The Passionate Partnership

The Friendship: Wordsworth and Coleridge

by Adam Sisman
Viking, 480 pp., $27.95

Coleridge once said that people should take time to lean on gates. There is a wooden gate above a field in Dorset which is well worth leaning on. It is a plain, five-bar farm gate, and in early summer is shrouded in hawthorn blossoms. It opens off a little lane, and gives onto a gently sloping, twenty-acre field that curves down to a Georgian farmhouse called Racedown Lodge. Somewhere beyond in the valley, full of birdsong, flows the river Synderford. This is a particularly good gate for contemplating the mysteries of Romantic friendship.

On the afternoon of June 5, 1797, the twenty-four-year-old Coleridge arrived at this gate, having preached a sermon and walked forty-odd miles with a knapsack (containing poems and just possibly a clean shirt) from Bridgwater. What happened next is part of the foundation mythology of Romanticism, and has often been retold.

Here is Adam Sisman’s version, presented in his characteristically flat yet highly informative narrative style:

Beyond the gate, a cornfield stretched downhill towards the side of a substantial house, built in brick and partly covered by grey stucco render. In the kitchen garden two figures, a man and a woman, both about his own age, could be seen working: first one, then the other, paused and looked up to where he stood.

The lane continued in a wide arc to the front of the house. Too impatient to take this long way round, Coleridge vaulted over the gate and bounded across the field towards the waiting figures, leaping through the corn. The two watchers, William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy, retained a distinct memory of this sight almost half a century afterwards.

Sisman boldly opens his biography with this moment. Coleridge’s impetuous arrival that summer afternoon—exuberant, bounding, breaking the barriers, “leaping through the corn” (a welcome moment of biographical levity)—was like a portent of everything to come. Over the next three weeks at Racedown, the great friendship between Coleridge and Wordsworth was formed. Within eighteen months it had produced a revolution in poetry, starting with the anonymously published Lyrical Ballads of 1798, containing poems later attributed to each of them, including Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and Wordsworth’s “The Idiot Boy” and “Tintern Abbey.” It continued for at least a decade, one of the most remarkable literary collaborations in history. Where and how exactly it ended remains one of its mysteries.

The outlines of the story are well known. That first innocent summer of “wantoning in wild poesy” in the Quantock Hills was memorably recalled by Wordsworth in The Prelude:

That summer, when on Quantock’s grassy Hills

Far ranging, and among the sylvan Coombs,

Thou in delicious words, with happy heart,

Didst speak the Vision of that Ancient Man,

The bright-eyed Mariner….

And I, associate with such labour, walked

Murmuring of him who, joyous hap! was found,

After the perils of his moonlight ride

Near the loud Waterfall….

Then followed Coleridge’s wintry trip to Germany in 1798 and 1799,…

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