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Criticism 43.4 (2001) 451-454
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Coleridge, the Hutchinsons & the Wordsworths in 1802
The Gang: Coleridge, the Hutchinsons & the Wordsworths in 1802 by John Worthen. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001. Pp. 344. $30.00 cloth.
Biographies construct one among many possible histories of a life, and books of criticism that focus upon one aspect of a literary career are fragmentary biographies. The biography may trace a religious life, a poetic career, a philosophic or social quest, or, as is common now, an emotional and sexual life. Biography has become biology. Future biographies may concentrate upon a writer's finances, profession, or public life. Some recent biographies offer new research, but many simply re-read the existing printed evidence and are judged on the plausibility of their readings. John Worthen's biography of Coleridge, the Wordsworths, and the Hutchinsons is a welcome change from the limiting focus on one individual life, for the obvious reason that a creative life is often the intersection of a large number of public and private influences, correspondences, and conversations. As Thomas McFarland once wrote, "There are no Robinson Crusoes of the intellect." Worthen's group biography helps us think about what constitutes such a group, how, on a daily basis, it generated literature through collaborative creativity, as well as the limits of the evidence available to know such a group.
Recent criticism has shifted from Romantic individuality to the dialogic and discursive elements of the Romantics' art, and there is no better test case for collaborative creativity than the relationship of Wordsworth and Coleridge. Previous biographies of the two poets read the relationship as antagonistic and commonly praise one poet and condemn the other. Thus Coleridge is either the victim of Wordsworth's public and private criticism, which destroyed him as a poet, or morally hopeless, unable to fulfill his promise; Wordsworth is the quintessential poet of individual imagination, or a domineering egotist, whom Keats described as a bully, and who yet needed both Coleridge's encouragement and his philosophical speculation. Worthen singles out McFarland, Molly Lefebure, and particularly Richard Holmes, who blame Wordsworth's callous cancellation of "Christabel" from the second edition of Lyrical Ballads, and Mary Moorman, who regarded Wordsworth's decision to exclude "Christabel" as an appropriate judgment. One could also question Wordsworth's note [End Page 451] to "The Ancient Mariner" in the second volume of Lyrical Ballads: "The Poem of my Friend has indeed great defects."
Worthen wisely avoids taking sides and notes that in spite of these major issues, their daily letters and journals offer a different picture of their relationship between 1800 and 1802, one of their mutual affection and unremitting interchange of poetry and letters. Worthen has written the biography of a creative group that includes not only the poets, but also Dorothy Wordsworth, and the sisters Sara and Mary Hutchinson as members, in 1802, as an extended family. The book is divided into three sections: "Pre-History," including brief histories of the Wordsworths settling in Grasmere in 1799 and 1800, along with the early days of March 1802, including Coleridge's trip from London to Grasmere and his visit to Sara Hutchinson along the way; "Joy and Melancholy," March to July, when Coleridge's "Dejection: An Ode" and Wordsworth's "Immortality Ode" and "Resolution and Independence" were originally drafted; and "To the Wedding," the months leading up to Wordsworth's wedding on October 4 and the publication of a partial text of "Dejection: An Ode" in the Morning Post on the same day, including William and Dorothy's August trip to Calais to see Annette Vallon and their child. Worthen emphasizes the emotional ties that bound the group: Wordsworth's wedding to Mary Hutchinson and the possibility that his brother John was in love with her; Wordsworth's relationship with Dorothy and her wearing the wedding ring the night before William's marriage; the possibility that Dorothy was in love with Coleridge; and Coleridge's fantasy of love for Sara Hutchinson. Worthen doubts any extramarital sexual activity in the group and emphasizes the...