We may not like to admit it, but literary fights and feuds are much more entertaining than friendshipsby Elaine Showalter / November 13, 2014 / Leave a comment
Published in December 2014 issue of Prospect Magazine
When I first began to study literary history at university, I was struck by the friendship between Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth. How was it that so many great British writers met their literary doubles and nemeses early in their careers? Which came first, the chicken of genius or the egg of empathy? Were Wordsworth and Coleridge magnetically drawn together because they were both great poets, or did they become great poets because they were drawn together? And why were these writers always male?
Richard Bradford begins his musings on literary rivalry with the friendship of Wordsworth and Coleridge. When they met in 1795, they were mutually enamoured as poets and radicals. “Wordsworth is a very great man,” wrote Coleridge, “the only man to whom at all times and in all modes of excellence I feel myself inferior.” Wordsworth found the mystical, adventurous, experimental Coleridge “the most wonderful man I ever knew.” Within six weeks, Coleridge had moved to Grasmere to be close to his new friend. While Wordsworth was inspired by Coleridge’s fireworks, Coleridge was steadied by his friend’s disciplined ambition. Their historic collaboration on the Lyrical Ballads (1798) kicked off the Romantic movement.
But the very qualities that attracted them to each other soon began to drive them apart. By 1809, Wordsworth was fed up with Coleridge’s procrastination, dithering and addictions, confiding to a mutual friend that “neither his talents or his genius mighty as they are, nor his vast information will avail him anything: they are all frustrated by a derangement of intellectual and moral constitution.” They never had an open confrontation, but met less and less, although it took another 20 years for Coleridge to admit his disillusionment with Wordsworth’s growing conservatism and dull domesticity. “I was repelled by the infinite number of dissonances which his way of thinking, feeling and arguing created with my own,” Coleridge wrote. “Recently all the shortcomings, each marked him in his early manic manly years, have increased considerably; the grand flourishings of his philosophic and poetic genius, have withered and dried.”