The title of Adam Sisman's new book about Wordsworth and Coleridge might seem, to the impatient reader, just a touch misleading: the two poets only meet about a quarter of the way in, and the first 100 or so pages are devoted to a surfeit of scene setting (too much detail, for example, on the French Revolution) and fruitless speculation. Two and a half pages lament the lack of evidence to support the attractive, but unlikely, notion that Wordsworth might have returned to France during the dangerous autumn of 1793, when two sentences would have sufficed. For a while, the friendship in question might be thought to revolve around the naïve and wildly unrealistic vision Coleridge cooked up with Robert Southey, as they dreamed of creating, on the banks of the Susquehanna, a utopia in which wealth was shared equally and everyone (even women) had a voice in government.
When they do finally come together, Wordsworth and Coleridge recognise in each other a sounding board, a potential collaborator and the unmistakable glimmer of a shared need for the kind of friendship that only the true outsider - both were semi-orphans, with duties of gratitude and a burden of expectation that sat heavy on their young shoulders - could offer. Coleridge had just endured a painful break with Southey. "Friend is a very sacred appellation - You were become an Acquaintance, yet one for whom I felt no common tenderness," Coleridge wrote in a farewell letter. "You have left a large Void in my Heart - I know no man big enough to fill it."
Wordsworth was too poor to maintain the idyll he had briefly enjoyed with his sister Dorothy in Cumbria, and had no prospects to speak of other than charity and a vague scheme to "write for the newspapers". Also, both were desperate about the political situation: the French Revolution, which had inspired artists and intellectuals across Europe, had slid into the final horrifying stages of the Terror, and was about to be hijacked by a new imperialism, while the British authorities were using terror abroad, and the threat of terror at home, to curb already limited liberties. Dreams of a colonial utopia had been abandoned, in the natural course of maturation: now the vision would have to be set down in words, in a new kind of poetry and a new way of thinking.
Once Sisman gets into it, he does something remarkable with his account of the friendship between these two passionate, essentially solitary and often stubbornly self-willed poets. As he points out, quoting Edmund Blunden, people tend to "like Wordsworth and hate Coleridge and vice versa"; in The Friendship, however, he aims "to escape from this biographical impasse, by concentrating on the friendship itself, at its most intense".
This he does with an admirable sense of balance. He does not play favourites, but stands on the sideline and observes, giving each poet his due (which sometimes means enough rope to hang himself). He neither favours, nor downplays - and this, in itself, is an achievement.
Nevertheless, one cannot help growing more and more irritated by Wordsworth, fast becoming the chief Grumpy Old Man of his day. He "makes it obvious that he regarded the Lyrical Ballads as his own work", and expected "to receive the entire thirty guineas agreed for the volume, rather than sharing it with Coleridge", while sympathising with Southey, who writes of his former friend that "when he is gone, as go he will, nobody will believe what a mind goes with him - how infinitely and ten-thousand-fold the mightiest of his generation".
Many readers will come to this book with the predisposition that Blunden notes. In spite of Sisman's efforts, I cannot help feeling that more than a few will end up agreeing with Wordsworth's own, somewhat belated conclusion, that Coleridge was "the most wonderful man that he had ever known".
John Burnside's 'A Lie about My Father' is published by CapeReuse content