A compelling portrait of William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge emerges from Adam Nicolson’s The Making of Poetry: Coleridge, the Wordsworths, and Their Year of Marvels. To be more precise, the poets themselves emerged from that year in the Quantock Hills, Somerset, July 1797–June 1798, with something they did not have before: two unmistakable and distinct imprints of genius.
Nicolson presents his case in naked terms: the year “has a claim to being the most famous moment in the history of English poetry.” Rather than pursue a strictly academic study, he embedded himself for a year in the selfsame Quantocks, to observe the landscape in which each of Wordsworth and Coleridge asserted his own poetic voice. Month by month, even day by day, Nicolson sets the conversations had and poems written against the backdrop of the changing seasons. The result is a half-step toward Wordsworth’s advice to a young William Hazlitt:
Books! ’tis a dull and endless strife:
Come, hear the woodland linnet,
How sweet his music! on my life,
There’s more of wisdom in it.
It was a year of walking. In June 1797, Coleridge was marching across the English countryside at a prodigious pace, headed to Racedown, Dorset, to meet Wordsworth and his sister, Dorothy. Coleridge would confess that, on the open road,
my spirit courses, drives, and eddies, like a Leaf in Autumn; a wild activity . . . rises up from within me. . . . Life seems to me then a universal spirit, that neither has, nor can have, an opposite.
Chattering incessantly, he could scarcely keep to a straight path and careened into nearby companions. Compare that with the stately walk of Wordsworth, always dressed to the nines, never deviating from his line. Dorothy was known to trail a few steps behind, picking up fallen scraps of paper on which he had scribbled bits of verse.
By July, Coleridge had brought the Wordsworths to his home in Nether Stowey, Somerset, and helped them find living arrangements at nearby Alfoxden. The three took regular evening walks into the Quantocks, as Nicolson describes,
up from the settlements of the valley, through the combes and the oakwoods, on to the sunlit widths of the wide-ranging tops and then back down again, back into the rowan and oakwood, as if into a bath of shade.
The landscape, particularly at dusk, has a saturated, almost plastic quality, ripe for the imagination. Not majestic, but variegated and subtle. The two poets were avid readers of both Milton and Burke, for whom the sublime was a major theme. As summer moved to fall and then winter, Coleridge imbued some of his masterstrokes from the year—“Kubla Khan,” The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and “Christabel”—with just such an atmosphere. Wordsworth, we understand, internalized that liminal anxiety, and his powers for the time lay gestating, as it were.
The landscape, particularly at dusk, has a saturated, almost plastic quality, ripe for the imagination.
Left at home for these walks was Coleridge’s wife, Sara. One wonders how Dorothy, whose acute observations left an impression on both men, was able to play such a prominent role in their poetic lives while Sara was almost entirely absent. Still, William was guilty of escapism of a different order. At the end of his travels in France amid the early days of the Revolution, he had abandoned his would-be wife and soon-to-be-born child, Annette and Caroline Vallon.
But the specter of insurgency was not so far off. The cast of characters cycling through Nether Stowey was enough to attract the attention of Whitehall authorities 150 miles away: Thomas Poole, a radical community-organizer type; the unstable Charles Lamb; John Thelwall, the notorious rabble-rouser; Wordsworth’s and Coleridge’s publisher, John Cottle; and others. They stayed with Coleridge. Wordsworth, at a remove in Alfoxden, had so little interaction with the townspeople that he was briefly thought to have been a French-born agent of insurrection.
In evidence are the journals of the Reverend William Holland, the vicar of Over Stowey and avowed enemy of democrats:
Saw that Democratic hoyden Mrs. Coleridge, who looked so like a frisky girl or something worse that I was not surprised that a Democratic libertine should choose her for a wife. The husband gone to London suddenly—no one here can tell why.
Nicolson is a thoughtful reader of Coleridge’s and Wordsworth’s poetry, at his best when identifying cross-pollination between the two poets’ thought. He detects a Wordsworthian note in the “ordaining, decreeing, defining, lordly presence” of the eponymous subject of “Kubla Khan,” composed in the fall of 1797. That November, the two agreed to write a prose epic centered on Cain in exile, but once Coleridge had composed (poorly) one of the three sections, Wordsworth reneged, hesitant “to pour himself into a Coleridge-shaped mould,” in Nicolson’s words. Wordsworth similarly hemmed and hawed over The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, whose plan he helped conceive but which Coleridge would complete alone. Meanwhile, privately, Wordsworth that winter was attaining a new degree of poetic fluency, scribbling the first few inklings of what would become The Prelude. In the spring months of 1798, Coleridge produced “Christabel” and “The Nightingale,” but, self-knowing as if woken from a slumber, Wordsworth was composing one after another the poems that would comprise the majority of the Lyrical Ballads: “The Thorn,” “The Idiot Boy,” and many others. It was hard for Coleridge not to feel overwhelmed.
In late June the Wordsworths left Alfoxden. Walking through the Wye Valley in July, William produced his “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey.” Come September, after the haphazard and anonymous publication of Lyrical Ballads, with a Few Other Poems—the record of the year in the Quantocks, and the seminal text in English Romanticism—the trio, again leaving Sara behind, set sail for Germany. They would separate before long.
Near the end of his study, Nicolson writes of Wordsworth’s “The Thorn”:
The poem is the archetypal Lyrical Ballad, fringing at its edges into the beautiful and the troubling, but also into the ridiculous, repetitive and loquacious . . . cultivating atmosphere and doubt in the destabilizing context of an over-chatty and gullible narrator. Some truth may lurk here, but in a mist.
The same charges may be fairly leveled against Nicolson. His prose is tirelessly asyndetonic. He dips too often into the superlative, like an “over-chatty and gullible narrator.” He unspools winding and prodigal lines of thought. He is, in short, a Romantic. Anyone with a distaste for his kind is unlikely to enjoy this book. But as a practical matter, if Nicolson were not so, he would not have undertaken the project in the first place. He certainly would not have rendered it so vividly, abetted by the inclusion of Tom Hammick’s delightful woodcut prints. This study is filled with “the sentiment of being, spread/ O’er all that moves, and all that seemeth still.”
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 38 Number 8, on page 79
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