Returning to England from Belfast, where I taught for a time, I frequently footstepped the Quantock Hills in Somerset, from Wills Neck to West Quantoxhead, following the stream in Holford Combe before crossing the bridge into Alfoxden Park. On one of my treks I paused at the beeches above Alfoxden, startled by two initials cut into the wood of a tree: ‘W W’. Although splayed and faded, the letters were still quite distinct, dating perhaps from a day when the Wordsworths and Coleridge had passed that way. Crisscrossed by tracks and studded with thorns, the Quantocks had lured and inspired the poets during their marvellous year of poetry-making, July 1797 to July 1798. The ‘Great Road’ across the ridge inspired Coleridge’s ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’; the Bicknoller Post, an ancient waymark, led Wordsworth to write his most notorious lines: ‘You see a little muddy pond/Of water, never dry;/I’ve measured it from side to side:/’Tis three feet long, and two feet wide’. Day by day Dorothy Wordsworth celebrated spring’s arrival in her ‘Alfoxden Journal’ while her brother and Coleridge wrote the poems that would make up one of the world’s most famous books, Lyrical Ballads.
Adam Nicolson has written a remarkably fresh and perceptive account of the poets’ ‘Year of Marvels’, illustrated with Tom Hammick’s vividly coloured woodcuts. It all began in June 1797, when Coleridge summoned the Wordsworths from their retreat at Racedown Lodge, deep in remotest Dorset. He was already settled with his family at Nether Stowey, Somerset, and the Wordsworths were soon installed nearby in Alfoxden House. The poetic incomers were helped with their arrangements by a 28-year-old tanner called Thomas Poole, a well-known democrat who was rumoured to have a ‘private army’ at his command.
To write his book, Nicolson ‘embedded’ himself in the Quantocks for a year, living there as the poets had done more than two centuries ago. Month by month he walked the combes and heights, in all weathers and at all hours of the day and night, attentive to the sights and sounds of sea and hill and wood, feeling every wind that blew. One model for all of this is Richard Holmes, who has followed in the footsteps of the Romantics, seeking to recover the poets, including Dorothy Wordsworth, as living people – young, unsettled and ambitious, ‘dreaming of a vision of wholeness’ yet confronted by the contradictions of their world and themselves. Another powerful influence throughout the book is Seamus Heaney, the poet of ‘opened ground’, of ‘bedding the locale/in the utterance’.
Like most of their generation, Coleridge and Wordsworth had embraced the French Revolution and its ideals of liberty and equality, then lived through the shattering reversals of massacre and war that ensued. By the mid-1790s, many of the poets’ acquaintances were racked by mental and emotional stress. Some of them fled the country; others opted for internal exile, hidden, they hoped, from the spies and informers patrolling the cities. Nicolson argues convincingly that the fragmentary, fierce and strange poetry Wordsworth produced before Lyrical Ballads was composed on the cusp of madness. It was only by going to ground in England’s West Country that Wordsworth was able to cope. We get a rare glimpse of him at that time in Dorothy Wordsworth’s remark that her brother is ‘dextrous with a spade’. Like Heaney, Nicolson’s young Romantics are energised by ‘touching territory’ – digging in to renew themselves and their writing. The idea, Nicolson suggests, ‘that the contented life was the earth-connected life, even that goodness was embeddedness … had its roots in the 1790s’. As furze bloomed brightly on Longstone Hill, Coleridge and Wordsworth began to write poems that would challenge ‘pre-established codes’, change how people thought and so remake the world.
It’s worth reminding ourselves that there was nothing inevitable about any of this. Living day by day, wandering here and there across the hills, none of them had any sense at the time that something extraordinary was happening. Coleridge’s ‘Kubla Khan’ came to him by chance at a lonely farmhouse on the edge of Exmoor, a consequence of taking opium ‘to check a dysentery’. Nicolson tinkers with the idea that the poem’s incense-laden pleasure ground might have been based on Alfoxden Park, where ‘Wordsworth Khan’ was ‘pregnant with greatness’ and, by implication, about to produce. As it turned out, Wordsworth would not make any significant poetry until at least the spring of 1798, and arguably not before July, when he wrote ‘Tintern Abbey’.
The poets’ year was busy, changeful and talkative. Nicolson is especially good on the bustle of visits, from Charles Lamb, ‘Citizen’ John Thelwall, Basil Montagu, Charles Lloyd, Tom Wedgwood, William Hazlitt and Joseph Cottle (who published Lyrical Ballads in September 1798). Less welcome was the arrival of ‘Spy Nosy’, a government agent sent to investigate reports that ‘French people’ were living at Alfoxden. Surveying all of these coming and goings was the rector of Over Stowey, William Holland, church-and-king by calling. Holland took a dim view of that ‘democratic libertine’ Coleridge, while Thomas Poole – patron of poets and the poor – was Satan saddled on a grey mare, flourishing ‘his French gold watch’.
With the onset of winter’s darkness, Nicolson says, ‘each poet, on his own and differently, began to write some of the great poetry of the year’. Coleridge composed three wonders in fairly quick succession: ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, ‘Frost at Midnight’ and ‘The Nightingale’. In the same period, Wordsworth set down ‘Lines Written in Early Spring’, ‘To My Sister’, ‘The Thorn’, ‘Simon Lee’ and a comic Quantock epic, ‘The Idiot Boy’. Hazlitt heard some of these poems read out at Alfoxden. ‘The sense of a new style and a new spirit in poetry came over me,’ he recalled. ‘It had to me something of the effect that arises from the turning up of the fresh soil, or of the first welcome breath of Spring.’ Hazlitt’s ‘life-filled comparison’ captures the creative vitality of the enterprise, ‘all tilth and loam, the smell of earth in the nostrils … these spades pushed into this earth by these poets were turning the world upside down’. Between the poets’ fingers and thumbs, however, their pens were digging very different turf. Coleridge, poet of dreams and shadows, of ‘influxes/Of shapes and sounds’, felt himself ‘infused’ by a living universe, whereas Wordsworth, as solitary as the Bicknoller Post, embedded himself at the centre of his poems and his world.
What emerges most compellingly from Nicolson’s book is not so much a creative collaboration between ‘strength and connectedness’ as a fractious friendship that was ‘powered by opposite visions’. While this encouraged poetry-making, it also set the poets on sharply divergent tracks. Coleridge, by far the more accomplished poet, became increasingly diffident and dependent, less inclined to attempt again the speculative brilliance of a poem like ‘The Aeolian Harp’. Wordsworth, by contrast, grew self-sufficient, withdrawn and noncooperative. Ahead of them lay the publishing shambles that almost scuppered Lyrical Ballads, and a stormy sea voyage to Hamburg, where the two poets disembarked and set off into different futures.