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Sara Coleridge, Collected Poems, ed. Peter Swaab

Thursday, May 21, 2009 - 01:11
Sara Coleridge, Collected Poems, ed. Peter Swaab. London: Fyfield Books / Carcanet, 2007. 256 pp. £14.95 (Pbk; ISBN 978 1 857548 95 2).

Reviewed by
Dennis Low

When Peter Swaab’s edition of Sara Coleridge: Collected Poems appeared in 2007, the media leapt upon it with gusto.

“POEMS BY DAUGHTER OF LAKES BARD DISCOVERED IN AMERICA,” ran the headline of the North-West Evening Mail: “The poems, by Sara Coleridge, had lain undiscovered for 150 years and have now been published in a collection for the first time.” “Dr Peter Swaab,” reported the Bridgwater Mercury, “stumbled across an anonymous poem by chance when he was researching for a book on William Wordsworth at the University of Texas.” The national broadsheets were similarly impressed. “A British academic has discovered 120 unknown poems by Sara Coleridge” said The Telegraph; “Now,” said The Guardian, “with the publication of 185 of her poems, two-thirds of which have only recently been discovered, the daughter of Samuel Taylor Coleridge has been revealed as a talented and versatile poet in her own right.”

Conjuring up, as it does, romantic images of inky scrawls, yellowing papers and dust, this story of archival discovery was sure to entertain readers. What none of the reporters from any of these papers knew, however, was that the very same manuscripts they were declaring to be new finds had, over the last century, been read by generations of Coleridge scholars.

My interest in Sara Coleridge began by chance almost fifteen years ago when, as a teenager, I happened to come across her in Virginia Woolf’s Death of a Moth. That interest continued, undiminished, into my undergraduate days; by 1997, pre-Google search engines were bringing up a document entitled “Manuscript Holdings of Selected Nineteenth-Century Women Writers,” compiled in 1992 by Wendy Bowerstock and Jennifer B. Patterson for the Harry Ransom Humanities Resource Center at the University of Texas in Austin. The document, still one of the first entries that modern-day Google comes up with when running a search for “Sara Coleridge”, mentions the notebooks of poems that make up the bulk of the present edition. The existence of these notebooks very much intrigued me, and I was eager to see them for myself. The Center’s website soon provided me with address details of Mrs. Joan Coleridge who was then head of the Coleridge Estate. In 1998, I wrote to Mrs. Coleridge, asking for her permission to have the notebooks and several other documents photocopied and sent to me – this she duly gave.

Over the next few years as I went on to research Sara Coleridge’s life and work for my book on The Literary Protégées of the Lake Poets (2006), I was pleased to have enjoyed a warm correspondence as well as several telephone conversations with Mrs Coleridge. Invariably, our conversations often tended towards the Coleridge papers and, on one occasion, she talked about how the collection had once resided in her family home and how scholars in the past had visited the collection there, where they were often provided with food and accommodation. Curious, I asked which scholars had been there and the answer was a veritable who’s who of literary scholars, from Earl Leslie Griggs (“a dreadfully slow eater, dreadfully slow”) and Ernest de Selincourt (“talked for hours; wouldn’t go to bed”), to other, more contemporary scholars who’d been less than polite and were, therefore, “not to be mentioned.”

At some point during the 1970s, creative accountancy at the Harry Ransom Humanities Resource Center enabled the purchasing of literary manuscripts to be mapped onto the University of Texas’s considerably larger capital acquisitions budget (primarily earmarked for large-scale building projects). The Center’s already substantial holdings were transformed into one of America’s finest manuscript collections, and the Coleridge archive soon became incorporated into that collection. Since then, it’s continued to have its fair share of readers, including Bradford Keyes Mudge for his book Sara Coleridge: a Victorian Daughter (1989); Cherry Durrant for her unpublished but, for a time, much publicized PhD on The Lives and Works of Hartley, Derwent and Sara Coleridge (1994); and Kathleen Jones for her group biography, A Passionate Sisterhood: The Sisters, Wives and Daughters of the Lake Poets (1997).

All of this begs the question: if the poems aren’t, as the Bridgwater Mercury originally reported, newly unearthed discoveries after all, but rather, carefully catalogued items in one of America’s largest and best maintained collections of literary manuscripts, details of which have been freely available and highly visible on the internet for more than a decade, why haven’t they attracted more attention?

Part of the answer lies in all the other things, besides a poet, that Sara Coleridge was. She was Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s daughter; she was Robert Southey’s niece; she was an accomplished translator who was proficient in six languages and who published her first translation (a three-volume treatise, from the Latin, about equestrian tribes in Paraguay) when she was just eighteen; she was a nineteenth-century mother who suffered from bouts of anxiety, post-natal depression and, finally, breast cancer; she was a writer of children’s books, a theologian, an editor of her father’s works; she was an artist’s model, first for William Collins' painting in oils of her as Wordsworth’s Highland Girl in 1818 and then for a watercolour by Edward Nash in 1820. Invariably, all these other facets of Coleridge’s life and work jostle with her poetry for scholarly attention. Faced with the difficult task of selecting a particular angle or approach, no one to date who has made the decision to write about Sara Coleridge has chosen to make her poetry a prime focus of study. And the reason for this, I think, is because Coleridge’s poetry is markedly different from the kind of poetry we’re more used to reading.

When it came to writing poetry, Sara Coleridge stuck closely to the advice Robert Southey later gave a young Charlotte Brontë. She was content to “write poetry for its own sake; not in a spirit of emulation, and not with a view to celebrity.” She was, in the best sense of the word, an amateur who pursued poetry-writing for the same reasons that anyone pursues any recreational hobby: “Just as I would have any one learn music who has an opportunity, though few can be composers, or even performers of great merit,” she explained, “I would have any one, who really and truly has leisure and ability, make verses. I think it a more refining and happy-making occupation than any other pastime-accomplishment.” If this sounds a little too much like a resurrection of the image of the nineteenth-century “poetess” that feminist literary criticism has spent much time dismantling, it’s worth remembering that there’s nothing intrinsically gendered about Coleridge’s attitude towards poetry. Indeed, Coleridge actively encouraged a similar attitude in her own son, Herbert. One of Herbert’s first letters to his mother, written while he was a schoolboy at Eton, reads:

Please, dear Mamma, may I have one of those large Album books, bound in leather, to write all my verses in […] and such things as that? You promised in the Pretty Lessons […] you would grant me such things as that […] If you will kindly say “Yes” I shall be much obliged.

We spend so much time reading a certain kind of published poetry that it’s easy to forget how large a part poetry - that was never intended for publication - played in the fabric of everyday life for some nineteenth-century households, particularly in households with literary pedigree such as Sara Coleridge’s. Like Jane Austen’s Emma Woodhouse, with her collection of riddles neatly copied in “a thin quarto of hot-pressed paper ... ornamented with ciphers and trophies,” or the real-life young girls whose albums were consciously mimicked by the popular gift annuals of the 1820s and 30s, Sara Coleridge wrote poems, all of the time. She wrote poems and appended them to letters; she made purses, stuffed them with verses and gave them as gifts; she wrote new lyrics to popular songs that she perhaps then played on the piano; she wrote love-poems to her cousin and future husband, Henry; she wrote poems for the little leather-bound notebooks she had, illustrated with sketches of flowers and intricate sylvan scenes cut from black paper; and she wrote poems for friends like Dora Wordsworth, to be included in the albums they maintained.

It’s these kinds of poems that make up “Early Poems 1815-1829,” the first of three sections in Swaab’s chronologically ordered edition. Sadly, these aren’t the kinds of poem that get much attention these days, regardless of who’s written them: we might take the time, for example, to read the original version of S. T. Coleridge’s “Dejection: An Ode” because it affords us insight into the depersonalized, published, more complex and therefore more readily analyzable version; but, when such poems go into print without this literary “upgrading” process, as in the case of Wordsworth’s “Gold and Silver Fishes in a Vase” (a reply to a letter-poem from the essayist Maria Jane Jewsbury) we studiously ignore them. But we should take our time to explore Coleridge’s early poems, because they are fresh, witty and charming:

Green and Gold and Violet,
Fair and well-commingled hues,
E’en as in a rainbow met,
Such the colours that I choose
In the silken purse to weave,
Gift that Susan will receive.

Green and Violet and Gold –
Such the colours that appear
On Mount Skiddaw’s bosom bold,
When the air is fresh and clear,
By the glowing light of day,
In the merry month of May! (52)

The second section, “Poems 1829-1843,” is by far the largest section of Swaab’s edition, consisting as it does mostly of poems that were published in Coleridge’s volume of verse for children, entitled Pretty Lessons in Verse for Good Children; with some lessons in Latin (1834), poems that weren’t included in the final selection for Pretty Lessons, and poems that have been extracted from Coleridge’s anonymously published long fairytale, Phantasmion (1837). Phantasmion, a dizzying multithreaded narrative that simultaneously spans three generations, five countries and three planes of existence is, for all its faults, one of my most favourite books of all time. But I’m not sure the poems work when they’re divorced from the 400-page story they were originally embedded in. Take this poem from Chapter 20 for instance:

In this day’s light what flowers ill bloom,
What insects quit the self-made womb!
But ere the bud its leaves unfold,
The gorgeous fly his plumes of gold,
On fairer wings we too may glide,
Where youth and joy no ills betide. (127)

On its own, this is a pleasant enough stanza but it loses much in being taken out of its original prose: if you know that the song is sung by the crippled boy-prince Albinet who is being held captive in a tower and that, unbeknownst to him, Phantasmion is listening in, ready to fly up to the window and save him with his water-beetle wings, newly granted to him by Potentilla, Queen of the Insect Realm, the ideas of freedom, flight and movement expressed in the poem take on an entirely new significance.

The poems that made it - or didn’t - into Pretty Lessons are far more accessible, because they’re more self-contained. Some, like “Poppies” with its eerie shadow of opium addiction, are unsettling and therefore tantalizing, but a majority of them are of a straightforward mnemonic nature and relatively innocuous. Like letter-poems, we’ve become unreceptive to this sort of poetry too. What follows isn’t a poem many Romantic scholars are familiar with but, in 1803, Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote a curious little poem called "Metrical Feet - Lesson for a Boy.” It was a mnemonic designed to help Sara's elder brother, Derwent, learn about scansion in classical literature:

Trochee trips from long to short;
From long to long in solemn sort
Slow Spondee stalks; strong foot! yea ill able
Ever to come up with Dactyl trisyllable.
Iambics march from short to long;--
With a leap and a bound the swift Anapaests throng ...

Together, S. T. Coleridge and his circle dashed off countless similar poems (now all but lost) for the purpose of home-schooling their children. Fascinatingly, it’s this hidden, distinctly private, hitherto unpublished literary tradition that finds its most forceful expression in Sara Coleridge's Pretty Lessons (none of which were ever written with a view to publication). “The Months” is probably the most outstanding example of its type in the collection and has deservedly enjoyed sustained popularity since its original publication:

January brings the snow,
Makes our feet and fingers glow.

February brings the rain,
Thaw the frozen lake again.

March brings breezes loud and shrill,
Stirs the dancing daffodil.

April brings the primrose sweet,
Scatters daisies at our feet.

May brings flocks of pretty lambs,
Skipping by their fleecy dams.

June brings tulips, lilies, roses,
Fills the children’s hands with posies.

Hot July brings cooling showers,
Apricots and gillyflowers.

August brings the sheaves of corn,
Then the harvest home is borne.

Warm September brings the fruit,
Sportsmen then begin to shoot.

Fresh October brings the pheasant,
Then to gather nuts is pleasant.

Dull November brings the blast,
Then the leaves are whirling fast.

Chill December brings the sleet,
Blazing fire, and Christmas treat. (65)

Ultimately, those coming to Sara Coleridge’s poems with expectations gleaned from newspaper clippings may be disappointed by what they find. Readers of The Telegraph, for example, which excitedly reported that “Coleridge’s daughter hid her poetic passions” and “kept her light under a bush” might reasonably expect, in Swaab’s intelligent and well-presented edition, the drama of a subtle but scathing critique of high Romanticism, or a feisty swipe at an illustrious father. The truth, though, is that Coleridge never pits herself in direct competition with either her father or, by extension, any of his contemporaries. It’s something that she herself touches on in a poem from the final section of the edition (“Poems 1847-1852”) entitled “For my Father on his lines called ‘Work Without Hope’”:

Father, no amaranths e’er shall wreathe my bow, -
Enough that round thy grave they flourish now:-
But Love ’mid my young locks his roses braided,
And what cared I for flow’rs of deeper bloom? (156)

What Swaab presents, in the final analysis, is not a collection of new poems that have never been read by anyone at all but, instead, a collection of poems belonging to an array of unfamiliar and private forms of amateur, “pastime-accomplishment” poetry that have hitherto been too quiet, too seemingly tangential to have been explored thoroughly.

So long as we put aside the almost instinctive desire to find in it someone “as good as her father,” so long as we learn to appreciate it on its own terms, Coleridge’s poetry can become a keyhole through which we might gaze into the Romantic parlour, or the Victorian nursery. It’s in such places that much of the poetry we do know well was originally read; and, in understanding these places more, it’s possible that we might come to reformulate our ideas about that better-known poetry, in addition to becoming even more receptive to other voices that we have since overlooked.