Swans Commentary » swans.com June 18, 2007  



Adam Sisman's The Friendship: Wordsworth & Coleridge


by Charles Marowitz


A Book Review



Sisman, Adam: The Friendship: Wordsworth & Coleridge, Viking, 2007, ISBN 978-0670-03822-0, 480 pages.


(Swans - June 18, 2007)   In chronicling the thirty-three year relationship between Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth, biographer Adam Sisman has virtually diagnosed the very nature of friendship itself from inception to evolution, subversion and ultimate dissolution. A similar process seems to repeat itself over and over again, particularly among artistic collaborators, be they Rimbaud and Verlaine, Gilbert and Sullivan, Fitzgerald and Hemingway, Rodgers and Hart, etc. Friendship becomes the solid terrain from which astonishing creativity ensues from both parties, then it wanes, is put under strain, and ultimately severs.

What is crystal clear from Adam Sisman's double-bio "The Friendship" is there may never have been a William Wordsworth if there hadn't have been a Samuel Taylor Coleridge. He (Coleridge) was not only a mentor, a one-man cheering section and an attendant muse to his friend, he was also a canny editor, a ubiquitous critic, and a constant source of inspiration. The line delineating the creative interplay between these poets in the earliest years of their collaboration is constantly blurred. Wordsworth provided stanzas for "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" and Coleridge suggested both lines and outlines for many of Wordsworth's earliest poems. It was Coleridge, for instance, who suggested Wordsworth add a preface to the second edition of "Lyrical Ballads" and Wordsworth subsequently admitted it was only due to his friend's urging that it came be written. The 1802 Preface is perhaps one of the most incisive analyses of what poetry is ("emotion recollected in tranquility, "the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings" etc. etc.) as well as what Wordsworth was trying to accomplish with his own verse. It is sobering to think that had not Wordsworth acquiesced to his friend's exhortation, it might never have existed.

Coleridge had already established himself as a rising poet and dazzling intellectual when Wordsworth had no recognition at all as a poet -- except to those members of Coleridge's circle that he brought to their attention. At the start, an early rapture with the French Revolution and an obsessive love of nature united these two very disparate men. Treks through the north of England, particularly the Lake District, and mind-boggling perambulations of some 40 or 50 miles emerge like miraculous feats of endurance when one considers the distances covered and the absence of anything resembling public transportation. These were blissful journeys through God's green acres and they inspired in both writers, a sense of wonder and spirituality. In Coleridge's case, it was all part and parcel of his Christian belief. In Wordsworth, it was more of a secular enchantment with Nature's intoxicating diversity and how it prodded the poet's philosophical speculation.

The union between the two men was so productive, amiable, and inspiring, it almost breaks one's heart to read of emerging rifts that begin to draw them apart. Before long, Coleridge's incessant promotion of Wordsworth begins to pay off and by the early l800s, with the publication of Wordsworth's poetry and the creation of a growing coterie, the balance between them begins to get precariously upset. Coleridge, by this time, is deep into his laudanum-haze and Wordsworth's reputation, despite a few stinging critiques, has begun to establish itself.

In the swinging 1960s, Coleridge, along with Antonin Artaud and Aldous Huxley, became something of a patron saint among the Hippies. While many notable poets and musicians were getting deeper and deeper into drugs and the "square" society was becoming less and less tolerant of them, these artists could point to remarkable works such as "Kubla Khan," "The Doors of Perception," and virtually all of Artaud's opium-inspired poetry as justification for "turning on." In Coleridge's case, drug addiction set off an avalanche of physical and mental deterioration that virtually robbed him of his ability to write at all. "Biographia Literaria," a dense prose work of critical analysis, somewhat salvaged his reputation but by that time Coleridge was giving a kind of Wildean-styled performance of the Great Sage, regularly trotted out by admiring sycophants rather than fulfilling the promise that had been prophesied when he was in his 20s and 30s.

Wordsworth developed into something of an egotistical prig, his early revolutionary ardor now transformed into a complacent and self-adulating conservatism. It was almost as if both men's disenchantment with the French Revolution had sapped all the idealistic passion that had once bubbled in both their bloodstreams. It is depressing to think of Wordsworth reduced to taking on a civil service position as "Distributor of Stamps for Westmoreland and the Penrith District of Cumberland" and Coleridge being wined and dined in Highgate, spreading wit and wisdom as a way of securing a hot meal.

Sisman's book treads a double path, switching between one writer and the other, eventually meeting at a crossroad where the two friends begin a positive and mutually satisfying poetic collaboration. Throughout those blessed days. Wordsworth's sister Dorothy acts as a kind of axle keeping the spinning wheels of both firmly in place. As staunchly loyal she was throughout the years of Wordsworth's hardships, her brother's marriage to Mary Hutchinson in l802 was a great wrench in Dorothy's life. For fifteen years she had been the poet's copyist, advocate, housemaid, and surrogate wife -- not to mention her loyalty and affection for Coleridge throughout that period when all three were absorbed in an inspiring common pursuit.

Although Coleridge emerges as the more enigmatic and tumultuous figure throughout, one's admiration for his talents -- both the verbal and the literary -- are somewhat diminished by the fact that he virtually abandoned his wife Sara for long periods while he was cavorting with both William and Dorothy, causing her deep grief by openly preferring the company of others to that of his own family. His thwarted love affair with Sara Hutchinson is an ongoing and pathetic motif in his life, which makes one think of D.H. Lawrence's phrase about "sex in the head." Asra, as she was christened by Coleridge, was always something of a figment of Coleridge's imagination and one almost feels he preferred her to be a "concept" rather than a flesh-and-blood mistress or wife. In this way, she could serve the function of a muse and, being unearthly, prevent him from falling into the molehills of the mundane. It was a fantasy preferable to the wretched life he led with his mismatched wife Sara Fricker. To his friend Tom Wedgewood, he wrote:

If any woman wanted an exact & copious Recipe, How to make a Husband completely miserable, I could furnish her with one.... Ill tempered speeches sent after me when I went out of the House, ill-tempered speeches on my return, my friends received with freezing looks, the least opposition or contradiction occasioning screams of passion....all this added to the utter negation of all which a husband expects from a wife -- especially living in retirement -- & the consciousness, that I was myself growing a worse man. O dear sir! No one can tell what I have suffered.

I doubt that even a Doctor Phil could have mitigated his misery.

As to his complex and contradictory nature, perhaps the best thumbnail description of Coleridge was the one he composed himself when, recollecting his past; he wrote:

...I became a dreamer -- and acquired an indisposition to all bodily activity -- and I was fretful, and inordinately passionate and as I could not play at any thing, and was slothful, I was despised & hated by the boys; and because I could read & spell & had, I may truly say, a memory & understanding forced into almost unnatural ripeness, I was flattered & wondered at by all the old women -- & so I became very vain and despised by most of the boys, that were all near my own age -- and before I was eight years old, I was a character...

Coleridge remained "a character" throughout his life and, after his death, defied the efforts of biographers to determine whether he had been a hack journalist, an articulate windbag, a profound mystic, a stunted poet, or one of the most dominant influences in l8th century literature. No question that beside Wordsworth, Coleridge, with his opium addiction, alcoholism, frustrated love life, and transcendental turn-of-mind, is unquestionably the more fascinating character -- as are all artists who combine flashes of genius with flickerings of obscurity.

Wordsworth was far more firmly planted. But there is some irony in the fact that, although his passionate goal was to divest poetry of its grandiosity and to have it speak with simplicity about real people in real situations, in fact he produced some of its most metaphysical imagery. His great gift was, after experiencing nature, being able to describe, not what he had seen but how those visions were transmuted in his mind. He had a natural, symbiotic link between the Natural World and the Philosophical Insight, which invested the former with deeper meaning. He was the Poet of the Intangible, and the greatest poets are those that give voice to those spectral voices that are constantly communicating with our innermost selves, those fleeting realizations which we haven't the cognitive tools to pin down. It is in effect a subliminal language that occasionally breaks through the incessant din of the commonplace putting us in touch with truths we intuit but haven't the power to articulate. Poets like Wordsworth inhabit a kind of magical cyberspace that very few computers can download. That's why, though we may admire writers of prose, we revere poets.

"The Friends," despite an overemphasis on country rambles and a tendency to substitute bald diary entries for relevant interpretation, is a riveting read. It is, as I have suggested, as much a treatise on the chemistry of male bonding as it is a joint biography of two great English poets, but in this case, that is a strength, not a weakness. It is also something of an object lesson on the vagaries and pitfalls of intense intimacy. One closes the book thinking: if kindred spirits such as Coleridge and Wordsworth could not sustain a harmonious relationship, what future is there for any of us?


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About the Author

Charles Marowitz on Swans (with bio).



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Published June 18, 2007