When Coleridge found Wordsworth in bed with the love of his life the poets fell out bitterly



by Jonathan Bate (William Collins, £25, 608 pp)

The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge spent Christmas Day 1806 with his close friend William Wordsworth, together with Wordsworth’s wife Mary, her sister Sara Hutchinson and Wordsworth’s own sister, Dorothy.

Two days later, Coleridge bolted from the house. Taking refuge in the nearest tavern, he poured out his anguished thoughts on paper.

He destroyed the pages, but from what he later wrote it’s clear his distress was caused by having seen Wordsworth in bed with Sara. Coleridge was passionately in love with her, and years afterwards he was still haunted by the vision of the two of them together, ‘her most beautiful breasts exposed’.

Jonathan Bate explores the life of poet William Wordsworth, who was born in 1770, in a fascinating new biography. Pictured: William, at 28

It must have been quite a Christmas, because apart from all this domestic drama, Wordsworth spent every night reading aloud to Coleridge and his family from the long autobiographical poem he had been working on for two years. Never published during his lifetime, it became known as The Prelude and is considered his masterpiece.

Although the poem was dedicated to Coleridge, and the two men patched up their relationship, things were never quite the same between them.

And, strangely, their poetry suffered as well. ‘Wordsworth and Coleridge both began writing their best poetry when they met each other. They both stopped writing their best poetry when they fell out with one another,’ Jonathan Bate writes.

William Wordsworth was born in Cockermouth, in Cumberland, in 1770 and had a difficult childhood: his mother died when he was seven and his father when he was 13.

In 1791, after graduating from Cambridge, he travelled to Paris burning with enthusiasm for the French Revolution. Many years later he evoked the euphoria of that time in the poem which begins:

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive

But to be young was very Heaven!

In Paris he fell in love with Annette Vallon and in 1792 she gave birth to their daughter, Caroline. By then, Wordsworth had already returned to England, but he stayed in touch with Annette and Caroline, and supported them financially for most of his life.

The first of his poems to be published sold poorly and received unenthusiastic reviews. In 1795 he met Coleridge; they became the closest of friends and William and his sister Dorothy, who was his constant companion, even moved to Somerset to be closer to him.

The poetry of William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, was never the same after Samuel found William in bed with Sara Hutchinson. Pictured: Silhouette of Sara Hutchinson

William collaborated with Samuel Taylor Coleridge on Lyrical Ballads, including Coleridge’s Rime Of The Ancient Mariner. Pictured: William as portrayed by Richard Carruthers

William collaborated with Samuel Taylor Coleridge on Lyrical Ballads, including Coleridge’s Rime Of The Ancient Mariner. Pictured: William as portrayed by Richard Carruthers

The two poets sparked ideas off each other and in 1798 they collaborated on Lyrical Ballads, which included Coleridge’s Rime Of The Ancient Mariner. Wordsworth also began work on one of his seminal poems, Tintern Abbey.

A year later, William and Dorothy settled in Grasmere in the Lake District, at the small house which would later be known as Dove Cottage.

Although his work still attracted mocking reviews and sold very little — fortunately, he had inherited money from his father — Wordsworth’s fame, and that of the Romantic movement of which he was a part, was steadily growing. Grasmere was where the siblings felt happiest and was a never-ending source of inspiration. They walked constantly, and fragments of Dorothy’s beautifully descriptive nature notes were often echoed in her brother’s poems.

One spring day, Dorothy wrote in her notebook that they had passed a huge bank of daffodils.

This prompted Wordsworth’s most famous poem, so familiar that it has almost become a cliché.

I wandered lonely as a cloud

That floats on high o’er vale and hills,

When all at once I saw a crowd,

A host, of golden daffodils.

William who died in 1850, had a passionate love for the Lake District(pictured) that inspired the newly-formed National Trust

William who died in 1850, had a passionate love for the Lake District(pictured) that inspired the newly-formed National Trust

In 1802, Wordsworth married a family friend, Mary Hutchinson. Dorothy continued to live with them, and Mary’s sister Sara was also there much of the time.

Bate dismisses the widely-held idea of anything incestuous in Wordsworth’s relationship with his sister.

He is also doubtful that the poet’s sister-in-law Sara was his lover, offering the rather unconvincing suggestion that when Coleridge saw them in bed, they were simply reading.

Whatever the truth of his domestic arrangements, William’s marriage to the admirably long-suffering Mary seems to have been very happy, and he doted on their five children.

Bate, an Oxford academic, is a pacy writer and he doesn’t pull his punches when it comes to Wordsworth’s later poetry. Hardly any of it is worth reading, he declares, calling it both pompous and turgid. ‘The second half of Wordsworth’s life was the longest, dullest decline in literary history,’ he says.

Yet paradoxically it was then that his fame blossomed.

He accepted the role of Poet Laureate in 1843 — so the young radical who had rejoiced in revolution had become a leading member of the Establishment. Friends began to notice ‘a tendency towards vanity and pomposity’, Bate comments.

What lay behind this decline? The breach with Coleridge was one reason. Wordsworth’s marriage — whether or not there were dalliances — may be another. ‘Could it have been that the price of a quiet life and a happy marriage was the extinction of those sparks of inspiration?’ Bate wonders.

Wordsworth died in 1850, aged 80. But was he, as Bate claims, ‘the poet who changed the world’ because of his influence on writers such as Keats, Shelley, John Clare, Matthew Arnold, John Ruskin and George Eliot?

He can certainly be said to have played a big part in preserving part of our landscape. His passionate love for the Lake District inspired the newly-formed National Trust, as well as the author Beatrix Potter, to buy up great swathes of land there in the late 19th and early 20th century, thus preserving this beautiful area for the nation.

How good a poet was Wordsworth? When he was at his best, Bate says, his poems were as powerful as any since Shakespeare and they ‘uphold and feed’ the spirit of anyone who reads them.

He is surely right: just read the opening of Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, which might have been written for London today in its current crisis.

Earth has not anything to show more fair:

Dull would he be of soul who could pass by

A sight so touching in its majesty;

This City now doth, like a garment wear

The beauty of the morning; silent, bare.