The big drops start

John Bayley

  • Coleridge: Early Visions by Richard Holmes
    Hodder, 409 pp, £16.95, October 1989, ISBN 0 340 28335 1
  • Wordsworth: Romantic Poetry and Revolution Politics by John Williams
    Manchester, 203 pp, £29.95, November 1989, ISBN 0 7190 3168 0
  • Sara Coleridge, A Victorian Daughter: Her Life and Essays by Bradford Keyes Mudge
    Yale, 287 pp, £18.95, September 1989, ISBN 0 300 04443 7

‘Few moments in life so interesting,’ Coleridge noted, ‘as those of an affectionate reception from those who have heard of you yet are strangers to your person.’ The occasion was his meeting in the autumn of 1799 with the Hutchinson sisters – Mary, Sara and Joanna – at their brother Tom’s Yorkshire farm. Coleridge laid himself out to charm them and succeeded. The middle sister, Sara, whom he would call Asra, to set her apart from his own wife Sara, became his prime female figure of worship and consolation. Mary was to have a long and tranquil married life with Wordsworth. Joanna continued to live with her brother Tom.

Wordsworth, too, was of the party, and so was his sister Dorothy. But Wordsworth does not really enter the moment. The striking thing about the relation of the two is how accessible Coleridge remains to us today – in it, and in himself: how inaccessible Wordsworth. By the time Coleridge arrives at the Yorkshire farmhouse he is as familiar to us as anybody today, in our own acquaintance, and as readily and easily comprehensible. Wordsworth is left behind in history, a figure in the past and in the words of a book, a peak hidden in the mist of the egotistical sublime. Impossible to imagine him scribbling down that comment on the interesting moments in life, yet anyone today might do it. The life in Coleridge seems permanently, confusedly, perpetually present – and never more so than in this almost incredibly vivid biography. Richard Holmes has a genius for the job, as he showed fifteen years ago in his biography of Shelley. In a sense, there is no need to bring Coleridge to life, but in this compelling narrative of those early years of the poet Holmes makes us seem actually to be living with him, sharing in the stream of his consciousness in a way that would be quite unthinkable with Wordsworth.

Coleridge remains himself, whereas Wordsworth has vanished into his own poems; they seem like monuments of a bygone diction and mode of feeling, extruded by the calm but overpowering will to be ‘a great poet’. The mind of Man, ‘my haunt and the main region of my song’, as Wordsworth called it, remains paradoxically in a museum of concept, together with what Basil Willey long ago described as that ‘widespread desire’ in the 18th century ‘to equate the moral and the physical world’. Wordsworth’s willed emphasis on the role of nature, and its beneficence, now seems utterly beside the point. Wordsworth’s language, like the natural objects it describes, has parted company with us today, all the more so from Wordsworth’s determination to employ the language ‘really used by men’.

I love a public road: few sights there are
That please me more – such object hath had power
O’er my imagination since the dawn
Of childhood, when its disappearing line
Seen daily afar off, on one bare steep
Beyond the limits which my feet had trod,
Was like a guide into eternity,
At least to things unknown and without bound.

That brings before us what roads once were, and are no longer: as so often with Wordsworth, the hiatus between past and present seems complete, the nature of lakes and mountains having changed more subtly but as completely as that of roads. Only the pieties of literary sympathy – which can and should be learnt and practised – can bring them back to us, just as the pieties of religious practice could and should depend upon keeping the past alive on its own terms.

The valuable thing about John Williams’s book on Wordsworth’s poetry and politics is the way it accepts, perhaps without meaning to, the historicity of its subject, and examines it with a care and insight that are not in the least concerned with our own contemporary needs and responses. Even Sun and Moon are not the same orbs today as they were then for the poet. The Sun was a pledge of life and its responsibilities,

And from like feelings, humble though intense,
To patriotic and domestic love
Analogous, the moon to me was dear.

An engaging and indeed endearing thought, but one not likely to strike a poet of today such as Larkin, for whom, in ‘Sad Steps’, the Moon has the kind of immediacy, and absurdity, that also suddenly beams on us in Coleridge’s description in ‘The Nightingale’.

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