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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, partly with the Wordsworths. When Wordsworth mailed drafts of his new poetry to Coleridge in Göttingen, Coleridge responded: “Had I met these lines running wild in the deserts of Arabia, I should have instantly screamed out ‘Wordsworth!’”

Coleridge then in turn followed Wordsworth in 1800, with Wordsworth settling in his heartland at Dove Cottage, and Coleridge uneasily domesticating with his growing family at Greta Hall. Next came Wordsworth’s marriage (1802) and Coleridge’s illicit passion for Wordsworth’s auburn-haired sister-in-law Sara Hutchinson, the two relationships being strangely linked and producing those two great echo-chamber odes: Coleridge’s “Dejection” and Wordsworth’s “Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.” Then came Coleridge’s opium addiction, his exile to Malta, where he worked as secretary to the governor, and the slow broken return of 1806.

Yet still to come was the grand firelit reading of the thirteen books of the “Poem, title not yet fixed upon, by William Wordsworth addressed to ST Coleridge” (as Dove Cottage Ms B of The Prelude is inscribed) in 1807. And with it Coleridge’s strange, tortured, beautiful reply in his poem “To William Wordsworth.” And then (or rather, already, like a rising drumbeat behind the story) the series of increasingly bitter confrontations between the two old friends, leading to their notorious quarrel and “alienation” of 1810—set off by Wordsworth’s indiscreet warning to a mutual friend about Coleridge’s drinking and opium-taking.

All this is freshly charted by Sisman, in a clear, engaging narrative, drawing confidently on original sources. But before it continues (“Friends”), he makes a surprising decision. He abruptly stops the story and spools it back in time (“Strangers”), so that Coleridge does not succeed in crossing that field and reaching Racedown Lodge for another 175 pages, nearly half of the book. Instead we are taken back to trace, separately and individually, the history of the two friends before they met.

Sisman is an experienced biographer, and part of the brilliant success of his previous book (also in its way about friendship) was a similar daring structural decision. In Boswell’s Presumptuous Task (2000), which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for biography, he used the enthralling story of the older Boswell’s epic struggle to write Johnson’s biography throughout the 1780s (“Life Written”) to reconstruct young Boswell’s actual friendship with Johnson (“Life Lived”), which dated from twenty years before in the 1760s.

In the new book this spooling back is a brave but risky strategy. The dramatic movement of the story—so strikingly established—is threatened by delay and digression. As the two friends react to the same exciting historic moments—the fall of the Bastille, the London treason trials, the death of Robespierre—but continuously just fail to meet, the reader longs to see them together, and a dangerous sense of impatience sets in. The headlong, crowded narration suggests that the biographer may have felt this himself.

Nonetheless, this back-story does achieve important things. It helps to place the differences in their radical political background: Wordsworth the pantheist pro-French revolutionary and Coleridge the Unitarian pro-German millenarian (drawing upon Nicholas Roe’s penetrating study Wordsworth and Coleridge: The Radical Years, 1988). By sketching in their differently disrupted childhoods (especially Coleridge’s), and showing the emotional importance of Dorothy to the young Wordsworth and Robert Southey to the young Coleridge when both were undergraduates, it establishes the intense psychic need in both men to find “brotherly” (and “sisterly”) intimacies. It shows how often their paths nearly crossed (in Cambridge, in London, in Bristol), and it speculates on what might have happened if they had met earlier. This is something that lovers often do, and Wordsworth himself did most movingly in The Prelude: “how small a change/Of circumstance might to Thee have spared/A world of pain….”

It is a huge relief when they do finally meet (again). From here on Sisman tells the story vividly, in a steady cinematic narrative. He is particularly strong at placing the two friends in physical locations: crowded cottages, companionable river banks, stretching seashores, challenging hillsides, large panoramic landscapes full of apocalyptic wind and weather. The “sylvan” ravines of the Quantock Hills and the great looming fells of the Lake District are obviously places Sisman has walked himself, “footstepping” in their tracks, and he loves them and evokes them brilliantly.

He also has the biographer’s instinctive jackdaw eye for the telling and eccentric detail. Racedown Lodge was exactly seven miles from Crewkerne—“Dorothy arrived at this figure by pushing a perambulator (a device for measuring distance) there and back.” He is good, too, at introducing the familiar supporting dramatis personae with quick refresher notes, such as this one on Charles Lamb:

Lamb was a lovable figure, gentle and delicate. A severe stutter provoked indulgent affection rather than derision from his schoolmates. Slightly built, with spindly legs and a shambling gait, the legacy of childhood polio, Lamb habitually dressed in worn black clothes, giving him the appearance of a country curate recently arrived in town. The austerity of his dress was relieved by what Hazlitt (a painter) later described as his “fine Titian head”: his curly hair, his startling eyes, each a different colour, and his characteristic expression of droll amusement. Though nervous and shy, and prone to depression, Lamb had an independent mind, fine critical judgement, a strong sense of the ludicrous and a teasing wit.

Sisman has set out conscientiously to write a balanced biography of “the friendship itself,” especially during its “core period of six and a half years between Coleridge’s exuberant arrival at Racedown Lodge and his sad departure for Malta.” He intends to remain an absolutely impartial judge between the two, to escape the “biographical impasse” of partisanship, which he claims has never been done before. This is an interesting issue, to which I will return.

One of the advantages of Sisman’s steady narrative overview is that it allows a calm consideration of the most hotly disputed issues that have emerged in the last decade of Romantic scholarship. He gives for example an admirable account of why Wordsworth banished Coleridge’s Christabel from the second edition of the Lyrical Ballads in 1800, despite the fact that it reduced Coleridge to the bitter conviction that he himself was not a true poet but “only a kind of Metaphysician.” “Possibly,” Sisman concludes, Wordsworth was worried about the poem’s reception: “The ‘Ancient Mariner’ had damaged the first edition of Lyrical Ballads (or so he believed); another ‘strange’ poem might sink the second.” Following that decision, Wordsworth was “unquestionably the dominant personality.” Sisman movingly describes Coleridge’s infatuation with Sara Hutchinson (“Asra”); and shrewdly raises the question of how far it was ever reciprocated by her, or even involved Wordsworth himself.

He catches well Wordsworth’s rocklike patience with Coleridge during the intolerable years of his drug addiction. Indeed, it is one of the most powerful dramatic shocks in The Friendship when Wordsworth finally declares in 1809 that Coleridge

neither will nor can execute any thing of important benefit either to himself his family or mankind. Neither his talents nor his genius mighty as they are nor his vast information will avail him anything: they are all frustrated by a derangement of his intellectual and moral constitution.

To which even Dorothy added: “We have no hope of him.” Though whether this is really a final judgment is quite another question.

Against this, Sisman sees how young Coleridge’s anarchic sense of fun and wit, as well as his intelligence, appealed to the rather grave, taciturn Wordsworth, drawing him out and producing what Hazlitt called that “convulsive inclination to laughter about the mouth, a good deal at variance with the solemn, stately expression of the rest of the face.” He quotes for example Coleridge’s rhyming note which accompanied his beautiful conversation poem “The Nightingale” in 1798:

In stale blank verse a subject stale

I send per post my Nightingale;

And like an honest bard, dear Wordsworth

You’ll tell me what you think my Bird’s worth.

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