Adam Nicolson has written a story fully worthy of its famous protagonists.
In June 1797, William Wordsworth and his sister, Dorothy, rented a house for a year near Bristol in western England. After they had arrived at Alfoxton House, Samuel Taylor Coleridge found his way there (via a walking tour) for a visit. The visit would last a year; Coleridge rented a place nearby for himself and his family. The Wordsworths and Coleridge spent an enormous amount of time together, talking, inventing new poetic projects, and taking long walks through the Quantock Hills.
What came out of that year was some of the most significant poetry in the English language: “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” “Christabel,” “Kubla Khan,” “Lyrical Ballads,” and “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey.” Yet much more happened than the writing of great poems, astounding as they were (and are). The two poets emerged from that period with an understanding of themselves and of poetry as a vital force in life. By the fall of 1798, both Wordsworth and Coleridge would be set upon the courses that made them both famous.
Nicolson’s The Making of Poetry: Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Their Year of Marvels tells the story of that incredible year, and it does so in an unusual way. Instead of writing a literary history or biography, Nicolson has fully embraced what is generally known as creative nonfiction and created an account that is as fascinating as it is stunning. It is literary history, biography, nature writing, personal memoir, literary criticism, poetic analysis, and much more.
His starting point is the journal of that year kept by Dorothy Wordsworth. But he moves beyond her words. Nicolson doesn’t only describe the walks taken by Coleridge and the Wordsworths; he takes the walks himself. He wanders the fields and lanes. He climbs the hills. He walks along a riverbank, which unexpectedly collapses and drops him 30 feet, knocking him unconscious. He recreates the kinds of conversations they had, capturing the personalities of all three.
He considers the poems that were created and some that weren’t, putting them in the context of the political, social, and natural environment in which they were created. He describes the visitors who stay for a time—William Hazlitt, Charles Lamb, the political radical John Thelwall, and others. We learn how the poetry of John Milton and parliamentarian and orator Edmund Burke exerted a huge influence on both poets, and how Coleridge’s proposal for a jointly written “Epic of Cain” was initially exciting but never worked out. But the effort wasn’t wasted—Coleridge assimilated the ideas into “Ancient Mariner.”
The pictures drawn of the two poets show a Coleridge who’s almost feverish in his friendships, his family, and especially his poetry, and a Wordsworth who is more reserved and a bit austere, but who will emerge from this “year of marvels” with the future established in his mind. Both poets will complete the time with a fuller understanding of each other and how poetry is made.
The Making of Poetry is a wonder in and of itself. It’s an astonishing achievement. The text is supplemented by beautiful and stark color woodcuts created by artist Tom Hammick. The woodcuts illustrate the story, but they contain a story too. The wood used was taken with permission from dead and fallen limbs of old trees on the grounds of Alfoxton House.
Nicolson is the author of a number of popular history and nature books. His history works include Seamanship: A Voyage Along the Wild Coats of the British Isles (2004); Men of Honour: Trafalgar: and The Making of an English Hero (2005); Seize the Fire: Heroism, Duty, and Nelson’s Battle of Trafalgar (2006); Quarrel with the King: The Story of an English Family on the High Road to Civil War (2008); Sissinghurst: An Unfinished History (2008); God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible (2009); Gentry: Six Hundred Years of a Peculiarly English Class (2011); and The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters (2014), among others. His nature books include accounts of walks in France, Britain, the United States, and Scotland and The Smell of Summer Grass: Pursuing Happiness at Perch Hill (2011).
Reading a book like The Making of Poetry profoundly changes your understanding of and appreciation for what Wordsworth and Coleridge were and the poetry they created. And it was all accomplished in one extremely productive year.
How to Read a Poem uses images like the mouse, the hive, the switch (from the Billy Collins poem)—to guide readers into new ways of understanding poems. Anthology included.
“I require all our incoming poetry students—in the MFA I direct—to buy and read this book.”
—Jeanetta Calhoun Mish