Wordsworth and Coleridge—The Lake Poets
FTER Coleridge and Wordsworth once met they soon became fast
friends, and in order to be near Coleridge the Wordsworths moved
to another house near Nether Stowey in Somersetshire.
Coleridge was two years or more younger than Wordsworth, having
been born in 1772. He was the thirteenth child of his father,
who was a clergyman. As a boy he was sensitive and lonely,
liking better to day-dream by himself than to play with his
fellows. While still a mere child he loved books. Before he was
five he had read the Arabian Nights, and he peopled his day
dreams with giants and genii, slaves and fair princesses. When
he was ten he went to school at Christ's Hospital, the Bluecoat
School. Here he met Charles Lamb, who also became a writer, and
whose Essays and Tales from Shakespeare I hope you will soon
At school even his fellows saw how clever Coleridge was. He read
greedily and talked with any one who would listen and answer. In
his lonely wanderings about London on "leave days" he was
delighted if he could induce any stray passer-by to talk,
especially, he says, if he was dressed in black. No subject came
amiss to him, religion, philosophy, science, or poetry. From
school Coleridge went to Cambridge, but after a time, getting
into trouble and debt, he ran away and enlisted in a cavalry
regiment under the name of Silas Tomkyn Comberback.
In a few months, however, he was discovered, and his brothers
bought him out. He then went back to Cambridge, but left again
at the end of the same year without taking a degree.
Meantime, while on a visit to Oxford, he had met Southey, another
poet who was at this time a student there.
Robert Southey was born in 1774, and was the son of a Bristol
linen draper, but he was brought up chiefly by an aunt in Bath.
At fourteen he went to school at Westminster, and later to
Balliol College, Oxford. When Coleridge met him he was just
twenty, and Coleridge twenty-two. Like Wordsworth, they were
both fired with enthusiasm for the French Revolution, and they
soon became friends.
With some others of like mind they formed a little society, which
they called the Pantisocracy, from Greek words meaning
all-equal-rule. They decided that they should all marry and then emigrate
to the banks of the Susquehanna (chosen, it has been said,
because of its beautiful name), and there form a little Utopia.
Property was to be in common, each man laboring on the land two
hours a day in order to provide food for the company. But the
fine scheme came to nothing, for meanwhile none of the company
had enough money to pay for his passage to the banks of the
beautiful-sounding river. Coleridge and Southey, however,
carried out part of the program. They both married, their wives
Coleridge, about the same time as he married, published a volume
of poems. But as this did not bring him wealth he then tried
various other ways of making a living. He began a weekly paper
which ceased after a few numbers, he lectured on history, and
preached in various Unitarian chapels. Then after a time he
settled at Nether Stowey, where he was living when he met
The two poets, as has been said, at once became friends,
Coleridge having a deep and whole-hearted admiration for
Wordworth's genius. "I speak with heartfelt sincerity," he says,
"and I think unblinded judgment, when I tell you that I feel a
little man by his side."
The two friends had many walks and talks together, shaping their
ideas of what poetry should be. They at length decided to
publish a book together to be called Lyrical Ballads.
In this book there was published the poem which of all that
Coleridge wrote is the best known, The Ancient Mariner. It tells
how this old old sailor stops a guest who is going to a wedding,
and bids him hear a tale. The wedding guest does not wish to
stay, but the old man holds him with his skinny hand—
"He holds him with his glittering eye—
The Wedding Guest stood still,
And listens like three years' child:
The Mariner hath his will."
He hath his will, and tells how the ship sailed forth gayly, and
how it met after a time with storms, and cold, and fog, until at
last it was all beset with ice. Then when to the sailors all
hope seemed lost, an albatross came sailing through the fog.
With joy they hailed it, the only living thing in that wilderness
of ice. They fed it with delight—
"It ate the food it ne'er had eat,
And round and round it flew:
The ice did split with a thunder-fit;
The helmsman steered us through!"
Then on they gladly sailed, the albatross following, until one
day the Ancient Mariner, in a mad moment, shot the beautiful
bird. In punishment for this deed terrible disasters fell upon
that ship and its crew. Under a
blazing sun, in a hot and slimy
sea filled with creeping, crawling things, they were becalmed—
"Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean."
Then plague and death came, and every man died except the guilty
"Alone, alone, all, all alone,
Alone on a wide, wide sea;
And never a saint took pity on
My soul in agony.
"I looked to heaven, and tried to pray;
But or ever a prayer had gush'd,
A wicked whisper came, and made
My heart as dry as dust."
But one day as the Mariner watched the water snakes, the only
living things in all that dreadful waste, he blessed them
unaware, merely because they were alive. That self-same moment,
he found that he could pray, and the albatross, which his fellows
in their anger had hung about his neck, dropped from it, and fell
like lead into the sea. Then, relieved from his terrible agony
of soul, the Mariner slept, and when he woke he found that the
dreadful drought was over, and that it was raining. Oh, blessed
relief! But more terrors still he had to endure until at last
the ship drifted homeward—
"Oh, dream of joy! is this indeed
The lighthouse top I see?
Is this the hill? is this the kirk?
Is this mine own countree?
"We drifted o'er the Harbour-bar,
And I with sobs did pray—
'O let me be awake, my God!
Or let me sleep alway.' "
The ship had indeed reached home, but in the harbor it suddenly
sank like lead. Only the Mariner was saved.
When once more he came to land, he told his tale to a holy hermit
and was shriven, but ever and anon afterward an agony comes upon
him and forces him to tell the tale again, even as he has just
done to the wedding guest. And thus he ends his story—
"He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God, who loveth us,
He made and loveth all."
Then he goes, leaving the wondering wedding guest alone.
"The Mariner, whose eye is bright,
Whose beard with age is hoar,
Is gone; and now the Wedding Guest
Turned from the Bridegroom's door.
"He went, like one that hath been stunned,
And is of sense forlorn:
A sadder and a wiser man
He rose the morrow morn."
Among the poems which Wordsworth wrote for the book of Lyrical
Ballads, was one which every one knows, We are Seven. In
another, called Lines written in Early Spring, he gives as it
were the text of all his nature poems, and his creed, for here he
tells us that he believes that all things in Nature, bird and
flower alike, feel.
"I heard a thousand blended notes,
While in a grove I sate reclined,
In that sweet mood when pleasant thoughts
Bring sad thoughts to the mind.
"In her fair works did Nature link
The human soul that through me ran;
And much it griev'd my heart to think
What man has made of man.
"Through primrose tufts, in that sweet bower,
The periwinkle trailed its wreaths;
And 'tis my faith that every flower
Enjoys the air it breathes.
"The birds around me hopp'd and play'd,
Their thoughts I cannot measure:—
But the least motion that they made,
It seemed a thrill of pleasure.
"The budding twigs spread out their fan,
To catch the breezy air;
And I must think, do all I can,
That there was pleasure there.
"If this belief from heaven be sent,
If such be Nature's holy plan,
Have I not reason to lament
What man has made of man?"
The book was not a success. People did not understand The
Ancient Mariner, and they laughed at Wordsworth's simple lyrics,
although the last poem in the book, Tintern Abbey, has since
become famous, and is acknowledged as one of the treasures of our
And now, as this new book was not a success, and as he did not
seem able to make enough money as a poet, Coleridge seriously
began to think of becoming a Unitarian preacher altogether. But,
the Wedgwoods, the famous potters, wealthy men with cultured
minds and kindly hearts, offered him one hundred and fifty pounds
a year if he would give himself up to poetry and philosophy.
After some hesitation, Coleridge consented, and that winter he
set off for a visit to Germany with the Wordsworths.
It was on their return from this visit that Wordsworth again
changed his home and went to live at Dove Cottage, near Grasmere,
in the Lake District, which as a boy he had known and loved. And
here, among the hills, he made his home for the rest of his life.
The days at Grasmere flowed along peacefully and almost without
an event. Wordsworth published a second volume of lyrical
ballads, and then went on writing and working steadily at his
long poem The Prelude, in which he told the story of his early
Coleridge soon followed his friend, and settled at Greta Hall,
Keswick, and there was much coming and going between Dove Cottage
and Greta Hall. At Greta Hall there were two houses under one
roof, and soon Southey took the second house and came to live
beside his brother-in-law, Coleridge. And so these three poets,
having thus drifted together, came to be called the Lake Poets,
although Southey's poetry had little in common with that of
either Wordsworth or Coleridge.
It seemed hardly to break the peaceful flow of life at Dove
Cottage, when, in 1802, Wordsworth married his old playmate and
schoolfellow, Mary Hutchinson. They had known each other all
their lives, and marriage was a natural and lovely ending to
their friendship. Of her Wordsworth wrote—
"She was a Phantom of delight
When first she gleamed upon my sight;
A lovely Apparition, sent
To be a moment's ornament;
Her eyes as stars of Twilight fair;
Like Twilight's, too, her dusky hair;
But all things else about her drawn
From May-time and the cheerful Dawn;
A dancing Shape, an Image gay,
To haunt, to startle, and waylay.
"I saw her upon nearer view,
A Spirit, yet a woman too!
Her household motions light and free,
And steps of virgin-liberty;
A countenance in which did meet
Sweet records, promises as sweet;
A Creature not too bright and good
For human nature's daily food;
For transient sorrows, simple wiles,
Praise, blame, love, kisses, tears, and smiles.
"And now I see with eye serene
The very pulse of the machine;
A Being breathing thoughtful breath,
A Traveller between life and death;
The reason firm, the temperate will,
Endurance, foresight, strength, and skill;
A perfect Woman, nobly planned,
To warn, to comfort, and command;
And yet a Spirit still, and bright
With something of angelic light."
The years passed in quiet fashion, with friendly comings and
goings, with journeys here and there, now to Scotland, now to the
Children were born, friends died, and once or twice the
Wordsworths changed their house until they finally settled at
Rydal Mount, and there the poet remained for the rest of his long
life. And all the time, for more than fifty years, Wordsworth
steadily wrote, but it is not too much to say that all his best
work was done in the twenty years between 1798 and 1818.
Besides The Prelude, of which we have already spoken,
Wordsworth's other long poems are The Excursion and The White Doe
of Rylstone. The White Doe is a story of the days of Queen
Elizabeth, of the days when England was still in the midst of
religious struggle. There was a rebellion in Yorkshire, in which
the old lord of Rylstone fought vainly if gallantly for the Old
Religion, and he and his sons died the death of rebels. Of all
the family only the gentle Emily remained "doomed to be the last
leaf on a blasted tree." About the country-side she wandered
alone accompanied only by a white doe. In time she, too, died,
then for many years the doe was seen alone. It was
often to be
seen in the churchyard during service, and after service it would
go away with the rest of the congregation.
The Excursion, though a long poem, is only part of what
Wordsworth meant to write. He meant in three books to give his
opinions on Man, Nature, and Society, and the whole was to be
called The Recluse. To this great work The Prelude was to be the
introduction, hence its name. But Wordsworth never finished his
great design and The Excursion remains a fragment. Much of
The Excursion cannot be called poetry at all. Yet, as one of
Wordsworth's great admirers has said: "In deserts of preaching
we find delightful oases of poetry."
There is little action in
The Excursion, and much of it is merely dull descriptions and
conversations. So I would not advise you to read it for a long
time to come. But to try rather to understand some of
Wordsworth's shorter poems, although at times their names may seem
One of the most beautiful of all his poems Wordsworth calls by
the cumbrous name of Intimations of Immortality from recollections
of Early Childhood. This is his way of saying that when we are
small we are nearer the wonder-world than when we grow up, and
that when we first open our eyes on this world they have not
quite forgotten the wonderful sights they saw in that eternity
whence we came, for the soul has no beginning, therefore no
ending. I will give you here one verse of this poem:—
"Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life's Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar;
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy,
But He beholds the light, and whence it flows,
He sees it in his joy;
The Youth, who daily further from the east
Must travel, still is Nature's Priest,
And by the vision splendid
Is on his way attended;
At length the Man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day."
Wordsworth, for the times in which he lived, traveled a good
deal, and in his comings and goings he made many new friends and
met all the great literary men of his day. And by slow degrees
his poetry won its way, and the younger men looked up to him as
to a master. The great, too, came to see in him a power. Since
1813 Southey had been Laureate, and when in 1843 he died, the
honor was given to Wordsworth. He was now an old man of
seventy-three, and although he still wrote a few poems, he wrote nothing
as Laureate, except an ode in honor of the Prince Consort when he
became Chancellor of Cambridge University. Now, as he grew old,
one by one death bade his friends to leave him—
"Like clouds that rake the mountain summits,
Or waves that own no curbing hand,
How fast has brother followed brother,
From sunshine to the sunless land!
"Yet I whose lids from infant slumber
Were earlier raised, remain to hear
A timid voice, that asks in whispers
'Who next will drop and disappear?' "
At length in 1850, at the age of eighty, he too closed his eyes,
and went "From sunshine to the sunless land."
"But where will Europe's latter hour
Again find Wordsworth's healing power?
Others will teach us how to dare,
And against fear our breast to steel;
Others will strengthen us to bear—
But who, ah! who, will make us feel?"
Books To Read
Poems of Wordsworth, selected by C. L. Thomson.
Selections, by Matthew Arnold.