Coleridge was then at the height of his charm. His whole body, despite its secret pains and poisons, was responsive to the lively interests of his mind. His handsome face—sensual mouth, finely formed nose, gray eyes sparkling with eagerness and curiosity, his careless black hair curling about his neck and ears—made him immediately attractive, especially to Dorothy. It did not take her long to fall in love with him in her shy way, always keeping William unchallengeable on his pedestal. Coleridge was taken aback by her tininess, yet was drawn to her by her quiet sympathy; this was a friend who would take him with all his faults, and would overlook his shiftlessness to see his warm feeling, his strangely recondite fancies, his shaken and bewildered faith, the frightened malaise of a poet lost amid factories and wars. For the present, however, he hardly saw this timid sprite of a girl, being overwhelmed by her brother.
Here, he realized, in this man with calm, grave face, high forehead, meditative eyes, was a real and living poet, sensitive to every vibration of things and souls, shunning the economic maelstrom, quietly making it his life task to find fit evocative words for his insights and dreams. Coleridge, who at that time—with The Ancient Mariner already growing in him—was the greater poet of the two, felt the dedication in this man, envied him his freedom to give himself totally to poetry, and may have wondered whether a sister is not better than a wife. “I feel myself a little man by his side,” he wrote, soon after his coming; “and yet I do not think myself the less man than I formerly thought myself. William is a very great man, the only man to whom at all times and in all modes of excellence I feel myself inferior.”19
So began three weeks of mutual stimulation. Each read his poems to the other. Wordsworth read more, Coleridge talked more. “His conversation,” Dorothy wrote, “teemed with soul, mind, and spirit. Then he is so benevolent, so good-tempered and cheerful. His eye… speaks every emotion of his animated mind.”20
Usually such a triune love affair cools after three weeks, but then Coleridge, loath to let it end, begged William and Dorothy to accompany him to Nether Stowey for some return of their hospitality. They went with him, expecting to come back to Racedown soon; but friend Poole, learning that their lease would soon expire and could not be renewed, found for them a handsome cottage, furnished, for £23 a year, in Alfoxden, four miles from Coleridge; and there William and Dorothy took comfort and inspiration for the next fifteen months.
In that happy period there was much walking between one nucleus and the other of the poetic ellipse: sometimes the two men, sometimes Coleridge and Dorothy, sometimes the three. There was a triple exchange of feelings, observations, and ideas: Wordsworth encouraged Coleridge to let imagination be his guide; Coleridge enlarged Wordsworth’s acquaintance with the philosophers, and challenged him to undertake an epic. Years later, in The Prelude, Wordsworth reminded his wandering friend of “the buoyant spirits / That were our daily portion when we first / Together wantoned in wild Poesy.”21 Dorothy was their bond and catalyst; she warmed them with her praise and eager listening, challenged them with the keenness and depth of her perceptions, and united them as their spiritual bride. They were, said Coleridge, three persons in one soul.22
Both Wordsworth and Coleridge must have looked into the journal that Dorothy began at Alfoxden on January 20, 1798. They must have been struck by a line on its second page: “The hum of insects, that noiseless noise which lives in the summer air.” But Sara Coleridge would have been struck rather with entries for February 3 to 12:
Feb. 3rd: Walked with Coleridge over the hills….
Feb. 4th: Walked a great part of the way to Stowey with Coleridge….
Feb. 5th: Walked to Stowey with Coleridge….
Feb. 11th: Walked with Coleridge near to Stowey.
Feb. 12th: Walked alone to Stowey. Returned in the evening with Coleridge.23
Sara was not happy over this ambulatory romance; it seemed sexually innocent, but where would it end?