[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.