"Michel de Montaigne describes the great friendship of his youth with Etienne de la Boetie as one in which a perfect communion of the spirit made the "soul grow refined." In the 1790s, Samuel Taylor Coleridge worshipped an idea of friendship that embodied the same ideal. Living at a time when persons of sensibility yearned for communion of the spirit, its frequent failure to materialize in friendship made Coleridge suffer, but the pain did not threaten his faith, even when he lost the friendship that defined all others.
Coleridge and Wordsworth met in 1795, when they were, respectively, twenty-three and twenty-five years old. Wordsworth - grave, thin-skinned, self-protective - was even then steadied by an inner conviction of his own coming greatness as a poet; Coleridge, on the other hand - brilliant, explosive, self-doubting to the point of instability - was already into opium. Anyone except them could see that they were bound to come a cropper. In 1795, however, a new world, a new poetry, a new way of being was forming itself, and at that moment both Wordsworth and Coleridge, each feeling the newness at work in himself, saw proof of its existence reflected in the person of the other.
The infatuation lasted a little more than a year and a half. At the end of that time, the chaos within Coleridge doubled its dominion; the pride in Wordsworth stiffened into near immobility. The person each had been for nearly two years - the one who had basked in the unbroken delight of the other - was no more. It wasn't exactly that they were returned to the persons they had been before; it was only that never again would either feel his own best self in the presence of the other.
One's own best self. For centuries this was the key concept behind any essential definition of friendship: that one's friend is a virtuous being who speaks to the virtue in oneself. How foreign is such a concept to the children of the therapeutic culture! Today we do not look to see, much less affirm, our best selves in one another. To the contrary, it is the openness with which we admit to our emotional incapacities - the fear, the anger, the humiliation - that excites contemporary bonds of friendship. Nothing draws us closer to one another than the degree to which we face our deepest shame openly in one another's company. Coleridge and Wordsworth dreaded such self-exposure; we adore it. What we want is to feel known, warts and all - the more warts, the better. It is the great illusion of our culture that what we confess to is who we are."
- Vivian Gornick, Letter from Greenwich Village