Is there an English major who hasn’t thrilled to the story of what is undoubtedly the most famous literary friendship in English letters? The account of two young poets plotting “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” in order to raise five pounds for a walking tour, while rambling over the Quantock hills, is the very stuff of Romanticism. Add to this the tale of William with his sister Dorothy (“his eyes,” the poet called her) visiting the valley of the Wye, creating in his head all 159 of the “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey” while they walked—not writing them down for a week—and you have literary magic.
While I was teaching in London, a student of mine from Wisconsin, after reading “Tintern Abbey,” impulsively rented a car and spent the weekend alone in its “wild secluded scene.” His strong reaction is hardly unique, and may remind us of Charles Lamb’s moving in a “trance” for a week after hearing Coleridge’s hypnotic “Rime.”
Adam Sisman has taken upon himself to retell in depth the story of this fascinating friendship—without partisanship, as he declares in his introduction. Here he refers to the tendency of biographers to favor one poet over the other, given the bitterness that followed their unfortunate quarrel. I believe he succeeds in this attempt by focusing on the early and best years of their friendship.
These two young men of undoubted genius, when their friendship first began, were about to be the authors of the Lyrical Ballads—a book which, after many years and much abuse by the reigning critics, would change the direction of English poetry and the way we see the world. Sisman has fleshed out their unique friendship in exquisite detail, thoroughly consulting recent scholarship and primary sources and giving us an almost daily or weekly account of their halcyon days.
The two poets are surrounded by other friends, and Sisman finds much in their correspondence to add to the letters and notebooks left by the principals. He digs even to a third level, examining the letters of friends of friends, where these pertain to his subject. (Indeed, my only complaint about the book is that two-fifths pass before the friendship truly begins, so thoroughly does Sisman set the stage for it.) He gives this story the drama and interest of a novel, partly by moving back and forth between the two poets, especially during the seven years before the friendship actually begins. This technique creates an inevitability about the two coming together at just the right time—when their powers had matured—in the annus mirabilis, 1797-98.
In the years leading up to their meeting, Coleridge was active in many ventures, such as his ill-fated journal The Watchman, and had completed two collections of poetry. His brilliance was apparent to all, and his spell-binding conversation attracted the likes of Charles Lamb, William Hazlitt, and Thomas De Quincy. On the other hand, Wordsworth from 1790 to 1797 had no occupation but his poetry, and he and his sister seemed to live largely by the assistance of relatives and friends. Both poets were initially enthusiastic about the French Revolution: “Bliss was it that dawn to be alive / But to be young was very heaven.” Wordsworth actually spent time in France, where he met Annette Vallon and had a child with her before war separated them for ten years. While in Paris he observed part of Robespierre’s Reign of Terror. … more>>