The brief, passionate friendship between William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge led to an enormously fruitful literary collaboration. Their Lyrical Ballads (1798) was not merely a work of original poetry; its appearance launched the English Romantic movement in literature. That their paths later diverged was perhaps inevitable, as was the pain of this rupture. Although many biographers have chosen sides, Adam Sisman describes his book as “an attempt to escape from this biographical impasse, by concentrating on the friendship itself, at its most intense when both men were young and full of hope.”
Their history offers abundant material for exploration. Sisman draws extensively on letters from Coleridge and Wordsworth, as well as letters and journal entries from Wordsworth’s sister Dorothy, for detail about the life of their era and the strong attachment between the two poets. Rounding out the book are selected paintings, drawings, and photographs, along with an appendix detailing Coleridge’s plan for the completion of Wordsworth’s The Recluse, and extensive notes. Occasionally, when primary sources of fact can take him no further, Sisman offers intelligently imagined scenarios, their proposed outcomes made credible by his deep familiarity with the poets and their milieu.
The book is divided into three parts. Part 1, “Strangers,” about the period before the poets met, emphasizes the many parallels in their lives and thinking. Part 2, “Friends,” describes the most fertile period of their friendship, when Coleridge supported and collaborated with Wordsworth on many of his major poems. Part 3, “Acquaintances,” tells of their estrangement and periodic attempts at reconciliation.
While detailing the separate backgrounds of Wordsworth and Coleridge, Part 1 also sets out the political and cultural milieu in which they came together. Some reviewers have complained that Sisman takes too long176 pagesto get to the poets’ first meeting. Indeed, Sisman could have summarized the often-told story of the French Revolution, and the English reaction to it, but two factors make Sisman’s treatment worth reading: his engaging, conversational style and his revelation of the difference between seeming and being. For example, he shows the similarities between two poets who seem to be temperamental and intellectual opposites. Both poets had lost their fathers during boyhood, and their family fortunes had suffered as a result. Both had attended Cambridge University, showing great promise but failing to live up to it. Both were political radicals and were published poets who believed that verse could have a positive influence on their national culture.
Sisman describes qualities one or the other poet was not perceived as having, as when Coleridge skillfully negotiated publication of Lyrical Ballads although “the notion of Coleridge as a man of business might have seemed comical to those who knew him.” Wordsworth had direct experience of revolutionary France, whereas Coleridge read about it in pamphlets while attending Cambridge University. Wordsworth had left Cambridge temporarily for a three-month, one-thousand-mile walking tour (recounted in the autobiographical poem The Prelude, 1850) of France, Switzerland, Italy, Germany, and Belgium, just as the French Revolution had begun. Wordsworth became sympathetic, willing to die for the cause. He had reason to resent wealthy and powerful people such as those overthrown by the Revolution. His late father had been in business with the earl of Lonsdale and had expended several thousand pounds from his own funds on his employer’s behalf. After the father’s death, the earl refused to honor the loan, leaving William and his siblings impoverished.
Revolutionary France was a dangerous place for English people. Returning to London, Wordsworth met Joseph Johnson, a bookseller-publisher and radical dissenter, who had published Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man (1791-1792). In January, 1793, Johnson became Wordsworth’s first publisher, bringing out Wordsworth’s An Evening Walk and Descriptive Sketches in two volumes. They did not review or sell well, probably because of their timing: Descriptive Sketches ends with praise for the new French Republic, which, three days after publication, had declared war on Britain. Though Wordsworth loved his native Britain, he was disgusted by his country’s reactionary conduct toward the French Republic, which he sincerely believed would bring “a fairer order of things.”
Meanwhile, Coleridge, at the university, read his pamphlets and other radical writings, including those of the poet Robert Southey. Just twenty at the time, Coleridge was considered a prodigy but began to show the traits that would mark his adult life. During a severe illness, he was regularly dosed with laudanum, which relieved his pain but fogged his mind. Thereafter, he would turn to opium when feeling ill or pressured. Moreover, lacking skill in money matters despite an annual income of almost 100 pounds, he continually ran up debts he could not repay. In...
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