Coleridge and Wordsworth

Published:  12:54 AM, 11 July 2017

Tales of betrayal, pain and misunderstanding

Tales of betrayal, pain and misunderstanding

In 1797, something magical happened in the domain of English literature. Two gentlemen, William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge betook themselves to a long walk across the countryside of England, hoping to make some revolutionary changes in literature. They had many rounds of deep and animated conversations. They vowed to work together and their work of collaboration came to be famously known as Lyrical Ballads, a collection of poems from both of them. These two men are the vanguards of English Romantic Movement and they are known throughout the history as 'friends'.

As Dorothy Wordsworth (sister of William) later recalled, they were fascinated to discover the ardor of excitement that Coleridge brought to this friendship. Coleridge, Dorothy recounts, on his first meeting with the Wordsworths, ran down the road, across the field, over the fence to arrive at their cottage-an act that was something of a refreshing surprise to the otherwise equable and meditatively calm Wordsworth. What really struck them was that a man with such waif-like appearance and adenoidal expression (thick lips, noisy breathing) could have a pair of eyes that could move and roll, as if, in frenzy, and could win anyone that came across, with their dreamy far away expression. Wordsworth's fell in love with this guy right away.

Love does always have a fairytale dimension to it. In the beginning, everything is so fine and hunky dory; it feels as easy as it is so smooth going downhill. Then crisis kicks in and tests the steel of that love. But in all fairy-tales, of course, the ending is always good.

Was the relationship between Wordsworth and Coleridge anything like a fairytale?  Quite the opposite, in fact. When Coleridge died in 1834, Wordsworth was still alive; he still had 16 more years of his life to live. He penned the following lines eulogizing his late friend: "Nor has the rolling year twice measured, / from sign to sign, its steadfast course, / Since every mortal power of Coleridge / Was frozen at its marvelous source."

These lines are nowhere close to telling us that for the last three decades the two friends lived in estrangement with each other. For more than a decade, they had stopped even visiting each other. Lyrical Ballads, a brainchild of friendship was some monument of fuzzy past in 1834. There were a lot of promises about this collaborative work; most of them were delivered; but all of them came trampling upon the flowers of friendship.

After the first edition of Lyrical Ballads in 1798, signs of strain on their friendship were getting visible. In the second edition, Wordsworth refused to include Coleridge's Christabel. He even altered and modified some of Coleridge's poem without informing the poet. Coleridge was hurt deep; the contrast of poetic nature was too obvious to ignore: Coleridge believed in the power of the poet, while Wordsworth some forms of Pantheism. That was clearly a recipe for conflict. Friendship was on the line.

What did not help the matter was some of the stirring comments Wordsworth made in the circle of common friends- Coleridge was too "metaphysical", too "self-obsessed". He even went out of the way, in a letter to Montagu, to confide that Coleridge was a "drunkard", a "liability". That was something less poetic of a great poet, less sympathetic of a man who had great sympathy for common man and his ordinary life. 

Coleridge undoubtedly had some issues with life- his marriage, addiction, his coxcombical adoration of creative people. But they were not the causes; they were, as the pioneer biographers like Walter Jackson Bate and Adam Sisman pointed out, are the symptoms of something fundamentally going awry in his life. Wordsworth was found wanting in time and interest in understanding them. But these biographers have news for us.

Any friend of Coleridge knew that 'precocity' is the right term to define a man that Coleridge was. He knew a lot, read a lot, promised much. He was a "library-cormorant", as he said of himself. It was a privilege to listen to him preach. His voice "rose like a steam of rich distilled perfumes", Hazlitt once observed. He was a prodigy to men; yet, he was such a sorry sight. His life was a series of incomplete projects, caught in limbo, punctuated by betrayals of people he wanted to latch on to for security.

Things like these happen when you are, any psychologist will confirm, are unsure of what you have got as potentials and Coleridge had a history of struggle with his poetic Muse. This struggle is of seminal importance in understanding the essence of his troubles in life as we are informed by the biographers. Throughout his life he kept shuffling his position, went for new things, new places, new people; there was a risk of failure but it was a risk worth taking; he sought relief from pain at any cost.

It was too much for him to confront the reality that his creative power, a power that he saw in abundance in the likes of Wordsworth, Southey or Lamb, was on the wane. He hardly could bear to watch his creativity slowly but surely drain out of his life, leaving him to dally with the dull and dreary metaphysics. The wound was deep and he always ran after artistic or other gimmicks to paper it over. But, he needed narcotics to help him along.

This story of his addiction is as infamous as the story of his reverencing 'superior ' figure is well known in history. The vacuum made by the gradual dwindling away of creativity forced him into a continuous, often pathological, search for tutelary figures who would work as buffer between the poet and the harsh world outside, and help the genius of the poet blossom in the process.

As much as he needed help in real life, he needed one in poetry; and this led him to formulate a special type characters known as 'usher'. The idea was simple- while the 'ushers' would dramatize the traumatized discovery of poetic loss, the poet would hide behind those characters, slide into background and enjoy a measure of anonymity .There the poet tucked away from the scrutinizing eyes of men would make for some thrashing self-criticism, a bout of intense self-beration.

Behind those ' ushers', there were always  deep swellings of emotions and of tales, tales of his wobbling grip on poetic fecundity, of betrayed love, of an unhappy marriage, of a physical ordeal, named rheumatism- a kind of death-in-life . For a person who spoke and wrote compulsively, almost out of existential necessity, the personal is the prominent part of his art. Coleridge speaks here for himself- artistic act "suspends the terror that haunts my mind". Terror rose as that ability dropped.

Coleridge's biographers are right. There is a lacuna in the both classical and modern day critical scholarship on Coleridge -attempts are glaringly absent to hark our critical ear back to the untold stories of his life. What critics always miss is that the problems of his life somehow found a way into his art and they are in more intimate dialogue with each other than we are ready to grant.

Coleridge is more than a bunch of corny themes- Christianity in Ancient Mariner, the Gothic in Christabel or poesy in Kubla Khan. It takes more than a run-of-the-mill literary sleuthing to rescue a poet who had been subject to classic 'inattention' in the past. The failure to get the co-ordinates right between his life and work is the prime reason why Coleridge, the man and poet, is an enduring mystery for us as he was for Wordsworth, his great contemporary and 'friend'.

The whole point of our discussion is neither to advertise the excellence of Coleridge as a poet nor to re-calibrate his place in the pedigree of the celebrated Romantics. The point is that when we have occasion to talk about imagination as a potent human faculty, we also need to be aware that factors such as the 'background' and the 'physical composure' of the poet also warrant attention in relation to the exercise of imagination. Coleridge is perhaps a great example of literary misinterpretation that follows when a poet is fatally wrenched from his intensely lived experience.

Unlike Wordsworth, Coleridge did not subscribe to the opinion that imagination is necessarily joyful. Too many things are at stake in our mental life for our imagination to keep discovering grace and beauty everywhere. Creative writers are known to experience this phenomenon. No wonder that it was Coleridge who coined the term 'psychosomatic', not some scientist. And it is very fitting that Coleridge, as he experience the mood of dejection slowly takes over and a long squally night to weather out, has the following lines to say--

A grief without a pang, void, dark, and drear, A stifled, drowsy, unimpassioned grief, Which finds no natural outlet, no relief, In word, or sigh, or tear- The writer is an Assistant Professor, Department of English, Barisal University. He can be reached at

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