At the beginning of my senior year in college, I had to meet with my major advisor to go over the classes I had taken to make sure that I was on target to complete all the requirements for my degree. After looking over my list, he looked up at me and said rather dryly, "Congratulations. You've managed to complete an English major without taking a poetry course."
This wasn't quite true--I had taken a gigantic overview of English literature course when I was a freshman and we covered quite a bit of poetry throughout that year. Well, I mean, we were supposed to--ever crunched for time, when I made decisions about what to skim and what to concentrate on when studying, poetry usually went out the window first. Especially long poems, which meant that much of the Romantic poets went right by me in a flurry of quickly flipped pages on my way to reading something else, like a nice, comfortable novel excerpt. I am, after all, the person who when asked to write about "The Wasteland" turned in an exam book with nothing written in it but, "Smarter minds than mine have failed to completely understand this poem." I had to get an A on every other thing I wrote that semester in order to survive that huge bad grade (and the professor refused to let me drop the class when I tried after that Wasteland debacle).
In the time that's passed since, I haven't given much of a thought to Wordsworth and Coleridge except momentary bursts of gratitude that I no longer have to fear answering an essay question about one of their poems on an exam, or an obligatory nod to Coleridge while watching Citizen Kane. But recently I was writing something about the Romantics (historically, no literary explication in this project) and found a brief note about Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth having been very close friends who then became irreparably estranged. This sounded like something that would interest even poetry-challenged me (though I will note that I recite poetry much better than I write about it. Oh the drama). Lucky me, I did a little searching and found The Friendship: Wordsworth and Coleridge, by Adam Sisman.
The book opens in 1797 with a young, lively Coleridge arriving at the Wordsworths' cottage in Dorset after a forty mile walk from his own home in the Quantock Hills. What was intended as a short visit between the two men who knew of each other more than actually knew each other, turned into a stay of several weeks. Suddenly inseparable, they formed a close-knit partnership that kicked off the Romantic era in English poetry.
Mini-biographies detail the two men's lives up until they met. Both were of a radical bent in their younger days. Wordsworth spent a few years in France after the revolution, enthralled by its ideals, and insistently oblivious to its turbulence and violence. Coleridge stayed in England and sought reform there; his pet idea for a long time was to form a utopian society called the Pantisocracy in Pennsylvania. As is often the case with utopian communities, this idea failed to get off the ground, finally falling apart when Coleridge's then close friend and partner Robert Southey dropped out to marry and lead a more conventional life. This angered Coleridge who treated friendship with an intensity that others could only match for so long; if a friend appeared to fail him in any way, his disappointment was bitter and long-lasting. Southey, whose industriousness and precise work habits came to annoy the slower, less-disciplined Coleridge, bore the double blame of not just bailing out of the Pantisocracy scheme but also seeming to push Coleridge into marrying the sister of his own wife, a marriage that would eventually turn into a disaster. Of course this wasn't quite true--Coleridge married Sara Fricker quite willingly, and only looked for someone to blame after he fell in love with another Sara, Sara Hutchinson, whose sister Mary would eventually marry Wordsworth.
Coleridge and Wordsworth traveled in the same circles and probably crossed paths a few times when they both were in the Bristol area. Coleridge was the better known of the two at the time, due to his involvement in politics in England while Wordsworth had been in France. However, he had read the two poems Wordsworth had published and greatly admired them. Coleridge had no doubts about his own talents and believed few rivaled his intellect; Wordsworth was one of the few men he had met who he considered his superior.
For the next few years, Coleridge either lived with Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy, or lived as near to them as possible. Wordsworth and Dorothy were already a formidably close pair who could barely stand a moment away from each other (poor Dorothy's reaction on her brother's wedding day is the most crushingly sad thing in this book). Dorothy also was awed by her brother's talents, and in her, he found unwavering support and inspiration; both Wordsworth and Coleridge felt that she had the keenest eye for the beauties of nature, and in their poems can be found lines directly from her journals (perhaps Dorothy Wordsworth is the true founder of English Romanticism? Then again, spinsters are always the biggest romantics).
A friendship as intense as Wordsworth and Coleridge shared can only survive so long. Just like love, a friendship that burns too hard also reaches a point where it either settles into a comfortable, though less brilliant glow, or sputters out. The two worked on a volume of poems, Lyrical Ballads, that was not well-received. For a second edition, Wordsworth had Coleridge's epic Rime of the Ancient Mariner pushed from its place at the front of the volume to the back, because he feared that the creepy grandeur of the poem didn't fit well with the rest of his more pastoral pieces, and might have put off readers. He put his own name on it and left Coleridge's off the book. Coleridge agreed to this, didn't complain, and as always, supported the one who he felt was a superior talent, but probably harbored some secret hurts and resentments at these casual slights.
Coleridge was also becoming more difficult to deal with. He was addicted to opium and becoming, to be quite honest, a mess. If he was ill, he took opium. When he didn't take opium, he became ill. He recognized that the drug he thought was helping might be making him sick, but couldn't stop himself from taking it. Wordsworth and Dorothy didn't particularly support Coleridge's wife or marriage, but his pursuit of his other Sara was uncomfortable for everyone. When Wordsworth married Sara's sister Mary and Sara came to live with them, Coleridge was so tormented over his inabiltiy to have her that he even began to have paranoid thoughts that she and Wordsworth were having an affair (he was wrong). The two men's personalities were just different as well, no matter how in sympathy they had first appeared. Wordsworth was quiet and reticent, while Coleridge was outgoing and voluble; one person (I think Madame de Stael--sorry, had to return the book today) said that Coleridge knew about monologues, but not dialogues. Their work habits were different--as with Southey, Coleridge saw Wordsworth's steady workmanship as almost a rebuke to himself and his inabilty to produce work. Even the long walks they took showed their differences. In an era where paper and ink were expensive, both poets composed much of their work in their heads before setting it down on paper, usuall while out on long rambles. A friend noted that Coleridge liked to compose while walking on uneven, twisting, turning paths, while Wordsworth preferred steady, smooth, straightforward routes.
Wordworth grew more staid as he grew older. He was given a postal appointment in a town that provided a steady income while giving him plenty of time to write. He became conservative and reactionary, far from the young man who had gone to France to witness the Revolution. He produced plenty of work, but staggered to some degree under Coleridge's faith in him. Early on in their friendship, Coleridge had conceived the idea that Wordsworth would be the one to write the world's greatest poem, something that would encompass all the greatness of the mind of man, that would be bigger than "Paradise Lost." Wordsworth worked on this poem most of his life, but he never finished "The Recluse." At some points later in life he was known to make a few comments to others about not being up to the great task entrusted to him (Coleridge had his own unfinished work to struggle with; he never believed he had finished his poem "Christobel" but it became a hit as an unpublished manuscript, and he finally published it fifteen or so years after he wrote it).
The final break between the two men took place when Wordsworth told a friend who had been planning to offer Coleridge his house in London that Coleridge was alcoholic, addicted to opium, and disagreeable to live with. All of these things may have been true and widely known, but Coleridge was infuriated. This incident put some distance between the two men that was never breached again, although they managed to be coldly cordial to each other when they met; however, it is obvious that the break had been on the verge of happening for years. Some things just aren't meant to last.
Sisman does a good enough job of tying together all the characters and of giving a portrait of the time. He quotes extensively from the poets' work and letters. He is good at explaining, but the main players never really spring to live. Coleridge seems a bit more favored of the two, but in real life he was undoubtedly the more dominant personality as well. I found it odd that when I finished the book I was not nearly as interested in finding out more about Coleridge and Wordsworth as I was about the supporting characters Dorothy Wordsworth and Charles Lamb. There is something calm, chilly, and instructive about the book, which maybe isn't quite what you would hope for in a book about the romantic era. But there is a lot to be gained from reading this book, no doubt more if you are a student of poetry, which I, sadly, am not.
I was struck by the language used by people in letters at the time--the outpouring of emotion, the expressions of longing, the declarations of love, the promises and dedications. And I don't mean love letters, but letters between friends, siblings, seemingly anyone. It's astonishing to see such unabashed feelings shared, and it made me sad to live in an era where honesty and outspokenness have been replaced by too-careful reserve and irony.