The Friendship: Wordsworth and Coleridge

Written by Adam Sisman
Review by Bill Dodds

The book’s title undervalues the scope of the book, for Adam Sisman has written more than an intricate description of the relationship between Coleridge and Wordsworth during the short period of their intimacy. The book, which is really in three parts, begins with Wordsworth’s first trip to France in 1790 and ends with Coleridge’s death in 1834.

The early chapters trace their intellectual and emotional development from the early 1790s to their first meeting in 1795. Both were young men of their time, enthused by the principles of the French Revolution, politicised in their thoughts but never active in radical politics, always wary of where that might lead them and committed to their poetry. Both men find their first loves which prove doomed for different reasons. To readers familiar with the intellectual and political thought of the time, much of these chapters is commonplace, but to those new to the period it forms an indispensable background.

The chapters that cover the period of greatest friendship are fascinating. Adam Sisman describes their closeness, whether in the Quantocks or the Lakes, as emotional and intellectual. He documents the ways in which their poetry was influenced by the other’s ideas, often developing the other man’s early thoughts into poems.

Adam does not neglect the complications of their personal lives. Wordsworth seems to have been resolved these more successfully than Coleridge, and this may have contributed to his estrangement from Wordsworth. ‘The Friendship’ finishes with Coleridge’s death, and although there is some logic to this ending, I felt that that the actual scope of the book demanded consideration of the fates of the other players.