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Wordsworth, Coleridge – and a biography that so seduces poetry itself


For a little over a year, two of the greatest poets of the English language lived in the Quantock Hills in Somerset, just a few miles apart.

They were both full of energy. 27-year-old William Wordsworth had run 3,000 miles through France and Switzerland. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, three years his junior, didn't think about running 40 miles in a day. In fact, he probably walked a lot more than that since he never walked in a straight line and preferred to zigzag along alleys and paths, even if that meant an attendant was forced to duck and dive. Coleridge took big, long, leaping steps, talking continuously about every subject under the sun. "When I was digressing, expanding, moving from subject to subject, it seemed to me to be floating in the air, sliding on ice," recalled his young admirer William Hazlitt. "I found that he kept crossing me on the way by switching from one side of the footpath to the other."

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Coleridge (right) 1815 and William Wordsworth 1831 (left)

According to Adam Nicolson, he was "a volcano of ideas" full of plans and projects. One of his long-term plans was to devote 20 years to writing an epic poem. For this he had ten years to master different disciplines, including medicine, geology, mathematics and chemistry, five years to write the epic poem and the last five years to correct it.

Wordsworth, on the other hand, was more sober, more careful, less shabby, and most of all determined to show his heroic genius to the world. "His own feeling for his own size was his biggest weakness," Nicolson writes.

He arrived in the Quantocks in June 1797 with his dressed-up sister Dorothy, who was happy to put her keen intelligence at his service. Nicolson is particularly good at conveying the importance of Dorothy in the setup. She loved robins, he says, "and there was something robin about her: the pin brilliance of her song, her watchful restlessness, the tiny, flickering sharpness of body and being."

Her brother William, for his part, loved her and took it for granted to about the same extent. "There is no evidence of equality between them," notes Nicolson. “She is the servant, he the walking hero; she participates quietly, he struggles with his size. "

As you can see from these brief excerpts, Adam Nicolson is the perfect author to record the ups and downs of this historic year for romantic poetry. He has a keen eye for the human weaknesses of poets, but never lets himself be undermined by the power of their work. At the same time, he shares her empathy with the natural world, and many of his own sentences and phrases hum with a poetic sensibility.

When I read The Making Of Poetry, I first underlined particularly beautiful passages, but soon realized that I would end up underlining practically the whole book. Take, for example, the owl's song: "The owl is muffled like a trumpet with a pillow in its mouth … If a cough could sing, it would sound like this." Or this if he discovered the first violet of spring, with a " Smell so weak that it was like remembering a smell ".

He is also a master of the long movement, blessed with the rare ability to adapt the rhythms and cadences of his prose to the subject of his gaze. To give just one example: I am a special fan of larks and thought I knew them well, but with this wonderful sentence he let me see and hear them anew: “Larks jump out of the gorse and remain silent for the first ten or 15 Feet, jumping up the stairs as if there were floors in the air, and only when they have reached the upper floors do they begin their song, bubbly, chaotic, as unexpected as a dream, barely corrected strings of notes, a long and lyrical Representation of a life that is likely to burst, the story of the unstoppable, the incontinent lark that sings in a filterless world. & # 39;

Nicolson himself lived in the Quantocks to write this book, went where the poets went, read what they read, dipped in their notebooks, and recorded the coming and going of the seasons. Wordsworth and Coleridge created some of the greatest poems in English this year – including Kubla Khan, The Rime of the Ancient Seafarer and Tintern Abbey – and it is Nicolson's belief that their creations can best be understood as a physical experience. If I feel it on my skin, I can hope to know what happened. "

Coleridges Cottage in Nether Stowey. Nicolson has a keen eye for the human weaknesses of poets, but never lets himself be undermined by the power of her work

Coleridges Cottage in Nether Stowey. Nicolson has a keen eye for the human weaknesses of poets, but never lets himself be undermined by the power of her work

So he constructed a peculiar kind of haunted biography that crackles with life, is exciting and original, a million miles away from the solemn, dry spouts of literary studies. If from time to time his attempts to feel it on the skin become absurd, it is only proof of the boldness of his experiment. At some point he invites a number of artists and intellectuals to represent Coleridge's gang of Bohemian friends. While walking, they chat about art and politics and everything else under the sun, but Nicolson strives to gain lasting insight into Coleridge or Wordsworth from this experience, aside from the somewhat blurred friendship that seemed wonderful in a lonely condition. # 39 ;.

At another point, he even feels the same physical pain – a tightening of the chest, anesthesia of the arm, muscle cramps – as the poet himself did all these years ago. Could that really be true? The intensity of his understanding of Wordsworth and Coleridge convinces me of that.

But he makes sure that his personal difficulties never overshadow the history of the poets. And what a story! This year in the Quantocks was much more than one of larks and daffodils. Wordsworth and Coleridge were both political radicals fueled by the French Revolution and monitored by security services.

They came to the Quantocks, partly retreating from control, partly to build a radical community: when an agitator named John Thelwall came to stay, he was persecuted everywhere and reports of his movements were sent back to Whitehall. Nicolson offers striking evidence of the poverty that prevailed in Somerset at the time, with expropriated farmers, press gangs roaming the country and snatching men for the navy, and maimed soldiers desperately looking for food. "If you owned a cow and kept it in a field, you could expect the hungry to milk it overnight."

The characters that populate this book are all wonderfully colorful and eccentric. Practically everyone, as Nicolson says, is "touched or swayed on the verge of madness". Coleridge himself was known to be addicted to opium and composed his most fascinating poem, Kubla Khan, in his hallucinogenic magic. But he was also capable of the clearest and most tender work: Nicolson describes Frost at midnight as "the greatest hymn to fatherly love that was ever written".

There was inevitable tension in the friendship between Coleridge and Wordsworth, which was exacerbated by Wordsworth's condescension. Wordsworth thought Coleridge's Ancient Mariner was misspelled and badly written, while Coleridge secretly wondered if Wordsworth's poems weren't too prosaic and unimaginative.

But their shared vision for a new form of poetry triumphed over all personal differences. Nicolson convincingly argues that her poems from this year may influence the way we see ourselves more than ever: we are part of nature, not its masters.

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