Literary friendships

Inspired by Stefanie, many bloggers are posting lists of books they’d like to read right now if they weren’t in the middle of other books and had the time for it (one lucky person has posted about books she’d like to read on her upcoming vacation — I’m so jealous); I’m not going to give you a similar list here, but I just finished an article (unfortunately not available online) from the New York Review of Books that’s got me adding books to my list of things I’m longing to read. It’s Richard Holmes’s “The Passionate Partnership,” a review of Adam Sisman’s book The Friendship: Wordsworth and Coleridge.

Now first of all, Richard Holmes himself is someone I’m longing to read more of; he’s the author of Footsteps, a book I enjoyed immensely not too long ago, and he’s written biographies of Coleridge and Percy Shelley and a book on the friendship between Samuel Johnson and Richard Savage. This last one I’m certainly going to need to read.

And Adam Sisman’s book on Wordsworth and Coleridge sounds quite good; Holmes gives it a slightly mixed, but overall fairly positive review. It traces their friendship from the time they met in 1797 through their estrangement in 1810, telling the story of their collaboration on poetic projects; at times they worked so closely together that scholars aren’t sure who wrote what. There’s one poem, “The Mad Monk,” that appears in the Collected Works of both poets.

Here are some good passages from Holmes review:

All this leads to wider reflections which Adam Sisman’s book prompts but does not have time to pursue. There have been many famous “literary friendship” or double-acts. Each has its own dynamic, usually of love and loyalty, followed by trouble and strife, and finally some sort of reconciliation (if only from beyond the grave). Johnson and Savage, Goethe and Schiller, Victor Hugo and Sainte-Beuve, Gautier and Nerval, Fitzgerald and Hemingway come to mind …

But for emotional intensity, one almost needs the parallel of a literary love affair (as Sisman hints). The great Coleridge scholar John Beer has written provokingly in a recent essay: “It may be suggested that [Ted Hughes’s] admiration for [Sylvia] Plath bore strong resemblances to Wordsworth’s for the equally mercurial Coleridge.”


It may be, paradoxically, that the “sacred” nature of Romantic friendship is most truly revealed in the pains of its rupture. Coleridge’s nine-page letter of grand remonstrance to Robert Southey in November 1795 expresses a lover’s outrage: “you have left a large Void in my Heart — I know no man big enough to fill it.” Similarly Wordsworth, as restrained in his declarations of friendship as Coleridge was “gushing” (a new liquid word for sentiment), was nonetheless quite capable of expressing his feelings of rejection with vivid simplicity …

Also mentioned in the article is Adam Sisman’s earlier book Boswell’s Presumptuous Task, about the writing of The Life of Johnson, which sounds fascinating.

And then there’s this intriguing passage from Holmes’s article:

Coleridge’s Notebooks, still insufficiently known, may be considered as an inspiration to all confessional writers, and may even become — in their wild informality — the secret bible of Internet bloggers. (Apparently there are over fifty million of these.)

Since I’m not a “confessional” blogger, Notebooks is unlikely to become my secret Bible, but I’m intrigued, nonetheless.

Oh, there are so many good books to read …


Filed under Books

12 responses to “Literary friendships

  1. I really need to check out that book Footsteps! That sounds like an interesting article-I like reading about the relationships artists/writers have with each other. I watched a movie over the weekend about George Sand and her affair with Chopin–I had no idea. I suppose these sorts of literary relationships/friendships must have gone on all over the place. And I suppose great/creative minds do have a problem sticking together and often end badly (as did Sand’s relationship with Chopin). I’m not a confessional blogger either, but I suppose I am voyeuristic enough to want to look at Coleridge’s Notebooks!!


  2. Oh, that sounds like a good book! What caused the rupture between the two, do you know? I am intrigued. I’m not a confessional blogger either but I love reading diaries and notebooks. Coleridge’s notebooks must be fascinating, but I don’t think I could be satisfied with just a book of “selections” I want all the dirt 🙂


  3. Since you mentioned Plath, I thought I would share a book that I am interested in checking out.

    Lover of Unreason: Assia Wevill, Sylvia Plath’s Rival and Ted Hughes’ Doomed Love by Yehuda Koren and Eilat Negev


  4. Do try and get to the Johnson and Savage book soon – it really is wonderful.

    I enjoyed your discussions of Footsteps so much that, now I’m reminded of it again, I’m tempted to make it number 12 on the holiday pile. I’m sure they’ll let me off any excess baggage charge if I tell them my suitcase is full of books.


  5. I bought a copy of the Johnson and Savage book years ago but never got around to reading it. I must track it down and have a go! I’m a fan of literary biography in general and biographies that evoke literary community in particular, so books that document literary friendships are right up my alley. I’ll definitely check out the Wordsworth and Coleridge one.


  6. Danielle, I like reading about literary friendships too, and don’t those Notebooks sound interesting?

    Stefanie, apparently they got in a fight because Wordsworth said something to a friend about Coleridge’s opium addiction. I wouldn’t be satisfied by selections of the Notebooks, either, but to get the entire thing, I think you’d have to pay hundreds of dollars for multiple volumes. I found a 6-volume set on Amazon for $400 — that changes things, doesn’t it? 🙂

    Thanks Anglophile.

    Sandra, I hope you enjoy Footsteps (I’m guessing you will …), and Kate, all of these sound so appealing, I’m not sure where to begin.


  7. I think if I were to post on that list of books I’d read right now if I weren’t reading anything else, it would have to say, “Everything every litblogger I read on a regular basis has posted on over the past year.” So, no need for me to do it. The Adam Sisman book sounds very good.


  8. I liked Footsteps so much–I’ll surely want to read a book that Holmes recommends.


  9. Emily — I agree! My TBR list has been SO heavily influenced by other bloggers, one would think I can longer find books on my own without them.

    Lucette — that’s exactly why I was so thrilled to see the review was by Holmes; I’ve come to like his writing so much.


  10. $400 for six volumes? Ouch. The Selected Notebooks suddenly sound fantastic!


  11. The Sisman Boswell book was very enjoyable, an easy and fun read but hitting all the essentials about the relationship. Haven’t looked at the new one, but I get the sense it’s perhaps not quite as good, mostly because the topic isn’t as suitable for a whole book. If you haven’t read Holmes’s own Coleridge biography, I’d check that out first, it’s pretty much a work of total genius (I love all his books–the Johnson and Savage one is quite lovely, and so is his Shelley biography).


  12. Thanks Jenny — I’ve got the Sisman Boswell book on the way.


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