A close and charitable look at the rise and fall of one of the most famous friendships in literary history.
Sisman, who left the publishing business to write literary history (Boswell’s Presumptuous Task, 2001), traverses a portion of a vast but well-explored terrain with his latest. Coleridge, Wordsworth—is there something to add to what already resides in the myriad volumes about these two men, their writings, their coevals, their times? Not a lot. Sisman does offer some new perspectives, but mostly this is a summary—a brisk, informed and generally disinterested one (he avoids partisanship)—of the relationship between two extraordinary men. Early in their friendship, Coleridge began to recognize his friend’s superior abilities as a poet, and for years he urged Wordsworth to devote himself to a lengthy masterwork, The Recluse, which Wordsworth could never complete. Sisman does a fine job of rehearsing the stories of the birth of Lyrical Ballads (and the complications of its revisions and subsequent editions), of the closeness between Wordsworth and his devoted sister, Dorothy, of Coleridge’s miserable marriage to Sara, of his passion for another Sara (Hutchinson), of his decline into self-doubt and drugs and ill health. Sisman also shows plainly the growing professional frustrations of Wordsworth, whose early volumes were savaged by critics and who responded with what even his friends characterized as arrogance. Great literary names walk these pages: Godwin, Lamb, Hazlitt, Southey, De Quincey. The final chapters—chronicling the misunderstandings, jealousies, resentments, silences—make for emotional reading. The maps and illustrations (unseen) should be helpful; one wishes, as well, for a chronology.
Though the menu is familiar, lovers of the early Romantics will enjoy the meal.