In 1791, William Wordsworth graduated from Cambridge and traveled to France, which was then in the throes of the French Revolution. When we think of the French Revolution today, we picture guillotine blades, beheadings, and the Reign of Terror. All those things were years away when William Wordsworth arrived in Paris. At the time, the revolution was a truly Romantic political act. No one anticipated how it would later go awry.
Until the Revolution, France had been ruled by a monarchy with absolute power, whose policies wrecked the economy. A frustrated population guided by the values of the Enlightenment sought change. Wordsworth was fascinated by the Republicans, the faction that sought to establish a government headed by a leader of the people's choosing. For an idealistic young European, France was THE place to be. In his long autobiographical poem The Prelude, Wordsworth wrote about that time:
"For mighty were the auxiliars which then stood
Upon our side, us who were strong in love!
Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very Heaven! O times,
In which the meagre, stale, forbidding ways
Of custom, law, and statute, took at once
The attraction of a country in romance!"6
Wordsworth fell in love with a Frenchwoman named Annette Vallon. The two were serious about each other, but by 1792 Wordsworth ran out of money and returned to England, leaving behind a pregnant Vallon and their unborn baby. When war broke out in France, he was unable to go back to his family. It would be a decade before Wordsworth met his daughter Caroline, though he eventually arranged for her financial support. Inspired by his experience in France, Wordsworth began to work on a series of poems. The results, two collections of poetry entitled Descriptive Sketches and An Evening Walk, were published in 1793.
Back in Cambridge, England, a senior named Samuel Taylor Coleridge finished reading Descriptive Sketches and decreed that "seldom, if ever, was the emergence of an original poetic genius above the literary horizon more evidently announced."7 Coleridge, a vicar's son from Devon, was a brilliant student and poet whose academic career was marred only by his difficulties in making deadlines and waking up on time. In Wordsworth, he recognized the beginnings of a new type of poetry, one that struck him as genius. "It was the union of deep feeling with profound thought," Coleridge wrote, "the fine balance of truth in observing, with the imaginative faculty in modifying the objects observed."8 He finally met Wordsworth in 1795, when the poet and his sister Dorothy were living in a house together in Dorset, England. He walked an incredible 50 (!) miles to get there, and as he approached Wordsworth noticed that their 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."9 Such was Coleridge's enthusiasm to reach his new friend. The two poets took to one another instantly, and in 1797 Dorothy and William moved to a house in Nether Stowey in order to be closer to Coleridge. Thus began one of the most productive, intense, and unusual three-way friendships in literary history.