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.