Wordsworth & Coleridge
By Adam Sisman
Viking. 480 pp. $27.95
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Reviewed by Edward Pettit
opens with Samuel Taylor Coleridge vaulting a fence and bounding across a field, after a 40-mile walk, to meet his new friends William and Dorothy Wordsworth at their temporary home, Racedown Lodge, in Dorset. The moment is emblematic: Coleridge's youthful enthusiasm and vigor, the Wordsworths' joy at his arrival, the pastoral field in which they meet, the presence of William's sister, Dorothy. These are some of the key ingredients of the new Romantic poetry that Coleridge and Wordsworth would create. The dull parsing and analysis that passes for most literary discussion of poetry in schools today forgets the exhilaration that often begets great poetry. Anthologies weighted with endless footnotes cannot capture the passion that ignites literary movements. Sisman sets out to recreate the exuberance and intensity of the friendship between the two poets that would engender the Romantic Movement in England.
Coleridge and Wordsworth became essential to each other, their vision for what poetry should be (committed to both societal change and the revelation of the individual, the personal), their minds melding into a creative whole. Sisman writes, "Each found in each other the qualities he had been searching for." The poets revel in a "euphoria of sharing," each contributing to the other's verse, sometimes losing track of who wrote which line. The "intimate autobiographical style of the conversation poems" that Coleridge initiates is perfected by Wordsworth. And through it all, Dorothy is the "essential bridge between them."
Sisman does not give short shrift to Dorothy Wordsworth's importance to the friendship, which was often a triumvirate of like minds. Dorothy did not write poetry, but did play a vital part in shaping the impressions of both men. She was a conduit for their senses and a critic for their poems. Dorothy joined them on their long walks through the countryside. Her journals fill in the details of what the poems hint at. Of her William wrote, "She gave me eyes, she gave me ears."
Although Sisman claims to focus on only a core six years of the poets' friendship, his book begins with too much extraneous biographical detail. The meeting at Racedown, previewed at the start, doesn't actually occur until page 176. As important as are the events and feelings that shaped the lives of Wordsworth and Coleridge before they met (Wordsworth's trip to France, Coleridge's political activities), Sisman could have condensed much of this information into a short chapter and given occasional flashbacks when relevant. The first third of the book feels like one long introduction. As it happens, that isn't such a bad thing. Sisman's style and insights into the revolutionary times of the poets reward over and again. He is such an engaging writer that the overlong buildup is more entertaining than the core of many other biographies.
Sisman often recounts the walking excursions of Coleridge and Wordsworth. In adddition to Coleridge's walk to Racedown, Wordsworth and another friend walk through France. Dorothy and William walk through Germany. They all walk throughout the Lake District where the Wordsworths will eventually settle. No wonder another writer called their times the "age of Pedestrianism."
The poets even composed on foot. Coleridge would pace for hours in his garden. Wordsworth would compose outside, "keeping step with the rhythm of his verse, his head down and mumbling to himself. Often he would pace back and forth along the same route until a poem 'kindled' in his mind. He held the poem there, rarely committing it to paper until it was complete." Sisman offers the cost of paper as one reason for this, but the act of writing as it were on foot, like Coleridge's vaulting the gate, is also emblematic of the poetry these men created, vigorous and in tune with nature. Their poems often mirror the natural landscape around them, like a reflection of a mountain on the calm surface of a lake. Sisman's account of their friendship shows how their poems are not just flat words on a page, but ideas and images that walk across the mind's own landscape. This is a pedestrian biography in the literal sense of pedestrian - an energetic and exuberant walk through the lives of two men.