The Friendship: Wordsworth and Coleridge by Adam Sisman

'We poets in our youth begin in gladness...'
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The Independent Culture

A predilection for one Romantic poet often entails disapproval for the others in the set. If you worship Byron, you despise Keats. If you admire Shelley, you distrust Byron. Keatsians remain aloof from from both the saturnine lordling and the gentleman sailing fanatic. The antagonism is especially marked in the case of Wordsworth and Coleridge.

The Romantics wrote complicated poems and led complicated emotional lives, and it can be difficult not to take sides in their constant storms and dramas. The pairing of Wordsworth and Coleridge was particularly enduring and fruitful, even if it was ultimately ruinous. Their story has been told many times before, most recently and fully in Juliet Barker's compendious biography of Wordsworth, and Richard Holmes's magisterial two-volume study of Coleridge. So intertwined were the two men's early lives that any biography of either one in effect becomes a dual biography. Yet there is inevitably a bias one way or the other. Adam Sisman brings a scrupulous disinterest to his task. Whenever you sense a preference for warm STC over chilly William, or for that matter for sensible, hard-working Wordsworth over feckless, lazy Coleridge, within a few pages, the balance is readjusted.

Sisman's previous book, Boswell's Presumptuous Task, also dealt with literary friendship and the genesis of a masterpiece, The Life of Samuel Johnson. Here, he tackles the complex publishing history of the Lyrical Ballads, which first appeared in 1798. Startlingly original in conception and prefaced by a manifesto which kickstarted the Romantic movement, this was one of the most influential collections of poetry ever to be published in English. Coleridge's outstanding contribution was "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner". Yet, as the collection was revised and revised again for new editions, first Coleridge's name was expunged, then his poems were removed. When "Christabel", unfinished but astonishingly powerful, was rejected for the second edition, Coleridge put on a brave face, but his confidence was shattered for good. As Sisman explains, circulated in manuscript, "Christabel" was to have a profound effect on the younger Romantics - its climax provoked Shelley to a screaming fit - but it was not published until 1815, by then a mere literary curiosity.

Sisman makes what could have been a dry, bibliographical account into a gripping drama of co-dependents. He plots their extraordinary mental closeness attentively, and notes how alarming Wordsworth's overbearing influence was to friends of the younger poet. Coleridge manifested his genius early yet, to general perplexity, he insisted that Wordsworth, as yet unpublished, was vastly the greater talent. This habit of submissiveness hatched into poignant self-doubt: having forsaken poetry, the author of "Frost at Midnight" told a friend that he had become "convinced that I never had the essentials of poetic Genius, and that I mistook a strong desire for original power."

But just when the reader becomes indignant on Coleridge's behalf, Sisman quotes from the many generous tributes Wordsworth paid his friend in verse. As Coleridge closed up his soul from his former bosom friend, Wordsworth lamented in watery imagery: "Your love hath been, not long ago, / A fountain at my fond heart's door, / Whose only business was to flow," he complained. Now that same love had become "a comfortless and hidden well". "A well of love - it may be deep," he went on, but "what matter... Such change, and at the very door / of my fond heart, hath made me poor." After Coleridge's death in 1834, despite their long estrangement, he was to write movingly: "Nor has the rolling year twice measured, / from sign to sign, its steadfast course, / Since every mortal power of Coleridge / Was frozen at its marvellous source."

Sexual jealousy played its part in their cooling off. Coleridge's marriage, to Southey's sister-in-law, had not been a love match and it deteriorated fast. Wordsworth in contrast was surrounded by adoring women, one of them, humiliatingly, Coleridge's beloved Sara Hutchinson. Wordsworth might have had no use for Coleridge's poems, but he depended on his criticism, and Southey, for one, was exceedingly cynical about the relationship: "[Wordsworth] can get Coleridge to talk over his own writings with him and critise [sic] them, and (without amending them) teach him how to do it - to be in fact the very rain and air and sunshine of his intellect, he thinks C is very well employed and this arrangement a very good one."

Coleridge turned to opium and his notebooks for solace. It was a far cry from the heroic days of vigorous, healthful exercise - he once covered 283 miles on foot in eight days - and fruitful poetic intercourse. The final rift came when another friend told Coleridge that Wordsworth considered him a "rotten drunkard", forever running up debts at "little Pot Houses for gin". The intimate friendship was in ruins.

Though Coleridge is famous as an author of unfinishable fragments, Sisman uses Wordsworth's failure to complete his epic poem "The Recluse" to round off this fascinating book. It was the project that would ultimately have justified Coleridge's ardent faith in him, and he failed the test.

I'll give the epigraph to Coleridge, from "Christabel": "To be wroth with one we love / doth work like madness in the brain."