The Friendship: Wordsworth & Coleridge

Wordsworth&ColeridgeI’ve been reading about Wordsworth and Coleridge —  gaining perspective on their works and accomplishments. (I also read a biography on the friendship of Byron and Shelley which I’ll talk about in a later post — the curious thing is that I ended up disliking Shelley and liking Byron, and that was completely unexpected.) My dislike for Wordsworth, unfortunately, has only been reinforced. Now, not only does Wordsworth’s poetry exasperate me, but I find his person (at least as revealed in Sisman’s biography) more than a little dislikable. I don’t blame Sisman. He treats Wordsworth equitably, but it’s hard to ignore the man’s narcissism, self-centered’ness and the execrable way he treated Coleridge. The “friendship”, after all, appears to have been predicated on both mens’ idolatry and love of Wordsworth (and for  that, Coleridge doesn’t go Scott-free).

Wordsworth was prolific and produced poetry with apparent ease. Coleridge, initially, produced almost as much poetry as Wordsworth, but struggled to a degree that Wordsworth didn’t. Writing didn’t come as easily; and Coleridge was also afflicted with self-doubt (and self-recrimination) in a way that Wordsworth never was. As the friendship progressed, Coleridge fêted Wordsworth’s ego by calling him the era’s great genius and comparing him to Milton, which in some quarters was higher praise than to be called the “next Shakespeare”. On the other hand, Coleridge was considered the far greater poet by his peers and the general public. He was an extempore speaker of genius. He possessed a photographic memory and could recite from memory any piece of writing having read it once. Coleridge’s impression on his peers is hard to overstate.

And so Coleridge’s self-doubt and ceaseless self-recrimination is especially hard to swallow. I, myself, consider Coleridge to be the better and greater poet, despite his minuscule output (as compared to Wordsworth). In my opinion, there’s nothing in all of Wordsworth’s output that compares to The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Christabel, or Kubla Khan. The Rime was initially published alongside Wordsworth’s poems in a joint publication called Lyrical Ballads. The critical reception of the anthology wasn’t good and was especially hard on Wordsworth’s poetry (Wordsworth was a nobody in those days); and Wordsworth didn’t take criticism well. Sometime later, though, Wordsworth and Coleridge decided to reissue the Ballads. Despite their poor critical reception, they continued to sell (if not as well as they would have liked). And this is where it gets hard to rationalize Wordsworth’s behavior as anything other than cruel (or not to characterize him as a self-serving liar — plain and simple).

The initial plan for the reissue was to include The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Christabel, for which Colerdige had now written two parts. Wordsworth and his sister were initially ‘Exceedingly delighted with the second part of “Christabel”‘. (p. 320) Or at least they pretended to be exceedingly delighted, for the very next day Wordsworth decided to exclude it from the reissue. Not only that, but as plans developed, Wordsworth informed Coleridge that he would be publishing the joint venture without Coleridge’s name on it. Furthermore, Wordsworth would be taking any and all proceeds, income, money from their publication, despite Coleridge’s Rime being one of the most extensive poems in the collection. Wordsworth had concluded, self-servingly and with little to no evidence, that it was Coleridge’s poetry that had sunk the first collection (not his own). What did Wordsworth substitute for Christabel?

“Meanwhile, Wordsworth was writing a new poem to fill the vacant place at the end of the second volume, ‘Micheal’ was the very antithesis of ‘Christabel’, a pastoral poem evoking the sturdy qualities of the sheep farmers among whom he was now living.”

La! Sheep farmers. There you have it — one of our language’s great poems traded for a didactic poem on sheep farmers. It makes me want to climb into a time machine to  throttle him. Worse yet, Wordsworth, having deluded himself into thinking that his rightful genius was unrecognized solely because of The Rime, persuaded Coleridge to rewrite the poem . Coleridge, by now thoroughly pickled in the Kool-aid of Words-worship, obediently complied. The rewrite prompted the following from Charles Lamb:

“I am sorry that Coleridge has christened his Ancient Marinere ‘a poet’s Reverie’ — it is as bad as Bottom the weaver’s declaration that he is not a lion but only the scenical representation of a Lion. What new idea is gained by this title, but one subversive of all credit, which the tale should force upon us, of its truth? For me, I was never so affected with any human Tale. After first reading it, I was totally possessed with it for many days…” (p. 316)

According to Sisman, Lamb summed up his opinion of the second volume (of the original edition) stating “that no poem in it had struck him so forcibly as the ‘Ancient Mariner’, ‘The Mad Mother’ and ‘Tintern Abbey'”. This, apparently, is not what Wordsworth wanted to hear. Wordsworth’s riposte is lost, but not Lamb’s.

“The Post did not sleep a moment. I received almost instantaneously a long letter of four sweating pages from my Reluctant Letter-Writer, the purport of which was, that he was sorry his 2nd vol. had not given me more pleasure (Devil a hint did I give that it had not pleased me), and was ‘compelled to wish that my range of sensibility was more extended…’ — With a deal of Stuff about a certain Union of Tenderness and Imagination…” (p. 317)

Then Lamb goes on to mention a letter received by Coleridge:

“Coleridge, who had not written to me some months before, starts up from his bed of sickness, to reprove me for my hardy presumption: four long pages, equally sweaty and more tedious, came from him; assuring me that, when the works of a man of true genius, such as W undoubtedly was, do not please me at first sight, I should suspect the fault to lie ‘in me and not in them’, etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. What am I to do with such people?” (p. 317)

Truth was, there were a number of Coleridge supporters who were very nearly fed up with Coleridge’s cult-like idolatry of Wordsworth, including Josiah Wedgwood, who had generously patronized Coleridge. Wedgwood’s intent had been to encourage Coleridge’s own literary efforts, not subsidize his subservience to Wordsworth. Even so, Coleridge spent the next several months editing the reissue of Lyrical Ballads, his thanks to Wordsworth for Wordsworth’s removing his poetry, his name, and any recompense. And as if Wordsworth weren’t delusional enough, he decided to preface Coleridge’s Rime with an apology to the reader:

“Wordsworth added an apologetic footnote to the ‘Ancient Mariner’ acknowledging the many criticisms of the poem, which ‘had indeed great defects’. He elaborated these defects before listing what he considered to be the merits of the poem. He claimed credit for its continued presence in the volume, ‘as the Author was himself very desirous that it should be suppressed.'” (p. 315)

Such was the gratitude Wordsworth extended to his “friend”. Sisman points out  that in another note written contemporaneously, Wordsworth “warmly defended his own poem “The Thorn” against the criticisms it had received”. Wordsworth’s interest in poetry that wasn’t his own was marginal, if nonexistent. (It’s said that Wordsworth died with an unopened copy of Keats’ poetry in his library.) While Coleridge devoted his time and energy to furthering Wordsworth’s career at every opportunity, Wordsworth’s thanked him by snubing his “friend’s” poetry and career (and especially if he thought it could benefit his own). Such was Wordsworth’s almost sociopathic narcissism. In fairness to Wordsworth, Coleridge seemed to “cheerfully” go along with it, but this was not the decision-making of a healthy man. It’s clear that Coleridge suffered from psychological issues that would gradually degrade his health and mind, manifested, in part, by an addiction to the pain killer laudanum. Wordsworth, in later years, would express deep concern over Coleridge’s health, but one questions whether his concern was for an erstwhile friend or an erstwhile admirer.

Sisman sums up the waning of their friendship this way:

“Wordsworth apologists have claimed that Coleridge accepted the rejection of ‘Christabel’ ‘cheerfully’, and quote his own self-justificatory letters afterwards in support of this argument. They cite Dorothy’s comment on Coleridge’s next visit to Dove Cottage; ‘we were very merry’. But Dorothy, though very fond of Coleridge, was blind to the possibility that her brother might be at fault. And Coleridge tried to put a brave face  on his disappointment. In reality he had suffered a mortal blow; his spirit was broken; he would never be the same man again. ‘I have too much trifled with my reputation,’ he reflected sadly to Poole….

Colridge concealed his distress from the Wordsworths, and perhaps they remained unaware of its true cause. His mind would no longer be wholly open to them. The wound continued to fester. As the years passed, entries critical of Wordsworth began to appear in Coleridge’s notebooks. Though the friendship remained warm a long time, it could never recover the same closeness…” (p. 325)

Sisman then concludes the chapter quoting Coleridge’s letter to Godwin:

“‘If I die, and the Booksellers will give you any thing for my Life, be sure to say — “Wordsworth descended on him, like the γνῶθι σεαυτόν from Heaven; by shewing to him what true Poetry was, he made him know, that he himself was no Poet.’

Colreridge’s confidence was in ruins. As he told Godwin, ‘the Poet is dead in me’. He was twenty-eight years old.” (p. 326)

This is a lot to lay at the feet of Wordsworth, but if Wordsworth had reciprocated with even a fraction of the generosity and encouragement devoted to him, Coleridge’s life and poetic output might have been very different. But my heart goes out to Coleridge. Everyman ColeridgeI feel like I’ve discovered his poetry all over again. I see myself in him: Frustrated by a feeling that I haven’t done enough, by self-doubt, self-recrimination, inadequacy. I wish I could have been Coleridge’s friend. His surreal poetry appeals to me like no other poet’s and I can’t help thinking we share a kindred spirit. I love his poem Frost at Midnight. I would trade a hundred pages of Wordsworth for another like it.

Wordsworth’s poetry, meanwhile, continues to leave me cold. As I wrote in a hotly contested previous post criticizing The Prelude, I find all but a handful of his poems tedious, repetitive, full of triviality and above all, exceedingly poorly written. At the close of Sisman’s book, the author quotes Coleridge once again, referring to Wordsworth, and this time the veil is lifted:

“Never does he turn round, or ponder, whether one has [already] understood him, but each word is followed by three, four, five syn- or homonyms, in a tiring sequence of eddies, and in this manner for three, four hours… I was repelled by the infinite number of dissonances which his way of thinking, feeling and arguing created with my own — the worst being his great worries over money and trifling money matters. Recently, all the shortcomings, which marked him in his early manly years, have increased considerably; the grand flourishings of his philosophic and poetic genius, have withered and dried. (p. 424)


13 responses

  1. Insightful and clarifying…I feel for Coleridge and his sense of having been very mistaken about his “good friend” Wordsworth. I knew nothing about this before. It changes my attitude considerably. The underdog must always be cared about.


    • I also knew nothing about this. I think it could have been entitled Betrayal, rather than Friendship. I guess one could argue that it was Coleridge’s own rope that hung him, but Wordsworth put the noose round his neck. It’s hard to fathom how anyone could have treated a real friend so shabbily and expediently. Wordsworth was either calculatingly cruel or obliviously self-absorbed — or a little of both.


  2. There is something staidly synthetic about his moods and reasoning (laudanum?) compared to Wordsworth, Keats, etc. I did try, however, to connect with him again through a few of your favorites including his putatively “happiest” poem “The Eolian Harp.” Still nothing. In fact, call me delusional, but I liked your “Skeletons” better than any of them.


  3. It’s interesting that any attention at all is paid to the old poets of yesteryear. If you had to pick one group of writers that had a dramatic impact on the progress of poetry in English, the Romantics lead the pack. They are all great poets in their own right. It’s nice to see that you and others have not forgotten them. Good insight into the mind of Wordsworth and his inability to dim the genius of Coleridge. Keep up the good work up there in Vermont.


  4. Friendship is more complex than the petty motives many are ascribing to Wordsworth at the expense of Coleridge. Coleridge, after all, did write his best poems during the period he was closest to Wordsworth. Perhaps Coleridge had some need for Wordsworth’s genetic narcissism at the time and found in it a secure foundation or springboard for this own fancy, which for Coleridge, never more than an opiate crash away from the abyss, was a process more fraught. My reading of Coleridge reinforces this impression—this striving for synthesized foundations to make up for those endogenously lacking. There’s no doubt Coleridge had the superior power of imagination, but those powers were not enough to anchor him any better than Hart Crane’s, whose existential dilemma Coleridge prefigures. These are poets, so to speak, done in by the vastness of their vision, a vision which was also altar. Thus I think any poet is blessed who, when all else fails, can find a few trees and a sheep farm (i.e., Wordsworth) a nice place to be. Although that’s not to say Wordsworth couldn’t have been a little less wordy about it in places. May I dare say Robert Frost corrected Wordsworth’s faults?


    • And Wordsworth, I think, wrote his best poems when he was closest to Coleridge; but you’re right that friendship is more complex. On the other hand, the way Wordsworth treated Coleridge with the reprinting of the Lyrical Ballads, does seem to have been a turning point. As the biography progresses, it’s clear that Dorothy (Wordsworth’s sister) didn’t, and probably never, considered Coleridge Wordsworth’s equal.

      In response to a mutual acquaintance who stated that Coleridge was the better poet and a genius, Dorothy responded by calling the acquaintance a ‘Villain!’. This apparently, and later on, rankled Coleridge. She might, at least, have defended Wordsworth without so obviously dismissing Coleridge. It’s probably safe to assume that Dorothy’s opinion reflected that of her brother’s. The relationship, it seems, was always about William.

      As to Coleridge’s opium addiction. This seems to have been purely accidental. As Sisman describes it, Laudanum was the era’s Ibuprofen, and the medical community simply did not know that the drug was addictive (and hadn’t yet connected withdrawal symptoms with addiction). The reasoning was that something else was causing the physical symptoms and so more opiates were prescribed (which was precisely the wrong thing to do). Coleridge only later in life began to realize that the opiates were the source of his physical ailments and tried, and tried again to break the addiction, but the withdrawal symptoms were extreme and psychologically tortuous (he may also have suffered bi-polar disorder). The damage was done. This notion (which I had before reading the book) that Coleridge cultivated his opium addiction doesn’t appear to be true. I think it’s more accurate to say that he was a victim of his era’s medical knowledge.

      I don’t know if Coleridge’s vision for his poetry was ever that vast; and certainly not as vast as his vision for Wordsworth and his poetry, aka, The Recluse; but I say that based on Sisman’s biography. A different biographer might have a different take.

      The comparison with Robert Frost is tempting — but I wonder what Frost thought of Wordsworth?


  5. Well, good news on “Frost at Midnight.” I read it again tonight and it was absolutely beautiful. What a difference a few days make. Maybe it was the sudden cold front and being closed in with just my thoughts as he was in the poem. Let me ask: Did you ever like Wordsworth’s poetry? It’s hard for me to reconcile your veneration of Robert Frost with your repulsion of Wordsworth en masse, whatever his transactional flaws.


    • “She dwelt among untrodden ways” breaks my heart every time I read it; but all in all I can’t say that I ever liked his poetry. (I loved William Blake in high school.) I really don’t see Wordsworth and Frost as being in the same league. Frost was capable of strikingly beautiful imagery and masterful lines. Wordsworth? Rarely, if ever. When do you ever meet with a line like this: “Like ghost of sleigh bells in a ghost of snow)—” or this:

      He spent himself, the labour of his axe,
      And left it there far from a useful fireplace
      To warm the frozen swamp as best it could
      With the slow smokeless burning of decay.

      In Wordsworth? Never. There’s never that moment when the reader wants to pause at some new, beautiful evocation wrung entirely out of words. Wordsworth’s observations are pretty much all mundane, if not banal. He tosses in words and repetitive phrases, synonyms, homonyms, until (by sheer force of number) he thinks his verse has somehow been elevated (a habit noted by Colerdige). Add to that the profusion of colorless and purposeless adjectives — salt in a salty dish.

      …Hadst thou been of Indian birth,
      Couched on a casual bed of moss and leaves,
      And rudely canopied by leafy boughs…

      Only Wordsworth would “couch” someone on a “bed”. It’s utterly redundant. And what’s with “casual”. Does it add anything? No. It’s already implied by the context, but Wordsworth has his meter to fill. “Rudely”? It’s utterly unnecessary. And then “canopied by leafy boughs”? If a bough can “canopy”, then it stands to reason that it’s “leafy”. But there’s no end to this kind of bad writing. It’s just one redundancy after another. And it’s not a period thing. Other poets/writers of the age don’t do this. Keats doesn’t. Coleridge doesn’t. Byron doesn’t. Even the era’s Leigh Hunts didn’t write this badly. I can’t stand reading the man. It just baffles me how anyone can stand him for more than a page or so.

      In short, he tests my patience like no other poet. He was an amateur poet who wrote like a great poet — if you know what I mean. (The emperor’s clothes were too big for him.) I simply don’t find it possible to read him for his poetry (but for the little, brief passages, like the hands of a broken clock, that show up twice a day).

      Besides an eye for nature, Frost and Wordsworth (in my view) have almost nothing in common. :-)


  6. Pingback: Byron & Shelley: The Making of the Poets « PoemShape

  7. Thank you for this article, I too knew nothing of this rivalry on Wordsworth’s part. It most definitely has changed my opinion on Wordsworth and am not sure I will be able to read his work in the same light. Poor Coleridge.


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