In 1798, the first edition of Lyrical Ballads was published anonymously. Although it excited little interest at the time, it was to prove a turning point in the history of English literature. A treasure-house containing works of genius including "The Nightingale", "Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey", and "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner", Lyrical Ballads was the product of an intense collaboration between William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, during the course of which the two were continually in each other's (and Wordsworth's sister Dorothy's) company, so that the book is less a collection than a "poetic dialogue". At that time, Coleridge was married with children, regularly preaching to Unitarian congregations, and had several poetic and journalistic achievements already behind him, while Wordsworth was a virtual unknown living a Bohemian lifestyle with his sister, separated by war from the illegitimate child he had fathered in France. Two years later a second edition was published in two volumes, this time ascribed entirely to Wordsworth, who rounded out the collection with additional poems. Wordsworth was now a stable, respectable family man, while Coleridge was in the midst of a personal, financial, and creative crisis, soon to abandon his family in pursuit of an unrequited love while progressively collapsing into the unromantic realities of opiate addiction. When criticism and resentment met, the friendship fell apart, and neither writer was ever the same.
Adam Sisman tells the story of this remarkable literary partnership and personal friendship with an admirable sensitivity for the many layers of an extremely complex relationship. Particularly, he does an excellent job of identifying the sympathies that united the irrepressible, undependable visionary Coleridge and the more reserved, more careful, and ultimately more talented Wordsworth. At the same time, he largely refrains from imposing his own interpretation on events beyond what the evidence warrants.
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