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.


14 thoughts on “Wordsworth & Coleridge II

  1. For some reason I can’t leave comments on the other post, but these posts are so interesting! It sounds like I need to read more about Coleridge – he sounds like he’d be a maddening person to know, but a great person to read about. And as well, I like his poetry far better than Wordsworth’s. I do not care for Wordsworth’s poetry and he sounds like he’d annoy me as a person too.

  2. For what was this piece of writing originally intended, I wonder? I’m glad we’re the beneficiaries, anyway – it makes for a riveting insight into a complicated relationship between two gifted men.

  3. Jenny and Di – thank you so much for being so nice! I’d grown very critical of this piece of writing (and generally despairing of ever writing anything decent and biographical). It was intended for the book I’m writing which is all about the process of learning and centered on Cambridge University. The chapter I was writing was about friendship, and how it helped and hindered. In the end this didn’t fit in and I wasn’t so happy with it anyway. Thank you for making me feel better about it!

    I disabled comments on the end of the first section, because you know how it is: you’ve come to an end of a post and it can be confusing then to realise it’s only the halfway point. And Jenny, I quite agree that Coleridge is the more appealing of the two. He may have been fatally flawed, but you can’t quite help but like him.

  4. I really enjoyed these two posts. I prefer Coleridge to Wordsworth too. There is something to Wordsworth’s idea of emotion recollected in tranquility that serves to take all the oomph out of things. I think it is Colerdige’s passion that I find so much more appealing.

  5. I’m glad I waited to read your posts–the first was left as a bit of a cliffhanger. Sadly I’m not familiar with either men (though I remember reading The Ancient Mariner in high school), but they sound like high maintenance sorts of guys, but intriguing nonetheless. I don’t suppose you’ve written anything about Tolstoy like this by any chance? 🙂

  6. You’re so funny, LL!! We wouldn’t be nice for the sake of it – surely you know by now that everyone respects your writing and insight far too much for that. Ditto everyone’s preference for Coleridge. Wordsworth’s work always seems so concentrated around the latter half of his name, in my opinion: a bit too worthy for my tastes.

  7. Oh my gosh. We had to study The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (I think I was still in grade school – maybe 8th?) in school. I was tormented with nightmares about it afterward for months and months. I can’t tell you what about it frightened me so much, but it did. I think part of it was the scary illustration in the book of the albatross hanging around the mariner’s neck. It gives me shivers just thinking about it. (But your post is lovely, as always).

  8. Fascinating comments. I think it shows how times have changed that Wordsworth is less attractive than Coleridge. Current tastes are not in the former’s favour, much less to our tastes than the drug-taking Coleridge with his problems and confusions. However, the young Wordsworth who visited France around the time of the revolution and fathered an illegitimate child while there has been eclipsed by the worthy Wordsworth image of his later life. A lot results from that later persona, which distorts his current reception.

  9. I also enjoyed both of these posts. Very interesing. I have a copy of Wordsworth’s work from the Folio Society I’ve been meaning to get into, and it’s now been bumped up the TBR list a bit 🙂

  10. Stefanie – I was surprised by the book of criticism I read on Coleridge that was almost apologising for taking him so seriously when his long-term reputation seems so bad. And yet, reading about them, I did find my sympathies going in his direction. His fascination for recording his experienced and analysing them as they happened was the kick-start for romanticism, but for so much else besides – probably it’s the track that has blogging at the end of it. Coleridge would have loved to blog!

    Danielle – lol! High maintenance guys is just the perfect description of what they were! I love it. Alas, I know very little about Tolstoy but now you’ve made me curious….

    Doctordi – ha! yes, worthy Wordsworthy indeed. And thank you for the kind words – they mean a lot to me.

    Grad – I never had to do it at school, but Mister Litlove did and he loathed it because he found it so boring! I admire your aesthetic sensibilities; they were clearly honed from an early age. 🙂

    Bookboxed – yes, that’s very interesting. All the books I read about Wordsworth talked about that early, poor start, but it was just a mention, as he strode on through his life to bigger and better things. It was understood to be the reason he attached himself so to Dorothy, but not really important to his work.

    Andrew – I will confess to having never read the work of either of them! I stop about 1830 and don’t go back earlier than that. But I’ll be interested to know what you make of his work.

  11. Oh, so much to love about these past two posts.

    Have you read the book Parallel Lives ? I cannot recommend it highly enough, if you haven’t, though something tells me you have. It explores in more detail the interesting relationship between the Wordsworth siblings, and how Dorothy and William’s own creative neuroses played off of and supported each other. Also featured is the World’s Worst Marriage of Thomas and Jane Welsh Carlyle; the incredibly moving story of George Eliot and her forbidden love; the psychological textbook marriage of Charles Dickens; the wonderful, weird, and laugh-out-loud tragicomedy of John Ruskin, Effie Ruskin, and John Millais; and the curious backward muse-life of John Stuart Mill and the woman he idolized despite her being rather a vulgar drain on his intellectual life.

    Having written that, I’m now on fire to re-read that book, which was an all-time favorite of my late adolescence.

    Also this made me remember Lewis Carroll’s delicious parody of Wordsworth, in Through the Looking-Glass. I still laugh myself silly when I read it, and every malicious part of my brain applauds the exquisitely cruel detail with which Wordsworth is skewered.

  12. I don’t know either of them well at all but I enjoyed reading about their friendship. You always make it accessible and interesting. And I was suprised to see in your comments that Coleridge is now the favoured of the two, although of course that does make sense when you consider WW’s emotional detachment.

    And you know I couldn’t help reading that last sentence about what each needed from the other (and didn’t get) in order for their relationship to grow and wondering about blogging friendships. I can understand your need to take a break from blogging though so don’t worry.

  13. I really admire how your pieces weave together disparate elements into insight, resulting in rewards such as this:

    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.

    Who hasn’t known people who try such manipulations? And thus how instantly recognizable in someone otherwise extraordinarily talented!

    Great stuff; thanks.

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