The conflict


Artistic Conflicts

“The passion that Wordsworth expressed in poetry was likely to be that of his characters; the passion that Coleridge looked for was mainly that of the poet” (Parrish, 371).

As is common with any pair of friends, Wordsworth and Coleridge did not agree on everything. One of the most upsetting conflicts was a result of their individual opinions on poetry. Both men took their turn in experimenting with the written word but refused to agree on which method was better. This posed a problem while the two were writing Lyrical Ballads. After looking over the third edition of Lyrical Ballads in July of 1802, Coleridge confessed his worries to his friend William Sotheby. His concerns were based on the belief that there simply was “a radical difference” (Parrish, 367) of opinions about poetry. Both writers agree that the other is talented but that did not stop them from having constant criticism of one another’s works.

The partners attempted collaboration while writing “The Three Graves,” where Wordsworth was to be the author of parts I and II and Coleridge would write the next two. The intention of this piece was to be “narrated by an old Sexton, in a country church-yard, to a traveler whose curiosity had been awakened by the appearance of the three graves, close by each other” (Parrish, 368). After Wordsworth completed his sections, Coleridge decided that they did not fit with his ideas. Coleridge and Wordsworth could not agree on how to best portray this image and they eventually failed to complete “The Three Graves” due to their differing opinions.

A poem that closely resembles the attempted “The Three Graves” is Wordsworth’s “The Thorn.” Wordsworth wrote “The Thorn” as an experiment of the psychological study of the imagination and superstition, where the imagination is that of the narrator. It is for this reason that “The Thorn” best represents the main objective of Lyrical Ballads: “To trace the situations of common life ‘the primary laws of our nature: chiefly as far as regards the manner in which we associate ideas in a state of excitement” (Parrish, 368). Wordsworth believed that he was more capable of embracing the theme of a curse in “The Thorn” because they were not “supernatural or even real, but only the products of the superstitious imagination.” (Parrish, 369)

The collaboration of “The Three Graves” remained unfinished so Coleridge decided to make his own attempt at writing a “Three Graves” in 1809. He excluded the parts that Wordsworth wrote but he still used similar methods as Wordsworth’s “The Thorn” by continuing with the notion of a psychological study of imagination and superstition. Unlike “The Thorn,” the imagination of the piece was not set in the mind of the narrator but instead to the person in the narrator’s story. Wordsworth did not agree with Coleridge’s change in method for he felt that he was unable to project himself into the lives of his character. He believed that “having always too much personal and domestic discontent, he [Coleridge] couldn’t afford to suffer with those he saw suffer.” (Parrish, 369) Wordsworth also discovered this same lack of emotion in Coleridge’s “Ancient Mariner” and “Christabel.”

Just as Wordsworth disagreed with Coleridge’s methods, Coleridge disagreed with Wordsworth’s. He even went so far as to say that there were five of Wordsworth’s poems (“The Thorn” included) that would have been more enjoyable in prose. Sometimes he was fond of Wordsworth’s style: until the final editing stage. Coleridge believed that many of Wordsworth’s moderations were irrelevant and often ruined the original work. He did not understand the late changes that Wordsworth made to his poem, “Ruth.” He had initially described this poem as the “finest poem in the collection.” (Parrish, 370) Coleridge believed that the alterations formed a sense of ventriloquism of poetry, which is the act of transferring the feelings of the poet into the body of the persons in the poem. When writing the Preface to Lyrical Ballads, Coleridge was pleased calling the work “half a child of my own brain,” (Parrish, 370) but he was not pleased to discover that Wordsworth modified the work to his own liking.

Wordsworth transformed Coleridge’s “child” into a ventriloquist piece in his modifications. The changes he made favored the act of ventriloquism without actually using that term to describe it. He explains the importance of dramatic technique especially when the writer chooses to speak “through the mouths of his characters” (Parrish, 371). He believed that truth within poetry should be a psychological truth. A poet should take his own feelings and project himself into the lives of his characters, as to show genuine emotion. It is only through this act of ventriloquism that and author can reach his highest potential. Wordsworth believed that Coleridge could not reach this ultimate truth because he had yet to accept and be true to his own feelings.

Coleridge did not feel that a poet showed his greatness through crazy experiments. He believed that “poetry as poetry is essentially ideal, that it avoids and excludes all accident, which suggest that a poet must be “typical, not individual” (Parrish, 372).

In 1803, in a letter to Thomas Poole, Coleridge claims that he had often suggested that Wordsworth should abandon the ballad and move towards philosophy. Despite his urging, Coleridge never informed Wordsworth about his hidden aggression towards his writing. His beliefs against Wordsworth style remained strong for most of his life but in the last years of his life, Coleridge wrote about his partner with as great an admiration, as he had when they were young.

Back to Coleridge and Wordsworth

Parrish, Stephen M. “The Wordsworth-Colerdige Controversy.” PMLA 73 (1958): 367-374. JSTOR. 18 Nov. 2007