Au Revoir Not Adieu

Doesn’t it get light early at the moment? I woke just before the dawn, which broke at about half past four, astonishingly, and found myself thinking about this post and how to write it. I’ve decided to take an extended blogging break, probably until the end of summer, and it wasn’t at all an easy decision to come to. Primarily, I’m doing this because I would very much like to finish the book I am writing by the end of August, and it turns out that books get harder to write, not easier, the further through them you progress. And then there are these radio programmes I’ve mentioned before, which will take up rather a lot of time if they go ahead. I only have so many creative hours in the day and I need a bit of focus and concentration to get these projects done. Much as I dislike, ever, having to accept limitations, something really does have to give.

But I also want a break because the blog is the least rewarding of my creative commitments at present (and that’s something I never thought to hear myself say). For quite some time now, I’ve been less than happy with the way I’ve been writing about books. When I first began blogging, I was very much an academic literary critic and blogging was a joyous holiday from the rigorous discipline of academia, a bending of the rules without losing sight of the clear aims and intentions of university-style critique. Over the years, this has changed, and my approach to books has softened up and broadened out. I blog about almost all the books I read now, rather than the ones that mean something special to me. And I’ve fallen ever further into the pit of reviewing a book in a way that is just an elaboration of my experience-based opinion.

I have a lot of trouble with opinion per se, and I find it hard to be… convinced by my own. Reading is an experience that’s 50% reader, 50% book, and I do think that unless you take into account and possess the 50% that belongs to you – your personal preferences, your mood of the moment, the events currently dominating your life – then you are doing a disservice to the book. And I am very protective of books. They don’t deserve half the projections that readers cast onto them. The reasons I’ve heard stated in the blog world for not liking a book have gone from the insightful and interesting on one end of the spectrum to the extraordinary and ludicrous on the other. To take a very different sort of example, I was reading the comments on a blog about American Idol (my guilty pleasure) and someone had put ‘Thank goodness, one more woman down and only one more to get rid of. I can’t bear women singers.’ And I thought, what, all of them? In a nutshell, that’s everything I dislike about the blanket validity of opinion. No one’s opinion can be wrong, by definition. If it’s what you feel, it’s what you feel. But at the same time no opinion is better or more authoritative than any other, and they tell you much more about the reviewer than what’s up for review. And I don’t necessarily want to be told by someone else what I should think about a book, based on their subjective experience of it – I want to know what it’s like but to be allowed to make up my own mind. Well, there are plenty of people who manage to make writing about their opinions sound entertaining and interesting, but I don’t like my own posts when I go down that route.

When I was writing professionally about books, what fascinated me was what stories can do, the effects they can have. I was hooked by the moment in a book when a visceral reaction took place, when a story could horrify you in a hypnotic way, or melt you in a moment of pure emotional recognition. That was what I liked, what I wanted to dig around in. It always felt like an extraordinary form or power, a very special magic, and I wanted to take the narrative apart to see how it was achieved. But quite how to reconnect with that interest I am not entirely sure, except that I need some time and space just to read without the pressure of squeezing something out of the experience for a blog post, three times a week.

I am completely sure I will return to blogging at some point because it’s given me so much – a chance to express myself in a new way, wonderful virtual friends who have been so supportive and encouraging, and a TBR pile the size of Mount Kilimanjaro. I’ll still be visiting my blogging friends, and you know where I am and can email me if you want to chat! But there is an optimum blogging experience and it isn’t what I’ve having at the moment. If you start to slow down when blogging, your traffic instantly plummets, your network dissipates, it’s really quite discouraging. I catch myself wondering whether people come by for my posts because they like them or because I visit and comment at their site. And I don’t want to have such jaded thoughts; they indicate to me that I’m not enjoying what I’m doing enough that the question of audience size becomes irrelevant. I am immensely grateful to the people who have read and commented here regularly, and it is at least in part for you that I want to take a break. I want to come back with something I absolutely need to say, to experience once again that delightful rush of speaking out to a cherished community and have it respond back, lost in the thrill of communication and the pleasure of sifting through thoughts and ideas.

See you in the autumn, and good reading in the meantime.

(ETA: I’ll be here on 31st May for the Slaves next reading group choice – wouldn’t let them down, so will definitely be around and posting on that day.)

Wordsworth & Coleridge II

[continued from yesterday]

The Wordsworths decided to settle near Coleridge and leased a grand manor house, Alfoxenden in the Quantocks, for a year. The three friends were quickly immersed in long walking tours of the region in which the two men dreamed of composing a joint publication, but their creative differences were soon found to be insurmountable. At first it was Coleridge’s star in the ascendant, as they attempted to share the writing of a supernatural tale about a ghost ship that Coleridge remembered being told by his friend, John Cruikshank. Although Wordsworth added some vital details, not least the knowledge that albatrosses flew around Cape Horn, it became readily apparent that their speeds of composition were ill-matched. Wordsworth later recorded that ‘it would have been quite presumptuous in me to do anything but separate from an undertaking upon which I could only have been a clog.’ Coleridge tore through the tale in about a week, producing ‘The Ancient Mariner’, an epic poem with which English masters would torture schoolchildren in centuries to come. But whilst Coleridge gave the appearance of mercurial creative productivity, he would never again write work of such quality with so much apparent ease. The sense of loving security he experienced with the Wordsworths brought his talent to its peak. But the sparkiness of his mind was only just starting to provoke William Wordsworth into the rich poetic seam he would take many years to mine.

In fact he soon began to catch up with Coleridge’s productivity, writing a series of poems that were intended to honor the everyday and the natural in plain and honest terms, inspired by the beauty of the landscape and by Coleridge’s example of energetic composition. ‘His faculties seem to expand every day,’ Dorothy wrote, ‘he composes with much more facility than he did, as to the mechanism of poetry, and his ideas flow faster than he can express them.’ When the Lyrical Ballads finally came out, collecting Coleridge’s and Wordsworth’s poetry together, Coleridge’s contribution was much less than had been planned. The burst of creativity had ground to a halt and Coleridge had reverted to his default setting, which was to be a bit of a mess. His overly intimate friendship with the Wordsworths seriously annoyed his wife, and then to cap the marital tension, his second son died while he was enjoying himself on an extended trip to Germany. His ever-uncertain health was declining and he had discovered laudanum, a form of opium. In such medically ignorant days its addictive properties were not known, but Coleridge would spend the rest of his life fighting, and never quite managing to overcome, his fierce addiction.

Coleridge’s exuberant, unfettered nature had been what attracted Wordsworth in the first place, but his lack of will power in the face of opium aroused his contempt. As the years went by and Wordsworth built his oeuvre and his reputation, his own sense of moral rectitude, of steadiness and purpose crystallized into a guiding poetic image of the strong, self-reliant mind. It was a vision of humanity that Wordsworth aspired to promote, with himself, as so often the case, the prime example. He had always been the critical one of the pair, the more reserved and more righteous (although Coleridge was quite capable of having a tantrum if the actions of one of his friends went against his own needs and inclinations), and now sneaking self-worth made him arrogant and inclined to be patronizing. Coleridge wrote that ‘My many weaknesses are of some advantage to me; they unite me more with the great mass of my fellow-beings – but dear Wordsworth appears to me to have hurtfully segregated and isolated his being.’

Wordsworth could not claim to be ignorant of the neuroses attendant on artistic sensibilities. He fell ill with monotonous regularity when it was a question of editing his work, and suffered from ‘an aversion from writing’ that he described as ‘little less than madness…during the last three [y]ears I have never had a pen in my hand for five minutes, [b]efore my whole frame becomes one bundle of uneasiness, perspiration starts out all over me, and my chest is [o]ppressed in a manner which I cannot describe.’ Unlike Coleridge, though, who was tortured most of all by solitude, Wordsworth had not only a devoted wife, but also his adoring sister Dorothy to look after him, and the drug of her exquisite sympathy was something he never even tried to do without. If Wordsworth were stronger than Coleridge, he never desired to attribute it to the inequalities in their respective situation.

Coleridge’s behaviour was by no means beyond reproach, however. He threw himself on his friends in his hours of need (which were plentiful), and the readiness with which he acknowledged his own faults was intended to awaken a tolerance to bear them in others. He needed collaborators in his self-pity and saviours in his troubles. It was not that Coleridge was unaware of his failings – in fact he was horribly conscious of them, particularly his ability to procrastinate: ‘I am a Starling, self-incaged and always in the Moult, and my whole Note is, Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow.’ But he wanted his friends to love him for what was not fault in him, or to love him for those very faults he could not abide. Wordsworth, however, had loved Coleridge for inspiring him, and being a man whose intellect he could admire. A drug-addled, self-pitying wastrel was not about to fit into this glowing template.

In the early years of their lengthy friendship, the mutual good outweighed the negative, but by 1810 the Wordsworths were gritting their teeth and writing letters of stern advice. The argument that brought matters to a head arose when Basil Montague, a child in the Wordsworth’s care when they first met Coleridge, offered to house him in London. Wordsworth was feeling drained after prolonged exposure to an unwell Coleridge and suggested to the clean-living Montague that Coleridge was a far from pleasant houseguest; in fact he called him an ‘absolute nuisance’ . Montague repeated the conversation verbatim, and Coleridge reacted with violent outrage and a profound sense of betrayal. ‘No one on earth has ever loved me,’ was his anguished cry. And although the friendship was patched up eventually, Coleridge remained grudging and declared that the feelings he had once had –  ’15 years of such religious, almost superstitious Idolatry and Self-Sacrifice’ – could never be regained.

Coleridge was evidently one of those people who abase themselves excessively in the hope of never having to hear their faults expressed on the lips of others. But as a strategy it was evidently one designed to keep his weaknesses in place. Wordsworth may have been justified in losing patience with him, but it doesn’t seem that he could impose any kind of merciful constraint on his behaviour either, one that would have benefited them both. In the end, what each wanted from the other, and what each was prepared to give, fell short of what was needed to make their relationship grow.

Wordsworth & Coleridge I

I wrote the story of Wordsworth and Coleridge’s friendship a little while back and in the end couldn’t use it for its intended purpose. So I thought I’d break it into two parts and share it on the blog this weekend.  It’s not normal blog fare, so if I can find out how to do it, I’ll disable comments as it’s not the kind of thing that’s easy to comment upon. But you know, it was sitting around doing nothing and so I thought, well, why not?

William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge could so easily have met at university but they missed one another at Cambridge by a couple of years. Had they fallen into each other’s company while studying, the similarities that drew them together would have already been in place, but the intellectual gifts they each used to dazzle the other might have been less apparent. Would this have made them more wary of one another, less passionate in their friendship, more ready for the disappointments that lay ahead? Both had suffered early and violent separation from their large families, and their insecure attachments made both men particularly in need of intimate, reliable others, at the same time as leaving them oversensitive and ambitious. These were qualities that would draw them close together and then force them apart.

In the event, they both had somewhat disastrous university careers. Wordsworth, who matriculated in 1787 went walking over the Alps when he should have been studying, earning himself general dismay and disapproval from his family. His time at St John’s College was undistinguished and he left suspicious of his own worth and apathetic. Coleridge began at Jesus College in 1791 with zeal and industry, only to end up dissipated and horribly in debt. He wrote a confessional letter to his brother in which he admitted:

‘I feel a painful blush on my cheek, while I write it – but even for the University Scholarship, for which I affected to have read so severely, I did not read three days uninterruptedly – for the whole six weeks, that proceeded the examination, I was almost constantly intoxicated!’ (Katharine Cooke, Coleridge, p.14)

In desperate straits for money (and having failed in his first plan to win the Irish lottery), out of control and out of ideas, Coleridge succumbed to a fugue, running away to join the Dragoons under a pseudonym. There he was quickly spotted by an old school acquaintance. His family duly turned up to rescue him although the army made some difficulties about his discharge. This was not because Coleridge was in any way gifted as a dragoon; he was an appalling soldier, although he had made himself appreciated by writing his comrades’ love letters for them. In the end, he was released on the grounds of ‘being Insane’. Coleridge would admit to any form of weakness if it let him off the hook.

Both Wordsworth and Coleridge left Cambridge with a love of literature, and a revolutionary fervor that would only exacerbate their troubles. Wordsworth headed over to France where instead of gaining himself any political glory, he was shocked by the Terror and ended up conceiving an illegitimate child with a woman he subsequently abandoned. Initially, Wordsworth was supposed to be transferring his importunate family to England, but instead he dodged all responsibility and transferred his idealized love to his sister, Dorothy, who alone of all his family still seemed to admire and adore him. Coleridge was having similar difficulties of allegiance. With a Cambridge friend, Robert Southey, he had conceived the idea of a kind of utopia, a commune to be founded in America with a group of friends on the basis of perfect equality and shared work. Pantisocracy was an idea that should have remained the harmless notion of creative but naive young men. Instead, it had the consequence of embroiling Coleridge in marriage to the sister of Southey’s own wife. The marriage had been viewed as an expedient for the group, and briefly, Coleridge’s overheated romantic imagination clung to Sara Fricker as a potential soulmate. But his affections cooled as swiftly as Robert Southey’s interest in America. Nevertheless, Southey held Coleridge to honoring the obligation, even fetching him when he dawdled reluctantly in London, and conveying him to his fiancée and his duty. In this morass of conflicting responsibilities, their friendship fell apart.

So when Wordsworth and Coleridge met, they were sorely in need of cheerleaders, supporters and mentors. Help could only come to them in the form of another person, for neither was particularly gifted in helping himself, and friends, in this era, were in any case an invaluable resource. Friends gave you desperately needed money, even if they didn’t have much themselves (Coleridge’s clubbed together to provide the relatively substantial sum of £35 one year when he was stony broke); they brought up your children (as Dorothy and William would do for young, motherless Basil Montague); they published your writings, and they housed you when you were homeless or, at the least, provided delightful places to stay. When Coleridge hopped over the gate into the Wordsworth’s life in Somerset, they were living rent-free in a house that friends had offered to them. In a few months’ time one of Coleridge’s great friends, Tom Poole, would arrange generous patronage for him from Thomas and Josiah Wedgewood, suppliers of a £150 annuity for life, no strings attached. Friends, in a time before welfare states, business corporations and lengthy life expectancy, were the equivalent of guardian angels. Wordsworth and Coleridge were both notably evangelical about friendship, but if their hearts were large, their standards were high. When chance brought them together, it was at once a moment of mutual recognition and the answer to deep, unmet psychological longings on both sides. The amount of energy they subsequently rushed to sink into each other’s lives was disquieting.

‘Wordsworth is a very great man,’ Coleridge wrote, ‘the only man, to whom at all times and in all modes of excellence I feel myself inferior.’ (Wilson, 76). Coleridge was ‘the most wonderful man I ever knew’ (Mayberry, 80), Wordsworth said. To hear him talk was to be in the presence of ‘a majestic river, the sound or sight of whose course you caught at intervals, which was sometimes concealed by forests, sometimes lost in the sand, then came flashing out broad and distinct, then again took a turn which your eye could not follow, yet you knew and felt it was the same river….’ (Wilson, 75) This is a far kinder tribute to Coleridge’s notorious volubility than the one given him by Keats. ‘I heard his voice as he came towards me – I heard it as he moved away – I heard it all the interval’, he said of him. But Coleridge’s value was in that endless stream of ideas and thoughts; his learning was broad, his wit sharp. He was one of the few people who could make Wordsworth laugh, and he readily and generously shared his deep philosophical knowledge and theoretical insight. In his bouncy, sparky, vibrant personality Coleridge essentially played Tigger to Wordsworth’s Eeyore, bringing him out of himself and firing him up creatively. And in response, Wordsworth, with his much stronger sense of vocation as a poet, his self-discipline and his loving sister (who took to Coleridge immediately) offered Coleridge a stable, loving, family environment, an attachment to ground his feckless dissipation, and an anchor for his brilliance. Their relationship was grounded in similarities that had produced notable and complementary differences in their characters. It should have been the perfect relationship.

And to begin with, it was.