Home  »  Volume XI: English THE PERIOD OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION  »  § 6. Friendship with Coleridge

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XI. The Period of the French Revolution.

V. William Wordsworth

§ 6. Friendship with Coleridge

His sense of a message only became clear to him after he had, in the summer of 1797, removed from Racedown to Alfoxden, so as to live in daily converse with Coleridge, who was then dwelling at Nether Stowey, in Somersetshire. Till then, the two poets had only exchanged a few visits, after the end of 1795, the first results of which had merely been to encourage Wordsworth to poetical composition. He had felt raised and exhilarated by Coleridge’s entire, almost extravagant, admiration for his Salisbury Plain and Borderers. But, when they had become close neighbours and intimate friends, Coleridge’s innate transcendentalism began to affect Wordsworth. It is impossible to define exactly the share of each in the elaboration of those poetical and moral tenets which they seemed, for a time, to hold in common, unconscious of the deep differences between them. Yet, on the whole, one may say that Wordsworth’s share consisted in his more precise observations of nature and common life. Coleridge, “with the capacious soul,” influenced his friend by his metaphysical gifts, “the power he possessed of throwing out in profusion grand, central truths from which might be evolved the most comprehensive systems.” An omnivorous reader, with an inclination towards mystic doctrines, Coleridge talked eloquently to Wordsworth on Plato and the neo-Platonists, Berkeley’s idealism, the pantheistic system and serene necessitarianism of Spinoza, the intuitional religion of the theosophists—a new world to one who had not yet gone beyond the rationalism of the eighteenth century and who always found his most congenial food in the associationism of Hartley. Now, Wordsworth, without binding himself to any one master, was to take hints from all in building up his own doctrine. But he was not an intellectual dilettante; all he absorbed from without had to be reconciled to his personal experience and turned to a practical aim. He would show men the way to wisdom and happiness. He would, from his country retreat, give out his views of nature, man and society. He justified this lofty ambition to himself because he was conscious, personally, of having issued out of error into truth, out of despondency into hopefulness. He thought he knew the reasons why most men in his generation had fallen into pessimism and misanthropy. He now believed in the restorative power of nature, in the essential goodness of a man’s heart when unadulterated by the pride of intellect, in the greatness of the senses which could drink in infinite joys and profound lessons of wisdom. Thus did he plan his Recluse, as early as March, 1798, “the first great philosophical poem in existence,” as Coleridge anticipated, which was to employ his highest energies for seventeen years. Though never completed, the monument exists in fragments of imposing magnitude—the first book of The Recluse, properly so called, written in 1800; The Prelude, written between 1798 and 1805, an autobiography meant as the ante-chapel to the huge gothic cathedral; and The Excursion, which, though it includes passages composed as early as 1797, was not finished before 1814. Such intervals of time account better than any other reason for the incompleteness of the edifice, for the poet’s ideas changed so much while he was engaged upon his work that no systematic presentation of doctrine, as was first intended, could possibly be achieved. Only the initial impulse remained—the poet’s sense of a duty put on him from on high, his earnest wish to benefit his fellow men morally and to make them happier. The reasons for his optimism might and did vary; but the optimistic attitude was preserved to the end, securing the unity of the poet’s career.