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The Friendship: Wordsworth and Coleridge
The Friendship: Wordsworth and Coleridge
Adam Sisman
Viking Adult, 2007
512 pp., $27.95

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Robert Siegel

"To Be Young Was Very Heaven"

The poetic friendship of Wordsworth and Coleridge.

Is there an English major who hasn't thrilled to the story of what is undoubtedly the most famous literary friendship in English letters? The account of two young poets plotting "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" in order to raise five pounds for a walking tour, while rambling over the Quantock hills, is the very stuff of Romanticism. Add to this the tale of William with his sister Dorothy ("his eyes," the poet called her) visiting the valley of the Wye, creating in his head all 159 of the "Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey" while they walked—not writing them down for a week—and you have literary magic.

While I was teaching in London, a student of mine from Wisconsin, after reading "Tintern Abbey," impulsively rented a car and spent the weekend alone in its "wild secluded scene." His strong reaction is hardly unique, and may remind us of Charles Lamb's moving in a "trance" for a week after hearing Coleridge's hypnotic "Rime."

Adam Sisman has taken upon himself to retell in depth the story of this fascinating friendship—without partisanship, as he declares in his introduction. Here he refers to the tendency of biographers to favor one poet over the other, given the bitterness that followed their unfortunate quarrel. I believe he succeeds in this attempt by focusing on the early and best years of their friendship.

These two young men of undoubted genius, when their friendship first began, were about to be the authors of the Lyrical Ballads—a book which, after many years and much abuse by the reigning critics, would change the direction of English poetry and the way we see the world. Sisman has fleshed out their unique friendship in exquisite detail, thoroughly consulting recent scholarship and primary sources and giving us an almost daily or weekly account of their halcyon days.

The two poets are surrounded by other friends, and Sisman finds much in their  correspondence to add to the letters and notebooks left by the principals. He digs ...

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