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The Making of Poetry

Coleridge, the Wordsworths, and Their Year of Marvels

Adam Nicolson; Illustrations by Tom Hammick

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

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ISBN10: 0374200211
ISBN13: 9780374200213


448 Pages


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June 1797 to September 1798 is the most famous year in English poetry. Out of it came Samuel Taylor Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and “Kubla Khan,” as well as his unmatched hymns to friendship and fatherhood, and William Wordsworth’s revolutionary songs in Lyrical Ballads along with “Tintern Abbey,” Wordsworth's paean to the unity of soul and cosmos, love and understanding.

In The Making of Poetry, Adam Nicolson embeds himself in the reality of this unique moment, exploring the idea that these poems came from this particular place and time, and that only by experiencing the physical circumstances of the year, in all weathers and all seasons, at night and at dawn, in sunlit reverie and moonlit walks, can the genesis of the poetry start to be understood.

The poetry Wordsworth and Coleridge made was not from settled conclusions but from the adventure on which they embarked, thinking of poetry as a challenge to all received ideas, stripping away the dead matter, looking to shed consciousness and so change the world. What emerges is a portrait of these great figures seen not as literary monuments but as young men, troubled, ambitious, dreaming of a vision of wholeness, knowing they had greatness in them but still in urgent search of the paths toward it.

The artist Tom Hammick accompanied Nicolson for much of the year, making woodcuts from the fallen timber in the park at Alfoxden where the Wordsworths lived. Interspersed throughout the book, his images bridge the centuries, depicting lives at the source of our modern sensibility: a psychic landscape of doubt and possibility, full of beauty and thick with desire for a kind of connectedness that seems permanently at hand and yet always out of reach.


Praise for The Making of Poetry

"[A] spellbinding recreation of the making of Romantic poetry amid the Somerset Quantock Hills . . . The Making of Poetry is an excitingly new kind of literary book, one which artfully combines illustrations (the bright and powerful woodcut images by Tom Hammick offer haunting correspondences to Nicolson’s imaginative prose) with a naturalist’s approach to biography. The result, hard-earned in arduous daily walks through difficult terrain, often in savage weather, enables the writer to evoke as never before the regular pilgrimages of Wordsworth, Coleridge and their companions . . . one of the most imaginative and luminously intelligent books about poetry I have read."—Miranda Seymour, Financial Times

"Nicolson, in the footsteps of Wordsworth, comes with his own Coleridge, the prodigiously gifted and colourful artist Tom Hammick, whose dreamy woodcuts and paintings are scattered through the narrative . . . poetry and place are perfectly braided together in prose whose biographical mood pays tribute to Richard Holmes and whose topographical fervour evokes Robert Macfarlane."—Robert McCrum, The Guardian

"[A] sublime, densely textured study . . . This is a book of wonders . . . Nicolson’s prose swoops and sings all over the landscape; his poets’ embeddings in nature and interconnections of thought are richly evoked, and his enjoyment of their (and his) journey into understanding is utterly infectious. Wordsworth and Coleridge, were they able to read his fabulous tribute in some Parnassian glade, would surely tip their hats to a kindred spirit."—John Walsh, The Times (London)

"[A] captivating book . . . intensely moving and thrilling. There are meditations on dusk, rain, wind, the exciting darkness and strangeness of 'winter power'; there are wonderful words like 'rhyne', 'laminar' and 'haulms' and brilliant readings of the poems, the lives and the temperaments of the two poets, feeling the spiritual ley lines running between our time and theirs."—Claire Harman, Evening Standard

"Just as a Method actor immerses himself wholly in a role . . . to bring authenticity to his characters, Nicolson became something of a 'Method poet' to write this book . . . he absorbed the landscape that had embraced Coleridge and Wordsworth as if they were accompanying him, their eyes guiding his seeing . . . His beguiling language re-activates the spell of enchantment that compelled the Lake poets so long ago."—Liesl Schillinger, Air Mail

“Passionate, original, intensely personal, and thrillingly observant. Adam Nicolson has achieved a total immersion in the Romantic poets’ world, and I can’t think of any other study quite like it. It will have terrific impact. The combination of Nicolson’s fine nature writing through all the seasons, with his revealing use of local sources, and his own exquisite/patient close reading of the poets’ notebooks is completely captivating. It is also truly moving. Above all, he is fascinating on the central relationship between Coleridge and Wordsworth, the dark depths and emerging complications of that friendship: the rivalries and creative tensions it always contained, and the final sense of Wordsworth striding on alone into the Wye Valley.”—Richard Holmes, author of The Age of Wonder


Read an Excerpt



The year, or slightly more than a year, from June 1797 until the early autumn of 1798 has a claim to being the most famous moment in the history of English poetry. In the course of it, two young men of genius, living...