Monday, April 02, 2007

On Quantock’s grassy Hills

The latest The New York Review has an article on the friendship between Coleridge and Wordsworth. You might think this would be a worthy but dull read on a pretty well-worn topic, but here’s how it starts: ‘Coleridge once said that people should take time to lean on gates. There is a wooden gate above a field in Dorset which is well worth leaning on...’ Ah... unmistakably Richard Holmes, who has never written a dull essay.

The gate in Dorset was the one Coleridge vaulted in his enthusiasm to see the Wordsworths. ‘Coleridge’s impetuous arrival that afternoon – exuberant, bounding, breaking the barriers, “leaping through the corn”’ presaged a three week period in which their friendship was formed, and eighteen months of discussion and composition that culminated in the lyrical ballads. It was a time recalled by Wordsworth in The Prelude: ‘that summer, when on Quantock’s grassy Hills / Far ranging, and among the sylvan Coombs, / Thou in delicious words, with happy heart, / Didst speak the Vision of that Ancient Man, the bright-eyed Mariner...’ (The equivalent lines from the 1850 Prelude are reprinted, with photographs of the Quantocks, on the appropriately named Friends of Coleridge site).

(Incidentally, I’m typing this in Word and its grammar checker has just said to me “Fragment – consider revising”, which made me smile: Holmes says that Coleridge’s ‘idea of the creative fragment became one of his greatest contributions to the aesthetics of Romanticism.’)

Holmes speculates on the nature of literary partnerships and suggests an interesting twentieth century parallel: Ted Hughes = Wordsworth, Sylvia Plath = Coleridge. He also reproduces an Irish joke noted by Coleridge in 1833 and recently published in the Coleridge Bulletin (Winter 2006). It could be seen as a surreal allegory of the friendship between the two famous poets:
Dan Hennesay’s story – passing over Black Friar’s whom should I see (coming from t’other end of the Bridge) but my old Chum, Pat Mahoney – and at the same moment he saw me – We ran towards each, & when we met, just in the middle of the Bridge – by Jasus! – it was neither of us.

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