The Friendship: Wordsworth and Coleridge, by Adam Sisman, Viking, hardcover, $27.95, 480 pages.
“My book,” Adam Sisman writes in his introduction, “is an attempt to escape from this biographical impasse [between supporters of Wordsworth and supporters of Coleridge], by concentrating on the friendship itself, at its most intense when both men were young and full of hope. . . .”
The gist of the story is that both men were great poets who became close friends and, for a while, inspired each other to write some of their greatest poetry. Wordsworth never seems to have lacked the inner conviction that he would be a great poet, and Coleridge strengthened this conviction by comparing Wordsworth to Shakespeare and Milton.
Coleridge himself was a child prodigy from whom greatness was expected, but his volatile personality—he dominated every conversation he entered into, enthralling his hearers, thought nothing of walking forty miles in one day, and became addicted to opium—always got in the way of his producing the great work of art he repeatedly pronounced he was about to embark upon and which everyone, bowled over by his verbal agility and profundity, expected from him.
Coleridge knew this about himself but seems never to have been able to conquer himself for the sake of his art. In a way he was too gifted; he was both a great poet and a great metaphysician, thus The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Biographia Literaria. In some ways he was more gifted than Wordsworth, but the latter had discipline of which Coleridge had very little.
Sisman shows how when Coleridge met and got to know Wordsworth, he slowly began to subordinate his personality and poetic gift to Wordsworth’s. He so admired Wordsworth that his own work suffered while Wordsworth’s thrived and developed.
At one point Coleridge said he was unworthy to unloose the latch of Wordsworth’s shoe, and when the second edition of Lyrical Ballads was published, which included poems by both men, it had only Wordsworth’s name on it—Coleridge agreed to this—but without consulting Coleridge, Wordsworth “added an apologetic footnote to the ‘Ancient Mariner’ acknowledging the many criticisms of the poem, which ‘had indeed great defects.’”
Wordsworth went on to mention that Coleridge wanted to suppress it but that Wordsworth had insisted on including it. Sisman comments:
One might think that Wordsworth would have been kinder to have discarded the poem, rather than to have retained it on such terms. To mention Coleridge’s willingness to suppress it only deepened his humiliation. Wordsworth’s disregard of his friends’ feelings contrasted sharply with his own sensitivity. The other note he wrote at the same time warmly defended his own poem ‘The Thorn’ against the criticism it had received.
It is only fair to add that Coleridge could be exasperating to live with because of his unstable personality and his habit of missing and forgetting deadlines and appointments. No one who knew him well ever expected him to show up for a meeting when he had said he would; if they really wanted him to be there at a certain time they sent a coach, Sisman writes, to pick him up.
It should also be mentioned that when they met, Coleridge already had a certain measure of success whereas Wordsworth had hardly published anything and what he had published was shoddily reviewed. Nevertheless, Sisman says, “Ambition blinded him [Wordsworth] to the predicament of his friend, who had helped him in so many ways to reach the commanding point where he now stood. Coleridge’s prostration made it easy for Wordsworth to walk all over him.”
Their closeness was effectively ended when a mutual acquaintance told Coleridge that Wordsworth had warned him against staying with Coleridge because of the latter’s drinking, running up debts, and his being an “absolute nuisance” to live with. All of this was true, but coming from Wordsworth it was uncharitable, unthankful, and it sent Coleridge reeling. Mutual friends eventually reconciled them, but the friendship had been permanently damaged and would never recover.
In later years, after both poets were famous as the founders of the their own movement of poetry, the general consensus is that Coleridge was admired as a person more than Wordsworth. Those who met and observed them, including Keats, remarked on Wordsworth’s coldness and haughtiness whereas Coleridge was genial and somewhat of a grand old man of letters.
But after Coleridge had died, Sisman writes, Wordsworth, “In a brief burst of the old affection, like a sudden ray of sunshine of a cloudy day . . . described his old friend as ‘the most wonderful man that he had ever known’.”