Costa Biography Award
Judges: “This story of brilliant young poets striving for greatness is told in exquisite, poetic prose and crackles with passion, life and enthusiasm.”
As Adam Nicolson demonstrates in his sublime, densely textured study of the poets’ “year of marvels” — the 15 months that produced The Ancient Mariner, Kubla Khan, Frost at Midnight, Tintern Abbey, The Idiot Boy, The Thorn and early passages of The Prelude — Wordsworth’s brain was indeed full of “stuff”. Guilt about the lover and daughter he had left behind in France; a new-found sympathy for England’s poor and victimised underclass; Coleridge’s head-spinning theories of pantheism, “the One Life” in everything; and how he might pestle them all into poetry.
A “lyrical ballad”, Nicolson explains in a brilliant analysis of the poems, combines “the storytelling and quick rhythms of the ballad with the close emotional focus and intensity of lyric poetry”. Using the language of everyday speech, Coleridge would describe the supernatural world and Wordsworth the natural world but both poets, Nicolson shows, relied on narrators who were in equal measure loquacious and uncertain... Every glimpse of Coleridge is charming but none more so than when we see him in his garden up to his waist in weeds... It is hard to catch the charm of Wordsworth, but Nicolson offers some different perspectives... Inverting this pattern, The Making of Poetry opens with a destination and closes with a sea-voyage: the Wordsworths and Coleridge on the packet boat to Germany in September 1798, having deposited Lyrical Ballads with a radical Bristol publisher. While Coleridge is captivating his audience on deck, Wordsworth is suffering from seasickness down below. Their paths have forked and their footsteps, from now on, will diverge. Adam Nicolson has shown us, in this subtle and masterly book, the cost of the making of poetry.
Sometimes alone and sometimes in company, Nicolson sets out in the footsteps of the two poets and their associates to discover, by familiarising himself with the surroundings in which they lived and moved, where their work came from. He pays minute attention to physical textures and seasonal changes, weaving into his lyrical and rhapsodic descriptions of the natural world passages of biographical and critical analysis. There is also plentiful testimony from their contemporaries as to the suspiciously radical character of the Wordsworth-Coleridge circle. His sad conclusion is that the poets’ great “hope for integration, for the general understanding that a love of nature needed to be intimate with a love of self and a love of man”, has failed. But his book remains a witness to the rewards of immersion in a particular place; to the realisation that our identity and wellbeing are bound up with the rhythms of nature
Occasionally, Nicolson’s delectable prose pudding tastes over-egged. Standing in a water-filled ditch is oddly compared to sinking into the folds of a brain. A cushion-stuffed trumpet is said to mimic the muffled hoot of an owl. Such infelicities offer the only irritations in one of the most imaginative and luminously intelligent books about poetry I have read. Hammick’s images add a quiet enchantment that is all their own.
[Nicolson] supplies an acute analysis of the Romantic reaction against Augustan wit and polish... As Wordsworth’s ego grew ever vaster, and Coleridge drifted into opium-haunted doubt, there arose between them, as Nicolson beautifully puts it, “a thread of reservation and mutual uncertainty, the dark line in the flesh of the lobster’s tail”. The legacy and triumph of that marvellous year, [Nicolson] persuasively argues, was Coleridge’s influence on Wordsworth. This emerged only after their parting in the marvellous Tintern Abbey, and eventually on us all, since “we all now think, to a greater or lesser extent, that a tide floods and ebbs through us… a dynamic psychic geography that makes us who we are”
Adam Nicolson has written a remarkably fresh and perceptive account of the poets’ ‘Year of Marvels’, illustrated with Tom Hammick’s vividly coloured woodcuts... Nicolson argues convincingly that the fragmentary, fierce and strange poetry Wordsworth produced before Lyrical Ballads was composed on the cusp of madness. It was only by going to ground in England’s West Country that Wordsworth was able to cope. We get a rare glimpse of him at that time in Dorothy Wordsworth’s remark that her brother is ‘dextrous with a spade’. Like Heaney, Nicolson’s young Romantics are energised by ‘touching territory’ – digging in to renew themselves and their writing. The idea, Nicolson suggests, ‘that the contented life was the earth-connected life, even that goodness was embeddedness … had its roots in the 1790s’... What emerges most compellingly from Nicolson’s book is not so much a creative collaboration between ‘strength and connectedness’ as a fractious friendship that was ‘powered by opposite visions’.
The Making of Poetry is another great book, a brilliant record of the central year in the lives of these two violently creative minds, and of Dorothy Wordsworth’s equal, if less heralded, brilliance. It’s quite unlike anything I’ve read before.
Adam Nicolson takes us deeper into this extraordinary time and place, and these explosive young minds, than ever before in his captivating book. Spending a year living in the same terrain, walking, reading and observing, he seeks an immersive experience, “not any kind of elegant gazing at a landscapebut a kind of embodiment, plunging in”. This involves the sights, smells, sounds, even the light conditions in which the writers lived and wrote. Whether recreating the look of dusk, the sound of the sea, the intimate near-silence of Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy at Racedown, or dreaming with Coleridge in his lime-tree bower, Nicolson opens his senses and his eyes to the “beautiful connectedness” which the Romantic poets celebrated... It is intensely moving and thrilling. There are meditations on dusk, rain, wind, the exciting darkness and strangeness of “winter power”; there are wonderful words like “rhyne”, “laminar” and “haulms” and brilliant readings of the poems, the lives and the temperaments of the two poets, feeling the spiritual ley lines running between our time and theirs.
Nicolson has long nurtured a penchant for “great literature” (books on Homer and the King James Bible) and our landscape (Sissinghurst, the Somerset Levels and the national coastline). On this occasion, poetry and place are perfectly braided together in prose whose biographical mood pays tribute to Richard Holmes and whose topographical fervour evokes Robert Macfarlane. On top of these influences, Nicolson embeds himself in the story of this year, as if a part of him longs to be a fly on the wall in Nether Stowey and Alfoxden... Despite its avowed revisionism, and its references to the rural poor and the Tory repression, The Making of Poetry buys into an idea inspired by the greenwood of merrie England, in which the free-born Englishman, liberated from court and cloister, finds deepest self-expression in the forest under the canopy of the heavens.
For about a year — from July 1797 until the autumn of 1798 — two of the greatest poets in the English language lived within walking distance of each other. Coleridge and his young family occupied a cramped and draughty cottage with a rotten thatch roof in the village of Nether Stowey in Somerset. Wordsworth and his sister, Dorothy, were installed in a grand mansion near by... Before I read this book I was something of a Wordsworth-sceptic. But Nicolson is one of the most persuasive advocates of his genius I have read. The Making of Poetry brings the poetry to life, but also the countryside — Nicolson spent a lot of time living around Stowey to write this book and it has paid off brilliantly. He is helped along by Tom Hammick’s beautiful illustrations; charmingly some of the woodcuts are made with wood gathered from the garden at Alfoxden.