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Samuel Taylor Coleridge: Wordsworth

Coleridge first met William Wordsworth in 1795, when he traveled to the Dorset home where the poet lived with his sister Dorothy. He walked 50 miles to get there, and as he approached Wordsworth noticed that their over-excited visitor "did not keep to the high road, but leaped over a gate and bounded down a pathless field by which he cut off an angle."14 The two bonded instantly. When Wordsworth learned that Coleridge moved to Nether Stowey, he and Dorothy packed up and moved there too.

For a solid year between 1797 and 1798, Wordsworth and Coleridge were in close, daily contact. They took long walks together and spent hours discussing poetry and literature. The two men were at the forefront of what is now known as the Romantic period. For Romantics, nature was the only source of real inspiration, the only place where men could truly connect to their deepest and most powerful emotions. In the rugged beauty of the Lake District, Wordsworth and Coleridge had nothing but inspiration. They began to talk of a new kind of poetry, one that relied on the reader's imagination and the honesty of simple language to evoke powerful feelings. They decided to write a collection of poetry together. Wordsworth's job was to write poems about everyday topics; Coleridge would tackle poems about "persons and characters supernatural" that were true enough to provoke in readers "that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith."15

The "willing suspension of disbelief" was a major component of Coleridge's literary theory. Essentially, he was the first person to give a name to the mental phenomenon that allows a reader to accept the fantasy world offered to him in a work of fiction or poetry. Well, duh, you might be saying. That's so true it's obvious. Coleridge was a genius for coming up with that gem? Well, Coleridge was one step ahead of you. "Genius produces the strongest impressions of novelty, while it rescues the most admitted truths from the impotence caused by the very circumstance of their universal admission," he wrote in his masterpiece Biographia Literaria. "Truths of all others the most awful and mysterious, yet being at the same time of universal interest, are too often considered as so true, that they lose all the life and efficiency of truth, and lie bed-ridden in the dormitory of the soul, side by side with the most despised and exploded errors."16 Snap.

Coleridge was having a great time in Nether Stowey, but he was running out of money. With a heavy heart, he prepared himself to become a Unitarian minister, but then good fortune struck. In January 1798, the china manufacturers and literary patrons Thomas and Josiah Wedgwood offered Coleridge 150 pounds per year for the rest of his life to support him while he wrote. Score! In March of that year, Coleridge finished The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, a long, chilling poem delivering the "supernatural" characters he promised. He wrote several other poems to include in the collection with Wordsworth, but when it came time to publish them in September their "collaboration" became more of a dictatorship. Wordsworth assumed final editorial control over the book, cutting Coleridge's beloved poem Christabel. He also demanded full copyright and author's credit, even though Coleridge wrote five of the poems in the collection. (Wordsworth was as well known for his arrogance as he was for his poetry.)

Their friendship survived. The day after Lyrical Ballads was published, the two set sail for Germany together. Coleridge planned to stay there for three months, but ended up staying ten months. Overextending his stay was a habit of Coleridge. He also had a habit of falling in love with the female relatives of his friends. When he returned to England, Coleridge fell deeply (and unrequitedly) in love with Sara Hutchinson, the sister of Wordsworth's future wife Mary. He wrote numerous poems to "Asra," the name he gave Sara Hutchinson so that he wouldn't confuse her with his wife, Sara Coleridge. The wife who bore him four children. And got no poetry.

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