides to go to England to find out as much about Coleridge as possible, in the hope that he is his real father, whom he can love and who will love him.

I really wanted to love this book, but in general I didn’t feel the slightest engagement with either Scrivener or Samuele. I found it hard to empathise with either of them, and their goals and motivations seemed arbitrary and sometimes ridiculous.