William Wordsworth
June 1797 : Samuel Taylor Coleridge

The Ancient Mariner: Joseph Noel Paton
The Ancient Mariner : Joseph Noel Paton

Returning on foot from a trip to Bristol in early April, Wordsworth made a detour to pay a visit to Coleridge at Nether Stowey, and Coleridge returned the compliment a little later, arriving at Racedown on 5 June. Coleridge read aloud his unfinished drama Osorio and Wordsworth read aloud his Borderers. Coleridge stayed at Racedown until 28 June, then returned two days later in a cart to carry off William and Dorothy to Nether Stowey.

It was clear from the outset that both William and Dorothy were in awe of Coleridge's vibrant personality. William writes to William Mathews on October 24, 1795: Coleridge was at Bristol part of the time I was there. I saw but little of him. I wished indeed to have seen more - his talents appear to me very great. Dorothy writes to Mary Hutchinson during June 1796: .... You had a great loss in not seeing Coleridge. He is a wonderful man. His conversation teems with soul, mind, and spirit. And the feeling was mutual. Coleridge writes to Cottle during June 1796, from Racedown Lodge: Wordsworth admires my tragedy, which gives me great hopes. Wordsworth has written a tragedy himself. I speak with heartfelt sincerity, and I think, unblinded judgment, when I tell you that I feel myself a little man by his side, and yet I do not think myself a less man than I formerly thought myself. His drama is absolutely wonderful. And later: The Giant Wordsworth - God love him! When I speak in the terms of admiration due to his intellect, I fear lest these terms should keep out of sight the amiableness of his manners. He has written near twelve hundred lines of blank verse, superior, I hesitate not to aver, to any thing in our language which any way resembles it. (STC&RS, p142/3) His admiration was not restricted to William. Wordsworth and his exquisite sister are with me. She is a woman indeed! in mind I mean, and heart... her manners are simple, ardent, impressive. In every motion, her most innocent soul outbeams so brightly, that who saw would say, Guilt was a thing impossible in her. Her information various. Her eye watchful in minutest observation of nature; and her taste, a perfect electrometer. It bends, protrudes, and draws in, at subtlest beauties, and most recondite faults.

Thus commenced the highly productive collaboration between the two poets. One has to choose one's words carefully here because the input of the one's creative industry into the other's work is by no means straightforward. They clearly talked a great deal, exchanging ideas and theories, and they occasionally accepted lines from the other for incorporation into their own poems, but the closest they got to full collaboration was on the text of the Ancient Mariner, concerning which William writes: In the spring of the year 1798, he, my sister, & myself started from Alfoxden, pretty late in the afternoon, with a view to visit Linton and the Valley of Stones near it, and as our united funds were very small we agreed to defray the expence of the tour by writing a Poem to be sent to the New Monthly Magazine set up by Phillips the Bookseller and edited by Dr Aikin. Accordingly we set off and proceeded along the Quantock Hills, towards Watchet, and in the course of this walk was planned the Poem of the Ancient Mariner, founded on a dream, as Mr Coleridge said, of his friend Mr Cruickshank. Much the greatest part of the story was Mr Coleridge's invention; but certain parts I myslf suggested, for example, some crime was to be committed which should bring upon the Old Navigator, as Coleridge afterwards delighted to call him, the spectral persecution, as a consequence of that crime and his own wanderings. I had been reading in Shelvocke's Voyages a day or two before that qhile doubling Cape Horn they frequently saw albatrosses, in that latitude the largest sort of seafowl.. "Suppose," said I, "you represent him as having killed one of these birds on entering the South Sea, and that the tutelary Spirits of these regions take upon them to avenge the crime." The incident was thought fit for the purpose and adopted accordingly. I also suggested the navigation of the ship by the dead men....I furnished two or three lines at the beginning of the poem, in particular

And listened like a three years child;
The Mariner had his will.

... as we endeavoured to proceed conjointly... our respective manners proved so widely different that it would have been quite presumptuous in me to do anything but separate from an undertaking upon which I could only have been a clog.

So collaboration is probably not the right word. The nature of creative relationships is such that one spark of an idea from one side can lead to a conflagration of output from the other: one appropriate word of encouragement, one intimation that the other party understands the importance of what one is trying to achieve enforces and furthers the project in hand, allows one to resolve problems, even allowing one to see where the block is against making further progress. It is evident from what later transpired that Coleridge and William did not themselves really understand where were their differences and similarities. Even as early as the Lyrical Ballads, there was really no common ground in their approach to poetry, a fact clearly recognised by William in his negative comments about the Ancient Mariner and even more so in his rejection of Christabel for the second volume of the second edition.

Coleridge arrived at a time when William had little encouragement in what he was doing, or in the path he was taking with regard to poetry. If there was one thing that Coleridge had in spades, it was enthusiasm, and he pumped William full of it, to the point where William was prepared to launch himself into the grand project that Coleridge had conceived of writing a poem on a scale hitherto unimagined. He writes to James Tobin, on March 6, 1798: I have written 1800 lines of a poem in which I contrive to convey most of the knowledge of which I am possessed. My object is to give pictures of Nature, Man, and Society. Indeed I know not any thing which will not come within the scope of my plan. In fact, the whole poem, The Recluse, is addressed to Coleridge, and though Coleridge's input was scarcely necessary to its composition, his continual presence there as addressee and ultimately as the one who was capable of understanding what William was trying to achieve, was crucial.

In short, arriving at the moment he did, Coleridge gave William's creativity a huge boost. His enthusiasm and his encouragement became essential to William, and it meant that he could effectively ignore the fact that he had not reached an audience: Coleridge took the place of that audience.



Poems written in youth
Lines left on a Seat in a Yew Tree  
  Descriptive Sketches
An Evening Walk 

Poems on the naming of places
Joanna's Rock  

Poems of the Fancy
   The Linnet

Poems of the Imagination
  Lines written above Tintern Abbey
   Night Piece

Miscellaneous Sonnets
   Upon Westminster Bridge
It is a Beauteous Evening, Calm and Free  
   Composed in the Valley near Dover
The Poet's Work  

Poems dedicated to National Independence and Liberty
On the Extinction of the Venetian Republic  

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