An observant farmer found the ritual rural jaunts of these two flâneurs a “queer thing.” He was troubled by the fact that Wordsworth’s “brain was that fu’ of sic stuff, that he was forced to be always at it whether or no, wet or fair, mumbling to hissel’ along t’roads.” Others did more than scratch their heads, nettled; although “nobody ever heard [them] say one word about politics,” vigilant men reported the poets to the police. As Nicolson notes, though, “with their ‘dark guesses’ (Coleridge’s own expression),” the people of Stowey were mistaken in suspecting them to be French Jacobins but “had somehow grasped the otherness latent” in the perambulating verse-peddlers. The Stowey spies accused these foreigners of reconnaissance activity: sneaking about the country on “their nocturnal or diurnal expeditions”; armed with “a Portfolio in which they enter their observations,” they “may possibly be under Agents.” Soon enough, the two poets came under official surveillance: England’s Home Department hired a faux caretaker to tend the Romantics’ riotous garden. Charged to listen for seditious celebrations, the creeping gardener followed them with a poet’s radical attentiveness. He came up with weed roots and little else, and the King’s Men turned their spying eyes elsewhere.
Although in prior years Wordsworth was so taken with revolution that he moved to France (and fathered a child there, an abdicated paternity Nicolson does not gloss over), and both Samuel Taylor and his wife Sara Coleridge had plans to found a utopia in America (“a Social Colony, in which there was to be a community of property and where all that was selfish was to be proscribed”), the friends were quickly disillusioned, not least by the French Republic’s “bloody land-grab” in Switzerland. As Coleridge would put it, they’d snapped the “squeaking baby-trumpet of Sedition.” Still, Nicolson makes the case that, insofar as poetry can pursue political ends by other means, “Wordsworth and Coleridge were moving faster and further than the most famous radical in England,” John Thelwall. For though their activist friend experienced “failed encounters between the champion of the poor and the poor themselves,” the Somerset poets “were wanting to understand them as people,” not “as a political problem.”
Wordsworth’s revolution was not merely — as he put it in the preface to Lyrical Ballads (1798) — to guillotine the “gaudiness and inane phraseology of many modern writers,” their “arbitrary and capricious habits of expression.” Rather, in deciding to “choose incidents and situations from common life” in a style of language “really used by men,” he perhaps did more to increase human dignity than the would-be democratic legislators of the world, whose principles were spinning spools of blood.
Nicolson spent a year ambling and climbing the sublime counterpoint of sea and stone, solitude and communion that is distinctive of the Quantocks, trying to catch those moments and moods Coleridge had captured in Biographia Literaria (1817), wherein “‘the truth of nature’ and ‘the modifying colours of imagination’ coalesce.” He trudged through the percolating dusk where the great Romantics had pressed their senses against the rugged terrain, giving “birth to a system of symbols, harmonious in themselves, and consubstantial with the truths, of which they are the conductors.” His impassioned immersion in their milieu gives us a sense that we, too, are living through the marvels he maps.
The picture he draws distills “the deep psychic structure of the year”: Coleridge and Wordsworth “repeatedly drawing from these landforms […] through the combes and the oakwoods,” the “sunlit widths of the wide-ranging tops,” back down “into a bath of shade.” Dorothy Wordsworth appears here too, “following at their heels, always slightly behind.” Her diary entries contain astute accounts of the “melting” that occurred between mortals and nature, immortal souls and the wide, wide cosmos. But mainly she is helpmate to her brother: “There is no suggestion of equality between them. She is the servant, he the walking hero; she quietly attends, he struggles with his greatness.” And yet, made vulnerable by his sister’s devotion, Wordsworth, “[i]n certain lights […] looks as gaunt as a new-dropped lamb.”
At times, Nicolson’s own poetic extractions from landscapes can grow tiresome. This is not to say that he fails to deliver on one of the book’s subterranean theses: we do now frequently see the self and the world through eyeglasses lent us by Wordsworth and Coleridge. Nicolson’s careful observations of nature convince us that, witnessed rightly, “[n]othing looks ugly or tawdry.” But at other times, though riffing off the great poets, he cannot rival them: we are sunk in a marsh of sensations that don’t sufficiently amount to anything.
Nicolson puts his infectious, immersive familiarity to best use in fascinating interweavings of poetry and people, as when we see Coleridge shuffle off to a barn, afflicted by dysentery, ingesting the prescribed opium that would hasten “Kubla Khan” — and his coming addiction. Or fireside next to his sleeping son Hartley, fascinated as “[t]he Frost performs its secret ministry.” Nicolson also traces Wordsworth’s pained passage through days and months of miserable muteness; strangely, these dull drafts, dead on the page, come alive under the author’s judicious care. He reminds us that this unpublished agony is “the price of poetry, a price that is rarely allowed to surface […] the cost of beauty, the fee exacted by the need for resolution.”
Both men were “subject to frightening and sometimes disabling aches and spasms […] never more than when revising,” trying to fulfill the greatness of their mutually imposed expectations. Through many a conversation, each grew convinced that a deep oneness summoned unity out of multiplicity and apparent divergences. If in fundamental agreement, they inhabited the same truth in opposite ways. Coleridge “felt that he was dispersed into everything that was,” whereas Wordsworth “detected within himself a presence and power so vast that it could outreach and outlast anything in the material universe.” While Wordsworth found that “[n]othing in the daily world could ever match the sense of grandeur sinking into his mind,” Coleridge “had the supreme gift of giving, an all-embracing ability to meld his own consciousness with everything and everyone around him” — even as his relations took a more tormented shape as “a desire for togetherness, an inability to be together.” Disappointingly, Nicolson ignores, as presumably irrelevant, Coleridge’s hugely important affinities with Christian Platonism.
At his worst, Wordsworth turned terribly inward — chin down, crippled by introspection. At his best, he took a turn above Tintern Abbey. “[I]n a trance of otherness,” he discovered “something far more deeply interfused”: the sublimities of “‘this green earth’ […] effectively bury his heart, mind and self” beneath a cataract of thanksgiving. Excessive self-consciousness is replaced by a consciousness of the self’s elaborate contours, which the poet bespeaks as more magnificent than the romantic ruins of a medieval church. Recovering in memory the sacred stream Coleridge searched for in laudanum fantasy, he at last lauds his sister Dorothy: “[T]hou my dearest Friend.” Effusive, he again beckons “[m]y dear, dear Friend,” for it is only “in thy voice I catch / The language of my former heart.”
Rumors of division drew faint battle lines. Significantly, their scheme to join forces on an epic about Cain in exile stalled, though this temporary paralysis ended with Coleridge’s lone composition of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798) — a sibling to the biblical story of brothers, wherein “the rage and despair of the broken, excluded and tortured man will forever want to hold his happy brother in his grasp and wreak a kind of vengeance on him.” Lack of mutual appreciation afflicted their friendship, even as the poets continued to commune and collaborate. Financial constraints and failure in the theater brought them around the same table, plotting out the prospect of the shared collection; surely the planned Lyrical Ballads could fetch some cash.
Years later, Coleridge would revise these tensions into a neatly planned dialectic: “[I]t was agreed, that my endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural,” yet courting a common human interest by “that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.” Wordsworth, by contrast, would attend to the ordinary and “every day” in a manner that would remove “the film of familiarity and selfish solicitude,” redirecting readers towards the “inexhaustible treasure” and “wonders of the world before us,” lost because “we have eyes, yet see not.”
But, as Nicolson makes plain, this division of labor was not so readily contrived, for “the attention to the real and the claims of the imagined drove a cleft between them.” Put simply, “Coleridge’s supernaturalism was driving Wordsworth towards the poetry of this world.” Coleridge was impatient with worldliness. He knew too many who, through “rational” education, had become “marked by a microscopic acuteness,” so that “when they looked at great things, all became a blank & they saw nothing.” Still, the poets saw eye to eye enough to try and sell their Lyrical Ballads, an effort that met repeated rejections before it swelled into the watershed it has since become.
Nicolson at last departs from the Quantock shores, abandoning these strange men who cross-pollinated profundity just before their friendship petered out awkwardly. We bid them farewell aboard the same ship, surrounded by suffering passengers. Wordsworth is at home in “the privacy” of his “boarded coffi[n]” bunk below deck, while Coleridge, with the habitual gaze of a matured artist and the delirium of a budding addict, leans overboard toward the sea, seeing “in the phosphorescent surge of the zooplankton around him a vision of Asiatic cavalrymen-cum-galaxies,” alert to the surf where self and cosmos kiss.
Alternately smitten and sober-minded, this beautiful book, filled with bright wood carvings, is not a dry, cerebral genealogy but a living lineage. Without romanticizing the fraught and fragile fellowship, it celebrates the making of poetry in community — stirring all comers into co-creation.
Joshua Hren is founder and editor of Wiseblood Books and cofounder of the MFA in creative writing program at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His books include the novel Infinite Regress and Contemplative Realism: A Theological-Aesthetical Manifesto.