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The story of the composition of The Prelude cannot be told without reference to Coleridge’s and Wordsworth’s new-found absence from one another, after a year dwelling as neighbors in Somerset, in the fall of 1798. It was while living with Dorothy in Goslar, Germany, days distant from Coleridge, who was studying in Ratzeburg, that Wordsworth drafted the earliest sequences on his boyhood. In November and December, Dorothy copied and mailed some of these sequences to Coleridge, who had been hoping to hear of progress on the philosophical work he had been encouraging Wordsworth to compose—The Recluse. By then Wordsworth had completed approximately 400 lines of what would become Prelude Part I.[1] Critics assume that he began Part II back in England, after a several-month hiatus; whenever exactly he recommenced the poem, he did so by addressing it to Coleridge.

Direct address to Coleridge does not appear in the initial draft of The Prelude, referred to as MS JJ, which involves two apostrophes to nature and its spirits and a fragmentary, physically “disconnected” coda addressed to a “dearest maiden” (Prelude 1798-1799, p. 5). In a second stage of composition, Wordsworth extended the conclusion and incorporated the poem’s first address to “a loving person,”[2] transforming the prior draft’s gentle correction of a maiden’s thoughts—“do not deem that these/ Are idle sympathies—” (Prelude 1798-1799, p. 5)—into a wishful plea for understanding approval:

 need I dread from thee

Harsh judgements if I am so loth to quit

Those recollected hours that have the charm

Of visionary things […]

Prelude 1798-1799, pp. 12-13

Stephen Parrish attributes this plea to Wordsworth’s need “to justify the self-indulgence of composing these boyhood memories—a concern growing out of anxiety about expectations of him held by [the addressee] who might still be Dorothy, though by now is more probably Coleridge” (Prelude 1798-1799, p. 13). Wordsworth’s next rewriting of the concluding lines, Parrish notes, “speak[s] of ‘Reproaches from my former years’ and raise[s] the possibility of ‘impotent desire,’” suggesting The Recluse and “promises made to Coleridge before leaving England” (Prelude 1798-1799, p. 13). Parrish relates what he presumes is a gradual focusing of address on the person of Coleridge to a compositional eddying that registers lack of progress on the proposed philosophical work.

How, next, did the project of autobiography proceed? In a third stage of composition, Wordsworth drafted the lines on the “spots of time” and again revised the ending, writing now of a “pause,” a “doubtful” “lingering,” and “a truant heart/ Slow & of stationary character” (Prelude 1798-1799, p. 26). But the lines overleaf (MS 16) mark decision and make progress: here we have the words “2nd Part” and the poem’s first of many direct addresses to the “Friend”:

 2nd Part

Friend of my heart & genius we had reach’d

A small green island which I was well pleased

To pass not lightly by for though I felt

Strength unabated yet I seem’d to need

Thy cheering voice or ere I could pursue

My voyage, resting else for ever there.

Prelude 1798-1799, p. 26

Parrish credits the “firm new start” (26) represented by the direct address and its “dramatic shift of tense” to Wordsworth’s hearing of Coleridge’s “cheering voice” at Göttingen en route to England in early spring 1799. Oral impetus for poetic “resolve”—the experience of immediacy and presence—is entirely plausible, but it is also by textual echo of letters exchanged between Goslar and Ratzeburg in the winter of 1798-99 that the poem advances, by textual re-inscription of a figure of a voice that implies absence and foregrounds mediation. In those letters, emphatic address both measures out and strives to overcome the distance between the friends, prefiguring the trope of retrospective journey that comes ultimately to chart The Prelude’s entire progression.

In one of the few surviving Goslar letters from the Wordsworths to Coleridge, dated to early or mid December 1798, Dorothy transcribed lake scenes from William’s new “mass of poems” for Coleridge’s pleasure and relayed her brother’s request that Coleridge “preserve any verses which we have sent you, in fear, that in travelling we may lose the copy.” [3] Dorothy’s letter may have been productive as well as preservative, however, for it set paragraphs of verse from The Prelude’s earliest drafts into relation with forthright and affectionate address: “God bless you! dear Coleridge, our very dear friend!,” she wrote, vertically framing one margin of the Stolen Boat episode. As The Prelude manuscripts show, William thereafter adopted address as a framing device for the serial boyhood episodes. William’s assertive “Friend of my heart & genius” (Prelude 1798-1799, p. 26) recommenced composition by inscribing the verse epistle as a form for The Prelude and by traversing a boundary between textual parts—troped, in the lines, as the resumption of a sea voyage after an island hiatus.

Can we determine whether “Friend” arises from within The Prelude or is borrowed from the outside as an organizational device, from Dorothy’s letter or indeed from the address to Dorothy at the end of “Tintern Abbey”?[4] Or perhaps the address confounds distinctions of textual and emotional origin? As we saw, Dorothy’s “our very dear friend!” reaches out to include Coleridge in feelings shared by the siblings. “Friend” also, of course, recalls Coleridge’s addresses to Robert Southey, Charles Lloyd, Charles Lamb, and his brother George in earlier poems, and his multiple addresses to William and Dorothy in “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison” and “The Nightingale.” In the earliest manuscript of the former, which Coleridge enclosed in a letter to Southey, he singled out the “gentle-hearted” Lamb (l. 28) only once, twice invoking at the end of the poem a collective of intimates that included the Wordsworth siblings:

My Sister & my Friends! when the last Rook

Beat its straight path along the dusky Air

Homewards, I bless’d it; deeming, its black wing

Cross’d, like a speck, the blaze of setting day,

While ye stood gazing; or when all was still,

Flew creaking o’er your heads, & had a charm

For you, my Sister & my Friends! to whom

No sound is dissonant, which tells of Life!

PW 2.i. ll. 69-77

With the friendly address, Coleridge not only inscribes affection but loosely maps it; here he triangulates the space between his friends and himself via the setting sun and traverses that space by a figure of poetry, the rook “Beat[ing] its straight path along the dusky Air.” In “The Nightingale,” which he addressed to the sister and brother pair, address seems to mimic the song of the unseen bird, netting the Wordsworths and Coleridge in place and detaining them:

Farewell, O Warbler! till to-morrow eve,

And you, my friends! farewell, a short farewell

We have been loitering long and pleasantly,

And now for our dear homes.—That strain again?

PW 1.i. ll.87-90

Like the recurring strain of the nightingale, iterations of address hallow the friends’ poetic intimacy and, by periodic or nightly renewal, secure it from the lapses of physical separation.

In humorous lines that accompanied “The Nightingale” through the mail, however, Coleridge dropped his elevated figures for poetry—the rook beating its straight path, the nightingale’s song—while inscribing, most bathetically, the friends’ literal condition of physical separateness:

In stale blank verse a subject stale

I send per post my Nightingale;

And like an honest bard, dear Wordsworth,

You’ll tell me what you think, my Bird’s worth.

PW 1.i. ll. 1-4

As “-worth” and “worth” fall dully, extrametrically flat, leaving “Bird’s” and “Words” askew, Coleridge wittily unwings his poetry: neither a bird, nor even the resonant song of a “bard,” his writing needs the post to span the distance between the friends. Rather than a “stirring” “harmony” of “skirmish and capricious passagings,/ And murmurs musical and swift jug jug,/ And one low piping Sound more sweet than all” (PW 1.i. ll. 59-61), the exchange of “stale blank verse” and “honest” telling is sequential and abstracting. Though comical, Coleridge’s meta-postal address anticipates Wordsworth’s interpellation of Coleridge as a judge of the worthiness of his blank verse (“need I dread from thee/ Harsh judgments” (Prelude 1798-1799 1: 458-9 )) and underlines the spatial element and connective energies of Coleridge’s poetic addresses.

In the German letters between the friends, the geography of address becomes more salient and crossing the distance between them more urgent. Dorothy’s valediction in the letter of December repeats and renews the friendly address, yet in a commentary on the other side of the page, she anxiously reflects upon the temporal lag between writing and reading, expression and reception:

It is Friday evening. This letter cannot go till tomorrow. I wonder when it will reach you. One of yours was Eleven days upon the road. You will write by the first post.

WL 1: 239

The postal schedule defers the circulation of the letter, and the contingencies of transmission leave Dorothy to wonder in days the length of its travel. Her striking command that Coleridge “write by the first post”—that the reader turn right back into writer—exposes the literal conditions and desires that underlie the rhetoric of immediacy on the verso. The oral figure of address, “God Bless you! dear Coleridge, our very dear friend!,” registers the pressure of Dorothy’s feeling and will—its dactyls rushing the letter forward and its exclamation marks pointing the desire to contract the distance between the friends.

One of Coleridge’s replies, of winter 1798-99, negotiated the intervening miles with full-fledged hexameters and the joint devices of direct address and emphatic pointing.[5] Though not sent by the “first post,” the letter takes up and enlarges upon Dorothy’s meta-postal reflections, presenting hexameter as a medium of affective immediacy. In the 1817 Biographia Literaria, Coleridge would unflatteringly compare the “tune” of German meters to the “galloping over a paved road in a German stage-wagon without springs” (BL 2: 34), yet during his stay in Germany he experimented with the classical meter recently popularized by Klopstock and Burger, testing its suitability to another modern accentual language. In the verses sent from Ratzeburg to Goslar by stage-wagon, Coleridge instructed the siblings in the proper metrical reception of his letter:

William, my teacher, my friend! dear William and dear Dorothea!

Smooth out the folds of my letter, and place it on desk or on table;

Place it on table or desk; and your right hands loosely half-closing,

Gently sustain them in air, and extending the digit didactic,

Rest it a moment on each of the forks of the five-forkèd left hand,

Twice on the breadth of the thumb, and once on the tip of each finger;

Read with a nod of the head in a humouring recitativo;

And, as I live, you will see my hexameters hopping before you.

This is a galloping measure; a hop, and a trot, and a gallop!

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

William, my head and my heart! dear Poet that feelest and thinkest!

Dorothy, eager of soul, my most affectionate sister!

Many a mile, O! many a wearisome mile are ye distant,

Long, long comfortless roads, with no one eye that doth know us.

O! it is all too far to send to you mockeries idle:

Yea, and I feel it not right! But O! my friends, my beloved!

PW 1.i. ll. 1-9, 15-20; also CL 1: 451-2

Coleridge’s hexameters re-measure the “wearisome” miles between Ratzeburg and Goslar. The letter hops, trots, and gallops across them in order to present Coleridge’s meters to his friends through acts of digital scansion: “And, as I live, you will see my hexameters hopping before you.” As dactyl, in Greek, means “finger,” then scanning Coleridge’s hexameters with the “digit didactic” would make his sequences of dactyls apparent “as [he] live[s]”: not simply as an abstract graphic projection of a meter but as if the siblings’ living hands were conduits of Coleridge’s vital pulses. And if the taps of their index fingers—twice on the thumb and once “on each of the forks of the five-forkèd left hand”—enact and visualize Coleridge’s hexameters, they also point to the poem’s multiplying exclamation marks (18 in 36 lines) and to its play with the metrics of exclamatory address: “William, my teacher, my friend! dear William and dear Dorothea!; “William, my head and my heart! dear Poet that feelest and thinkest!/ Dorothy, eager of soul, my most affectionate sister!” Falling in the middle of third-foot spondees— “friend! dear”; “heart! dear”—and after sixth-foot trochees—“-thea!”; “thinkest!”; “sister!”— the exclamation marks enforce addresses to brother and sister, with both masculine and feminine endings.

Despite his pretensions to mockery—“O! it is all too far to send to you mockeries idle”(l. 19)—Coleridge thinks seriously here about hexameter as a medium of feeling—both psychological (“But O! my friends, my beloved!” (l. 20)) and physiological:

Five long hours have I tossed, rheumatic heats, dry and flushing,

Gnawing behind in my head, and wandering and throbbing about me,

Busy and tiresome, my friends, as the beat of the boding night-spider.

ll. 23-5

The poet’s fevered pulsations throb on in his hexameters, re-figured now in the forking legs of the spider, a nightmarish transformation of “the five-forkèd left hand.” Metrical, textual, and visual modes of emphasis index Coleridge to the eyes and ears, materializing both his “rheumatic heats” and his passion for his friends, even as those readers repeatedly tap out and sound their own names aloud:

William, my head and my heart! dear William and dear Dorothea!

You have all in each other; but I am lonely, and want you!

PW 1.i.; also CL 1: 451-2

In calling out to the siblings from Ratzeburg and instructing them in his own oral and metrical projection at Goslar, Coleridge strives, at both ends, to close the gap between writing and reading, expression and reception—tries to bring the friends to a shared point (or a series of shared points) in time and space. This is prosody, and punctuation, at its most playful and plangent.

“William, my teacher, my friend! [...] William, my head and my heart!” called a lonely Coleridge. “Friend of my heart & genius,” Wordsworth re-called, in a tone of self-possession and with a sense of present sympathy; “we had reach’d / A small green island which I was well pleased / To pass not lightly” (Prelude 1798-1799, p. 26). With his first address to Coleridge in the manuscripts Wordsworth established a “2nd Part” and a poem in epistolary form, simultaneously extending the poem and giving it shape. Returning thereafter to what was now Part I, he rounded out its close with an address that reflexively acknowledged the shaping effects of sympathetic address: “Nor will it seem to thee my Friend so prompt/ In sympathy, that I have lengthened out/ With fond and feeble tongue a tedious tale […]” (Prelude 1798-1799 1: 447-9).[6] Reflecting on the stream of “lyrical effusions” in MS JJ, Paul Magnuson has argued that “It was not merely Coleridge’s sympathetic presence as reader or auditor that shaped the work, it was also the presence of Coleridge’s poetry at the beginning of the work” (Magnuson 206). The citation of “Frost at Midnight” and a canceled reference in the closing lines of MS JJ show Wordsworth’s recognition of the need to situate his “fragmentary memories” within a signifying context; otherwise they would appear as “isolated moments” lacking unitary form (206). As the German addresses make clear, however, Coleridge’s “presence” is a fiction; in positing Coleridge’s ready sympathy, Wordsworth elides Coleridge’s loneliness, “the long, long comfortless roads” (l. 18) between them, and Dorothy’s wondering the length of days between writing and reception, expression and sympathy. It is not the distance between the friends that concerns Wordsworth here, or the spanning of it with galloping hexameters or beating wings; it is Coleridge’s reception of a length of verse that is not the hoped for Recluse. His jocular alliteration (“with fond and feeble tongue a tedious tale”) is not simply tongue-in-cheek but betrays some apprehension about poetic coherence and Coleridge’s approval. Thus as Wordsworth, in his address, closes the geographical distance between the friends, extension reemerges, transmuted, in the form of poetic length and posits its own legitimacy. Very much on the model of Dorothy’s December letter to Coleridge, friendly address gives framing form to the “lyrical effusions” of MS JJ and permits the ongoing extension of the poem.

Significantly, Wordsworth’s addresses to Coleridge also inscribe autobiographical distance within the self. In an early revision of the opening address of Part II, the conceit of retrospective narrative as a joint sea “voyage” develops into a new figure of geographical and temporal extent—and carries a new confidence. “Friend of my heart & genius we had reach’d/ A small green island which I was well pleased/ To pass not lightly by” becomes, in the Sockburn manuscript (DC MS 21),

Thus far my Friend have we retraced the way

Through which I travelled when I first began

To love the woods and fields: the passion yet

Was in its birth sustained as might befall

By nourishment that came unsought for still.

Prelude 1798-1799, p. 28

In re-beginning Part II, Wordsworth shifts the emphasis from a metaphoric seascape and a heroic compositional voyage undertaken with Coleridge to the actual landscapes of the past through which Wordsworth traveled singly as a boy and which now open to view within his memory. His purpose is to “retrace,” with Coleridge by his side, his own historical way. The very real roads and geographical distances that separated the friends’ in Germany yield to an internalized but no less real geography, to a “way” of uncountable miles and days that connects and divides historical versions of the self and its passions.

After the opening address, Wordsworth goes on in the manuscript to discuss “boyish sport” (rowing, picnicking, horseback riding, bowling on a green) that kept him in intimate, though unsought, contact with nature (Prelude 1798-1799 2: 52). It was after Coleridge’s visit to Wordsworth in the Lakes in October 1799 and their three-week walking tour across those very “woods and fields,” that Wordsworth articulated the difference between the present and the past as a distance from a passionate origin (Prelude 1798-1799, pp. 30-1). In a 39-line extension of the opening address, he emphasized the seasonal measures of his boyhood pleasures: “From week to week from month to month we lived/ A round of tumult.” He writes of “games/ Prolonged in summer,” of “revelry” and “uproar” continuing past daylight, and of going to bed, as stars twinkled above, “With weary joints and with a beating mind” (Prelude 1798-1799, p. 169). The prolongation of passion in the boy’s mind—the mind’s ongoing “beating” after the day’s physical play is over—anticipates adult consciousness, but with a difference. Wordsworth writes,

A tranquilizing spirit presses now

On my corporeal frame so wide appears

The vacancy between me & those days

Which yet have such self presence in my heart

That some times when I think of them I seem

Two consciousnesses, conscious of myself

And of some other being.

Prelude 1798-1799, p. 169

The “tranquilizing spirit” brought on by recollection diminishes Wordsworth’s sense of a “corporeal frame.” The feeling of bodily integrity decreases as recollection both opens to view the “wide” “vacancy” between the present and “those days” and also re-stimulates the passion they nourished. It is as if Wordsworth, across a long distance, makes a live connection to his boyhood “beating mind”—like the vital metrical connection Coleridge attempted to establish between Ratzeburg and Goslar. It is the powerful “self presence” of “those days”—the boy’s “beating mind” within the adult’s heart—that effects the sense of doubled consciousness, a division or spacing of the self that threatens identity. Although comically ventriloqual, Wordsworth’s pronouncing aloud of Coleridge’s Ratzeburg address—“William, my head and my heart!”—had positioned Wordsworth as subject and object of address and partitioned “head” and “heart.” Self-fissure, thereafter, becomes the matter of poetic revision and extension; at the site of his first direct address to Coleridge in the poem, Wordsworth elaborates the ontological predicament of being in, and beating across, time.[7]

With the elision of the historical spatial distance between the poets, distance re-emerges not only temporally within the self but also between Wordsworth and others. In the valediction at the end of Part II, for instance, Wordsworth firmly closes any geographical distance between him and Coleridge only to open up and explore the emotional distance between men in general. “Thou, my Friend, wast reared/ In the great city ’mid far other scenes,/ But we, by different roads, at length have gained/ The self-same bourne” (Prelude 1798-1799 2: 496-9). For this reason, he “speak[s]” to Coleridge “unapprehensive of contempt,”

The insinuated scoff of coward tongues,

And all that silent language which so oft

In conversation betwixt man and man

Blots from the human countenance all trace

Of beauty and of love.

Prelude 1798-1799 2: 500-5

Wordsworth’s portrait of friendship is both allusive and suggestively textual. While Coleridge had returned from Germany, toured the Lakes with Wordsworth, and departed for London by the time these lines were written, Wordsworth positions the two friends as inhabiting the “self-same bourne.” He renders this “bourne” not as a geographical place but as a shared, and interchangeable, poetic language: echoing lines 51-2 of “Frost at Midnight,”[8] “Thou, my Friend, wast reared/ in the great city ’mid far other scenes” enacts a sympathy of oral immediacy and unmarked citation. The implication is that their dialogue in a shared poetic language will sustain their intimacy across distances and be its own place.[9]

Strikingly different is Wordsworth’s scenario of “conversation betwixt man and man,” in which the “insinuated scoff of coward tongues” and “silent language” (unspoken fear, hostility, and indifference) divide mind from mind. Surpassing the anonymity and alienation in Coleridge’s “Hexameters”—“Long, long comfortless roads, with no one eye that doth know us” (l. 18)—face-to-face encounter is depicted here as tense with uncertainty and unspoken aggression. The “human countenance” devolves into a surface of strained reading—a page blotted of “all trace/ Of beauty and of love” and thus a sorry contrast to the intimate “Friend” who sympathetically hears the autobiographical tale. Thus while inscribing as a communicative ideal the immediacy valorized in Coleridge’s conversation poems, the passage introduces an implicit worry about the poem’s future reception by a broader public, contrasting by allusion its literary reception in the marketplace of books and reviewers with Hartley’s reception, imagined in “Frost at Midnight,” of “the lovely shapes and sounds intelligible/ Of that eternal language, which thy God/ Utters” (PW 1.i. 456. ll. 58-60; cf Magnuson 185-99 on Wordsworth’s echoes of the poem’s portraits of intimacy).

Although “Friend” implies intimate oral converse, it repeatedly reveals the written page. Subtending “The Nightingale” and coming to the fore in the German exchange (“Smooth out the folds of my letter, and place it on desk or on table” (“Hexameters” l. 2)), the page is more markedly delineated in Part II of The Prelude when Wordsworth prospectively imagines the reception of his poem by a childhood “Friend/ Then passionately loved.” “[W]ith heart how full,” the poet wonders,

Will he peruse these lines, this page, perhaps

A blank to other men, for many years

Have since flowed in between us, and, our minds

Both silent to each other, at this time

We live as if those hours had never been.

Prelude 1798-1799 2: 382-8

Broadening his reflections upon temporal passage to include another person, Wordsworth construes the lapsed friendship with John Fleming as an influx between them of time—another “wide” “vacancy.” Yet where Wordsworth still senses his boyhood “beating mind,” a river of silence separates his adult mind from Fleming’s. How will the friend who “travelled round” Esthwaite Lake by Wordsworth’s side “oft before the hours of school” (ll. 379-80) read “these lines, this page”? Will he receive them as affecting blank verses or, perhaps with a broader audience, in affective blankness? Will the page, failing to evoke moving childhood scenes or re-stimulate past passions, appear “blank”—like a face blotted of “all trace/ Of beauty and of love”? With years “between” them, a once passionate “Friend” may become an estranged reader.

This hypothetical scene of reading inverts the metaphorical scene of reading inscribed in Wordsworth’s address to Dorothy in “Tintern Abbey”:

 thou art with me, here, upon the banks

Of this fair river; thou, my dearest Friend

My dear, dear Friend, and in thy voice I catch

The language of my former heart, and read

My former pleasures in the shooting lights

Of thy wild eyes. Oh! yet a little while

May I behold in thee what I was once,

My dear, dear Sister!

LB 119, ll. 115-22

Standing with Dorothy on the banks of the Wye, Wordsworth can “catch” in her voice the “language of [his] former heart” and “read” in the radiating light of her eyes’ his “former pleasures.” The language of vocal vibration and radiating light connects the older and younger sibling, bridging also the adult and youthful Wordsworth. Although Dorothy will play this redemptive role again in the 1805 Prelude (10: 907-20), the comparison shows Wordsworth, since Germany, writing temporal difference as unbridged spatial distance, figuring the passage of time as a stretch of silence between persons and aspects of the self. If friendly address in the German letters strives for immediacy despite, or across, spatial distance, Wordsworth’s pointing to “these lines, this page” starkly re-presents that distance. Raising the specter of “blank” vacancy, it puts the burden on writing to stimulate new and revive former feeling.

* * *

Between January and March 1804, when Coleridge was preparing to depart for Malta, Wordsworth extended his “poem to Coleridge” to five books. This version of The Prelude “is a product of early 1804,” states Duncan Wu, noting its “self-justificatory” tone, “when Coleridge’s ill health and imminent departure made completion of The Recluse more doubtful than ever” (Five Book Prelude, p. 10). Although no complete manuscript of this state of the poem exists, Wordsworth references a five-book project in several letters of this period, and periodic calculations of his progress suggest its best representation is in MSS WW and W, notebooks that contain drafting toward and fair copy of Books III-V. As we can see in the manuscripts and in Wu’s speculative reconstruction of the 1804 poem, Books III and IV maintain the framing addresses to Coleridge; they also develop the trope of the poet’s “way.” I have “retraced my life / Up to an eminence,” Wordsworth states near the start of Book III, warning Coleridge that now “We must descend” into “a populous plain” as he gives his account of roving among throngs of students and idly loitering at Cambridge (Five Book Prelude 3: 167-8; 195, 194). Book IV, which returns Wordsworth to his “native hills” (3. 663) during the summer vacation, finds coherence in Wordsworth’s past walks: in accounts of incidents that occurred along the “public roads” (l. 663), and on paths Wordsworth freshly made through fields—incidents that show the return of “primitive hours” (l. 175) and feelings, mark his spiritual dedication, and illustrate the joint rearing of Wordsworth’s imagination by Nature and books—fairy tales, legends, romances and “glittering verse” (l. 697). After recounting the climactic ascent of Mount Snowdon in the opening of Book V, Wordsworth details his “abasement” (4.720)—his analytic separation from nature in falling to the perceptual and aesthetic rules of “mimic art”—and illustrates the restoration of his imagination, and his connection to nature, in the “spots of time” (ll. 219, 280). With apostrophes to the “soul of Nature” and “mystery of man” (ll. 202, 332), address to Coleridge falls away in this book, and so too, Reed speculates (Prelude 1805, 1: pp. 34-8), does the five-book plan, when, toward its end, Wordsworth suggests that he will give an account of his walking journey across the “gorgeous Alps” (l. 267). Sometime between 6 and 12 March, Wordsworth abandoned the five-book project, and by 18 March, he had sent to Coleridge fair copies of most of his short unpublished poems and the first tranche of a newly reorganized version of “the poem to Coleridge,” its length as yet undetermined.[10]

As the editors of the Norton Prelude note (p. 517), for the Malta text (known as MS M), Wordsworth “set aside for future use” the last book of the five-book poem, divided the fourth book into two, and inserted additions. What they do not observe are changes at the level of punctuation—and thus that William, and Dorothy and Mary, the copyists, added the exclamation mark to “Friend” throughout MS M.[11] It seems that the principal causes of these changes were geographical distance and the shift from oral to written mode of reception that distance entails. Wordsworth had read Part II of the 1799 poem aloud to Coleridge at Grasmere on 4 January 1804—spurring himself, the Norton editors believe, as did Coleridge’s Christmas-time decision to make the trip, to extend the poem. MS M, by contrast, would be read by Coleridge abroad—and here the page becomes more emphatically an interface for Wordsworth’s voice. Consider the Raven’s Nest episode: MS V, copied in 1799, shows the insertion of commas sometime between 1801 and 1804 (here indicated in red):

forme: 1889508n.jpg

Prelude 1798-1799, p. 233

Where final punctuation is obscured in MS V, MS U, the variant fair copy, has “clouds!”—signaling the boy’s wonder (Prelude 1798-1799, p. 233). In MS M, however, the exclamatory function of the “!” emerges with force:

 Oh! when I have hung

Above the raven’s nest, by knots of grass,

Or half-inch fissures in the slipp’ry rock

But ill sustain’d, and almost, as it seem’d,

Suspended by the blast which blew amain

Shouldering the naked crag; oh! at that time

While on the perilous ridge I hung alone,

With what strange utterance did the loud dry wind

Blow through my ears! the sky seem’d not a sky

Of earth, and with what motion moved the clouds!

MS M, f. 137r

In imitation of the boy’s perilous suspension, the sequence of exclamation points keeps the reader’s voice cresting across the sentence—keeps the vocal contour from sinking to a stop. They blow breath and wind (“Oh! [...] oh! [...] ears! [...] clouds!”) into the written words, as if lifting the most primitive of sounds from the page. The acoustic effects of MS M’s punctuation support the poem’s new emphasis on poetic sound: Book I’s reflexive tracing of the poem’s own utterance in an added Preamble and the post-Preamble (for example, “my own voice chear’d me, and, far more, the mind’s/ Internal echo of the imperfect sound”; “but the harp/ Was soon defrauded, and the banded host/ Of harmony dispers’d in straggling sounds,/ And lastly utter silence” (MS M, ff. 133r-v)); the addition, in Book IV, of the “froward Brook” passage (“soon as he was box’d/ Within ou [sic] garden, found himself at once,/ As if by trick insidious and unkind,/ Stripp’d of his voice”—which should have been a spur, the adult Wordsworth thinks, “to pen down,/ A satire on myself” (MS M, f. 161r)); and the inclusion, in Book V, of the central portion of the dream of the Arab episode, featuring the “Shell”/“Book” that, when held to the ear, makes “articulate sounds,/ A loud prophetic blast of harmony,/ An Ode, in passion utter’d,” and which the Arab/Quixote rushes to preserve beneath the sand in advance of the coming deluge (MS M, f. 171v). It is not unlikely that William, Dorothy, and Mary’s busy copying, between January and March, of “all William’s smaller Poems” and “the Poem on his Life and the Pedlar” for Coleridge to take on his travels, and their making of a separate copy for themselves under the threat of the loose poems’ dispersal and loss, may have influenced this new emphasis on books which, through their power to sound, “lay/ Their sure foundations in the heart of Man” (MS M, f. 173v cf. WL 448).[12]

With the addition of exclamation points to existing and new addresses to Coleridge, and the inclusion of the new device of quoted self-address, MS M develops a complex vocal texture. These textual acoustic chambers, moreover, have self-referential and dialogical tendencies, resonating in their reflections on poetic inspiration, composition, subject, and theme. For example, when recalling in Book I how the “banded host/ Of harmony dispers’d in straggling sounds/ And, lastly, utter silence,” Wordsworth fills that past silence by quoting himself speaking to himself in the past: “‘Be it so,/ It is an injury’ said I, ‘to this day/ To think of any thing but present joy’” (MS M, ff.135r-v). Turning outwards, the new address to Coleridge at the end of Book I displays the strengthening of poetic voice and also serves as a vehicle for meta-poetic comment—its figure of thematic organization bearing traces of the meta-postal addresses exchanged in Germany:

One end hereby at least hath been attain’d

My mind has been revived, and if this mood

Desert me not, I will forthwith bring down,

Through later years the story of my Life

The road lies plain before me; ’tis a theme

Single, and of determined bounds, and hence

I choose it rather at this time than work

Of ampler, or more varied argument;

Where I might be discomfited, and lost;

And certain hopes are with me, that to Thee

This labour will be welcome, Honoured Friend!

MS M, f. 142r

For the first time in the manuscripts, Wordsworth markedly differentiates the time of writing and reception—a temporal difference that assumes spatial form in the image of the “road” lying “plain before me [...] Single, and of determined bounds.” The “road” neither separates Grasmere from Malta nor must be overcome by verbal and metrical projection. It only negatively registers the vast geographic distance now opening between Coleridge and Wordsworth—as a positive freedom for the unfolding “Through later years the story of my Life.” Newlyn observes that “Coleridge’s departure brings out in Wordsworth a sense of confidence and inner power” (172), quoting this passage from the Norton text of the 1805 Prelude. What that text obscures, however, is the addition of exclamation marks to “Friend.” The Norton editors chose to remove exclamation points from their edition of the thirteen-book Prelude, thus depriving it of one of the crucial additions carried forward from the Malta manuscript. What is lost by this arbitrary deletion is a stroke that indexes Wordsworth’s new confidence and power, as he re-inscribes a sign of intimacy that had begun in the conversation poems and continued in the letters sent between Dorothy, William and Coleridge during the lonely German winter of 1798-99. In MS M, the pointed “Friend!” represents Wordsworth’s exploitation of a shared sign by which the three writers historically had inscribed their affection—now shorn, however, of the desire for immediacy of sympathy and serving the sounding out of an individual poetic agenda.

In the books of The Prelude that Wordsworth went on to write, Wordsworth distanced Coleridge geographically as well as temporally. In Book VI, he admitted Coleridge’s geographical experience into the sphere of address for the first time: no longer a penumbra figure reviewing Wordsworth’s past in his thoughts or by his side as he narrates, Coleridge is now an independent wanderer with an independent physical constitution, seeking a restoration of health in the Mediterranean airs. And while Coleridge’s trip serves as pretext, in Book VI, for introducing “wanderings of [his] own” (Prelude 1805 6: 333), Wordsworth’s elaboration of Coleridge’s experience, as Newlyn observes (173), advances his articulation of a “private self”—one whom, unlike Coleridge, was fostered by the “sublime and lovely Forms” of nature throughout his early life (Prelude 1805 13: 146). The drawing of distinctions between them comes to a climax in Book X, where Wordsworth worries that Coleridge’s stay in Sicily, on his return, threatens to aggravate rather than cure his maladies. “If for France I have grieved,” Wordsworth writes,

Have been distress’d to think of what she once

Promised, now is, a far more sober cause

Thine eyes must see of sorrow, in a Land

Strew’d with the wreck of loftiest years, a Land

Glorious indeed, substantially renown’d

Of simple virtue once, and manly praise,

Now without one memorial hope, not even

A hope to be deferr’d; for that would

Serve to chear the heart in such entire decay.

Prelude 1805 10: 954, 957-65

It is Wordsworth’s sympathy-deepening residency in France that makes his sickness after the outbreak of war so acute. But where Wordsworth grounds the resolution of his moral, spiritual, and vocational crisis in a rural geographical history—“Nature’s self, by human love/ Assisted, through the weary labyrinth/ Conducted me again to open day,/ Revived the feelings of my earlier life,/ Gave me that strength, and knowledge full of peace,/ Enlarged, and never more to be disturb’d” (Prelude 1805 10: 921-6), he denies Coleridge the same sure foundation (see Newlyn 175-6). It is the “airy wretchedness” of a “mind/ Debarr’d from Nature’s living images” during childhood that Wordsworth wants to believe he could have “sooth’d” had they overlapped at Cambridge (Prelude 1805 6: 325, 312-13, 324). Now he can only hope for Coleridge’s restoration in a hopeless situation:

But indignation works where hope is not

And thou, O Friend! wilt be refresh’d. There is

One great Society alone on earth,

The noble Living, and the noble Dead;

Thy consolation shall be there, and Time

And Nature shall before thee spread in store

Imperishable thoughts, the place itself

Be conscious of thy presence, and the dull

Sirocco air of its degeneracy

Turn as thou mov’st into a healthful breeze

To cherish and invigorate thy frame.

10: 966-76

So while Wordsworth traces in Books VI-X a similar continental arc for these “Twins almost in genius and in mind!” (6: 262-3), he uses their disparate experiences of nature, from their early lives, to separate them. He states that “the place itself” will “Be conscious of thy presence” (10: 972-73) and calls on local spirits to enfold and nurture his friend. Wordsworth never returns Coleridge, in the poem, to his side: the “Story,” he states in Book X, is “destined for thy ear” (l. 946). Reception and restoration are in the future, and conditional: “a comfort now, a hope,/ One of the dearest which this life can give,/ Is mine; that Thou are near and wilt be soon/ Restored to us in renovated health” (Prelude 1805 13: 421-4).

* * *

Coleridge was restored to the Wordsworths in 1806, and although not renovated in health, he was prepared to receive the poem elaborated during his absence. After listening evening after evening for nearly two weeks to Wordsworth’s recitation of The Prelude, Coleridge replied in early January 1807 with “To W. Wordsworth: Lines composed, for the greater part on the Night, on which he finished the recitation of his Poem (in thirteen Books) concerning the growth and history of his own Mind.” The first of several entries in the Norton Critical Edition’s section on “The Early Reception” of The Prelude, the ode incorporates, in the first strophe, what A. Reeve Parker has called “an astonishingly deft critical précis of the poem” (Parker 89). The précis, however, is just the first of several responses to Wordsworth’s poem that “To W. Wordsworth” enacts. Its opening triplet of epithets, “O Friend! O Teacher! God’s great Gift to me!” suggests the psychological, critical, and spiritual dimensions of the reply to come; it also stitches The Prelude to its precursors: the blank verse effusions and meditations of Somerset and the Lakes and the poem-bearing letters of Germany. If, in its suppression of the pointed “Friend!,” the Norton edition presents a plainer, less emphatic 1805 Wordsworth, it nevertheless offers an effusive Coleridge of 1807, in its printing of a manuscript “which Coleridge sent to Wordsworth”—“the closest we can come to the poem Coleridge wrote down just after hearing The Prelude read aloud” (Norton 542). In this text, Coleridge does not merely echo Wordsworth’s echoic use of the sign of friendship (“Friend!”), which he had repeatedly seen in MS M and heard at Coleorton, but grounds in profound and active reception the outward act of calling-on:

O Friend! O Teacher! God’s great Gift to me!

Into my heart have I receiv’d that Lay

More than historic, that prophetic Lay

Wherein (High theme by Thee first sung aright)

Of the Foundations and the Building-up

Of thy own Spirit, thou hast lov’d to tell

What may be told, to th’understanding mind

Revealable; and what within the mind

May rise enkindled. Theme as hard as high!

ll. 1-9[13]

In a climactic opening address, Coleridge declares Wordsworth’s redemptive agency only to establish, in the ensuing lines, his own status as worthy receiver of “God’s Gift” and of Wordsworth’s song of revealed and “enkindled” truth. Coleridge’s reception of the “prophetic Lay,” the first strophe suggests, is as an active process of analytical imagination: his own mind enkindled by the glossing of subjects, the strophe culminates in a series of exclamations—“An Orphic Tale indeed/ A Tale divine of high and passionate Thoughts/ To their own music chaunted!” (ll. 38-40). Here Coleridge counterpoints the chanting he invokes and answers Wordsworth’s expression in Book I of his “favorite aspiration!”: his yearning toward “some philosophic Song/ Of Truth that cherishes our daily life;/ With meditations passionate from deep/ Recesses in man’s heart, immortal verse/ Thoughtfully fitted to the Orphean lyre” (Prelude 1805 1: 229-34). Wordsworth’s song on the “Building-up/ Of [his] own spirit,” Coleridge suggests, demonstrates his readiness for the more universal song of truth, The Recluse.

The second strophe answers Wordsworth’s aspirations for “immortal verse” in an exclamatory address that again expands to establish its foundation in Coleridge’s experience of reception:

 Ah great Bard!

Ere yet that last Swell dying aw’d the Air,

With stedfast ken I view’d thee in the Choir

Of ever-enduring Men.

ll. 40-3

The address foregrounds Coleridge’s comprehensive view and critical judgment as a vision, sustained to the very edges of sound, of his friend’s eternal poetic fame—an image that places Wordsworth in a choir of immortals. Though dated and placed (“Janry, 1807. Cole-orton, near Ashby de la Zouch”), the poem opens to view the “one visible space,” outside “Time,” from which the “truly Great [...] Shed influence.” Wordsworth’s fame—and Coleridge’s exclamations—lie also in his perception of visual-acoustic transformation:

Nor less a sacred Roll, than those of old,

And to be plac’d, as they, with gradual fame

Among the Archives of mankind, thy Work

Makes audible a linked Song of Truth,

Of Truth profound a sweet continuous Song

Not learnt, but native, her own natural notes!

Dear shall it be to every human Heart.

To me how more than dearest!

ll. 48-55

Coleridge here registers Wordsworth’s ambition, so sharply focused in the Malta poem, to write a sounding book that lays its “sure foundations in the heart of Man” (MS M, f. 173v). Surpassing that goal, Wordsworth’s codex unlocks the “Archives of mankind,” revealing the essential unity of individual texts by releasing from their written words “a linked Song of Truth.” In this analysis, Coleridge claims an experience of reception that is at once sensual and intellectual, of the ear and of the mind, of the mind and of the heart, personal and exemplary. As he recognizes and celebrates Wordsworth’s poetic centrality (the bard among the choir of great men, the key to the archive), he begins to establish himself as the poem’s most worthy receiver—not because, as The Prelude had declared, to him “the unity of all has been revealed” (Prelude 1805 2: 226), but because, as the poem’s central addresses dramatize, his heart’s wounds, which had previously impeded his reception of Wordsworth’s voice, are now healed by that voice and by the modes of response it elicits from him.

A cluster of plaintively intimate addresses marks the ode’s formal and psychological center and reflexively points a history of Coleridge and Wordsworth’s “communion.” Evoking the experience of being “Scatter’d and whirl’d” by the currents of Wordsworth’s hopes during the early years of their friendship, Coleridge confesses a past failure to respond to Wordsworth’s “utterance of [his] love” (l. 56):

 thy faithful Hopes,

Thy Hopes of me, dear Friend! by me unfelt

Were troubles to me, almost as a Voice

Familiar once and more than musical

To one cast forth [...].

ll. 60-4

A plaintive address likewise marks the psychological nadir of the third verse paragraph—“O Friend! too well tho know’st, of what sad years/ The long suppression had benumm’d my soul” (ll. 67-9)—which ends with a vision of Coleridge’s corpse strewn with the “Flowers” of all that “Commune with Thee had open’d out” (l. 79). It is this recognition of a failure to convert into poetry the fruits of the intimate exchange of 1797-1798 that drives the ode’s major turn, which is marked in the fourth strophe by self-address renouncing the “Poisons of Self-harm!” (l. 86) (“That way no more!” (l. 82)) and other-address correcting Wordsworth’s harmful depictions of Coleridge in The Prelude: “Thou too, Friend!/ O injure not the memory of that Hour/ Of thy communion with my nobler mind/ By pity or grief, already felt too long!” (ll. 88-91).

As if actively converting the fruits of the present intimate exchange into poetry (Wordsworth’s recitation of his poem to Coleridge; Coleridge’s initial lines of reply to Wordsworth), the final strophes offer vivid images of communion and community that renew the former “Hour” of Wordsworth’s “communion” with Coleridge’s “nobler mind.” Whereas Wordsworth had “destined” his story “for thy ear” (Prelude 1805 10: 946), Coleridge answers, in enlarging abstractions, that “Peace is nigh/ Where Wisdom’s Voice has found a list’ning Heart” (ll. 93-4). He also illustrates, in high resolution, his soul’s responses to Wordsworth’s modulating “strain.” “Eve following eve,” he writes, “hours” made “more precious, for thy song!,”

In Silence list’ning, like a devout Child,

My soul lay passive, by thy various strain

Driven in surges now, beneath the stars,

With momentary Stars of my own Birth,

Fair constellated Foam still darting off

Into the darkness! now a tranquil Sea

Outspread and bright, yet swelling to the Moon!

ll. 97, 99, 100, 101-7

This is hearing not with the ear but through it: a sensual rendering of the rhythmical and spiritual dynamics of intimate address. Coleridge does not merely re-inscribe the poets’ shared textualization of friendship in the ode—replaying the figures and exclamation points that had long been part of their textual intimacy; he radically elaborates address to the “Friend!” by illustrating its interior effects and interpersonal dynamics. In so doing, Coleridge removes Wordsworth from the “one visible space” outside time (the everlasting “Choir”) to the “Dear tranquil Time” of the recitation at Coleorton, “when the sweet sense of Home/ Becomes most sweet!” (ll. 98-9). This form of communion, predicated on the simultaneity of expression and reception, happens in place, in time, and in community.

If “a sudden thought drew [Coleridge] back to the trip to Germany, the three of them alone together,” as Kenneth Johnston writes of the image of the waters streaming from the keel of the ship on the crossing to Hamburg (Johnston 833), the final strophe firmly closes the distances that had opened between the friends on that trip. Here Coleridge establishes Wordsworth’s sphere and incorporates himself within it, closing also the distance that had been left open in “the poem to Coleridge”:

And when—O Friend! my Comforter! my guide!

Strong in thyself, and powerful to give strength!

Thy long sustained Lay finally clos’d

And thy deep Voice had ceas’d—(yet thou thyself

Wert still before mine eyes, and round us both

That happy Vision of beloved Faces!

All, whom I deepliest love, in one room all!)

ll. 108-14

In stilling Wordsworth before his eyes and surrounding “both” poets with “beloved Faces,” Coleridge assuages both Wordsworth’s fear of blank response to the page and his own anxieties about estrangement and inconsequence. In this fantasy of intimate communion, the poets form two points at the center of love. With this human tableau, suggestive of multiplicity within unity, Coleridge rewrites the close of Wordsworth’s lay as a bringing close—a unification of the community and of the person:

Scarce conscious, and yet conscious of it’s Close,

I sate, my Being blended in one Thought,

(Thought was it? or aspiration? or Resolve?)

Absorb’d, yet hanging still upon the sound:

And when I rose, I found myself in Prayer!

ll. 115-9

While friendly address throughout the ode recalls Coleridge and Dorothy Wordsworth’s historic urge for sympathetic immediacy, the final strophes illustrate sympathetic immediacy as well as the after-effects of auditory reception. With no significant spatial or temporal difference between expression and reception, self-difference dissolves in a harmonizing of “Being.” Coleridge inscribes neither a lapse nor a vacancy in the moments after the cessation of Wordsworth’s “Voice” but a resonant pause, punctuated by the rising of his physical body and focusing of his spirit. With this pointed image of prayer in the epode, or stand, Coleridge marks his redemption and his presence in place.

Parker reads the poem as Coleridge’s “counter-elegy”—“antiphonal to what he heard in Wordsworth’s poem, conceived as though the whelmed poet was answering the verses sung over him by his sorrowing friend.” Far from a merely personal expression of pathos, generated by self-interested ambivalence about Wordsworth’s tremendous achievement, the “responsive funeral hymn” also engages the emotional and Christian structures of “Lycidas” and by this mediation moves beyond “‘the accidents of individual Life,’” or mere biography, to an “assertion of spiritual being” and recording of Coleridge’s “own egotistic and transcendental ideal” (Parker 80, 77, 102)—wherein the “One Life” comprehends but does not subsume the individual.[14] Here I have explored the ways in which “To W. Wordsworth” draws on a history of intimate textual exchange across significant geographical distances. It brings closure to “the poem to Coleridge” by refocusing the emotional and spatial energies of friendly address and by giving them new spiritual point. Although no geographic distance separated the friends when, as the subtitle puts it, “for the greater part on the Night, on which he finished the recitation of his Poem,” Coleridge composed “To W. Wordsworth,” distance between them remained textually inscribed in The Prelude. Recalling the sleepless hours of metrical composition in Ratzeburg, the subtitle produces the image of Coleridge as night-spider, weaving a web of addresses around “All, whom [he] deepliest love[s]” (l. 114). And, as in those epistolary hexameters, Coleridge liberally uses the exclamation point to re-inscribe the oral intimacy of the two poets within community. The mark carries sound into the pause of the night after Wordsworth’s “Voice had ceas’d” (l. 111) and onto the silence of the page; it makes Coleridge’s textual address revert to an oral occasion in which distance between speaker and listener is small enough to be traversed by stress (here, the emphasized enunciation of friendship). The punctuation evokes the state of being within earshot even while acknowledging that this state is no longer one of equality: Coleridge the friend is now an acolyte worshipping in the presence of a prophet, a sea swelling to Wordsworth’s moon. He is an inscriber of intimate speech as communion who knows that Wordsworth now uses the exclamation point to acknowledge their distance as much as to overcome it—for Wordsworth has, during the Malta sojourn, found means to relocate distance, and the means of bridging distance, in a dialogue with his own distant past rather than with Coleridge’s present.