[William Wordsworth & Samuel Taylor Coleridge] Sisman, Adam
- The Friendship: Wordsworth and Coleridge
HarperCollins Publishers, London, 2006.
Octavo; hardcover, with gilt spine titling and decorated endpapers; 480pp., monochrome plates. Minor wear; mildly toned and spotted text block and page edges. Dustwrapper now professionally protected by superior non-adhesive polypropylene film. Very good to near fine. "Romantic poetry set the self against the universe. The mind, as Wordsworth said of Newton, voyaged 'through strange seas of thought, alone'; the solipsistic ego, like Coleridge's mariner, travelled in a painted ship on a painted ocean, wondering if everything else in the wide world might be dead. To ease this solitude, the poets cultivated what Goethe called 'elective affinities': symbiotic partnerships like that of Wordsworth and his sister, Dorothy, or secret societies like the Pantisocratic fellowship whose members, led by Coleridge, dreamed of migration to fresh, empty America. The word 'friend', as Coleridge declared when demoting his renegade colleague Southey to the rank of acquaintance, was 'a very sacred appellation', which he chose as the title for the ill-fated periodical he edited. The writer, like Keats's Grecian urn, was duty-bound to be 'a friend to man', addressing and uplifting humankind. But for poets who were self-centred on principle, the daily give and take of friendship proved difficult. Despite the title of Adam Sisman's perceptive and affectionate book, the association between Wordsworth and Coleridge was more like an affair: briefly intense, though doomed by the contrariety of their characters and the unstable balance of power between them... Coleridge was the older and, when they met, more renowned and accomplished. But he deified his obscure colleague, abasing and creatively disabling himself. Insisting that he was unworthy to unloose the latch of Wordsworth's shoe, he quoted John the Baptist's evangelical welcome to Christ. Coleridge believed that he, too, had 'a tendency to become a God', and trusted that the landscape of Cumberland would elevate and exalt his mind. But Wordsworth's ego tolerated no competition. While Coleridge extended himself in devout prostration, Wordsworth, as Sisman says, trampled him...Wordsworth, the youthful revolutionary, aged into sclerotic respectability. Having obtained a sinecure as a Distributor of Stamps, he hired menials to do the work and pocketed the profits. When Keats met this mortal god, he found him to be a vain, bigoted megalomaniac. Sisman's sympathy inclines towards Coleridge, who lost confidence in his vocation and disappeared into a drug-befuddled fog. Told of his premature death, the sternly self-controlled Wordsworth evinced no emotion. Sisman maintains a tactful reserve when dealing with the emotional lives of his subjects: he doesn't speculate about Wordsworth's bond with Dorothy, who was overcome by hysteria when he married, or about Coleridge's adulterous infatuation with Wordsworth's sister-in-law. He lets the poetry speak for itself in generous quotations, which he seldom analyses. The strength of his book lies in its awareness of domestic life and its homage to the ordinary scenes - sheepfolds, tarns, clumps of breezy daffodils - irradiated by Wordsworth's way of seeing. He is excellent on the rented houses that these semi-indigent poets lived in and the views from their windows. For him, this topography explains their writing; as Hazlitt pointed out, Wordsworth composed while pacing up and down a gravel walk, while Coleridge versified while wandering over uneven terrain. Both were tireless, intrepid walkers, as was Dorothy, who refused to be impeded by her long skirts; it was Wordsworth, in his account of a 1,000-mile walking tour across Europe, who first used the word 'pedestrian' literally rather than metaphorically. Sisman, too, traversing the West Country and the Lake District, has done his research on his feet. His book is solid, trustworthy, grounded - pedestrian (and I say this as a fellow footsoldier who does not drive a car) in the very best sense." - Peter Conrad
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