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Coleridge and Wordsworth in the West Country Paperback – 1 May 1994
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Coleridge and Wordsworth in the West Country.
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In the preface to his very-readable book, Tom Mayberry writes that, despite the good biographies available on both poets, "This book arose form the belief that there remained, nevertheless, something more to be said, and especially that the West Country itself had seldom been presented in sufficiently accurate detail for its importance in the lives of Coleridge and Wordsworth to be properly understood." Mayberry goes on to say in his introduction how, "for both men, their memories of the West Country called up what seemed a brief golden age of friendship and creativity, a time of marvels which could never be recaptured."
Circumstances dictate that Coleridge features much more in the story than Wordsworth. Coleridge was born in Devon, spent some years in Bristol, and was the first to arrive at the foot of the Quantock Hills. He returned there often after the split with his fellow poet, whereas it was over forty years and towards the end of his life that Wordsworth returned to explore again their old haunts. Thus this book's first chapter looks at Coleridge's Devonshire childhood, his move to London and Cambridge and his return home.
By the third chapter we are in Bristol exploring his relationship with another great poet of his day and son of the city, Robert Southey, through whom Coleridge would meet not only his long-suffering wife-to-be, Sara, but also the Poole family of Nether Stowey. Mayberry describes the falling out of the two poets, and has much to say too about Coleridge's tendency to indecision and procrastination: "By 15 October 1796, almost a month after the birth of his son ... he had at last reached a decision. But the course he now proposed to take amounted, in effect, to a failure to decide, a refusal to make any of the conventional choices available to him, a creative act of cowardice. He would go to live near Stowey, and Tom Poole."
Wordsworth only enters the story halfway through the book, following his and his sister's arrival in west Dorset when Coleridge was already settled in Nether Stowey. The relationship between Coleridge and Wordsworth is then described in some detail. Whilst their attempts at poetic collaboration failed, Mayberry touches nevertheless on the circumstances of that short period of months in the latter half of 1797 in which Coleridge produced two classics of English poetry, `Kubla Khan' and `The Rime of the Ancient Mariner'.
In 1798 Coleridge and the Wordsworths departed for a tour of Germany and their subsequent parting of the ways. All returned to Britain, but - despite the revolutionary importance of their joint volume of `Lyrical Ballads' - Wordsworth's "geographical loyalties lay elsewhere, and it was in the north that his future life, and many of his greatest poetic achievements, would be set." Coleridge eventually followed with occasional returns to Bristol and Stowey, where he patched up a reconciliation with Southey. We are told of the end of our two heroes as well as many of their accomplices, such as Coleridge's son Hartley, Southey, Tom Poole and others, but the last years of Sara are notably absent.
The importance of Coleridge and Wordsworth to the cultural history of the time goes without saying, but is augmented by the links they had with other leading contemporary writers and thinkers. Thus Mayberry skilfully weaves into his text the connections made by one or other to the likes of Erasmus Darwin, Humphry Davy, Thomas de Quincey, William Hazlitt, Charles Lamb, John Thelwall, and the Wedgwoods.
The book comes with some generous appendices. The first of the four comprises entries from Dorothy Wordsworth journal during their stay below the Quantocks; the second is a useful gazetteer of places, informing us of what remains of their rural and urban landscapes from the poets' times; the third features some of the poems composed during their West Country sojourn, including not only `Kubla Khan' (whose opening lines still cause me goose-bumps), `Frost at Midnight', and part of the `Ancient Mariner', but also some by Tom Poole, John Thelwall, and Robert Southey; and the fourth is an extract from Tom Poole's narrative of John Walford, which had its effect on Coleridge's and Wordsworth's own work.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book, immersing myself in one of the most fascinating and transformative eras of British history, featuring some of the most free-thinking and culturally enlightening people of the day - and also immersing myself in one of the most beautiful and vivid areas of England. That enjoyment was assisted by the excellent writing style of the author, who has the gift of writing clearly whilst also conveying well the drama of the story.
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