The Making of Poetry: Coleridge, the Wordsworths and Their Year of Marvels by Adam Nicolson

While walking in the woods of England’s rhyne-ridged Quantock Hills, where William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge lived in the late 18th century, before either had published the poems that would make his name endure, the British author Adam Nicolson fell 25 feet down a collapsing riverbank. This was in Holford Glen, near Alfoxden Hall, a Somerset manse that Wordsworth and his sister, Dorothy, rented in 1797, a three-mile walk from the cottage where Coleridge lived with his wife, Sara, and their baby son, in the village of Nether Stowey.

The path had abruptly caved in under Nicolson’s feet, and as he shot down the sudden ravine, he was knocked out and lay briefly unconscious on a stream bed below. Coming to, he got up, and, though bleeding, walked dazedly (“climb’d with perilous toil,” Coleridge might have put it) until a stranger appeared and came to his aid, which the author took as “a Coleridgean blessing of comfort and connection.” Later, he would visit the grounds of Alfoxden with the artist Tom Hammick, and the two of them would cut sections from the broken limbs of the “ancient oaks, chestnuts, ash, beech and cherries” that lay “beneath the trees like the fragments of cast skeletons.” Hammick would hew and carve this resonant kindling into woodcuts to illustrate Nicolson’s book The Making of Poetry: Coleridge, the Wordsworths and Their Year of Marvels, an exquisite exploration of the friendship of the two poets during the seasons that formed and shaped their craft.

Full Immersion

Just as a Method actor immerses himself wholly in a role (losing 40 pounds, gaining 40 pounds, pulling teeth, learning ballet, working on a scallop trawler) to bring authenticity to his characters, Nicolson became something of a “Method poet” to write this book. Decades ago, in his mid-20s, he’d roved the Quantocks, “dropping into just the relationship with the country that Coleridge and Wordsworth had invented here two centuries before, at exactly their age.”

Wordsworth (left) and Coleridge shared a passion for their surroundings.

Now, to inhabit their relationship more fully, to “lower myself into the pool of their minds,” he returned to the area and re-traced their steps, endeavoring to see what they saw; to read what they read; and to cross the land they had covered: the steep-sided dells, the “low, damp fields,” the shadowy combes, and the lanes “creased into the land” near hawthorns “clotted with blossom, the air double-creamy for yards around them.” Unlike his subjects, who took inspiration in “intensely sociable walking,” likely discoursing on Milton and the sublime as they trod the “half-lit road past the thorns and hollies out on the gorsy moors,” Nicolson was mostly alone. Still, he absorbed the landscape that had embraced Coleridge and Wordsworth as if they were accompanying him, their eyes guiding his seeing.

Adam Nicolson became something of a “Method poet” to write this book.

Reading the author’s descriptions of his rambles is like sipping an eau de vie that lands bright and burning on the tongue, then elates the palate with its rush of cool, upward vapor: he notices “narrow rods” of sunshine pushing through streams “so that the watery floor is spattered and mapped in leopardskin light.” Around him, “Leaves shadow the world. Bindweed is in the hedges and the brambles are in flower.” At the roadside, “Wood-pigeons hoot and strum in the garden trees, and the meadowsweet bubbles.” His beguiling language re-activates the spell of enchantment that compelled the Lake poets so long ago.

Noting Wordsworth’s disdain for sheer “inventory” of nature, Nicolson writes, “Wordsworth was clear that the mere transcription of sense impressions into words, poetry as transcribed vibrations, was not enough. Poetry for him was grander and more architectural than that.” Be that as it may, Nicolson’s Quantock vibrations, received at a distance of over 200 years from the charge that sparked Wordsworth and Coleridge’s shared masterpiece, Lyrical Ballads, in 1798, have the power to make the contemporary reader feel the urgency and emotion that gripped those poets at the turn of the 19th century.

Lonely as a Cloud

In the 21st century, Wordsworth is not the household name that he became in the 19th, when he was Britain’s poet laureate, and on through the 20th. If you know anything of Wordsworth before taking up this volume, you’ll be familiar with his best-known poem, first published in 1807, which begins, “I wandered lonely as a cloud / That floats on high o’er vales and hills,” and follows him to a greensward where “a crowd / A host” of daffodils romps, thousands of them, flouncing their petals “in glee,” sending him into a rapture. Wordsworth stored that sight in his memory, where it would “flash upon” his “inward eye” during reflective moments indoors, at which times “my heart with pleasure fills, / And dances with the daffodils.”

Wordsworth wrote his best-known poems while living in this English-countryside cottage with his sister.

In truth, Wordsworth had not beheld that floral vision alone; the lonely cloud had company, in the form of his preternaturally expressive sister, Dorothy. It was her journal entry, recorded on April 15, 1802, in which she wrote of how the daffodils “tossed and reeled and danced, and seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind,” that prompted her brother, several years later, to write those verses. While the poem is entirely Wordsworth’s—his conception, his selection of words and images, his execution—its power and assurance derive from his instinct for companionable solitude, which had led him to the habit of forming his individual impressions of nature amid other people’s interpretations, enriching his own without threatening them. Late in life, Nicolson writes, Wordsworth would tell any who asked that “for poetry to surface it had first to pass through the great digestive organ of his mind. Poetry did not lie out in the fields and woods like mushrooms or autumn leaves. Poetry existed only in the meeting of mind and world.”

Reading the author’s descriptions is like sipping an eau de vie that lands bright and burning on the tongue.

The Making of Poetry asks whether that meeting of mind and world ever could have occurred for Wordsworth had he not met Coleridge and spent that formative year in the Quantocks, walking the woodlands with his sister and his new friend. Three of the woodcuts by Hammick emphasize the difference between the poets’ characters: In one, a young Wordsworth, tall and serious, stands at a telescope like a rector at a lectern, intently reading the night sky against a backdrop of stars. In another, Dorothy, her dress colonized by foliage, enters the leaf-strewn “path of poetry,” as much a part of the landscape as any of the trees. In a third, young Coleridge appears, “steaming along an inviting road,” a torrent of birds darting around his head like a swarm of insistent ideas.

Coleridge, Nicolson writes, had a mind “as alive and mobile and endlessly self-reshaping as a concatenation of starlings.” He was ebullient, positive, vehement, and warm, though often “thought-bewilder’d” (his own description), and with a bent for self-destructiveness. Wordsworth was more guarded, slower both to form impressions and to mold the words to convey them.

Meeting of the Minds

At the time that Wordsworth met Coleridge, Nicolson writes, he was depressed and full of rage, “sunk inward, in a kind of paralysis, held in uncertainty and perplexity.” The Wordsworth siblings’ inheritance had been wrongfully withheld (it was restored in 1802, belatedly giving the poet the means to marry), and he was “without employment, without prospects, without money, without love, almost without friends.”

He was also but recently returned from France, where he had gone to witness the French Revolution, in a spirit of republican fervor (which abated after the Terror set in). Overseas, he had fallen in love with a Frenchwoman, and had a baby with her, but he abandoned both mother and child when he returned home in 1793, the year Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were decapitated. In Britain in 1795, brooding over his failings, despondent and wracked by guilt, he moved with his sister to a house in Dorset.

It was not long after their move, on an out-of-town trip, that Wordsworth met the younger poet and began to recover his confidence. Coleridge, exuberant, effusive, and enthusiastic, taught him “how to find goodness in himself, how to see the world as good and how to find goodness in the connection between them.” In July of 1797, Wordsworth and Dorothy paid a visit to the Coleridges in Somerset, and had such rewarding talks and walks that they promptly quit Dorset and moved to Alfoxden Hall in the space of two weeks.

Activist Poets

During the period that the Wordsworths and the Coleridges were neighbors in the Quantocks, Nicolson explains, from the summer of 1797 until the fall of 1798, the poets were not only dreaming of daffodils and Xanadu. England, Europe, and America were stirred by the fallout of the French Revolution, and so were the poets. The England Wordsworth had returned to in 1793 was a country in turmoil.

Coleridge and Wordsworth didn’t stop at nature, incorporating Britain’s social unrest into their work.

In the countryside, the peasantry and the middle class suffered from poverty and “unadulterated despair,” as a result of rapid industrialization and the destruction of the yeoman class of small landholders. In the cities, the leadership was panicked by the rising cry for republicanism—“the French contagion,” leading to suppression of free speech and the harassment of radicals and of suspected revolutionary spies. Idealistic British thinkers, writers, and poets, including Wordsworth and Coleridge, publicly deplored the misery of what today would be called the 99 percent, and called for greater rights and respect for the common man; their calls to conscience put them under suspicion of sedition.

Wordsworth and Coleridge deplored the misery of what today would be called the 99 percent.

Coleridge had moved to Somerset in 1796 to retreat from the foment of radical politics and the searchlights of the Home Office. In Nether Stowey, he hoped to establish a refuge for men of ideals, “a bower of friendship, a kind of organic rootedness in which liberty and poetry could blossom,” Nicolson writes, where “some kind of change could be wrought in the soul of England.” The form that Coleridge and Wordsworth’s activism would take would be a new kind of poetry, “not decorative but subversive.” They would write not in the Elysian, patronizing tone of the preceding generation of poets, but in the accessible, unpretentious language of ordinary people (that is, in the idiom of 1798; two centuries later, that idiom too sounds lofty).

Wordsworth’s purpose, according to Coleridge, was to draw the attention of every reader to their human right to enjoyment of their environment, “awakening the mind’s attention from the lethargy of custom, and directing it to the loveliness and the wonders of the world before us.” Coleridge’s purpose, which he put so memorably that it has become cliché, was to use poetry to confer human interest and truth upon the “shadows of imagination,” to procure the “willing suspension of disbelief … which constitutes poetic faith.” In other words, he wanted to exalt and validate inner visions, to make a dream legible, and shareable.

The rolling hills that inspired Wordsworth and Coleridge’s shared masterpiece, Lyrical Ballads.

In the fall of 1798 the poets left Somerset behind and traveled to Germany, as Lyrical Ballads set sail. In that “conjointly” conceived first edition, Wordsworth shared the insights he had gained from the year of directed camaraderie on the heathlands in his poem “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey, on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye During a Tour. July 13, 1798.” He wrote: “I have learned / To look on nature, not as in the hour / Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes / The still sad music of humanity, / Not harsh nor grating, though of ample power / To chasten and subdue.” With Coleridge, he had discovered that nature was “not merely a moral force,” Nicolson writes, but “the gateway to eternity and permanence,” a gateway he could not have entered alone. “That may be the greatest legacy of this year of marvels,” Nicolson suggests, “the dissolution of the boundaries of the self.” By allowing the lines to blur between themselves and the natural world, the Wordsworths and Coleridge sharpened their individual distinctness, carving themselves into their wild universe; letting it contain them, and reveal them.

Liesl Schillinger is a literary critic and translator and teaches at the New School