Alfoxden Hall, Holford: Wordsworth and Coleridge.

The GPS didn’t seem to know where or what Holford was, and Holford wasn’t marked on our map. We asked the guides at Coleridge Cottage for directions. Holford was along the road from the end of the lane the ran up the hill from Coleridge Cottage. We drove up the lane in which we had parked, came to a t-section, took a right-hand turn, drove a couple of miles, decided that we had taken the wrong turning, drove back to where we had started, and took the opposite direction. There was nothing else for it other than to watch the speedometer. The house guides had said Holford was about four miles up the road from the end of the lane the ran up the hill from Coleridge Cottage. Eventually, we came to the long, long carriage-way of Alfoxden Hall.


Alfoxden Hall or House, also known as Alfoxdon, Alfoxton, and Alfoxten, has a long history.  Owned by John St Aubyn, Alfoxden Hall was the private home of the St Aubyn family.  It was rebuilt in 1710 after the previous building was destroyed in a fire. It was refenestrated and re-roofed, and was added onto in the 1800s, and has since been extended significantly. During WWII American troops and nurses were based in the grounds in a purpose-built camp in preparation for D-Day. The main house was also used to house the evacuees from a school in Kent. At another stage, it was  turned into a country hotel. Alfoxden Hall is now designated by English Heritage as a Grade II Listed Building.


The most famous period in Alfoxden Hall’s history is when the poet William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy lived there during the time of their friendship with Coleridge, from July 1797 to June 1798. At that time it was a privately-owned home. The Wordsworths leased the house 23 English pounds (including taxes) for the year. While the Wordsworths  lived at Alfoxden Hall, many famous literary figures of the day came to visit them.

Wordsworth’s sister Dorothy was also a writer. Her writings consist of a series of letters, diary and journal entries, and short stories. She began her journals in 1798 while they lived at Alfoxden Hall, but discontinued them when they left Holford, and picked them up again later when they went to live at Grasmere. Dorothy’s journals were published posthumously as The Alfoxden Journal, 1798, and The Grasmere Journals, 1800-1803. In 1789, while they were living at Alfoxden Hall, Dorothy Wordsworth wrote in her journal

Here we are in a large mansion, in a large park with seventy head of deer around us. There is furniture enough for a dozen families like ours. There is an excellent garden, well stocked with vegetables and fruit. The front of the house is to the south, but it is screened from the sun by a high hill. From the end of the house we have a view of the sea. [1]

These days, Alfoxden Hall is privately-owned by Tomasz. He is restoring Alfoxden to its former glory, taking it back to what it was in Wordsworth’s time, but not of course removing the extensions that have added since Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy lived there. In fact, Tomasz is going further, he is refiguring the house inside, opening up many of the small rooms (of which there are a great many indeed, and which are also rather poky) and creating more of an open plan downstairs, and making a larger and state-of-the-art kitchen. The plan is to make Alfoxden into a grand mansion inside and out–the outside will be repaired, repainted, and freshened to bring it back to what it once was.

Bob and I found Tomasz with three of his workers in the large stone barn that sits directly across and down the slope from the main house complex. They were hard at work, hand-cutting and shaping the timbers by hand. Everything–window frames,  door jambs, stair rails and stairs, doors, rafters, and every other thing that goes into a house, is being hand wrought, and detailed to a fine finish. In fact, every single building and structure and garden on the magnificent  50-acre property–the outbuildings, the small chapel, the grotto that Wordsworth worshipped by writing about in his poems, the walled garden where Wordsworth and Dorothy loved to walk  and often sat to write, the garden wall and the small swimming  pool, the paths, the animal enclosures (poultry houses, stables, pig-sties), the main house and house buildings, and the barns–all will be restored to their former glory, and all by hand. A mighty project, and a labour of love indeed. Tomasz hopes to have completed the project in a few years’ time, but says, “With a Grade II Listed building, banks and building permits and permissions can hold you up.”


Tomasz showed us around, pointing out the damage to the buildings, and how the stones and tiles that have fallen will be carefully replaced, broken tiles will be replicated, and invited Bob and me to look around further, and explore the grounds.


Much as I would have loved to look inside the house, that was not possible. The flooring, the stairs, the electric wiring–all were rotten. It was too dangerous to allow anyone to go inside, and far too risky to allow visits through.


The wiring is dangerous. so are the steps leading to the roof area. There is a lot of sorting out to be done as yet.

Below: some initial work has begun on the exteriors of the house buildings, the immediate driveways, and lawns.       

The woodlands the Wordsworths once walked in at Alfoxden are still there, and more trees and swathes of daffodil and blue-bell bulbs are being planted.  Much to my disappointment though, we had missed the daffodils that are there , their flowering season had just finished, but we spotted a number of blue-bells in bloom. Herds of curious fine red-deer still roam the grounds of Alfoxden Hall.

The Poetry Foundation point out that

Wordsworth is not […] remembered as a prose writer but as a poet of spiritual and epistemological speculation, a poet concerned with the human relationship to nature [….]Wordsworth’s political writings, especially “A Letter to the Bishop of Llandaff,” The Convention of Cintra (1809), and Two Addresses to the Freeholders of Westmoreland (1818), while historically significant, are of primary interest as background for the poetry: for Wordsworth, poetics always determined politics.  (William Wordsworth: The Poetry Foundation)

For Wordsworth, poetic composition was a primary mode of expression, and prose was secondary. His poetic career began during his first trip to France and Switzerland:

During this period he also formed his early political opinions—especially his hatred of tyranny. These opinions would be profoundly transformed over the coming years but never completely abandoned. Wordsworth was intoxicated by the combination of revolutionary fervor he found in France […] and by the impressive natural beauty of the countryside and mountains [….] During 1791 Wordsworth’s interest in both poetry and politics gained in sophistication, as natural sensitivity strengthened his perceptions of the natural and social scenes he encountered [….] Wordsworth’s passion for democracy, […] is clear in his “Letter to the Bishop of Llandaff” (also called “Apology for the French Revolution”), […] In November 1791 Wordsworth returned to France, where he attended sessions of the National Assembly and the Jacobin Club [….] His sympathy for ordinary people would remain with Wordsworth even after his revolutionary fervor had been replaced with the “softened feudalism” he endorsed in his Two Addresses to the Freeholders of Westmoreland in 1818 [….]  Though he remained for the time being a strong supporter of the French Revolution, the poetic side of Wordsworth’s personality began asserting itself, causing the poet to re-examine, between 1793 and 1796, his adherence to Godwin’s rationalistic model of human behavior, upon which Wordsworth’s republicanism was largely founded [….] As Wordsworth turned his attention to poetry, he developed, through the process of poetic composition, his own theory of human nature, one that had very little to do with Godwin’s rationalism. During this period Wordsworth met another radical young man with literary aspirations, Samuel Taylor Coleridge.  (William Wordsworth: The Poetry Foundation)

In my last post, I wrote that Coleridge and Wordsworth had formed a close friendship while the two lived close to each other in the W Wordsworth youngQuantock Hills. During the time the Wordsworth and his sister lived at Alfoxden Hall, near to Coleridge, the trio roamed the country-side and went on many walking tours. Their interest lay in finding a new expression through poetics, but  “because of the odd habits of the household —especially their walking over the countryside at all hours—the local population suspected that the Wordsworth’s and their visitors were French spies, and a government agent was actually dispatched to keep an eye on them”  (William Wordsworth: The Poetry Foundation)

As I also noted in my last blog, while the Wordsworth were living at Alfoxden Hall in Holford, Wordsworth and Coleridge collaborated on their book Lyrical Ballads (1798), and that it is the collection of poems in the early volume of Lyrical Ballads that started the Romantic movement in England, and brought Wordsworth and Coleridge (and eventually the other Lake poets,) into the poetic limelight.

The Preface to Lyrical Ballads is considered a central work of Romantic literary theory. In it, Wordsworth discusses what he sees as the elements of a new type of poetry, one based on the “real language of men” and which avoids the poetic diction of much eighteenth-century poetry. Here, Wordsworth also gives his famous definition of poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings from emotions recollected in tranquillity.”  (wikipedia, William Wordsworth, accessed 2 Nov. 2015)

Shawn Rider, in his article “Wordsworth and Coleridge: Emotion, Imagination, and Complexity,” says that  in 1798, all the ideas previously held “about literature were challenged by the publication of Lyrical Ballads, which featured the poetry of William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge”:

Wordsworth and Coleridge both had strong, and sometimes conflicting, opinions about what constituted well-written poetry. Their ideas were centered [sic] around the origins of poetry in the poet and the role of poetry in the world, and these theoretical concepts led to the creation of poetry that is sufficiently complex to support a wide variety of critical readings in a modern context.

Both poets pay close attention to form and diction in their work, and create poems that are independent units of thought.

In their article “William Wordsworth,” The Poetry Foundation say that

the Lyrical Ballads was deliberately experimental, as the authors insisted from the start. The “Ancient Mariner” pointed the way. The fact that it was a collaboration meant that both authors took responsibility for the design of the experiment. This was more than a volume of poems from various hands. The largely negative reviews which it excited on publication concentrated on the “Ancient Mariner,” in part because it was the most substantial poem in the collection, but also because of its self-consciously archaic diction and incredible plot. Southey described it in a dismissive (and anonymous) review as “a Dutch attempt at German sublimity.” Elsewhere it was reckoned “the strangest story of a cock and a bull that we ever saw on paper.” The character of the Mariner also caused confusion.

The Poetry Foundation further say that “the genesis of the Ancient Mariner is more than the story of one poem. It is the story of a project”:

In Coleridge’s own account of events, they decided on two sorts of poems for Lyrical Ballads : “In the one, the incidents and agents were to be, in part at least, supernatural; and the excellence aimed at was to consist in the interesting of the affections by the dramatic truth of such emotions, as would naturally accompany such situations, supposing them real. And real in this sense they have been to every human being who, from whatever source of delusion, has at any time believed himself under supernatural agency. (William Wordsworth: The Poetry Foundation)

The collaboration on “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is The Ancient Marinerinteresting on several counts. It underlines the collective enterprise involved in the inauguration of the new poetic idiom which would eventually be called Romantic. Creation of this kind is more than a matter of oracular power. It has much to do with rational inquiry and exchange. Further, the episode gives some idea of the working relations between Coleridge and Wordsworth at the moment when the scheme for Lyrical Ballads (1798) was being hatched. Their constant companionship on walks, at Alfoxden and elsewhere, gave rise to extended discussion of poetry present and past. Both proved open to suggestion; both grew as poets through their conversations. Most of what is known of this process is shown through the Lyrical Ballads volume and its later “Preface.” The conclusions which it expresses, in Wordsworth’s voice more than Coleridge’s, have long been seen as foundations of modern poetry. (William Wordsworth: The Poetry Foundation)

Despite the problems, the poem flourished on the basis of strong local effects—of its pictures of the “land of ice and snow” and of the ghastly ship in the doldrums, in association with a drumming ballad meter. Wordsworth frankly disliked it after the reviews came in, but Lamb led the way in appreciating its odd mix of romance and realism. It is perhaps as a poem of pure imagination [….] it bears comparison with “Kubla Khan”; they are usually classified, with Christabel, as poems of the supernatural. All answer to the formula proposed for Coleridge’s contributions to Lyrical Ballads: supernatural, or at least preternatural, phenomena dignified by association with a human voice. For most readers this is the line of Coleridge’s verse that has mattered. Whatever their liabilities of dramatic construction, the highly charged imagery of these poems has made a strong impression. Its influence rings clear in Shelley and Keats in the next generation, and in Tennyson, Browning, Rossetti, and Swinburne among their Victorian inheritors. In the title of W. H. Auden’s  Look, Stranger! (1936) the echo of the Mariner’s exhortation, “Listen, Stranger!,” from the text of 1798, shows how far Coleridge’s oracular voice would carry. (William Wordsworth: The Poetry Foundation)

Andrew Mitchell, in his article “On the Road to Pantisocracy” published online in The Fortnightly Review ( writes that

There were twenty-three poems in the first edition [1798] of the Lyrical Ballads. Of these, nineteen were by Wordsworth and four by Coleridge. Coleridge allowed his Ancient Mariner to front the anonymous publication, along with three other poems. These took up in total seventy pages out of two hundred and ten. Wordsworth included The Idiot Boy, The Thorn and Tintern Abbey. Despite the fact that Dorothy had some influence on the development of Coleridge’s Christabel and that the printer had already prepared some pages for press, there was a letter from Wordsworth unilaterally cancelling its publication in the Lyrical Ballads. Coleridge was left with a weakened third volume of poems going out under his own name, which received some praise. He would have to wait a further nineteen years before the various strands of his writing were brought together in published form in Sibylline Leaves. Coleridge was himself to comment on his contribution to the Lyrical Ballads, ‘ compositions, instead of forming a balance, appeared rather an interpolation of heterogeneous matter.’ By the year 1800 and the second edition of the Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth was firmly in control. Names of authors appeared with each of the poems. Coleridge’s Mariner was relegated from the front of the book and contained a footnote which some critics believe Coleridge did not see before publication, indicating that Coleridge wanted the poem suppressed and that it had ‘great defects’; having an indistinct character who is only acted upon, events with no necessary connection, laborious imagery and a metre unfit for a long poem. (Mitchell,  “On the Road to Pantisocracy”)

“The years between 1797 and 1800 mark the period of Wordsworth and Coleridge’s close collaboration, and also the beginning of Wordsworth’s mature poetic career”  (William Wordsworth: The Poetry Foundation):

Wordsworth wrote the poems that would go into the 1798 and 1800 editions of Lyrical Ballads—poems such as “Tintern Abbey,”Expostulation and Reply,”The Tables Turned,”Goody Blake and Harry Gill,” and “Michael” [….] During 1798 Wordsworth also worked on a piece of prose setting out his evolving ideas on justice and morality. Called the “Essay on Morals” by later editors, it was set aside and never finished [….] The poet in Wordsworth was beginning to dominate the democrat, and the poet found a political philosophy based on power, violence, and reason anathema.  (William Wordsworth: The Poetry Foundation)

The “Preface to Lyrical Ballads” (revised and expanded many times for later editions) is not a systematic poetics, but a partly polemical, partly pedantic, and still problematic statement of Wordsworth’s beliefs about poetry and poetic language. The preface in all its versions is highly discursive, the poet “thinking aloud” in an attempt to formulate ideas about poetry based on poems he has already written [….]The two central ideas of the preface are the need for reforming poetic diction—which, according to Wordsworth, had become far too artificial—and the role of the poet in society, which Wordsworth saw as having become too marginal. He had also come to the conclusion that the troubles of society were specifically urban in nature.  (William Wordsworth: The Poetry Foundation) 

In a letter to Catherine Clarkson years later (4 June 1812), Wordsworth blamed not social institutions but people themselves for the ills of society: “As to public affairs; they are most alarming … The [Prince Regent] seems neither respected or beloved; and the lower orders have been for upwards of thirty years accumulating in pestilential masses of ignorant population; the effects now begin to show themselves….” [….] This belief is extraordinary considering the faith he had expressed in “the people” in “A Letter to the Bishop of Llandaff.”   Even before the publication of the first edition in 1798, Wordsworth was certainly aware that the poems in Lyrical Ballads were different from the conventional verse of the day, and he knew that fashionable reviewers would probably dismiss them as insufficiently elevated in tone and subject matter. They did, with a vengeance, and a good part of Wordsworth’s additions to the preface for the 1802 edition are attempts to answer his critics. But even in the 1800 version of the preface Wordsworth made an explicit connection between a plain poetic diction and a proper relationship to nature and society; that is, he makes the issue of a poetic diction a moral one […]  (William Wordsworth: The Poetry Foundation) 

In  “On the Road to Pantisocracy,” Mitchell writes about the problems in Wordsworth’s and Coleridge’s collaborative effort for The Lyrical Ballads:

Limitations to the co-operative capacity of both poets soon emerged. During one of their long walks together, usually with Dorothy ‘his exquisite sister’, they planned a joint poem on the murder of Abel. When it came to the composition, Wordsworth was unable to write to someone else’s ideas, whilst Coleridge demonstrated an easy facility.

A second limitation was the religious perspective of each poet. Coleridge, said of Wordsworth at the time, “…he loves and venerates Christ and Christianity – I wish he did more…”

A third limitation was Coleridge’s assumption, that in order to be a great poet, Wordsworth must produce a major philosophical poem, The Recluse. The poem was never written, providing an irritant to Coleridge, who regarded Wordsworth’s smaller lyrics as a distraction from the main purpose of Wordsworth’s creative life. It was a mental burden to Wordsworth and the source of a sense of failure throughout his life.

A fourth limitation was to be the personality of each poet, which on the one hand promoted the close association, but on the other, at a deeper psychological level, was to be a highly significant factor in the eventual breakdown of the friendship.

Crucial to an understanding of the relationship between both poets is an appreciation of their very different modes of thought. Wordsworth developed as an authoritarian thinker, the ‘sublime egotistical’, increasingly dogmatic [….] (Mitchell, “On the Road to Pantisocracy”)

The Wordsworths left  Alfoxden Hall when their lease came up for renewal: “The imminent departure of the Wordsworths, whose one-year lease at Alfoxden was not renewed in June 1798 due to local doubts about their character, precipitated a personal crisis of sorts in Coleridge”  (Mitchell, “On the Road to Pantisocracy”).   The Wordsworths went on an extended trip to Germany , and even though he loved his children, Coleridge, who had developed a thing for Wordsworth’s wife’s sister, Sara Hutchinson, left his family and the wife he did not love, and went with them.  Even though the two poets were still friends, once they arrived in Germany they went on their separate missions:

[Coleridge] headed for the university town of Ratzeburg and all the intellectual stimulation he could find. The Wordsworths stayed in Goslar [….] Allowing for the conditions, Coleridge’s comment on their situation must bear some weight, Wordsworth ‘seems to have spent more time in writing English than in studying German – No wonder! – for he might as well have been in England as at Gosler, in the situation that he chose with his unseeking manners.’ The differences of approach to the German visit highlight both personalities. Coleridge, faced with a new culture embraces it and ends up going on a walking tour before returning to England. Wordsworth, homesick and alienated, sits in his freezing lodgings and dreams of the Lake District and childhood. Here The Prelude was born out of the rejection of a foreign culture [….] (Mitchell, “On the Road to Pantisocracy”)

For Coleridge, the trip to Germany meant an extended residence in Germany, separation from family and friends in Nether Stowey, and a change of direction.  Given a gratuity of 150 English pounds for life by the Wedgewood Brothers, Coleridge returned to England ahead of the Wordsworths, and after a while reunited with his family even though that reunion is said to have been awkward.  Later, on their return from Germany, the Wordsworths moved to Dove Cottage in Grasmere in the Lakes District. Shortly after, Coleridge moved his family to the Lakes district, to Greta Hall kin Keswick (below), possibly to be closer to Wordsworth and other of his friends.

Greta Hall, Keswick

“Samuel Taylor Coleridge: The Poetry Foundation”:

Coleridge rejoined his family in Nether Stowey in midsummer 1799, some time after having returned from Germany. It was an uncomfortable homecoming on several counts. Wordsworth was soon on his way to Dove Cottage at Grasmere in the remote north country, and Coleridge was not far behind. There was trouble with Southey and a difficult leave taking from Thomas Poole. On his way north he tarried in London as political correspondent for the Morning Post, writing a brilliant piece on Pitt, the prime minister, showing what his own convictions counted for. For readers interested only in the poetry, such topical work is bound to seem tedious; yet it represents the heart of Coleridge’s commitment in the period when he was writing his best verse. His Essays on His Own Times (1850), collected long after in three volumes, show how serious and capable a critic of society he was. The promotion of his most personal and individualistic work by later readers has obscured his constant attention to social arrangements and social ideals.

His move to Keswick in summer 1800 (not long before the birth of his third son, Derwent, on 14 September) represented a kind of retreat from the discouraging world of city politics and city life. The Wedgwood annuity made it feasible, Wordsworth’s presence nearby practically inevitable. (Samuel Taylor Coleridge: The Poetry Foundation)

Mitchell, in “On the Road to Pantisocracy,” writes about the close proximity of the two poets in the Lakes District :

The closeness of the relationship was however being taxed by increasing differences. Coleridge at this time comparing himself to Wordsworth was to say that, ‘he is a true poet – I am only a kind of metaphysician.’ The increasing dependence on opium and the ascendency of Wordsworth prompt his statement to Godwin in 1801, ‘The poet in me is dead.’ It is the utter self absorption of Wordsworth which Hazlitt describes as, ‘nothing but himself and the universe – he lives in the busy solitude of his own heart.’ By 1803 Coleridge said, ‘I saw him more and more benetted in hypochondrial fancies, living wholly among devotees – having even the minutest thing, almost his very eating and drinking, done for him by sister or wife.’ Added to this was his wife’s sister, Sara Hutchinson, the idealised Asra of Coleridge’s poems, who also acted as scribe and amanuensis within the household. Coleridge was unable to face his own wife, though he adored his children.

“William Wordsworth: The Poetry Foundation”:

Samuel Taylor Coleridge is the premier poet-critic of modern S.T.ColerdigeEnglish tradition, distinguished for the scope and influence of his thinking about literature as much as for his innovative verse. Active in the wake of the French Revolution as a dissenting pamphleteer and lay preacher, he inspired a brilliant generation of writers and attracted the patronage of progressive men of the rising middle class. As William Wordsworth’s collaborator and constant companion in the formative period of their careers as poets, Coleridge participated in the sea change in English verse associated with Lyrical Ballads (1798). His poems of this period, speculative, meditative, and strangely oracular, put off early readers but survived the doubts of Wordsworth and Robert Southey to become recognized classics of the romantic idiom. (William Wordsworth: The Poetry Foundation) 

Andrew Mitchell, “On the Road to Pantisocracy”:

In 1843 Wordsworth was named poet laureate of England, W Wordsworththough by this time he had for the most part quit composing verse. He revised and rearranged his poems, published various editions, and entertained literary guests and friends. When he died in 1850 he had for some years been venerated as a sage, his most ardent detractors glossing over the radical origins of his poetics and politics. Wordsworth’s prose, while not extensive and often difficult, reveals the poet’s historical context. (Mitchell, “On the Road to Pantisocracy”)

 Shawn Rider, in “Wordsworth and Coleridge: Emotion, Imagination and Complexity” writes:

Coleridge and Wordsworth valued artful poetry. Although they had some different theoretical opinions, both of them succeeded at making poetry that is complex and dense enough to withstand two centuries of analysis….


 [1] Alfoxton – Holford’s History – › Home Page

Works cited

Alfoxton – Holford’s History – › Home Page

Alfoxton House – Wikipedia

Mitchell, Andrew. “On the Road to Pantisocracy.” In The Fortnightly Review. Web. (accessed Nov 2015)

On the Road to Pantisocracy. | The Fortnightly Review

Rider, Shawn. “Wordsworth and Coleridge: Emotion, Imagination, and Complexity Wordsworth and Coleridge: Emotion, Imagination and Complexity

Samuel Taylor Coleridge : The Poetry Foundation › Poems & Poets

William Wordsworth – Simple English Wikipedia, the free …

William Wordsworth : The Poetry Foundation › Poems & Poets:








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