Several years ago, I was interviewing the garden writer and designer Sarah Raven at her home in Sussex when a tall, tanned figure bounded up from the woods towards us. It was Adam Nicolson, her husband, and he carried an axe over his shoulder. A few months later, an email arrived from Nicolson, inviting me to come with him and a gang of his friends on a ‘moon walk’ in the Quantocks. I couldn’t make it, but realise now that the night walk was part of the research for his extraordinary and engrossing record of the time William and Dorothy Wordsworth spent in Somerset with Samuel Taylor Coleridge. This ‘year of marvels’ (from June 1797 to September 1798) would end with the publication of the first great work of Romanticism, the Lyrical Ballads. The Quantock hills were the ‘refuge-cum-laboratory’ in which the poetic visions of two of our most celebrated authors were formed, and where this era-defining book came into being.
The Making of Poetry operates on a number of levels. Most simply, it is a deeply researched record of the Wordsworths’ happy existence at Alfoxden House, and of Coleridge’s and his put-upon wife Sara’s time in a less salubrious cottage in nearby Stowey. It draws on journals and drafts, and on records of the numerous if faintly ridiculous attempts made by the authorities to infiltrate the radical group that orbited the poets. Nicolson doesn’t go easy on his heroes. He asks pointedly why
the radical challenge of so many dimensions of these men’s lives [did] not extend to a sense of fairness towards… the women who were helping them become who they wanted to be.
The book is also a lucid and approachable guide to the poetry, showing how the Lyrical Ballads came out of their place and time, out of the ideas that the Wordsworths and Coleridge (and the friends who stopped by — Southey, Lamb, Thelwall, Hazlitt) discussed on their walks across the hills.