VIII. THE WANDERING SCHOLARS: 1798–99

Not waiting to see their book published, and helped by an additional gift to Coleridge by Josiah Wedgwood, and an advance to Wordsworth by his brother Richard, the two poets and Dorothy sailed on September 15, 1798, from Yarmouth to Hamburg. There, after an uninspiring visit to the aging poet Klopstock, they separated: Coleridge went to study in the University of Göttingen, and Wordsworth and Dorothy took a diligence to the “free Imperial city” of Goslar, at the northern foot of the Harz Mountains. There, contrary to plan but immobilized by the cold, the Wordsworths remained for four months. They tramped the streets, fed the stove, wrote or copied poetry. Warming himself with memories, Wordsworth composed Book 1 of The Prelude, his autobiographical epic. Then, suddenly realizing how much they loved England, they set out on foot, on a cold February 23, 1799, to bid Coleridge goodbye at Göttingen, and then hurry back through the rough North Sea to Yarmouth and on to Sockburn on the Tees, where Mary Hutchinson waited quietly for William to marry her.

Meanwhile Coleridge did his best, at Göttingen, to become a German. He learned the language, and became entangled in German philosophy. Finding no explanation of mind in the psychology of materialism, he abandoned the mechanistic associationism of Hartley, and adopted the idealism of Kant and the theology of Schelling, who presented Nature and Mind as two aspects of God. He heard or read the lectures of August Wilhelm von Schlegel on Shakespeare, and took from them many a notion for his own later lectures on the Elizabethan drama. Drunk with ideas and abstractions, he lost his old flair for feeling and imagery, and abandoned poetry for philosophy. “The poet in me is dead,” he wrote, “I have forgotton how to make a rhyme.”35 He became the bearer of German philosophy to England.

In July, 1799, he left Germany and returned to Nether Stowey. But a year’s absence from his wife had dulled the edge of husbandry; Sara Coleridge was no longer a romance, and both husband and wife were darkened by the recent death of their second child, Berkeley. In October, restless, he went north to see Wordsworth at Sockburn. On that visit he held too long the hand of Sara Hutchinson, Mary’s sister; some mystic current passed from the woman to the man, and Coleridge plunged into his third unhappy love affair. This Sara, mindful of his obligations to the other, gave him affection, but no more. After two years of vain wooing he resigned himself to defeat, and wrote a touching ode, “Dejection,” as almost the last flash of his poetry.

He accompanied Wordsworth on a walking tour of the Lake District, each looking for a home. At Keswick he thought he had found one, but an offer of employment on the Morning Post deflected him to London. Meanwhile Wordsworth had leased a cottage thirteen miles farther south at Grasmere. He returned to Sockburn and won Dorothy’s consent to the move; and on December 17, 1799, brother and sister began their long passage, mostly on foot, from Sockburn to Grasmere, over many miles of winterhardened and rutted roads. On December 21 they made their hearth in what Wordsworth called “Town’s End,” and what came later to be called Dove Cottage. There they lived the hardest and happiest years of their lives.

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