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.
Wordsworth could respond with unexpected vivacity, as in his indulgent description of the thirty-year-old Coleridge:
Noisy he was, and gamesome as a boy;
His limbs would toss about him with delight
Like branches when strong winds the trees annoy….
Less easy to catch is the extraordinary intellectual exchange of ideas, political visions, and poetry going on all this time. The possibility of what Coleridge called the “One Life”—that “each thing has a life of its own, and we are all one life,” his summary of Spinoza’s thought—was an ever-shifting debate between them. It is a debate which strikingly foreshadows the modern concerns with the natural environment, as discussed by Jonathan Bate in The Song of the Earth (2000). (I note that the motto of the World Wildlife Fund has recently become “One Planet Living.”)
The notion of this continuous dialogue or extended conversation is central to their poetry for at least a decade. It has been superbly traced in Paul Magnuson’s book Coleridge and Wordsworth: A Lyrical Dialogue (1988). The musical notion of an operatic duet (as Sisman suggests), or maybe the exchange of improvised riffs between two supremely gifted jazz players, may not be irrelevant. Around this poetic gig blossomed a mass of brilliant prose: essays, prefaces, endless exchanges of letters, and of course Dorothy’s Alfoxden and Grasmere Journals which are, among other things, tender accounts of this friendship. There are also Coleridge’s astonishing Notebooks, which perform a kind of continuous autobiographical subsong.
The nature of their collaboration is probably unique in literary history, and is still being argued over by critics. To some, like Norman Fruman, it has seemed unhealthily close, like a kind of undergraduate plagiarism. To others, such as Thomas McFarland or Seamus Perry, it has seemed superbly open and generous, a sort of poetic pantisocracy, or commune. Sisman is very circumspect here:
One can only surmise the extent of their co-operation from the odd anecdote…. It was a subtle exchange, not always obvious to the reader, or even subsequently to the scholar with access to the original manuscripts.
They certainly gave each other individual lines of poetry. Coleridge provided the opening of “We are Seven,” and Wordsworth supplied this haunting image for Part IV of “The Ancient Mariner” (as well as much of the plot):
I fear thee, ancient Mariner!
I fear thy skinny hand!
And thou art long, and lank, and brown
As is the ribbed sea-sand.
They borrowed whole stanzas from each other, and took over unfinished poems like runners in a relay race. Parts I and II of the long ballad “The Three Graves” are by Wordsworth; Parts III and IV by Coleridge. Many of Coleridge’s “Conversation Poems” directly evoke discussions in the Quantocks Hills with Wordsworth (and Dorothy). His “Frost at Midnight” gave Wordsworth the style and philosophical model for his first masterpiece, “Tintern Abbey.” Wordsworth’s 1805 Prelude continuously summons up the changing image of Coleridge, “the beloved Friend,” throughout all thirteen books, from his Ottery childhood to his Malta exile.
Coleridge signed Wordsworth’s poems in the newspapers; Wordsworth borrowed Coleridge’s critical arguments for his Prefaces. They exchanged poetic themes and answered specific passages and arguments in each other’s poems. No one knows for certain who wrote “The Mad Monk,” though it is now printed in the Collected Works of both poets, and clearly initiated both Coleridge’s “Dejection: an Ode” and Wordsworth’s answering poems the “Immortality Ode” and “Resolution and Independence.” Here is “The Mad Monk”‘s second stanza, which in many ways initiates that whole debate about the environment:
There was a time when earth, and
sea, and skies,
The bright green vale, and forest’s dark recess,
With all things, lay before mine eyes
In steady loveliness:
But now I feel, on earth’s uneasy scene,
Such sorrows as will never cease;—
I only ask for peace;
If I must live to know that such a time has been!
But more than mere collaboration and debate, they were driven by the idea of the shared project: a great endeavor to benefit mankind, which was initially greater than all other ties and duties, including domestic ones. This took shape as Coleridge’s idea of the “first and only true Phil[osophical] poem,” originally to be written by him as “The Brook” (following the course of a stream from wilderness to civilization), but eventually passed over—or fatally bequeathed, perhaps—to Wordsworth as “The Recluse.” It was to be an epic poem of secular redemption, greater even than Milton’s Paradise Lost. As Sisman puts it, this was “their joint mission, to fulfil the hopes of a generation disappointed at the failure of the French Revolution: nothing less than a poem that would change the world.”
Both Stephen Gill in his admirable biography of Wordsworth (1989) and Duncan Wu in his subtle critical study Wordsworth: An Inward Life (2002) have argued that this became an impossibly demanding task. What began as an inspiration eventually became an albatross, and paradoxically it was Coleridge who hung it around his friend’s neck. Coleridge undervalued Wordsworth’s short lyric poems, and always promised to provide the philosophical notes which would inspire the Great Epic. But he never did so.
Sisman pursues this suggestion with dramatic and surprising effect, reversing the assumed dynamic of the later relationship:
The poem, this great ambitious project dwarfing all others, became a stick with which Coleridge chastised his friend. For Wordsworth, the subject was one of perpetual mortification. However high he soared, The Recluse seemed out of reach. His other achievements seemed small by comparison with the ideal Coleridge kept constantly before him.
When Coleridge is leaving for Malta in 1804, ill and possibly dying, Sisman quotes at length one of Wordsworth’s most revealing, passionate, and egotistical letters to his friend:
Your last letter but one informing us of your late attack was the severest shock to me, I think, I have ever received. I cannot help saying that I would gladly have given 3 fourths of my possessions for your letter on The Recluse at that time. I cannot say what a load it would be to me, should I survive you and you die without this memorial left behind. Do for heaven’s sake, put this out of the reach of accident immediately…. Heaven bless you for ever and ever. No words can express what I feel at this moment.
Coleridge later claimed, characteristically, that he did indeed write and send two sets of notes on “The Recluse” from Malta. But one was burned by quarantine authorities to prevent the plague at Gibraltar; and the other was thrown into the sea from a Royal Navy ship pursued by Barbary pirates….
Sisman lays less emphasis on the ironic fact that Coleridge had meanwhile hung another albatross around his own neck. At least from 1800 he was haunted by the idea of a great philosophic prose work, known first as the “Logosophia” and later as the Opus Maximum, which was to transform the “dead” mechanical philosophy of John Locke and David Hartley into a “dynamic” English version of Kant and Schelling. In fact it was to be a philosophic demonstration of the “One Life,” but buttressed with divine authority. Not surprisingly, Coleridge equally failed to produce this philosophic chimera in his lifetime.
Yet one wonders if either of these were really “failed” projects in a true, imaginative sense. Both may have served admirably as “umbrella” ideas, which sheltered both writers from the paralysis of completion, and spurred them to continue and complete smaller but much more fruitful autobiographical works. Without them, there might have been no Prelude (1805/1850) or Poems in Two Volumes (1807) from Wordsworth, and no Biographia Literaria (1817) from Coleridge. For Coleridge, certainly, the idea of the creative fragment became one of his greatest contributions to the aesthetics of Romanticism. Would one rather have the Opus Maximum or “Kubla Khan”? Equally, it seems slightly overdetermined to say of Wordsworth that from 1814 “the rest of his life would be lived under the shadow of this disappointment. His talent shrivelled….”
The subject of The Friendship is, in a sense, a venerable one. It always fascinated and divided their contemporaries from the start. Tom Poole (the radical tanner) feared “amalgamation” of the two, and Coleridge’s “idolatry” of Wordsworth. The Clarksons (the anti–slave trade family) by contrast saw a tall, handsome, commanding Wordsworth oddly deferring to Coleridge: “He seems very fond of C, laughing at all his Jokes & taking all opportunities of showing him off.” Charles Lamb filled his letters with the antics of both of them (“Cumberland and Westmoreland”), ready to poke fun at whoever was currently taking himself more seriously.
Hazlitt wrote brilliantly about both of them in perhaps his finest essay, “My First Acquaintance with Poets.” He could even contrast their characters by the way they walked. He said Coleridge was almost blown off his feet by “gusts of genius,” but he always felt that the purposeful, striding Wordsworth was the major figure. Southey gleefully diagnosed self-indulgence on both sides:
It is from [Coleridge’s] idolatry of that family that this has begun—they have always humoured him in all his follies, listened to his complaints of his wife, and when he complained of his itch, helped him to scratch, instead of covering him with brimstone ointment, and shutting him up by himself.
Thomas De Quincey made a career of marketing posthumous mischief about them in his Recollections of the Lake Poets. While Matthew Arnold solemnly enshrined them in his critical essays, piously canonizing Wordsworth’s genius and liberally apologizing for Coleridge’s aberrations.
By the twentieth century it had become customary to take sides, and to see Wordsworth and Coleridge as the representatives of an ethical choice, or even a kind of spiritual divide. Just as people were either instinctively Aristotelians or Platonists, Republicans or Democrats, so they were either sensible, earthbound Wordsworthians or mystical visionary Coleridgeans. Who would you rather dine with? (Sir Isaiah Berlin once confided in me, between two glasses of claret, that for his money it was Coleridge, because “at least the evening could never conceivably be dull—or indeed short.”)
In an elegant little book for the Home University, Wordsworth and Coleridge 1795–1834 (a forerunner of Sisman’s, written in 1953), the scholar H.H. Margoliouth tried to define this “fundamental difference” between the two men:
Wordsworth, except when an uprush of the imaginative swept away the merely mundane, was essentially moral and a moralist: Coleridge was sinful, suffering and religious. If only Coleridge had written an “Ode to Duty”—and Wordsworth had not!
The poet and biographer Edmund Blunden took this a stage further: “Why do people have to like Wordsworth and hate Coleridge, and vice versa?” Wordsworth in his self-discipline, his instinct for nature, his combination of simplicity and severity, his self-sufficiency—in “the dread watch-tower of man’s absolute self” as Coleridge put it—is admirable; but also oddly remote. Coleridge, in his chaotic imaginings, his vast intelligence, his fleshy vulnerability (“the most wonderful man I ever knew” as Wordsworth put it), is lovable but flawed. But he is also companionable. It is no accident that the Victorians (like Matthew Arnold) were drawn to Wordsworth, and the modernists (like Virginia Woolf) to Coleridge.
But the twenty-first-century jury may be out again, especially when Wordsworth’s poetry can be considered as the foundation stone of all memoir writing about childhood, currently so fashionable. It is notable that the British poet laureate, Andrew Motion, has just published such a memoir, In the Blood (2006): an unusually fine one, which takes its title from Wordsworth. Yet there again, Coleridge’s Notebooks, still insufficiently known, may be considered as an inspiration to all confessional writers, and may even become—in their wild informality—the secret bible of Internet bloggers. (Apparently there are over fifty million of these.)
Recently, D.H. Lawrence’s biographer John Worthen has added an interesting twist to this dilemma. In his revisionist study The Gang (2002) he suggests that this fundamental difference has produced a “savage” rivalry between Coleridge and Wordsworth biographers, which has vitiated the very nature of biographical narrative itself “for decades.” The rivalry of the poets has been passed on to the rivalry of the biographers. “Interpreting one of them sympathetically almost inevitably means showing the other in a bad light.” As Sisman remarks mildly, this is a “stimulating” suggestion, and perhaps it is true. Yet there may in fact be merits in passionate, partisan biography.
It is also true that in Britain there is still a robust geographical divide between their supporters, represented by the Wordsworth Trust in the Lake District and the Friends of Coleridge at Nether Stowey in the West of England. Nonetheless these two organizations, which both have large American followings, are notably generous and openhanded. Both run summer conferences, hold exhibitions, support publications, and advertise each other’s work.
The Wordsworth Trust has just published a beautiful edition of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner: The Poem and Its Illustrators (2006). Besides a superb collection of illustrations (among others by Gustave Doré, David Jones, Mervyn Peake, Patrick Procktor, and even the crazed cartoonist Hunt Emerson), it carries complementary essays by the late great Wordsworth scholar Robert Woof, and that fine Coleridgean Seamus Perry.
In a lighter vein, the current edition of the Coleridge Bulletin (Winter 2006) carries a teasing article by Allan Clayson, which retells one of Coleridge’s rarest Irish jokes. It is entered into his seaside Notebook of 1833, and it is nicely relevant to the subject of friendship:
Dan Hennesay’s story—passing over Black Friars’ whom should I see (coming from t’other end of the Bridge) but my old Chum, Pat Mahoney—and at the same moment he saw me—We ran towards each, & when we met, just in the middle of the Bridge—by Jasus!—it was neither of us.
Yes, this really is Coleridge’s own note. The extraordinary thing about this splendid, self-collapsing, conjuring-trick of a joke is that it can suddenly be seen as a kind of surreal comic allegory of Coleridge’s own friendship with Wordsworth. And when we met, it was neither of us. One longs to believe that the aging bards exchanged this anecdote.
This prompts one to ask how such friendships are actually reshaped by the passing of time. Perhaps their intense phases are only possible in youth. Without the quarrel of 1810 there would have been in 1814 no Excursion—Wordsworth’s long poem whose noble Preface salutes Coleridge, “a dear Friend, most distinguished for his knowledge and genius, and to whom the Author’s Intellect is deeply indebted.” Without the period of estrangement there would have been no Biographia Literaria in 1817, with its brilliant and passionate defense of Wordsworth’s poetry. Without the slow, tentative reconciliations of the 1820s, it would have been difficult for Wordsworth to propose a second, nostalgic, grumbling “old gentleman’s” tour through Germany. Without the calm twinkling hindsight of the Highgate years—the time, after 1816, when Coleridge found a permanent home with the young surgeon James Gillman—it would hardly have been possible for Coleridge to write one of the most amusing, and yet shrewdly revealing, recollections of their original collaboration.
This is the Preface he appended in 1828 to the unfinished lyrical ballad “The Wanderings of Cain.” It was originally to have been a work in three cantos which, thirty years before, the two friends had proposed to write in a single night at Alfoxden. Sitting together at the parlor table, they would write one canto each, and then the third would be completed by whoever had “done first.” It was to be, in other words, an All-Night Ballad Marathon.
Coleridge recalled fondly:
Methinks I see his grand and noble countenance as at the moment when having despatched my own portion of the task at full finger-speed, I hastened to him with my manuscript—that look of humourous despondency fixed on his almost blank sheet of paper, and then its silent mock-piteous admission of failure struggling with the sense of the exceeding ridiculousness of the whole scheme—which broke up in a laugh: and the Ancient Mariner was written instead.
Finally it would not have been possible for Wordsworth to write the “Extempore Effusion upon the Death of James Hogg” in 1835, a year after Coleridge’s death, which for some unaccountable reason Sisman does not quote:
Nor has the rolling year twice measured,
From sign to sign, its stedfast course,
Since every mortal power of Coleridge
Was frozen at its marvellous source;
The rapt One, of the godlike forehead,
The heaven-eyed creature sleeps in earth:
And Lamb, the frolic and the gentle,
Has vanished from his lonely hearth.
All this leads to wider reflections which Adam Sisman’s book prompts but does not have time to pursue. There have been many famous “literary friendships” or double-acts. Each has its own dynamic, usually of love and loyalty, followed by trouble and strife, and finally some sort of reconciliation (if only from beyond the grave). Johnson and Savage, Goethe and Schiller, Victor Hugo and Sainte-Beuve, Gautier and Nerval, Fitzgerald and Hemingway come to mind. Indeed what Fitzgerald called the “authority of failure” (his own) and “the authority of success” (Hemingway’s) might have peculiar relevance to the present case.
But for emotional intensity, one almost needs the parallel of a literary love affair (as Sisman hints). The great Coleridge scholar John Beer has written provokingly in a recent essay: “It may be suggested that [Ted Hughes’s] admiration for [Sylvia] Plath bore strong resemblances to Wordsworth’s for the equally mercurial Coleridge.”
The intensity of this friendship may also be different for historical reasons. Coleridge gave the word “friend” an almost religious weight, and deliberately called it “a very sacred appellation.” He could write in his Notebooks:
The unspeakable comfort to a good man’s mind, nay, even to a criminal, to be understood—to have someone who understands one,—and who does not feel that, on earth, no one does? The hope of this, always more or less disappointed, gives the passion to friendship.
Such notions of passionate friendship were of course part of the new cult of sensibility. Goethe’s doctrine of “Elective Affinities,” proposing an almost chemical law of (fatal) attraction, was widely accepted. Coleridge’s “Letter to Sara Hutchinson” (Asra)—which addresses the exclamation “Friend of my devoutest Choice!” both to her and to Wordsworth, almost indiscriminately one might say—belongs to this tradition.
The importance of sincerity, sympathy, feelings that spring “straight from the heart” was felt in society at large. Tears and weeping (feelings springing straight from the eye) took on a new importance and universal currency. Everyone wept. It was reported (by Coleridge among others) that even Nelson’s hardened seamen wept openly at his death at Trafalgar in 1805. Has anyone yet written a History of Tears and Weeping?
Sensible Dorothy wrote in her Journal, on one of Coleridge’s many frantic departures for London: “Every sight and sound reminded me of him—dear, dear fellow, of his many walks to us by day and by night. I was melancholy, and could not talk, but at last eased my heart by weeping—nervous blubbering, says William.” And William’s reaction is the more emotional one.
It may be, paradoxically, that the “sacred” nature of Romantic friendship is most truly revealed in the pains of its rupture. Coleridge’s nine-page letter of grand remonstrance to Robert Southey in November 1795 expresses a lover’s outrage: “You have left a large Void in my Heart—I know no man big enough to fill it.” Similarly Wordsworth, as restrained in his declarations of friendship as Coleridge was “gushing” (a new liquid word for sentiment), was nonetheless quite capable of expressing his feelings of rejection with vivid simplicity, and an image of water, in his poem “A Complaint” of 1807:
What happy moments did I count!
Blest was I then all bliss above!
Now, for that consecrated fount
Of murmuring, sparkling, living love,
What have I? Shall I dare to tell?
A comfortless and hidden well.
A rejected section from Coleridge’s poem “To William Wordsworth” throws further light on the fantastic intensity of these shared feelings:
Comfort from thee, and utterance of thy love
Came with such heights and depths of harmony,
Such sense of wings uplifting, that the storm
Scatter’d and whirl’d me, till my thoughts became
A bodily tumult…
Keen pangs of love, awakening as a babe
Turbulent, with an outcry in the heart.
His agonized secret poem (disguised in Latin) “Ad Vilmum Axiologum” makes the same feelings almost unbearably painful when combined with jealousy: “Do you command me to endure Asra’s neglect?… Why do you not also command me, William, to suffer my bowels to be pierced with a sword and then pretend that it does not hurt?”
One is reminded of what Edgar Allan Poe wrote in the preface to his own Poems of 1831: “In reading Coleridge’s poetry I tremble—like one who stands upon a volcano, conscious, from the very darkness bursting from the crater, of the fire and light that are weltering below.”
Most of these deep, dangerous waters are mere ripples on the surface of Adam Sisman’s study. Yet it is an honorable book: fair-minded, continuously engaging, and often moving. But partly from pressures of space, and partly from the need “to see both sides,” it smoothes and simplifies the biographical maelstroms. This extraordinary, tangled, tortured, passionate, creative partnership is presented as a simple arc, from “euphoria to acrimony,” effectively ending in 1810. Its curving plot-line is neatly summarized by the directorial chapter titles: “Contact. Retreat. Communion. Collaboration. Separation. Amalgamation. Subordination. Estrangement.”
But surely there is an alternative view. The Friendship was really a sort of dance to the music of time. The shape it makes is more like an orchestral score or seismic graph. It registers continuous patterns of attraction and repulsion, an endless series of creative eruptions and critical reverberations, of emotional trauma and intellectual transformation. It was one of the wonders of the Romantic Age. It was, in Coleridge’s phrase, “obstinate in resurrection.” And in a sense it has lasted forever.
April 12, 2007