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Anya Taylor, Erotic Coleridge: Women, Love, and the Law Against Divorce

Friday, April 23, 2010 - 08:27
Anya Taylor, Erotic Coleridge: Women, Love, and the Law Against Divorce. Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. 232 pages. $80.00 (ISBN10: 1-4039-6925-6)

Reviewed by
David M. Baulch
University of West Florida

A book entitled Erotic Mary Robinson or Erotic Byron would not be all that surprising. By contrast, Anya Taylor’s Erotic Coleridge: Women, Love, and the Law Against Divorce is immediately unsettling—and interesting—precisely because tradition has constructed Samuel Taylor Coleridge as one of the least erotic beings imaginable. Canonizing Coleridge alongside “Dry Bob” Southey, Byron’s Don Juan set the terms for reception, contrasting the success of Coleridge’s metaphysical interests with the failure of young Juan’s attempts to sublimate erotic attachments through abstruse contemplations. Slightly less than two centuries of subsequent critical treatment have done little to challenge the orthodoxy of Byron’s irreverence. While Anthony John Harding’s Coleridge and the Idea of Love: Aspects of Relationship in Coleridge’s Thought and Writing (1974) accords a centrality to love in its broadest possible sense as a moral/relational metaphysic, and Raimonda Modiano’s Coleridge and the Concept of Nature (1985) recognizes love as an important element in Coleridge’s complex and shifting engagements with aesthetic theory, Anya Taylor’s remarkable book asserts that Coleridge, throughout his life, was positively sexy and charmingly flirtatious. In short, Erotic Coleridge argues that the vicissitudes of Coleridge’s life, the complexities of his thought, and the protean character of his literary achievement need to be seen alongside his consistent interest in women.

While in its arrangement Erotic Coleridge is a chronological survey of Coleridge’s erotic attachments, it would not be accurate to call the book simply a biography of Coleridge’s love life. Erotic Coleridge makes significant strides in the reassessment of Coleridge’s accomplishment as a poet in the light of J.C.C. Mays’s discovery of numerous unknown Coleridge poems now available in the multipart Poetical Works (six books which collectively constitute volume 16 of The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge). For Erotic Coleridge, the significance of Coleridge’s suddenly expanded twenty-first century canon is that “[t]he large array of poems to and about women crowd out the famous manly poems like ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ and ‘Fears in Solitude,’ and change the focus and reassess the meaning of well-known poems toward womanly themes” (3). So not only does Taylor find the twenty-first century Coleridge turned into a poet who produced more work focused on women than had previously been known to exist, she argues that his most well-known productions must be reassessed in light of these new discoveries.

Chapter 2 presents the pre-1794 Coleridge as an energetically flirtatious writer of verses to and about women. The period immediately before his ill-fated marriage is fertile ground for Erotic Coleridge, which presents some of the first critical readings of poems which have only recently come to light. Coleridge’s poems to Fanny Nesbitt in 1793 are characterized by their witty and frankly physical representations of the female body such as the line: “No lovelier maid e’er heav’d the bosom’s snow.” Coleridge’s engagement to Sara Fricker in 1794 did not monopolize his poetic celebrations of the female body: in that same year Coleridge also produced flirtatious verses for the singers/actresses Ann and Eliza Brunton from Bristol (among others). Most significantly, in late 1794 Coleridge experienced an emerging love with Mary Evans. Taylor argues that the 1798 poem “Lewti; or The Circassian Love-Chant” was initially inspired by his love for Mary Evans four years earlier, an argument which develops into an exploration of the epistolary exchange in which Evans implored Coleridge to give up his preparations for the pantisocracy experiment. Although Coleridge ultimately lost Mary Evans to a West Indian slaver, she became paradigmatic of “the intellectual and ethical agreement … that Coleridge would look for in future relationships” (18).

Moving away from the standard narratives that see Coleridge’s potential for greatness marred by habitual weaknesses for alcohol, opium, and plagiarism, Erotic Coleridge finds a man whose defining moment of weakness was in submitting to Robert Southey’s pressure to marry Sara Fricker. Far from trading one constitutional weakness for another, Erotic Coleridge sees Coleridge’s marriage to Sara Fricker as a compensatory sacrifice engineered by Robert Southey. Southey’s initial interest in Sara suddenly gave way to a quick marriage to Sara’s less spirited sister Edith, while the “obligations and guilt” Southey felt at abandoning Sara were assuaged by his substitution of Coleridge as Sara’s matrimonial partner. Contending that “[b]y persistent pressure Southey made Coleridge feel that he was obligated to Sara Fricker,” Taylor argues that Southey “was passing on his own obligations and guilt to the bewildered and reluctant Coleridge” (22). Insofar as Southey “was the man whom Sara Fricker admired and hoped to marry,” Sara’s subsequent and often justifiable disappointments with Coleridge were only compounded by having Southey in her presence at Greta Hall (31). Through Southey’s bullying, Coleridge’s hasty marriage was “nearly the death of Coleridge’s Soul” (23). For Taylor, Coleridge’s unfortunate marriage and its lifelong consequences constitute the central issue that shaped his poetry and the variety of odd domestic situations that marked his daily life. Not some footnote to a sudden need to find a wife for the quickly abandoned pantisocracy project, Coleridge’s marriage is the defining moment through which Erotic Coleridge effectively reads his subsequent views on women, love, divorce laws, and poetry.

If the sister of Southey’s wife was the wrong partner for Coleridge, the sister of William Wordsworth’s wife might have been the right partner, but she arrived on the scene too late. Coleridge’s passion for Sara Hutchinson from late in 1799 to 1810, along with the echoes of this relationship throughout his later life, is essential to Erotic Coleridge. Bringing critical discussion to the much neglected “Love” (1799), Taylor argues that this poem is both focused on Sara Hutchinson and “[f]ar from being a poem of impotence and weakness, ‘Love’ is a bold announcement of revived power” (81). Following the development of Coleridge and Sara’s mutual affection, Taylor explores five new Coleridge poems that Sara had copied into her album, Sara’s Poets. Taylor reads “The Keepsake” in order to find hints that in the 1800-1802 period “Coleridge and Sara had hopes to share the same name, despite the notorious impossibility of divorce” (87), but Erotic Coleridge places the poetic optimism that Coleridge and Sara shared against their fixation with Paolo and Francesca as they read Dante’s Inferno together. Coleridge famously captured his sense of a fate resembling these lovers in his great “Dejection: An Ode” in 1802. It is this ode that marked the painful descent to the incident—whether it was real or imagined—that Coleridge called “THE EPOCH.” When Coleridge was at the point where he appeared most likely to separate from his wife once and for all, he claimed to have seen Sara Hutchinson and Wordsworth in a lover’s embrace. Wisely deciding that the question of what Coleridge really saw is ultimately unknowable, Erotic Coleridge gives weight to Coleridge’s later notebook reflection (CN 2975): “‘I knew the horrid phantasm to be a mere phantasm: and yet what anguish, what gnawing of despair, what throbbing and lancinations of positive Jealousy!’”(qtd. 148). Recognizing the intense psychic energy of “THE EPOCH,” Taylor rereads the expanded canon from the era of Coleridge’s “Nightmare” poems (1808-1810) with the recognition that “many of them are love poems as well” (150), with brief explorations of “After Marino,” “The Happy Husband: A Fragment,” “Separation After Charles Cotton,” “Written in Dejection,” “Visionary Hope,” and “Fragment in Blank Verse". In its interest in Coleridge’s relationship with Sara Hutchinson, Erotic Coleridge also recognizes her importance as a collaborator in Coleridge’s intense but short-lived periodical The Friend (June 1809 to March 1810). One could say that The Friend effectively comes to an end when Sara suddenly flees Coleridge’s sanctuary at the Wordsworths' home on March 5, 1810 to stay at her brother’s farm in Wales.

The final chapter explores Coleridge’s relationships with the Morgans and the Gillmans and the literary productions that these relationships fostered. Critical tradition generally sees Coleridge in this period as dictating the Biographia Literaria to Morgan and, at last, finding a kind of stability under Dr. Gillman’s supervision, while holding forth endlessly at the table and producing moralistic and metaphysical volumes as the “sage of Highgate.” By contrast, Taylor finds ample evidence of Coleridge as a lover, an advisor, and a writer of verses to and about women. After Coleridge’s legendary break with Wordsworth, the residence with the Morgans between 1811 and 1816 was something of a fading echo of the tribulations that characterized Coleridge’s frustrated love for Sara Hutchinson. With the Morgans, he “came to love Mary Morgan and her younger unmarried sister Charlotte Bent, who resembled Sara Hutchinson, and even to behave tempestuously with them, frightening them with his passions and his addictions” (157), but the Brent sisters did not care to offer the sympathetic responses to his passion he received from Sara Hutchinson. Coleridge watched “the masks of the Brent sisters block out male admirers, while they turn their excessively intense attachment toward each other in a narcissistic mirroring” (159). Taylor traces these observations to a number of Coleridge’s late poems that “sport with the ideas of love between women” (159).

When Coleridge reached his final residence with the Gillmans, he seems to have formed an attachment for Dr. Gillman’s wife Anne, perhaps in part because she also is said to have resembled Sara Hutchinson, but this attachment was less intense than his earlier loves, diffused by the comings and goings of a variety of women of different ages in the Gillman household. Erotic Coleridge finds Coleridge’s mini-drama “The Improvisatore” an apt production of this period. Taylor reads Coleridge’s 1826 effort in the shadow of Letitia Elizabeth Landon’s Improvisatrice, centering on the theme that a life without love can be a happy life—though the poem ends with its central speaker standing alone, “speaking of the difficulty of finding and keeping true love” (162). While “The Improvisatore” might sound as though it was written with a self-justifying agenda, Taylor argues that this is not necessarily the case, restating the advice Coleridge offered women as a direct result of his experiences and his observations: “That women as well as men must take time to develop their persons and souls; that women should preserve their property by not marrying; that men and women should be careful in choosing to marry so as not to risk the pollution of their beings, and that societies that respect women are more civilized than those that do not” (166). It is the third of these principles that emerges in letters as “Hemiplegia,” or “living in half your being,” which may suggest that Coleridge found his own marriage to have been the basis for a kind of pollution of his moral being. But “Hemiplegia” is not as purely personal for Coleridge as it is descriptive of the broadest possible sense of the notion of the “crime” that people commit against themselves and each other—a crime which the law only serves to codify.

While Taylor’s often gorgeous prose style makes Erotic Coleridge a reading pleasure that one does not necessarily expect to find in literary criticism, the significance of this book’s contribution to the study of Coleridge is hard to overestimate. Detailed and exacting in its biographical scholarship, Taylor’s book ultimately may be most valuable for leading the way into understanding Coleridge’s expanded twenty-first century canon. With its quick and incisive readings and strategic use of quotations that meaningfully piece together Coleridge’s “new” poems, Erotic Coleridge helps to give us a Coleridge in some respects very different—often delightfully so—from the one we had come to know. Such a book is obviously the work of a scholar who has mastered her subject through a lifetime of study, yet is capable of thinking with a playful freshness that is irresistible.