Adam Sisman
The Friendship: Wordsworth and Coleridge.
Viking, 480 pages, $27.95

Writers, craving praise and hating criticism, are unusually contentious. Their personal quarrels, which spill into print, are notorious: Pope and Colley Cibber, Johnson and Lord Chesterfield, Ruskin and Whistler, Wells and Henry James, Wilson and Nabokov. These bitter fights are balanced by many warm, stimulating friendships: Pope and Swift, Johnson and Boswell, Byron and Shelley, Frost and Edward Thomas, Owen and Sassoon. Adam Sisman’s book focuses on the apparently ideal six years of friendship (1797–1803), first in Somerset and then in the Lake District, of Wordsworth and Coleridge. Ultimately their poetic alliance bred rivalry and tension, and erupted in a destructive quarrel.

Before their meeting, Coleridge had enlisted in the dragoons under the pseudonym S. T. Comberbache; four disastrous months later he was discharged as “insane.” Wordsworth had had an affair with Annette Vallon in Orléans and Blois. He left France before the birth of their daughter and did not see the child until she was nine, when he returned, during a break in the Napoleonic wars, in 1802. Both young poets had seen revolutionary France as the hope of mankind, but became intensely disillusioned by the reign of terror and the subsequent imperial rule of Napoleon. Coleridge, who’d called for revolutionary reforms in England, no longer blew “his squeaking baby-trumpet of sedition.” But an English policeman, sent to spy on him, overheard the poet talking about Spinoza and assumed that Coleridge was referring to him as “Spy Nozy.”

Wordsworth’s sister and intimate companion Dorothy described Coleridge at their first meeting as “pale and thin, with a wide mouth, thick lips, and not very good teeth, longish loose-growing half-curling rough black hair.” But his conversation, though not always comprehensible, was dazzling. His biographer Richard Holmes noted the contrast between the poets:

Coleridge was fleshy, rumbustious, excitable, overflowing with talk and animal sympathies; while Wordsworth was tall, bony, taciturn, and powerfully self-sufficient.

Both poets came from middle-class backgrounds and, after the premature deaths of their fathers, had suffered financial misfortunes. Both were promising students at school and at Cambridge, but had so far failed to fulfill their promise. Coleridge was then twenty-four, Wordsworth twenty-seven; Coleridge was religious, Wordsworth vaguely pantheistic; Coleridge was already recognized as a poet and radical polemicist, Wordsworth was still unknown. Yet Coleridge idolized his friend and felt quite inferior to him. He encouraged, influenced, and admired Wordsworth’s work; Wordsworth supported Coleridge emotionally and confirmed his genius. Both experienced the sheer joy of meeting a kindred soul who fulfilled their expectations. They immediately formed an emotional, intellectual, and poetic collaboration, improving each other’s work by adding new and perfectly seamless lines.

The poets were congenial spirits, isolated and unrecognized, with no careers, incomes, or homes. Their friendship was marked by restless movement and frequent changes of damp, drafty cottages. But at the end of the eighteenth century the pristine rural scenery—with no factories, highways, or mechanical transportation—had clear birdsong, glistening streams, and bright stars. Coleridge talked about forming a utopian community on the banks of the Susquehanna, supposedly filled with bison and safe from Indians, because he liked the sound of the name. But they settled for long rambles on foot in the wilder parts of Scotland, Cumberland, and Wales, and for a year in Germany—though they parted soon after arriving. Coleridge, living near Hamburg, learned German and wrote no poems. Wordsworth, in the medieval town of Goslar, neglected the language but, with no books to read, wrote the superb Lucy poems in “self-defence.”

Their friendship was complicated and disturbed by the women in their lives. Dorothy Wordsworth was intellectually superior to Coleridge’s wife, Sara, who could neither appreciate nor understand her husband’s genius, and Dorothy felt contempt for “the lightest weakest silliest woman!” Sara was left behind to care for the children during Coleridge’s lengthy visits to the Wordsworths, and he was in Germany when their young son died. Sara, excluded even when they were all together, was especially hurt when, after a long unladylike walk in the rain, Dorothy, without asking permission, helped herself to dry clothes from Sara’s wardrobe.

After marrying Sara, the sister of Robert Southey’s wife, Coleridge fell in love with Sara Hutchinson, the sister of Wordsworth’s wife. Sisman doesn’t mention that these connections strengthened the men’s intimacy. Coleridge was torn between the two Saras, Wordsworth between his sister and his wife. Wordsworth’s happy marriage contrasted to Coleridge’s miserable relations with his disappointed and grief-stricken wife. Coleridge was understandably irritated by the sight of Wordsworth surrounded by three adoring women—his sister, his wife, and Coleridge’s beloved but unobtainable Sara—who catered to his every wish.

Before these varied entanglements, the poets collaborated on the innovative Lyrical Ballads (1798), which Wordsworth said was meant to express the deep feelings of ordinary men. As they wrote and exchanged poems, Coleridge sent his “To a Nightingale” with a light-hearted request, written in doggerel: “And like an honest bard, dear Wordsworth/ You’ll tell me what you think my Bird’s worth.” The first edition of this book had seventeen poems by Wordsworth and four, including the long “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” by Coleridge. Their style was a radical departure from traditional poetic diction. The critical reception was so hostile that they realized they’d have to create a new audience for poetry written in “the real language of men.” When the original publisher sold the copyright to Longmans, it was reckoned as worth “nothing.”

Troubles started with the second edition in 1801. Wordsworth suddenly shifted from wanting the book to seem entirely by Coleridge to claiming that it was entirely by himself. He first planned to include, as raison d’être for the new edition, the complete version of Coleridge’s “Christabel.” When Coleridge failed to finish the poem, partly because he couldn’t face its sexual implications, Wordsworth dropped it from the book. Coleridge felt betrayed and devastated by the rejection. Passively accepting Wordsworth’s decision yet retaining admiration for his work, he said that his sometime friend, by showing him “what true Poetry was, made him know that he himself was no Poet.”

The friendship cooled and the wound continued to fester. In May 1808, during another emotional crisis with Sara Hutchinson, Coleridge sent Wordsworth a furious letter. Sisman writes that he unleashed “the resentments that he had restrained for so long… . He accused the Wordsworths of cruelty in attempting to persuade [Sara Hutchinson] that she was the cause of his unhappiness, and suggested that her letters to him had been written under their supervision.” The rupture came soon afterwards through the provocation of a third person. Wordsworth had warned Coleridge’s host, Basil Montagu, that Coleridge was “a rotten drunkard, rotting out his entrails by intemperance and in the habit of running into debt at little Pot-houses for Gin.” When host and guest got into a dispute about opening a bottle of wine, Montagu, a teetotaler, blurted out what Wordsworth had said.

Sisman, using only printed sources, tells the familiar story in an engaging way, placing the poets in the landscape and describing their emotional dynamics. But he pads it with too much potted history of the French Revolution and its influence in England, and doesn’t shift into high gear till the poets’ first significant meeting on page 176—more than a third of the way into the book. He tends to quote the poetry as if it were straight autobiography, instead of analyzing the art and the meaning, and offers the most simplistic comments. “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison” is “full of characteristic verbal inventiveness”; “Kubla Khan”—strongly influenced by the opening chapter of Johnson’s Rasselas—“stands for itself: beautiful, sensuous and enigmatic”; “Michael” evokes “the sturdy qualities of sheep farmers”; The Prelude, or Growth of a Poet’s Mind “traces the growth of his mind.”

Sisman doesn’t mention a number of crucial points. Coleridge’s friendship, quarrel, and weak reconciliation with the poet Robert Southey foreshadowed his quarrel with Wordsworth. It seems likely that Wordsworth, deliberately or subconsciously, set out to destroy his poetic rival. He needed Coleridge as stimulant and adviser, not as competitor, and made certain that as he ascended, Coleridge declined. Coleridge, an opium addict for most of his adult life, had become a nervous wreck, given to tears and tormented by nightmares. When he returned after two years in Malta in 1806, he seemed bloated and middle-aged, distant and listless. His prose, which had always tended toward the mystical and the abstruse, became nearly unintelligible. His long-awaited tragedy Osorio was rejected for the stage because of the obscurity of the last three acts, which may have been all the acts it had. His disastrous translation of Schiller’s tragedy Wallenstein was sold for waste paper and became, Coleridge wrote, “winding-sheets for pilchards.” One issue of his periodical The Friend—started at the conclusion of their friendship—ended (like Finnegans Wake) in the middle of a sentence.

Southey described Coleridge’s fate by quoting Hamlet: “what a noble mind is here o’erthrown.” After the Lyrical Ballads, Coleridge began to turn away from poetry; Wordsworth continued to write bad poetry for what seemed like forever. Their tragedy was darker and more diabolical than Sisman suggests. As Coleridge wrote bitterly of Wordsworth on one of his manuscripts: “would that I had known only his works.”