A Book That Examines the Writing Processes of Two Poetry Giants

William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge once spent a grueling year in nature, subsequently producing some of their most resonant works.

The goal of poetry, Adam Nicolson writes, is “to exfoliate consciousness, to rescue understanding from the noise and entropy of habit.” (Tom Hammick / Bridgeman)

Nature. We all know what it means. (Cows, the sky, puddles, volcanoes …) But what does it mean to have this single, oddly abstract word for the entire domain of the organic and nonhuman? How did we become so estranged from our own sustaining element that we could point at it and call it “nature”? I love nature: There aren’t many things you can say that are simultaneously as banal and as ontologically forlorn as that.

Adam Nicolson’s The Making of Poetry is a glowingly—one might almost say throbbingly—detailed account of an experimental year: the period from the summer of 1797 to the autumn of 1798 when two men, high on revolution, made a do-or-die attempt to rewire the relationship between the mind and the world. They made this attempt through the medium of poetry—one of the men was William Wordsworth, the other was Samuel Taylor Coleridge—and they failed, obviously. But the effort was glorious, and the poetry it produced (“Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey,” “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” “Kubla Khan”) is still with us.

We know it now as Romanticism; back then it was confusion, a wrangling with the sublime, a nameless impulse struggling toward articulation. It happened on the edge of the Quantock Hills, in Somerset, England, and as a corporeal summoning of the two poets, Nicolson spends a year in the Quantocks. Embedded, embodied, deep-tissue research: Nicolson walks the lanes and hill paths that they walked; he extends his mind into the views, prospects, and visions that greeted them; he dives into their drafts and notebooks, into the poetry in its germinal roughness. The place-names ring like spells: Lady’s Edge, Slaughterhouse Combe, Seven Wells, Hare Knapp.

The goal of poetry, Nicolson writes, is “to exfoliate consciousness, to rescue understanding from the noise and entropy of habit.” Or as Coleridge put it in his Biographia Literaria: “awakening the mind’s attention from the lethargy of custom.” So Nicolson goes at it in sensorially saturated, theta-wave prose, sinking the reader into the aliveness of his descriptions. “Pheasants squawk-clucking far below. The self becoming spongy, the boundaries porous. On the tops, the breathy champing of a horse grazing in the near-dark, its muzzle brushing against the moor grasses, its hoofs knocking on the stones.”

It’s intense stuff. At one point, in the dead of winter, contemplating the bodily anguish of the two poets as they worked and cogitated (Wordsworth complained of “an uneasiness at my stomach and side, with a dull pain about my heart”; Coleridge wrote of “seas of pain”), Nicolson begins to suffer symptoms of his own: “tightening across my chest, numbing one arm or another, sometimes so severe that after an hour or so I could not stand up from the chair and desk at which I had been sitting.” All psychosomatic, he concludes, with a kind of perfection, because he’s already told us that the word psychosomatic (along with neuropathology and intensify) is one of Coleridge’s many enduring coinages.

Wordsworth and Coleridge were very different men: the former great, remote, preaching a billowing pantheism that somehow excluded the human, while the latter was incessantly, pantingly, brilliantly relational, and a constant interrogator of his own identity. Something about their dialectic makes you want to take sides; inevitably, as vulnerable and self-examining moderns, our sympathies are with Coleridge.

But Nicolson reminds us of the oddness of Wordsworth, and his endearing fallibility as a poet. “And to the left, three yards beyond, / You see a little muddy pond / Of water, never dry. / I’ve measured it from side to side / ’Tis three feet long and two feet wide.” These lines, from “The Thorn,” Nicolson tells us, became “infamous”: “declaimed by London and Edinburgh wits to general amusement, publicly criticized by Coleridge for their ‘laborious minuteness and fidelity in the representation of objects, and their positions,’ thought by the diarist Henry Crabb Robinson to be incapable of being repeated ‘in company’ for fear of laughter.”

But “fidelity in the representation of objects” was—as who knew better than Coleridge?—part of Wordsworth’s Quantocks gospel. That, and a purified language. If the poet as seer was one part of the Wordsworthian project—the poet on a mountaintop, gazing into the heart of things—then another part was this kind of willed rustic awkwardness: the poet as village idiot. “I have spent so long with Wordsworth,” Nicolson writes, “that I now think of him as a friend who makes mistakes … I want to maintain that this childlike simplification of his language, for all its ridiculousness, opens a door into the heart of the poem.” By befriending both of these poets, by living and being with them in a remarkably sustained act of imaginative immersion, by allowing their ideas and their environment to mingle in him so profoundly, it is Nicolson who has opened the door.