The Strains of Inspiration

The Strains of Inspiration

The Friendship describes how Wordsworth and Coleridge’s fiercely uneven relationship affected their lives and work.


Samuel Taylor Coleridge made quite a splash with his first book, a small volume of Poems on Various Subjects printed and published in Bristol in the spring of 1796. He was a young man, 23 years of age, well-known in the Bristol area as a lecturer and dissenting lay preacher, and notorious as a political radical, or–to use the language of the time–a “democrat” and “liberty man.” He now took the opportunity to expatiate in verse on his commitment to “equality,” his “joy” at the blood-red French Revolution, his longing to live in a community without “individual property” and his hopes of moving to America with his democratic friends to “follow the sweet dream,/Where Susquehannah pours his untam’d stream.” He compounded the provocation with a long philosophical poem in which his energetic Christianity was harnessed to the heretical themes of Unitarianism and pantheism and further onslaughts on private ownership as the root of all evil. But what really stirred up Coleridge’s readers, at a time when poetry was debated with as much passion as politics or religion, was his peculiar literary style.

Poems on Various Subjects is a book that takes pride in its imperfections. It presents itself not as a temple of transcendent art but a ragbag of remnants from Coleridge’s life, of private messages gone astray or pages torn from an intimate journal. Some of the poems are called “epistles,” and Coleridge excuses their faults by quoting an anonymous source: “bad verse then seems better/Receiv’d from absent friend by way of letter.” Many of the others are addressed to friends or accompanied by notes about the circumstances of their composition. And the main action takes place in a sequence of thirty-six short poems that are disarmingly described as “effusions” because, Coleridge says, they issued from “the communicativeness of our nature” and “do not possess that oneness of thought which I deem indispensible in a Sonnet.”

To open the book was like entering an untidy bedroom strewn with the unconsidered debris of a complicated life. Coleridge confessed that the poems he was bringing together were “written at different times and prompted by very different feelings,” so that the only real connection between them was his own identity. He realized they might be “condemned for their querulous egotism,” but he thought he could turn the accusation around. If egotism is a crime, he argued, then poets who give sincere expression to their own states of mind are innocent of it, and the guilt belongs to those who prudishly avoid all mention of themselves in order to put on airs of lofty impersonality. They imagine that their studious “disinterestedness of phrase” lifts them above the pettiness of common humanity, but in truth it does nothing of the sort. Why would they take pains to keep the word “I” out of their verses if they were not uneasy in their minds, and “conscious that this said I is perpetually intruding”? These artificial poets are guilty of the very worst kind of egotism: not the generous ebullience of emotion that “leads us to communicate our feelings to others” but a fetid sense of self-sufficiency that makes us seal ourselves off from the rest of the world and “reduce the feelings of others to an identity with our own.”

The most striking feature of Poems on Various Subjects, apart from its honesty and verbal agility, is its welcoming warmth of engagement. The word “friend” seems to crop up on every page, and the duties and pleasures of friendship provide the occasion and subject matter for practically every poem: “For what so sweet can labor’d lays impart/As one rude rhyme warm from a friendly heart?” Coleridge quotes an anonymous poet. Friendship is considered in all its varieties and conditions: friendship for dumb animals, for august philosophers or political heroes, for a river (“Unboastful Stream”), for close companions, for lost friends, for a former sweetheart and–last but not least–for the woman who had recently become his wife. Friendship as Coleridge understood it was not a matter of sympathy or passive affection but of active solicitude for the welfare and freedom of others.

His dislike of private property was not a mere matter of theory: He seems to have had great difficulty restraining his impulse to give away everything he had. His generosity reached even into the anxious realm of authorship, as he gladly acknowledged his poetic borrowings and filled several pages with poems by his friend Charles Lamb, crediting them meticulously even though, as he put it, “their superior merit would have sufficiently distinguished them.” (When he issued a second edition the following year, he cut back his own work to make room for further poems by Lamb and by another friend, Charles Lloyd.) But his boldest act of literary friendship came in a note acknowledging a debt to someone he described as “unrivalled among the writers of the present day in manly sentiment, novel imagery, and vivid colouring”–a notably obscure and unsuccessful fellow poet by the name of William Wordsworth.

Wordsworth and Coleridge were about to forge one of the great literary friendships, rivaling that of Heloïse and Abelard, Marx and Engels, or de Beauvoir and Sartre. The affair was to flare with terrific intensity for a year or two before subsiding into a prolonged coda of resentments, regrets and impermanent truces, and in due course it would become a subject of eager gossip, first among their friends and then in the larger literary world. The story has been raked over hundreds of times since their death, but Adam Sisman’s new book The Friendship retells it with unmatched thoroughness, balance and verve.

Sisman starts with Wordsworth’s return to England in 1792 after a series of sexual and political adventures in revolutionary France. He was a graduate of Cambridge University, 22 years old, not rich but supported by a tolerant and reasonably prosperous family. He was to publish some verse the following year, but without acclaim, and in any case he was less interested in poetry than in the prospect of a republican revolution in Britain–a “philosophic war/Led by philosophers,” as he would put it. Coleridge was two years younger than Wordsworth, and poor and precarious by comparison; he too had studied at Cambridge but left without a degree, and he was now wandering through England apparently doing nothing–or rather, as he put it, “nothing but dream of the System of no Property.” In London, both Wordsworth and Coleridge orbited round the anarchist philosopher William Godwin and the republican bookseller Joseph Johnson, but like twins in a Shakespearean comedy they chanced never to meet.

Their first encounter seems to have taken place in Bristol in late summer of 1795, but it was not till eighteen months later–after the publication of Poems on Various Subjects–that they became intimate friends. Over the coming year they would spend most of their time together, either in Nether Stowey, where Coleridge rented a little cottage that he shared with his wife and their baby son, or in the large house a few miles away that Wordsworth had rented with his sister Dorothy, or in massive walking expeditions in the Somerset countryside. Their wanderings were observed for a while by a Home Office spy, who identified them as “democrats” but not a threat to public safety. He was right: Wordsworth and Coleridge had been disappointed by events in France, and their radical activism was in retreat. Poetry was now their passion instead of politics: They “wantoned in wild Poesy,” as Wordsworth put it, declaiming their poems as they wandered through the hills, supplying lines to each other and laying ambitious plans for themselves and for the future of the human race.

Yet the friendship was unbalanced from the beginning: Coleridge was blessed with extraordinary allure, and fame of a kind, and preternatural fluency, but the adulation flowed in the opposite direction. Wordsworth thought “very highly” of Coleridge, but Coleridge considered his new friend “a very great man.” Together, he thought, they were going to compose the greatest poem ever written, a philosophical meditation showing how the love of nature could lead on to a love of humanity as a whole and thence to an earthly paradise of peace and universal brotherhood. But he acknowledged that the success of the project would ride more on Wordsworth than on him. “I feel myself a little man by his side,” he wrote; “& yet do not think myself the less man, than I formerly thought myself.”

Coleridge’s remark is a perfect description of an idealizing friendship at its best; but it did not tell the whole truth about his relations with Wordsworth. Their collaborations were not going especially well. Wordsworth had begun work on the great philosophical poem, but he was not finding it easy (indeed, it would continue to defeat him for the rest of his long and well-disciplined life). He also withdrew from another joint venture–an archaic ballad about an ancient mariner–leaving Coleridge to write it on his own. Meanwhile he was forging a new literary style for himself, serious and lyrical at the same time, and although he might never have imagined it without the promptings of his friend, he could achieve it only by writing independently. Left on his own, Coleridge was flourishing too–among other things, he wrote “Kubla Khan” and “Christabel”–and by the end of their marvelous year each of them had produced, by Sisman’s reckoning, several thousand lines of sparkling new verse. It would have been enough to fill several volumes, but they decided to hold back and put together a collaborative book in which their differences would be submerged in a single poetic identity. In the summer of 1798 Coleridge opened negotiations with his Bristol publisher, and the joint work appeared, under the casually paradoxical title Lyrical Ballads, with a few other poems, toward the end of the year. The authors were not named, but an advertisement implied that the book was the work of a single author, acting alone.

Most of the poems in Lyrical Ballads told simple, sad stories of poor peasant life, but without the political bravado that had been on display in Poems on Various Subjects two years before. They were offered to readers not as incitements to indignant compassion but as “experiments…written chiefly with a view to ascertain how far the language of conversation in the middle and lower classes of society is adapted to the purposes of poetic pleasure.” On the whole this was an accurate prospectus: It fitted the vividness of “The Idiot Boy,” for example, and the starkness of “Goody Blake and Harry Gill,” and even the plush melancholy of “Tintern Abbey.” But there were four poems on which it sat more awkwardly, namely the extravagantly archaic ballad that opened the book, now titled “The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere”; two extracts from an elaborate verse drama; and the stunningly elegant “The Nightingale,” subtitled “A Conversational Poem” and addressed to “My Friend, and my Friend’s Sister.” These misfits were, of course, the work of Coleridge: He had allowed his contributions to be pared back to these four items in order to leave space for nineteen pieces by his marvelous friend. “I feel myself inferior,” he wrote, and it seems that he was willingly upstaged.

By that time Coleridge had gotten into the habit of priming his poetic euphoria with large doses of opium, which had the effect of making him frequently ill and unmanageable. He had also begun to complain about his discontented wife, though she could hardly be blamed for resenting a man who seemed incapable of accumulating anything apart from debts. They now had two little boys to look after as well, and although Coleridge adored them, he could barely tolerate the repetitive inconveniences of family life. He preferred to keep company with Wordsworth and with his loyal sister Dorothy, who was blessedly unencumbered by the cares of motherhood, and as soon as Lyrical Ballads was ready for printing, he set off with them for an extended trip to Germany. Once they got there the Wordsworths went on a long walking tour, leaving Coleridge to spend the best part of a year in the island city of Ratzeburg, learning the German language and studying the latest trends in science and philosophy, while fending off the pleas of his wife (who had to cope with the death of their younger son on her own) and yearning for the company of “William, my teacher, my friend!”

When they got back from Germany in 1799, Wordsworth went to live in Grasmere in the Lake District; after his return to England three months later, Coleridge moved to nearby Keswick so as not to lose touch with him. By that time it was clear that Lyrical Ballads had flopped: It had been widely reviewed, but there was general agreement that the “experiment” in conversational poetry had failed. Wordsworth was not discouraged, however, and decided to work on a greatly expanded edition, incorporating some forty new poems of his own. Coleridge resigned the copyright to him without complaint, and spent many weeks transcribing Wordsworth’s drafts, writing careful instructions to the printer and, at Wordsworth’s behest, completing his mysterious ballad “Christabel” to round out the new collection. When the second edition appeared, in 1801, Wordsworth’s name stood alone on the title page, and “Christabel” had been dropped. In a new preface Wordsworth acknowledged “the assistance of a Friend” who had contributed several verses that “in a great measure have the same tendency as my own,” but he also made a gratuitous allusion to the disadvantages of “gross and violent stimulants” and moved “The Ancient Mariner” from its prominent opening position, with a footnote stating that it had “great defects” and that “the author was himself very desirous that it should be suppressed.”

Loyal Wordsworthians have always maintained that Coleridge took these editorial rebuffs in good part, but in fact, as Sisman has no difficulty showing, he was mortified. Instead of protesting, however, he spoke meekly of his “unbounded admiration” for what Wordsworth had achieved. “He is a great, a true Poet,” he wrote; whereas “I am only a kind of Metaphysician.” Wordsworth had granted him an incomparable gift of self-knowledge, he thought, because “by shewing to him what true Poetry was, he made him know, that he himself was no Poet.”

Coleridge was 28 years old when he decided to give up his poetic vocation. From then on he would spend most of his time in London, so he did not see so much of the man he still regarded as his best and greatest friend. There was a terrific quarrel in 1812 when Coleridge realized that Wordsworth had been saying disobliging things about his domestic habits. Many years later they were sufficiently reconciled to make a second trip to Germany, but it is said that when Coleridge died in 1834, at the age of 61, Wordsworth was quite unmoved.

The second half of Coleridge’s life is difficult territory for biographers, who always find it convenient if their subjects fought their way through various youthful ordeals before achieving a definite and decisive self-sufficiency. But this is precisely what Coleridge did not do. E.M. Forster once said that “if life is a lesson, he never learnt it,” and Sisman is able to cover his later years in a single final chapter. Coleridge, it seems, is the poet who never grew up: a producer of friendship but seldom a consumer, and a dispenser of delight and encouragement to everyone except himself and his unlucky wife. He tried to make a joke of his private troubles, saying that “if any woman wanted an exact & copious Recipe, ‘How to make a Husband completely miserable,’ I could furnish her with one.” But he was not the type to relish misery: He felt that it “degraded” him and made him “a worse man.” And somehow he never stopped writing.

He poured out reams and reams of disorderly prose, including a short-lived periodical called The Friend, and a sprawling Wordsworth-obsessed memoir ponderously titled Biographia Literaria. But he was not a successful author, and William Hazlitt–himself a beneficiary of Coleridge’s goodwill–was probably right when he suggested that he lacked the necessary egoism. If Coleridge contemplated a great library, Hazlitt said, he would not care if it contained an isolated volume that he could lay claim to as an author. He was an absolute democrat in the republic of letters, and he regarded all books as his own. He had the kind of mind, Hazlitt says, that “keeps open house, and entertains all comers”; the only sadness was that when everyone else goes home at the end of the evening, he is left alone and dissatisfied–“the day consumed and its business unconcluded.”

What Hazlitt cannot have known was that Coleridge also kept a set of private notebooks–he had filled seventy of them by the time of his death–and when they were published long after his death, it became clear that his old literary exuberance was never extinguished. At one point, indeed, he laid a fascinating plan for an essay on the nature of friendship, and “the multitude of causes that make men delude themselves & attribute to Friendship what is only a similarity of Pursuit, or even mere dislike of feeling one’s self alone.” Of course, the essay did not get written, but at least the notebooks survived, and for Coleridge they remained “my only Confidant, my only faithful Friend.”

Coleridge never lost faith in Wordsworth, and went on expecting him to produce the “true philosophical poem” that they conceived together when they were young. And even though that hope would never be fulfilled, he had the consolation of knowing that Wordsworth had completed a vast autobiographical introduction, which he referred to as his “Poem to Coleridge.” He had been reluctant to undertake it, saying it was “a thing unprecedented in Literary history that a man should talk so much about himself,” but Coleridge persuaded him that he could carry it off without culpable egotism. “I feel myself a better Poet, in knowing how to honour him, than in all my own poetic Compositions,” Coleridge said. The poem would be published as The Prelude after Wordsworth’s death in 1850: It is one of the greatest compositions in the English language, but as an expression of gratitude to an extraordinary friend, it came far too late.

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