The poets of the Romantic period in England (roughly 1798-1832) have attracted a great deal of impressive scholarly activity. Such critics as Northrop Frye, Walter Jackson Bate, M. H. Abrams, Jonathan Wordsworth, Harold Bloom, Geoffrey Hartman, and Thomas McFarland have investigated Romantic texts with admirable thoroughness. In the process, readers and critics alike have discovered that these poems are more personal than those of earlier periods, that they must be read in the context of other works by the same author. The poems of William Wordsworth (1770-1850) and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) are cases in point. Each man’s poems seem to be not the crafted and separate works of art of an earlier generation, but fragments of a master-poem, the emanations from a single mind.
To read Wordsworth and Coleridge well, one must know about their lives. Luckily, biographical materials are available in abundance. Richard Holmes’s two volumes on Coleridge are standard (Coleridge: Early Visions, 1989; Coleridge: Darker Reflections, 1998), and Molly Lefebure has written about that poet’s opium addiction (Samuel Taylor Coleridge: A Bondage of Opium, 1974). Wordsworth’s life (or great portions of it) has been the subject of massive biographies by Mary Moorman (William Wordsworth: Early Years, 1957; William Wordsworth: The Later Years, 1965), Stephen Gill (William Wordsworth: A Life, 1989), Kenneth Johnston (The Hidden Wordsworth, 1998), and Juliet Barker (Wordsworth: A Life, 2000).
Wordsworth and Coleridge first met in 1795. Their close friendship lasted about fifteen years. They lived near each other for much of this time and brought out one of the most famous books in the English language, Lyrical Ballads (1798), as a joint venture. The conventions of biography, however, have meant that the lives of these two men have usually been treated separately.
In The Gang, John Worthen notes that biographers of Coleridge usually attack Wordsworth for being ungenerous and disloyal. On the other hand, biographers of Wordsworth portray Coleridge as a charming but childish drunk and addict, a man increasingly impossible to tolerate. A fair treatment is needed. Worthen goes beyond this obvious point, however. He maintains that what is needed is a joint biography, not only of the two poets, but of Dorothy Wordsworth, John Wordsworth, and the two Hutchinson sisters, Mary and Sara, who were loved by Wordsworth and Coleridge, respectively. (John Wordsworth figures in this story only briefly.) They formed a close-knit group or family (the “gang” of the title) who lived together off and on and who were engaged in the family or gang business of living well and making poetry. The amount of evidence available would make a full study of all of these lives too daunting a task and too massive a book. Worthen wisely narrows his scope. The Gang tells the story of how the group worked in the crucial year of 1802, with a few flashbacks and flash-forwards. The title of Worthen’s book may seem too catchy, but Coleridge did refer to Wordsworth as “The head of the Gang” in that year.
The year was eventful. Coleridge’s opium addiction was becoming acute, and he decided that he could not live with his wife, but he was rejected by Sara Hutchinson, the woman he loved; his “Dejection: An Ode” was addressed to her in an early version. As Wordsworth prepared to marry Mary Hutchinson, he was also trying to preserve his close relation with his sister Dorothy. He was writing short, happy poems, as well as “Resolution and Independence” and early versions of the Intimations ode. The Wordsworths’ financial future improved when large debts owed their father’s estate were promised to be paid. In August, William and Dorothy traveled to Calais, France, to see Annette Vallon, the mother of his ten-year-old daughter Caroline. Then the two Wordsworths journeyed to Yorkshire, where William married Mary Hutchinson in October.
Worthen’s central theme is that for the five years through 1802, the Gang lived a communal life, chiefly at Dove Cottage at Grasmere, Cumbria. This life was made up of hard work (William and Dorothy were both gardeners), close observation of nature, exercise (mainly walking and climbing the fells near Grasmere), reading, and poetry. Composing poetry was the job of Wordsworth and Coleridge. Dorothy’s job, especially in 1798-1799, was to keep a journal of observations that would be read by the poets and used by them in their poems, and her later journals were intended to be read by all the others. Worthen’s account shows how important Dorothy was to the whole enterprise without exaggerating her contribution. John Wordsworth’s job was apparently to make money for them all by...
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