The greatest long poem in modern English letters began its life, unexpectedly, in the winter of 1798, in an uncomfortable lodging in Goslar, Lower Saxony, where Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy found themselves marooned for four miserable months. The weather was terrible - it was reputedly the coldest winter of the century - and leaving town was practically impossible: 'When we left the room where we sit we were obliged to wrap ourselves up in great coats &c in order not to suffer much pain from the transition,' Dorothy wrote home to their brother Christopher, 'though we only went into the next room or down stairs for a few minutes.' The Wordsworths had travelled to Germany in September, ostensibly to learn the language, but really because they had nothing better to do in England, and were happy to be swept along in the charismatic wake of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, with whom they had just shared an enchanted year of poetry and talk in the Quantocks in Somerset, and who was now eager to learn about German science. The principal production of their year together was the collaborative volume, Lyrical Ballads, with a Few Other Poems (1798). The little book opened with 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner' and closed with 'Tintern Abbey', so it would scarcely have been unreasonable for the poets to have had high hopes at least of a succès d'estime; but their declared ambitions did not extend much further than raising some money for their Continental trip.
LRB 18 December 2008 | PDF Download