A Blupete Biography Page

Wordsworth and Germany (1797-1800), Part 4 to the Life & Works of
Samuel Taylor Coleridge

This collaboration, that of Wordsworth and Coleridge, and the movements of these two poets, especially, are matters which I take up under my treatment of Wordsworth. They may have first met in London during the winter of 1794/1795, of that we cannot be sure; but we do know that in March of 1797, Wordsworth had traveled with his friend Basil Montagu to Bristol from Racedown (where, then, Wordsworth and his sister were living) and a visit was paid to Coleridge at Nether Stowey. In June of that year Coleridge had returned to Stowey from a visit which he had, in turn paid to the Wordsworths. Within days of that, Coleridge had set out once again to Racedown. On July 2nd, the Wordsworths, at the urging of Coleridge, left Racedown in order to come to Stowey to live. While spending a number of days in the cramped quarters of the Coleridge household, Wordsworth, again with the help of Tom Poole, before July was out, had made arrangements to rent a mansion (Alfoxden) located nearby to Coleridge.

Practically from their first meeting the two poets were discussing their views on poetry. The results of these discussions was momentous for English poetry, for, in 1798, there was published Lyrical Ballads, a volume of poetry to which they both had contributed. It opened with Coleridge's magical "Ancient Mariner" and ended with Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey." It was to take some time before Lyrical Ballads was to come off the presses, indeed, at the time that happened, Coleridge and Wordsworth were in Germany. The book was not, by any means, an immediate hit with the public. One of Coleridge's biographer's, Molly Lefebure, writes: "The first reviews were unenthusiastic and sales were meagre. Wordsworth's poems, upon the whole, were not unkindly treated by the leading reviewers, but The Ancient Mariner was ill-received. Southey, in the Critical Review for October 1798 declared dourly: 'Genius has here been employed in producing a poem of little merit.'"18

There now comes a question to be asked, the answer to which requires me to make a short digression. How were Wordsworth and Coleridge, as full time poets, able to live? It was certainly not from the sales of their works, at least, not in these beginning years. Wordsworth, as we might see on the brief sketch that I had made of him, had very fortunately come into some money by way of an inheritance from a school friend, one that was to keep him going for a number of years. As for Coleridge: he had the good fortune of making the acquaintance of the Wedgwoods. The Wedgwood family, of course, was a family of potters; they had pursued the making of pottery as an art for a number of generations before the lives of the poets of which we write. Josiah Wedgwood (1730-1795) in his turn as the head potter in this old family business, in 1763, patented a cream coloured ware, Queen's ware, which became very popular. His designs became know as Wedgwood ware and included his well known blue with the raised designs in white. In 1769 Josiah built a plant at Hanley which was known as "Etruria." It would certainly seem that the family became very rich. Josiah had three sons: John, who became a banker; Josiah, who succeeded his father in the operation of the business; and Thomas, though a chronic invalid, was a dilettante, a supporter of the arts. What is known, is that both John and Tom Wedgwood were to visit the poets, and, in particular, were to spend five days at Alfoxden. They were not so impressed with Wordsworth, indeed they formed a very indifferent opinion of him; but, not so of Coleridge, of him, they were very much impressed.19 Recognizing that if Coleridge was to be kept at his literary work full time, it would be necessary that he should receive some financial help: the Wedgwoods determined to assist Coleridge in his artistic endeavours.

Coleridge, now with a wife and child to support and another on the way, determined to go to work as a Unitarian minister; his first appointment was to be in Shrewsbury. He had actually started preaching in Shrewsbury when he received word, in January or February of 1798, from his friends back at Nether Stowey that the Wedgwoods had arranged a life annuity in the amount of £150 per year with no conditions.20 This generosity was to allow Coleridge to carry through with plans that he had earlier made to go and study in Germany. As it happened, the lease which the Wordsworths had for the Alfoxden mansion was up; so a determination was made that Wordsworth and Coleridge should both together go off to Germany. The following accounting was set forth in my biographical sketch on Wordsworth:

"Such a gift [the Wedgwood annuity] however was not to keep Coleridge at Nether Stowey, as he longed to travel to Germany for further studies. Doubtlessly these plans were discussed with the Wordsworths and a determination was made; all three would travel together to Germany, once the one year lease of Alfoxden was up, viz., the end of June, 1798. It was during this time, it hardly needs to be mentioned, that the two poets collaborated on their work, Lyrical Ballads, the manifesto of English Romanticism.
Before leaving for Germany, Wordsworth and Coleridge saw to the final arrangements in respect to the publication of Lyrical Ballads. These arrangements required, for the most part, their attendance at Bristol were a Bristol bookseller, Joseph Cottle (1770-1853) was putting the book through the presses. (They did, during that summer, make a trip to Wales at which time Wordsworth wrote one of his most popular poems, "Tintern Abbey," written on July 13th, 1798.) By late August the party headed for London there to make their final preparations for their trip to Germany. On September 16th, Dorothy and William, together with Coleridge and a friend of theirs, John Chester, set sail for Germany from Yarmouth arriving at Hamburg on the 19th."
I should mention that a few months before Coleridge set off for Germany, a second child was born to the Coleridges, a son, Berkeley, this was during May of 1798; thus, Coleridge was to leave behind, his wife and two small children (two year old, Hartley and the infant, Berkeley); just so, Coleridge could go study in Germany. Coleridge was to stay in Germany for almost a year coming back to England in July of 1799. He and the Wordsworths did not in fact stay together for long in Germany, the Wordsworths determined to go their separate way within days of their arrival and were to arrive back in England a few months later without Coleridge. While in Germany, Coleridge had acquired a tolerable sufficiency in the German language; indeed, he was to acquire a permanent bent for German philosophy and criticism. And, while writing his family at regular intervals with expressions of how he so missed them, Coleridge, given his gregariousness, made the rounds visiting all the fashionable places in Germany which included his attendances to a great number of dinners and balls. In his absence, his infant son, Berkeley, was to die. Leaving Germany during July of 1799, Coleridge returned to England. I am sure he must have gone down to Nether Stowey to see Sarah and his surviving son; but, soon, we see where Coleridge is off again; this time to find the Wordsworths who just then were staying at a farm in Yorkshire, Stockton-on-Tees. He arrived at the Hutchinson farm on October 26th, there, for the first time, to meet the Hutchinson sisters: Mary who was to become Wordsworth's wife, and Sara, the younger of the two, who was to become the object of Coleridge's attention for a considerable period of time.21 By December 19th, however, Coleridge was in London where he took lodgings (21, Buckingham Street). Things were now better with the Coleridges, as we see that Sarah and young Hartley were now with Coleridge at London: Sarah was soon pregnant again.22 In London, Coleridge turns to newspaper work; he writes for the Morning Post making contributions between December 7th, 1799 and April 21st, 1800. He seem then to have been on the political beat, as he was to attend at the House of Commons reporting the debates; he also went off to the theatre in the capacity of a drama critic. During this period, Coleridge was socializing both with the Godwins and the Lambs.

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Peter Landry

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2011