“The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heav’n;
And, as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shape, and gives to aiery nothing
A local habitation and a name.”
—From “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Wm. Shakespeare
While in town for the London Book Fair last Sunday, I decided to take the Tube to near the end of the Northern Line and walked up the hill in search of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s grave. I’ve been reading Coleridge and Wordsworth and thinking about their famous and ongoing “conversation.”
Coleridge’s resting place is at St. Michael’s in Highgate where he is buried in the aisle of the church.
“It is an ancient Mariner
And he stoppeth one of three.
‘By thy long grey beard and glittering eye,
Now wherefore stopp’st thou me?’”
—From “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” Samuel Taylor Coleridge
It is National Poetry Month after all and we, here at ABRAMS, have been celebrating in fine style so far. Aside from launch meetings this week, we’ll finish this month’s festivities with a flourish on Monday with the second annual Haiku Contest, the first Vino and Verse celebration and a Poetry Club meeting—on Wordsworth and Coleridge—if you’d care to join me. For the past three weeks we’ve had our Poetry Bombers—replete with wit and art—surprise us and decorate our offices. And, who knows what poems will appear on our chairs and desks on Poem in Your Pocket Day this Thursday?
“And to whatever else of outward form
Can give us inward help, can purify,
And, elevate, and harmonise, and soothe,
And steal away, and for a while deceive
And lap in pleasing rest, and bear us on
Without desire in full complacency,
Contemplating perfection absolute
And entertained as in a placid sleep.”
—From “Home at Grasmere,” Wm. Wordsworth
Wordsworth began this poem in 1800 and concluded it in 1806; he regarded it as the first part of a three-part work to be entitled The Recluse. He revised it more than once, and allowed sections of it to appear in others of his works, but at last he abandoned it. He did not destroy the manuscripts, however, and his final version of the poem was first published in 1888–nearly forty years after his death.
Both Wordsworth and Coleridge were great revisers of their poems and often used or reused parts of them in other works. They were also tremendously influenced by each other’s work and their lives were intertwined, though they had a falling out over a comment that Wordsworth allegedly made to a mutual friend about Coleridge’s debilitating laudanum (liquid opium) addiction. Despite this rift, which was never fully mended, much of each other’s verse and prose output remained an ongoing “conversation.” Here’s Coleridge’s poetic reaction upon hearing Wordsworth recite an early version (1805) of The Prelude—his poetical autobiography tracing “the growth of the mind of the poet”—from 1807:
“The tumult rose and ceased: for peace is nigh
Where wisdom’s voice has found a listening heart.”
“And when–O Friend! my comforter and guide!
Strong in thyself, and powerful to give strength!–
Thy long sustainéd Song finally closed,
And thy deep voice had ceased–yet thou thyself
Wert still before my eyes, and round us both
That happy vision of belovéd faces–
Scarce conscious, and yet conscious of its close
I sate, my being blended in one thought
(Thought was it? or aspiration? or resolve?)
Absorbed, yet hanging still upon the sound–
And when I rose, I found myself in prayer.”
—From “To William Wordsworth,” Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Having been taken in by Dr. James Gillmore, a surgeon, at his home on Highgate Hill in north London, Coleridge ended his life far away from the country places in the Quantock Hills and the Lake District where he and Wordsworth and William’s sister Dorothy—herself an attentive diarist and nature writer—had walked and communed and inspired each other. Dr. Gillmore was able to modulate his now permanent boarder’s opium intake, more or less, and, in his later years, the Sage of Highgate, as Coleridge came to be known, wrote, lectured, and held forth from that beautiful spot above the city.
In my own beautiful spot, in Cambridge, New York, it’s full on spring. April is abloom with all manner of daffodils, though the ground is much drier and the brook out front is running lower than it should be this time of year. I’ve dug up a bucket full of wild ramps that grow in our woods for an evening feast.
While this past winter’s mildness saved us from snow and ice, we’ll pay the price in a lack of water and a surfeit of bugs later in the year. But just now, I’m praying for rain and thinking of Wordsworth and Coleridge as I look out my window at the trees beginning to bud and the path leading out toward the bridge across our own rocky brook.
Is flowing, and will never cease to flow,
And I shall float upon that Stream again.
By such forgetfulness the Soul becomes,
Words cannot say, how beautiful; then hail,
Hail to the visible Presence, hail to thee,
Delightful Valley, habitation fair!”
—From “Home at Grasmere,” Wm. Wordsworth
Michael Jacobs is President and CEO of ABRAMS.