Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Two Friends: Wordsworth and Coleridge

Vivian Gornick reviews three books about friendship among poets. These opening paragraphs are about friendship in general:
In the centuries when most marriages were contracted out of economic and social considerations, friendship was written about with the kind of emotional extravagance that we, in our own time, have reserved for an ideal of romantic attachment. Montaigne, for instance, writing in the sixteenth century of his long dead, still mourned-for friend, Étienne de La Boétie, tells us that they were "one soul in two bodies." There was nothing his friend did, Montaigne says, not an act performed or a word spoken, for which "I could not immediately find the motive." Between the two young men communion had achieved perfection. This shared soul "pulled together in such unison," each half regarding the other with "such ardent affection" that "in this noble relationship, services and benefits, on which other friendships feed," were not taken into account. So great was the emotional benefit derived from the attachment that favors could neither be granted nor received. Privilege, for each of the friends, resided in being allowed to love, rather than in being loved.

This is language that Montaigne does not apply to his feeling for his wife or his children, his colleagues or his patrons—all relationships that he considers inferior to a friendship that develops not out of sensual need or worldly obligation, but out of the joy one experiences when the spirit is fed; for only then is one closer to God than to the beasts. The essence of true friendship for Montaigne is that in its presence "the soul grows refined."
One book under review is about Coleridge and Wordsworth. Here's a bit of what she says about them:
In June 1797, some eighteen months after their initial meeting, Coleridge made a day trip to the Wordsworth home in the West Country, and stayed nearly a month. The two men could not get enough of the conversation, and it was, then and there, decided that the Wordsworths—William and his sister Dorothy—would move to the district in which Coleridge was living.

There were crucial differences between them that, from the start, were self-evident. Wordsworth—grave, thin-skinned, self-protective—was, even then, steadied by a remarkable inner conviction of his own coming greatness as a poet. Coleridge—brilliant, explosive, self-doubting to the point of instability—was already into opium. No matter. A new world, a new poetry, a new way of being was forming itself and, at that moment, each, feeling the newness at work in himself, saw proof of its existence reflected in the very being of the other. In that reflection, each saw his own best self confirmed. Having been passionately enamored of the revolution in France and then passionately horrified by its subsequent murderousness, both were now convinced that it was poetry alone—their poetry—that would restore inner liberty to men and women everywhere. When they were together, Milton walked at their side.

In the year and a half that followed, Wordsworth and Coleridge met almost daily, and were frequently together for weeks at a time without parting at all, Coleridge simply never going home. They talked, they read, they walked: nonstop. There developed between them a pattern of shared work in which each wrote under the inspirational excitement of the other's instantaneous feedback. Ideas and images passed back and forth between them so freely that it made them giddy to think that, very nearly, each of their poems was being written together. "This," as Adam Sisman tells us in his extremely serviceable biography, "was their annus mirabilis, when each man's talent would ripen into maturity, and bear marvellous fruit . . . each [writing] some of his finest poetry." Out of this extraordinary amalgam of shared thought and emotion, of course, came the 1798 publication of Lyrical Ballads, the seminal work of English literature's Romantic movement.

Two years later the rapture was spent, and the friendship between Coleridge and Wordsworth was essentially over. Complicated bonds of work and family kept the men orbiting around one another for some years, and every now and then the intimacy seemed to flare up anew, but their time of magical communion was over, never to be recaptured or replaced. Within a decade they had stopped meeting; within another they were not speaking kindly of one another.
She also talks about friendships among John O'Hara, John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, and James Schuyler (covered in one book) and about Alan Ginsburg and the beats (the third book). She frames the review with an account of one of her own friendships.

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