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)


The Prelude – 2014 Version

—Was it for this,
The sun, the fair and golden orb, the fiery
And intermediate visitant between
The dawn and evening star – fair shepherdess
And lithesome light of that uncertain hour,
Fretful demesne, who navigates and steers
The brief, contiguous days and nights – benignant
Shone upon my face? For this, dids’t Thou,
O Moosilauke! surveyor of Vermont –
Though situate within New Hampshire – maintain
Thy place immovable through night and day—
Though nowhere near my beauteous birthplace—
Didst thou, host every season — spring and summer,
Autumn and winter – the days and weeks thereof
And hours—not one skipped—nor minute either
But every second each one antecedent
To that which followed after; didst thou
Compose my thoughts to more than pious poetry,
Bestowing, midst the unsuspecting dwellings
Of men, and seasonable women, thy dim
Implacable knowledge of mankind and Nature,
Of congress midst the hills and valleys,
Uplands and contrastive lowlands. When
Made visible above the slumbrous landscape,
Thy broad, immotive height observable—
A neighbor’s house, not mine, though oft half seen
Behind a cloud or two or sometimes more
Or not at all if rain fell bleakly earthward,
Or if by unintentioned choice I stood
With leafy branches of a Maple, Elm
Or Birch between myself and that same view—
Thou wast a Playmate. Oh! Many a time
Did I, a naked boy—not girl though oft
Accompanied by a naked girl— cavort
In sand, shallows and the swift, uproarious
Descent of waterfalls, made one long day
A lazing summer’s day with girls — plunged
And bask’d and plunged and bask’d again, first one
And then the other alternate all day
In one delightful Rill and then another,
Or cours’d their hillocks and their valleys, leaped
Into the groves of bushy groundsel; or
When visiting the lofty grounds of Dartmouth—
The radiant coeds bronzing on the Green.
Then stood I, hunter, on the Indian Plains
Alert, of stern determination, savage
Who aims his nocked and blading arrow midst
The buffalo. Was it for this?

  • This fragment of a later revision to The Prelude was recently discovered among the papers of a Mrs. M — who wishes to remain anonymous. The inks and papers have undergone rigorous testing and I am assured the fragment is not fraudulent but a heretofore unknown and final revision undertaken by the great Romantic poet William Wordsworth. I am pleased to offer the reading public a first glimpse of the sublime verse enclosed therein.

The Problem with Wordsworth’s Prelude

Amplificatio: The way in which style may elevate or depress the subject at hand… the first means of stylistic ornament, amplification or attenuation… (a) in the actual word employed to describe a thing… (b) by the four principle methods of amplification: incrementum, comparatio, ratiocinatio, and congeries. [Quintilian (VIII, iii, 90) from A Handbook of 16th Century Rhetoric p.28]

Amplification may refer to exaggeration or to stylistic vices such as figures of excess or superfluity (e.g., hyperbole). [Amplification. (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved February 17, 2014]

I’ve been hankering for some beautiful blank verse that isn’t Shakespeare, so I thought I’d try reading, once again, Wordsworth’s 865350Prelude. I’ve been reading the Norton Critical Edition with its side by side printing of the 1805 and 1850 Prelude. Most seem to prefer the 1805 edition, but in terms of poetic quality, I occasionally find the 1850 version better — but not by much.

Here’s my problem with Wordsworth’s Prelude. I’m of the mind that Wordsworth is a second rate poet, but reading his Prelude convinces me that Wordsworth isn’t just a second rate poet who writes poorly but a third rate poet who only occasionally writes well.

The website goodreads offers several pages worth of  very interesting comments by readers. They’re mostly favorable, but there’s often this proviso:

I like a lot of Wordsworth’s poetry, and this is my second time reading The Prelude, and it’s still a bit of a slog to get through for me. There are beautiful, lovely passages, but then a lot of trudging through rambly boring ones that make me sleepy. [Comment by Claire]

Right. Exactly. Reading Wordsworth is mostly a slog and I’m going to explain why. First this disclaimer: I don’t read for content, which probably makes me a poor reader of Wordsworth. The poets’s philosophical views hold almost zero interest to me. I read for poetry. All the criticism I’ve read on The Prelude, so far, has focused on the work as exegesis rather than poetry. By contrast, the criticism of Keats’ Hyperion is commonly far more invested in the poetry. Keats’ Hyperion is appreciated as great poetry. I presently can’t think of any critic who would seriously contend that the Prelude stands comparison to Paradise Lost or Hyperion. It has its moments, but they’re few and far between.

So, here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to close my eyes. I’m going to slip the pages under my finger and open to a page at random — this so you don’t think I’ve deliberately chosen the dregs. And here we go. I’ve landed on Book Seventh lines 605-644 1805 (on the left side), 630-669 1850 version (on the right side). Pages 260-261 in the Norton Critical Edition. We’ll go with the 1850 version, since I can copy and paste it from here:

          Thus have I looked, nor ceased to look, oppressed          630
          By thoughts of what and whither, when and how,
          Until the shapes before my eyes became
          A second-sight procession, 1.) such as glides
          Over still mountains, 2.) or appears in dreams;
          3.) And once, far-travelled in such mood, a.) beyond
          The reach of common indication, b.) lost
          Amid the moving pageant, I was 4.) smitten
          Abruptly, with the view (a sight not rare)
          Of a blind Beggar, who, with upright face,
          Stood, propped against a wall, upon his chest              640
          Wearing a written paper, to explain
          His story, whence he came, and who he was.
          Caught by the spectacle my mind turned round
          As with the might of waters; and apt type
          This label seemed of the utmost we can know,
          Both of ourselves and of the universe;
          And, on the shape of that unmoving man,
          a.) His steadfast face b.) and sightless eyes, I gazed,
          As if admonished from another world.

            Though reared upon the base of outward things,           650
          Structures like these the excited spirit mainly
          Builds for herself; scenes different there are,
          Full-formed, that take, with small internal help,
          Possession of the faculties,1.) --the peace
          That comes with night; 2.) the deep solemnity
          Of nature's intermediate hours of rest,
          3.) When the great tide of human life stands still:
          4.) The business of the day to come, unborn,
          Of that gone by, locked up, as in the grave;
          5.) The blended calmness of the heavens and earth,             660
          Moonlight and stars, and empty streets, 6.) and sounds
          Unfrequent as in deserts; 7.) at late hours
          Of winter evenings, 8.) when unwholesome rains
          Are falling hard, 9.) with people yet astir,
          10.) The feeble salutation from the voice
          Of some unhappy woman, now and then
          Heard as we pass, a.) when no one looks about,
          b.) Nothing is listened to. But these, I fear,
          Are falsely catalogued; things that are, are not,

Right, so here’s the first thing that gets under my skin, Wordsworth’s pointless elaborating.

          Thus have I looked, nor ceased to look,

Not only has he looked but he has not “ceased to look”.

          By thoughts of what and whither, when and how,

It’s like a nervous tick. You can’t go more than 20 lines without Wordsworth essentially restating the same thing a dozen different ways. Do we really need to know that his thoughts are of what, whither, when,  how? No, we don’t. It’s just pointless babbling. From there, the reader descends into a miasma of convoluted phrasing rife with redundancies.

                        I was 4.) smitten
          Abruptly, with the view ( a sight not rare)
          Of a blind Beggar,

He was smitten. Well, if he was smitten, we don’t need to know that it was “with the view”. This is implied and redundant, but if you’re trying  to turn little ideas into a big epic, it’s apparently a good trick to be as wordy as possible. But even that’s not enough. He also has to tell us it was “a sight”. So now he’s given us the same information three times and then, finally, tells us what the object of the smiting, view, and sight was—”a blind Beggar”. What’s the blind beggar doing?

         Wearing a written paper, to explain
         His story, whence he came, and who he was.

Not a paper but a written paper. Do we really need to know it was a written paper. No, it’s a needless detail but it conveniently fluffs up the meter. And then what? The written paper explains his story. But if it explains the beggar’s story, doesn’t it stand to reason that it would also explain “whence he came, and who he was”? Isn’t that the point of “his story”? Does Wordsworth really need to add that it explains whence and who? No, it’s redundant.

Wordsworth then goes on to tell us, once again, that he is smitten, viewing, caught by, gazing at, the shape of the unmoving man (lest you thought the beggar burst into song). And then, just in case you didn’t get it the first time — the part about the beggar being “blind” — Wordsworth reminds us that the man’s eyes are “sightless”. Round and round we go.

And then he sets up his next several lines by elaborating on scenes differing (a pretentious Miltonic inversion) beginning with:

                            --the peace
          That comes with night;

Good, but Wordsworth can’t leave it at that. Now he’s going to natter on about sleep and peace (see above for the latter):

                             the deep solemnity
          Of nature's intermediate hours of rest,

The word deep is lazy — just a bland adjective Wordsworth threw in to keep the meter. Most of his adjectives are tossed in with the blithe indifference of metrical expediency. Solemnity is a vapid poeticism and “intermediate hours of rest” is a wordy abstraction with little poetic power. But Wordsworth isn’t done:

          When the great tide of human life stands still:

“Great tide of human life” is nothing short of a cliché, and writing that “life stands still” doesn’t improve matters. Next we’re going to get elaboration within elaboration:

          The business of the day to come, unborn,
          Of that gone by, locked up, as in the grave;

The phrase “as in the grave” elaborates on “locked up”, but is such an embarrassingly clichéd  addendum, and so artlessly tacked on, that if I were to read it aloud I could read it for laughs. But Wordsworth is just getting started:

          The blended calmness of the heavens and earth,             660
          Moonlight and stars, and empty streets, and sounds
          Unfrequent as in deserts;

More gratuitous elaboration. Do we really need to know about the “Moonlight and stars”? I thought “heavens” already covered that? (And notice how he uses moonlight instead of moon solely to keep the meter.)  And then, because he just can’t stop himself, he tacks on “as in deserts’, echoing the simple-minded simile “as in the grave”. But what makes it worse is the generic cliché-edness of the verse. And what really sinks the boat is that this kind of writing does nothing to advance the narrative. It makes reading the poem a slog because the reader has to spend two dozen lines listening to Wordsworth state and restate the same information with pseudo-poetic obviousness.

And as if all that uninspired piling on weren’t enough, Wordsworth launches the reader in a whole new direction, further adumbrating scenes different:

                                  7.) at late hours
          Of winter evenings, 8.) when unwholesome rains
          Are falling hard, 9.) with people yet astir,
          10.) The feeble salutation from the voice
          Of some unhappy woman, now and then
          Heard as we pass, a.) when no one looks about,
          b.) Nothing is listened to.

It’s not enough that the rains are “unwholesome”. The unwholesome rains are also “falling hard”.  The phrase “people yet astir” is blandly general. From there we descend into nonsensical stupidity. The phrase from the voice is utterly redundant.  Obviously, if one hears a salutation, then it stands to reason that the salutation is from the voice. Right? Wordsworth then throws in some metrical wordsworthfluffery with unhappy (another vacuous adjective).  It stands to reason that if the salutation is “feeble”, she’s probably not happy. But Wordsworth piles on more redundancies, adding: “now and then/Heard as we pass”. Once again, if the salutation was worth mentioning, then it was obviously heard. We don’t need to be told that he “heard it” (now and then as he passed). Wordsworth then gets so  tangled up in excess that the whole thing collapses into sheer contradiction. When no one looks about, he writes; but then that begs the question. If no one looks about, why the feeble salutation? And the salutations came more than once. They were now and then. Obviously the unhappy woman (and unnamed others who were astir) was looking about. Nothing is listened to, he writes. Well if nothing was listened to, then who did the hearing (now and then as they passed) and why the salutations?

There are just no two ways about it. It’s terrible writing. It’s terrible poetry. Even Wordsworth seems a little embarrassed:

But these, I fear,/ Are falsely catalogued

I can go to every single page of the Prelude and find more examples. It just doesn’t stop. Wordsworth is a veritable font of bad poetry — needless repetition, vacuous adjectives, pointless elaboration, redundancy, pretentious Miltonic inversions, metrical expediency, banal similes, non-sequiturs, double negatives, Latinate verbosity. You name it.

Wordsworth wasn’t entirely blind to his bad writing. The 1850 does make small improvements from time to time. the following is typical:

It hath been told already how my sight
Was dazzled by the novel show, and how
Erelong I did into myself return.
So did it seem, and so in truth it was —
Yet  this was but short-lived.

[The Prelude p. 102 1805Version  204-208]

The portion in italics is pointless. Wordsworth apparently agreed because he weeded out the blather in his 1850 rewrite:

It hath been told, that when the first delight
That flashed upon me from this novel show
Had failed, the mind returned into herself

[The Prelude p. 103 1805Version  204-206]

And that was that, almost, because then Wordsworth launches into another round of “excess and superfluity”:

          In climate, and my nature's outward coat
          Changed also slowly and insensibly.
          Full oft the quiet and exalted thoughts
          Of loneliness gave way to 1.) empty noise
          2.) And superficial pastimes; 3.) now and then
          Forced labour, 4.) and more frequently forced hopes;           210
          5.) And, worst of all, a treasonable growth
          Of indecisive judgments, that impaired
          And shook the mind's simplicity.--And yet
          This was a gladsome time.

This is the stuff of pure comedy. Each clause builds on the last adding more syllables and verbosity until, by the fifth clause, Wordsworth’s excess tumbles forth with an almost breathless panic:

And, worst of all, a treasonable growth
Of indecisive judgments, that impaired
And shook the mind’s simplicity.

Take a deep breath:

…yet/This was a gladsome time.

Indeed. It’s enough to leave a reader “insensible”. I’ve really come to the conclusion that the only reason Wordsworth is remembered for much of anything is due to the sheer volume of his output. If you write enough, if you’re a William Wordsworth (or a John Ashbery for that matter), you will eventually overwhelm your critics. You will also, like the broken clock, get it right twice a day.

The immeasurable height
Of woods decaying, never to be decayed,
The stationary blasts of water-falls,
And every where  along the hollow rent
Winds thwarting winds, bewildered and forlorn,
The torrents shooting from the clear blue sky,
The rocks that muttered close upon our ears,
Black drizzling crags that spake by the way-side
As if a voice were in them, the sick sight
And giddy prospect of the raving stream,
The unfettered clouds, and region of the heavens,
Tumult and peace, the darkness and the light
Were all like workings of one mind, the features
Of the same face, blossoms upon one tree,
Characters of the great Apocalypse,
The types and symbols of Eternity,
Of first and last, and midst, and without end.

[The Prelude Book Sixth Lines 624-640]

If only Wordsworth could have sustained more passages like this; and see here for a recently discovered fragment.