Page:Dictionary of National Biography volume 63.djvu/40

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Wordsworth
Wordsworth
16

by metaphysics, while facts refused to confirm them. He gradually abandoned a doctrine which he came to regard as sophistical, not so much from any argumentative process as through the influence of his sister and of the quiet domestic life. Old associations revived, and the revolution now appeared to him to imply a dissolution of the most sacred bonds of social life. His poetry has been called ‘essentially democratic’ (see his reply to this in Knight's Life, i. 79). The socalled ‘democratic’ element was the spirit of the simple society in which he had been bred, and of which he had found types in the Swiss peasantry. His ideal state, like Cobbett's, was that in which the old yeomanry flourished. The old order was being broken up by the worship of the ‘idol proudly named the Wealth of Nations,’ and the revolutionists were really his enemies. The occupation of Switzerland by the French in 1798, when the forest cantons which had especially charmed him were forcibly conquered, seems to have finally disenchanted him. The process, however, was gradual, and in May 1796 Coleridge calls him a ‘very dear friend,’ and describes him as ‘a republican and at least a semi-atheist’ (Coleridge, Letters, 1895, i. 164).

The acquaintance with Coleridge marks an epoch in both lives. The exact dates are uncertain. They possibly met at Bristol in 1795, and must, as Coleridge's letter shows, have known each other in 1796; but the close intimacy began in 1797 (see Letters of Coleridge, i. 163 n.; J. Dykes Campbell, Life of Coleridge, 1896, p. 67; Knight, Life of Wordsworth, i. 111). Coleridge was living at Nether Stowey in 1797,and in June visited the Wordsworths at Racedown. In July they visited him at Stowey, and while there took a house at Alfoxden, three miles from Nether Stowey, for 23l. a year (agreement printed in T. Poole and his Friends, i. 125). Their ‘principal inducement’ was Coleridge's society. Each of the two men appreciated the genius of the other to the full. Coleridge told Cottle (Cottle, Reminiscences, p. 142; cf. Dykes Campbell, Coleridge, p. 67) that he felt himself a ‘little man’ beside Wordsworth, pronounced ‘The Borderers’ to be absolutely wonderful, and compared it to Schiller's ‘Robbers’ and to Shakespeare, though in Wordsworth, he added, ‘there are no inequalities.’ Wordsworth showed to Coleridge his ‘Ruined Cottage,’ a poem which afterwards formed part of the ‘Excursion,’ and Coleridge repeated part of his ‘Osorio’ to Wordsworth, and was encouraged by his friend's opinion. Coleridge also described Wordsworth's ‘exquisite sister’ in glowing language (Cottle, Reminiscences, p. 144). He speaks of her exquisite taste and close observation of nature. Her diary (partly printed in Knight, Journals of Dorothy Wordsworth, 1897) amply confirms the judgment and shows the close intimacy of the trio. ‘We are three people,’ said Coleridge, ‘but only one soul.’ As Coleridge was already married, they could not be lovers; but they were the warmest of friends, and for the time Dorothy's influence upon Coleridge was almost as strong as her influence upon her brother. Charles Lamb visited Coleridge during the first stay of the Wordsworths in Stowey. Shortly afterwards John Thelwall [q. v.] came for a visit. The neighbourhood was alarmed by a conjunction of three republicans, though Poole answered for their respectability. A spy is said to have watched them, and from a letter in Southey's ‘Life and Correspondence’ (ii. 343) there was clearly some truth in the account, which Coleridge embroiders (see Poole and his Friends, i. 240; Cottle, Reminiscences, p. 181; Biogr. Lit. i. 196−200). In the beginning of 1798 the party was visited by Hazlitt, who gave his reminiscences in the ‘Liberal’' (1823). Wordsworth appeared as a gaunt quaintly-dressed being, ‘not unlike his own Peter Bell,’ passages from which he recited. Though looking stern and worn, with furrowed cheeks, he talked ‘very naturally and freely,’ and enjoyed a ‘Cheshire cheese.’

The most remarkable incident of this time was the walk of 13 Nov. 1797, when the two poets proposed to compose a joint ballad to be sold for 5l. to pay for their tour. The ‘Ancient Mariner,’ thus begun, was left to Coleridge (see Wordsworth's note to We are Seven, and Coleridge, Biogr. Lit. vol. ii. chap, i.) This led to talk of a joint publication to which Coleridge should contribute poems showing the dramatic truth of supernatural incidents, while Wordsworth should try to give the charm of novelty to ‘things of every day.’ The result was the publication of the ‘Lyrical Ballads,’ for which Cottle agreed in May 1798 to give thirty guineas. The book appeared in September, Wordsworth contributing the largest part of the contents. It was reviewed unfavourably by Southey, though he knew, as Wordsworth told Cottle, that the book had been published ‘for money and for money alone,’ and might therefore have kept his opinions to himself (Knight, ii. 2). The sale was at first so slow that Cottle, who had sold his copyrights to Longman, found that its value was reckoned as nothing. He thereupon asked Longman to give it