Mary Elizabeth Coleridge and the Flight to Lyric.
Mary Elizabeth Coleridge's poetry is in flight from her aestheticist context into a lyric nonreferentiality. Although her novels and short stories were published under her own name, two slim volumes of poetry were brought out with the pseudonym Anodos ('on no road'). This essay suggests that Coleridge's poetic waywardness or homelessness is a product of her intimate female network, in which her private lyrics capture the process of unravelling male aestheticism to forge a tentative space for secret and illicit female desire.
Collections of Victorian women's poetry published since the mid-1990s have placed Mary Elizabeth Coleridge's poems back into the anthology canon, and in particular back into the history of the fin de siecle poem. Editions by Angela Leighton and Margaret Reynolds, Isobel Armstrong and Joseph Bristow, and, more recently, by Virginia Blain include generous selections of her poetry. (1) At the start of the twentieth century Coleridge was known more for her literary reviews and novels than for the two slim limited-edition volumes of poems Fancy's Following (1896) and Fancy's Guerdon (1897), but it seems that the recovery of her poetic work is now assured. And yet Coleridge's place within the tradition of women's poetry, and particularly within the aestheticism of the fin de siecle, is puzzling. Her poetry seems deliberately to strive for contextlessness, and evades classification; as she remarks in a letter to Henry Newbolt, her writing persona is 'a wild thing apart, without a home'. (2)
Recent studies of female aestheticism argue that the very term itself is inherently fractured. Unravelling the 'female aesthete', for example, Linda Hughes suggests that the phrase is
riddled with tensions and contradictions given middle-class ideologies of gender. If 'aesthete' implies a commitment to the unity of the arts, cultural authority (in the form of taste), and, as with Wilde, 'advanced' political and artistic views superior to those of the bourgeois herd, 'female' invokes domestic duties and cultural marginality, as well as the internal contradictions that constituted Victorian feminine subjectivity. (3)
Angela Leighton points out that, with aestheticism encoded in recent criticism as 'the revenge of the male imagination on the female supremacy of the high Victorians', the conjunction of women and aestheticism seems 'to go against the whole bent of feminist criticism'. (4) Other critics, such as Talia Schaffer in The Forgotten Female Aesthetes, have begun to reconstruct histories of female aestheticism; but, even while Schaffer celebrates a female aestheticism that is multiple and contradictory, Coleridge's poetry does not figure in her account. (5) Neither does she have a place, except for brief passing comments, in the recent collection of essays edited by Joseph Bristow, The Fin-de-siecle Poem; (6) while this material fruitfully opens up a diverse, rich, and revisionary sense of late nineteenth-century literary culture, particularly Bristow's introduction, which challenges the centrality of male decadence, Coleridge's place in the new sense of the 1890s is still uncertain. Indeed, although Coleridge's investment in stylistic and formal experimentation, in the celebration of the image over an event, seems to owe a debt to late nineteenth-century aestheticism, her literary career and intellectual interests were removed from aesthetic culture. She was associated neither with the New Woman, with political activism, nor with decadence, nor (despite her London home) with the urban circle of female aesthetic poets, mapped recently by Ana Vadillo, nor with Wilde's Woman's World network. (7) In many ways her home life connected her with many figures associated with an earlier Victorian world of artists and poets: her father's Cromwell Street home was visited by Jenny Lind, Fanny Kemble, Millais, Holman Hunt, Ruskin, Tennyson, and Browning. (8) Although a few references in her work make sly jokes at the expense of a masculine aestheticism associated with Wilde and Pater, much of her poetry devotes its energy to an erasure of context and a wayward homelessness. Furthermore, as Katharine McGowran points out, Coleridge seems constantly to distrust any notion of a stable identity, or of stable categories per se, which makes any association with the label of female aestheticism (and indeed any other label) a problematic one. (9) The present essay examines the paradox of Mary Elizabeth Coleridge's relation to aestheticism, attempting to give her non-referentiality a reference point and a framework, while also suggesting that her poems strive towards dissociation and lyric contextlessness.
Coleridge was a regular and important book reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement from 1902, and she also reviewed for a number of other publications, including the Monthly Review and the Guardian. Edith Sichel, in her memoir of Coleridge, claims she was 'unequal [...] as a reviewer', and notes that her reviews 'are always charming bits of herself and sometimes good pieces of criticism'. (10) Recent critics' work on Coleridge have also ignored her reviewing. However, her contributions to the Times Literary Supplement (TLS) are crucial for what they tell us about the breadth of her reading and critical opinions, and for the development of a critical aesthetic that dovetails with her distinctive poetics. In particular, the reviews often dwell with enthusiasm on moments when historical specificity, or the effects of historical specificity, fail. For example, in a short, unsigned review 'Holidays Abroad' for the TLS on 25 August 1905, Coleridge considers three recently published travel guides: W. S. Crockett's Abbotsford, T. Francis Bumpis's Summer Holidays among the Glories of Northern France, and Edward Hutton's The Cities of Umbria. Her cautious if wry review concludes: 'some vision or other lies at the bottom of all our travelling' (p. 269). The books she reviews, however, have a rather prosaic vision. Her own trip to Italy in 1893 with her friends the Fuller-Maitlands, which included a visit to Perugia, informs her detailed critique of Hutton's description of the city. In a letter written from Perugia, she humorously notes her awe at a 'jam tart angel', and tells how well she can imagine Fra Bernadino preaching from the 'little open pulpit': 'One seems to have travelled far away not only in space but in time. It would surprise me much less to meet Benedict XI. round the corner than it would to see Oscar Wilde'. (11) 'Italy [...] possessed her', Sichel comments as a gloss to this letter, in which Coleridge also exclaims that 'I feel as if I'd come not to a Fatherland but to a Motherland that I had always longed for and never known' (p. 35). While the travel guides she reviews offer only the mundane and contemporary, she is drawn to places for the sense of spatial and temporal dislocation from her own specific and particular historical context, represented here by Wilde. Coleridge seems to betray not only a desire for the past, and a desire to be possessed by the past, but for a space and time in which Wilde and the aestheticism he represents is out of place. (12)
Italy, layered with memory and the monumental past, provides an imaginative release for many nineteenth-century writers. But it is not only Italy that gives Coleridge access to the dislocations of historical time. Coleridge's TLS review considers what it is about Scotland that attracts tourists, and she remarks, perhaps rather caustically, that one reason might be 'a vision of a fellow playing golf on the broad links of St. Andrews'. The mundane has no place in Coleridge's aesthetics. Indeed, often in her poems a prosaic vision leads to ironic reversals and inversions, as for example, in the poem 'St. Andrew's' (1890), in which the town is described as 'Cheerless, joyless, dull, and gray'; (13) at sunset, however, a vision arises of 'a fairy town', 'a far, fantastic place, | Builded with ethereal grace'. This is a fantasy version of St Andrews, an enchanted town peopled only with merman and mermaids 'Combing out their tangled locks' who 'Sit and sing among the rocks' with their 'ruddy harps'. Not only, however, does this 'fairy town' arise at sunset, but the prosaic daytime city dissolves into the beach: 'In the shining sand below | See the city downward go!'. The visionary night-time town shimmers and shines in the last rays of the sun as reality disappears. What is significant about this poem is the way in which dematerialization is captured and performed within a deceptively simple structure of rhyming couplets. The erasure of the mundane city, with its 'dull' and 'gray' buildings made of east-coast stone and its golf courses, is a process recorded within the poem. While Katharine McGowran argues that Coleridge's poetry inscribes the limitations of her aestheticism, suggesting that art refers to itself only while being haunted by what that represses, this poem indicates that her aestheticism also captures the process by which the temporal and specific (in this case St Andrews) delicately shades into the contextless, fantastic, and ethereal.
In an article 'Ladies of the Renaissance' from the TLS on 14 October 1904, Coleridge reviews Christopher Hare's The Most Illustrious Ladies of the Italian
The ladies of the Renaissance are beginning to haunt the ladies and gentlemen of the twentieth-century as persistently as the saints haunted the middle ages. Their shrines are visited, their pictures are worshipped, their letters and their sonnets are collected with jealous care, even as the buttons on their gorgeous dresses are numbered. (p. 313)
Coleridge judges the book to add nothing to J. A. Symonds' seminal Renaissance in Italy (1877), but nevertheless it interests because of its strange effect:
Sometimes, it is true, you can hardly see the lady for the clothes: the Queen, the Duchess, the Marchesa do all they can to hide the woman. We are baffled by finding that when we seem to know so much we really know so little.
Despite knowing intimate details about the Renaissance women, including the numbers of buttons on their dresses, access to the past falters. Coleridge implies that the fetishistic attraction to pictures, places, and objects associated with the women from the past cannot hide their inaccessibility. In a description of a visit to see the Venetian pictures at the New Gallery, Coleridge offers a similar impression:
they are dead, dead, dead, as dead as the dodo. [...] [W]e have lost those ladies forever. We never could be so broad as that, however hard we tried, nor so brown-eyed and red-and golden-haired. They couldn't be revived, not if we wore their clothes at twenty masquerades. [...] It's the strangest, most dream-like feeling, to be in the midst of these silent and secret lives, these faces that are so many sealed books. (14)
Although the past cannot be resurrected, Coleridge suggests, the pictures, objects, and places associated with the past have a dream-like effect that gestures to the historical past with sometimes an overabundance of detail. It is this effect that ghosts the past even as it renders the past inaccessible, reminding Coleridge of history's attraction and its separateness. Viewing records of the past is another process of disassociation from Coleridge's specific present that seems as necessary as it is painful and difficult. (15)
Coleridge's attraction to history is evidenced by her frequent reviewing of an array of historical books for the TLS: histories, historical guidebooks, art history, and books on historical costume. Her historical novels also suggest a fascination with the past. While her reviews, novels, and poetry have not been considered together as part of her aesthetics, it is clear that a fascination with the past links all her publications. What does separate her output, however, is her attitude to publication. While the reviews for the TLS (anonymous, as was the custom) establish her as a leading critic of her day with a confident and wry voice, and her novels, published in her own name, were critically and commercially successful (The King with Two Faces, for example, issued in 1897 by Edward Arnold, earned her 900 [pounds sterling] in royalties in the first four months), (16) fewer than eighty of her 258 poems were published, under a pseudonym and in limited editions, during her lifetime. (17) Fancy's Following, a volume of forty-eight poems, was issued by the Daniel Press in 1896 in an edition of 125 copies. Eleven poems were reprinted, with seven new ones, in Fancy's Guerdon, published in the following year by Elkin Mathews for his 'Shilling Garland' series. (18) In 1899 twelve more poems appeared in The Garland, along with works by several other poets. Ten further poems were published singly between 1900 and 1907 in periodicals such as The Spectator. (19) It is her first association with the Daniel Press that offers evidence about Coleridge's attitude to publication. Established as a parlour press in 1851 by Charles Daniel in Oxford, the Daniel Press was a precursor to the private press movement that is conventionally seen to begin in 1891 with William Morris's Kelmscott Press. As Colin Franklin remarks, 'The Daniel Press never ran as a business, although books were sold. [...] In Oxford the scope remained domestic, small books intended for a few'. (20) Coleridge's association with Charles Daniel came through Robert Bridges, who had been introduced to her poems through the intervention of a mutual friend, Violet Hodgkin, in 1895. (21) While the private press became a feature of aesthetic poetry in the 1890s, the Daniel Press was, according to Franklin, not invested in contemporary fashions, appealing instead to 'minority taste'. (22) Coleridge never seemed ambitious to reach a public audience for her poetry, preferring to circulate her poems among her small circle of intimate friends, and the Daniel Press would have appealed for its limited editions, its exclusivity, and its entry into another network of poets that included Bridges and Richard Watson Dixon. (23) Indeed, she introduced her own friend Ethel Wedgwood to the Daniel Press circle, and the Press subsequently brought out Wedgwood's 1902 anonymous poetry volume Wind along the Waste. (24)
Coleridge's volume with the Daniel Press also offers up information about her relationship to a public poetic persona. Agreeing only to be published on the condition of anonymity, Coleridge wrote to the printer: 'May I ask you, please, not to mention my name to anyone? I do not want it to appear. I had chosen Vespertilio as a nom de plume, but last summer a book of poems called Vespertilio something or other was published'. (25) As Franklin suggests, the Daniel Press was used to publishing anonymously and privately, but Coleridge's first choice of pseudonym is interesting. Vespertilio, or 'bat', suggests a creature who lives a double life, in the day and the night, as well as the revenant. (26) Coleridge's first choice of pseudonym had already been chosen as the title of Graham R. Tomson's (Rosamund Mariott Watson's) Vespertilio and Other Poems, published in 1895 by John Lane. The fact that the revenant title poem, as Linda Hughes argues, (27) engages directly with decadence in order to deform and feminize the movement, implies Coleridge's wariness of the word. While the pseudonym 'Vespertilio' would have appealed to Coleridge for its bifurcated connotations, its associations with another woman poet engaging, unlike Coleridge herself, directly with decadence made her an inappropriate precursor to invoke.
Reminiscences of Coleridge explain her wish for a pseudonym; and her reluctance to publish poetry at all, as a fear of tarnishing the name of her great-great-uncle, Samuel Taylor Coleridge. However, her own well-known explanation, in her journal, of the pseudonym suggests something a little different: 'lest this I should grow troublesome and importunate, I will christen myself over again, make George Macdonald my godfather, and name myself after my favourite hero, Anodos in Phantastes'. (28) In a letter, quoted by Sichel, she declares, 'I have no fairy godmother, but lay claim to a fairy great-great uncle, which is perhaps the reason that I am condemned to wander restlessly around the Gates of Fairyland, although I have never yet passed them'. (29) Her wandering 'on no road' has been interpreted by recent critics not only as a defence mechanism against the weight of the name of her precursor, but also as a subversive strategy that allows her to break free from the constraints of her gender, and the anxiety of her lineage, to encounter Samuel Taylor Coleridge directly. (30) Angela Leighton compellingly suggests that her poem 'The Witch' is Coleridge's 'Christabel' 'written in another voice ("the voice that woman have") and re-imagined as a love poem rather than a poem of supernatural fear'. (31) Elsewhere I have argued that Mary Coleridge's adoption of a wayward pseudonym allows her to traverse literary history and inhabit Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poems, so that she reverses the norms of influence and haunts her precursor. (32) Here, however, I want to consider the wandering waywardness in terms of the erasure of referentiality in her poetry, for Anodos's pathlessness is not just about a subversion of historical chronology (the relationship between Mary and Samuel Taylor Coleridge), but also about Coleridge's historical specificity (the relationship between Mary Coleridge and the immediate contexts of her poetry's production). The pathlessness associated with her name is not simply about escaping from the precursor, but also about the particular kind of poetry she writes and its relationship to its specific context in the 1880s and 1890s. And that kind of poetry is 'troublesome and importunate': excessively private and coded, erasing its historical reference.
Part of the attraction of an ambivalently gendered pseudonym is in its evasion of public expectations about women's poetry in the 1890s. Coleridge, in contrast, was drawn to her own private literary circles. Through her father's home in London, her main residence, she met, as we have seen, a variety of literary and artistic luminaries. But her most intimate and meaningful literary circle was made up of her closest (mostly female) friends. While her literary circle was removed from 1890s aestheticist London, however, it ranged wide and far. Coleridge's gossipy and humorous unpublished letters to Margaret Cornish (now in the Lilly Library, Indiana University), for example, detail her active social life and her wide network of friendships. Nevertheless, surprisingly little is known about her life, the background to her work, and the material processes of her writing. She seems to us as 'dead, dead, dead' as the Renaissance women were to her. What little we do know is presented in hagiographical and elliptical form in Sichel's Gathered Leaves from the Prose of Mary Coleridge of 1910, which includes fragments from her letters and journal. Little of her voluminous correspondence has survived and (so far as I am aware) there is no cache of unpublished poetry manuscripts. Part of the limited access to her life is a result of her premature and sudden death from appendicitis, following which her father probably destroyed most of her papers. (33) In the reminiscences by her friends, the specificity of her life is erased. Edith Sichel, for example, begins her Memoir thus:
For most people there is a beginning and an end. It is important to recall that they were born, and that they died at such and such a date. But to say of Mary Coleridge that she was born in September 1861, and that she lived nearly forty-six years, and died in August 1907, means little. She was never of any age, and excepting that as life went on she grew and ripened, she was much the same at twenty as at forty. She seemed to belong to eternity rather than to time, and the years had hardly power to touch her. (p. 1)
Even the dates of her birth and death are emptied of their specificity. In her reminiscences of her close friend, Sichel repeats the terms of Coleridge's aesthetic. Coleridge's poetic pathlessness and waywardness erase, for the biographer, the significance of the most basic facts about her biographical existence. She is in flight from history.
Sichel is eager to stress Coleridge's life of the imagination or 'spirit' that makes up her 'inner nature', which the memoir attempts to 'catch a fleeting likeness of' (pp. 2-3). With her specificity erased, her life of the spirit is seen to be inherently changeful because she is so open to external influence. Sichel notes: 'She was fond [...] of powerful or strange effects in literature' (p. 33). Other commentators contemporary with Coleridge also remark on her poetry's transmission of an uncanny interiority. Maurice Baring defines her poems as lyric subjectivity par excellence, 'the confidences and confessions of what is too intimate save for poetry'. Furthermore, she had 'that gift of expression which above all others is precious, namely that perfect simplicity and limpidity of style, which is so perfect that there is no style visible at all'. (34) Robert Bridges's obituary terms the poems evidence of her 'mysterious and enigmatic spirit'. (35) Henry Newbolt characterizes her mind 'as sudden and as changeful as a moth by lantern-light'. (36) Theresa Whistler, the granddaughter of Newbolt and the editor of Coleridge's Collected Poems, says of her poetic imagination that 'the clues it leaves to the life [...] are cryptic, unsatisfying, haunting'. (37)
The construction of Coleridge in these terms is not unfamiliar to historians of the Victorian reception of women poets. The collapse of poetry into autobiography and the erasure of historical specificity is a double move that characterizes the reception of Christina Rossetti and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, which, as Tricia Lootens elucidates in Lost Saints, her study on the making of the women's poetry canon, achieves a crescendo in the 1890s. (38) The commentators on Mary Coleridge's poems respond, however, to a contextlessness that is figured in her poetry as the condition of their lyric utterance. The reception of Coleridge's pure lyricism is partly caught up with the fin de siecle discourse about women's poetry, but the uncanniness of the lyrical excess they diagnose, I wish to argue, is produced out of Coleridge's specific close female circle.
Although comparatively little is known about Coleridge's life, what we do know suggests that her writing is intimately related to and indeed integral to her close network of friends. Coleridge formed three distinct if overlapping circles. The first comprises her friends from childhood--what Whistler terms her 'most intimate friends': Ella Coltman, Violet Hodgkin, Margaret and Helen Duckworth, who christened themselves the Quintette and remained close all their lives. From 1886 until 1892 this group, together with Margaret Cornish and Edith Sichel, attended Greek classes with William Cory, formerly a classics master at Eton who resigned abruptly after an inappropriately close friendship with a boy; they were now known as the Grecians, and Coleridge was, according to Newbolt, the avowed leader of the group. Margaret Duckworth married Henry Newbolt on 15 August 1889 after a rather tense courtship, and he became absorbed into the female circle. From January 1891 Margaret, Henry, Ella, and Mary met each Thursday afternoon for what Newbolt terms 'book talk'. (39) Their other friends, who were excluded from the circle, christened it 'The Settee'. It was not, however, just an intimate club for talking about books. Coleridge and Newbolt began by reading their poems, and then the group began to write collaborative prose. Perplexed by Coleridge's famously wayward plots, The Settee ended up as a forum for reading and discussing Newbolt and Coleridge's writing. Ella Coltman's role seems to have been purely critical (she was to have an important role in the Monthly Review, a short-lived periodical founded by Coleridge and Newbolt), and Margaret's function remains unclear. The Settee, Newbolt tells us in his autobiography, was responsible for nurturing several novels, including his own Taken from the Enemy and Coleridge's Seven Sleepers of Ephesus, both published by Chatto and Windus.
Reminiscences of these various configurations of intimacies and intense friendships are treated with some embarrassment and defensiveness. Writing in 1954, Theresa Whistler both raises and suppresses the spectre of lesbianism, suggesting that Coleridge and her circle both were and were not either New or Odd Women. On the one hand, she comments, 'there was no social oddness or defiance about them. They were not "emancipated", or even specially "advanced". The daughters of well-to-do Victorian gentlemen, they subscribed to the conventions of their upbringing'. (40) On the other hand, Whistler notes that Mary and her friends enjoyed with each other a 'romantic intimacy', although it was also an 'idealising glow' inspired by literature (p. 39): 'She [Coleridge] thought a great deal about the art of intimate friendship' (p. 48). Whistler continues:
Although there was nothing unfeminine about her, and though she was so attractive a being, men were not specially aware of her as a woman. [...] It is not strange perhaps that so many of Mary's circle remained unmarried, untroubled as they were by financial insecurity or loneliness. (pp. 43-44).
Furthermore, 'No one so feminine can ever have longed more to be a man' (p. 50). The twists and turns of Whistler's prose do not definitively name a lesbian subculture, but the open secret codes are implicit. More direct evidence comes from Susan Chitty's biography of Henry Newbolt, which uncovers details of his relationship with both Margaret and Ella, cousins who had been lovers since adolescence. Newbolt's original scheme was cheerfully to tolerate his wife's affair, and to try to include Ella as much as possible in their household and marriage. Ella's jealousy, Chitty reveals, was such that in the end he took her as his mistress and kept an account sheet with a tally for the number of times he slept with each of them per month. The columns were, apparently, fairly even. (41) Equally bold assertions are made by Chitty about the sexuality of Coleridge.
She declares that 'Mary was in love with each of them [the Grecians] in turn' (p. 80), and that she fell in love at first sight with Margaret and Helen Duckworth (p. 81). While I have found no direct primary evidence, it does seem that Coleridge's close and intense female friendships were erotic attachments. In particular, her unpublished letters and journal extracts given in Sichel's memoir often mention Ella as her closest friend and companion. Whistler comments that 'Ella and she shared much' (p. 44) and that Newbolt made firm and fast friendships with both of them when he married Margaret: 'it was lucky that the young man, plunged into this bevy of girls, found it easy and delightful to make friends with clever young women. He soon became almost as intimate as his wife with Mary and with Ella' (p. 54).
Angela Leighton comments that 'many of Coleridge's poems invoke a lesbian subtext' and that 'very often in Coleridge the thrill of sexual desire [...] is associated with the company of women rather than of men'. (42) I want to draw on the biographical revelations of Newbolt's life and the uneasy insinuations of Whistler's account of Coleridge's friendships not to explain away her riddling and allusive poems as lesbian love lyrics, but rather to suggest that their very uncanniness and dislocation is a product of her subculture. In other words, illicit sexual desire is not an interpretative key to unlocking what Whistler terms the 'cryptic and haunting' poetry, but the condition of their production. Contextlessness, the flight from history that we saw in her review and poem 'St. Andrews', may be a sign of something which cannot explicitly be named in Coleridge's biographical persona, but which floats through her poems as an open secret. It is also, however, the very basis of her poetics, lost through biographical squeamishness and the poetry's own self-haunting.
Temporal and spatial dislocation, as we have seen, are typical of her poems that have a geographical reference. While Coleridge shares the late Victorian aestheticist concern for image over event, genre experimentation, and the Paterian moment (Sichel claims that 'she possessed the rare gift of being in love with the moment' (p. 1)), she often turns any aestheticist moment in her poems inside out, capturing the erasure of specificity and the turn to contextlessless that denies her own historical present. Encounters with aestheticism acknowledge its dominant male connotations, even as Coleridge makes a space for her own voice. For example, Leighton's analysis of Coleridge's 'The Devil at the Guildhall' argues that the unfinished short story presents Coleridge's encounter with a Paterian aestheticism. As the story tries to find a space for female aestheticism in Pater's formulation of beauty and pleasure, Leighton suggests, she tentatively decodes these aestheticist terms into 'class privilege, gender power and illicit [male] sexuality'. (43) In Coleridge's 1882 poem 'A Moment', Pater's celebration of a perpetual series of impressions in his famous 1873 Conclusion to the Renaissance is transformed into one specific moment of illicit desire:
The clouds had made a crimson crown Above the mountains high. The stormy sun was going down In a stormy sky. Why did you let your eyes so rest on me, And hold your breath between? In all the ages this can never be As if it had not been. (44)
The implicit but opaque relation between the stanzas, and between the sunset and the suggestive look, gestures to and also questions the relation between poem and event. In the second stanza the last two lines again suggest timelessness ('In all the ages') and also the insistence that the moment is recorded and remembered. But the double negative also ironically summons up its opposite meaning, suggesting that this tentative moment is fragile and elusory. The additional iambic foot in lines 5 and 7 also suggests a supplemental and unsettling additional rhythm underlying the poem, almost like an additional heartbeat. What Angela Leighton sees as whimsical, surreal strain in Coleridge's Poetry (45) often shades into painful exposure of loss and vulnerability, especially in relation to a lover. The poem captures an erotically suggestive moment and claims this moment has permanence, but it also unsettles the permanence of that moment and its temporal specificity. (46)
Coleridge's elusive lyrics often follow this rhetorical pattern, even those lyrics that claim a context for themselves. Her three Chillingham poems, for example, erase all specificity. They are entirely contextless pastoral lyrics, loosely descriptive of the landscape and seascape around the castle. The third poem celebrates the 'Unending Time and Space' of the location, which seems named and invoked in the title only to be erased within the lyric. Chillingham Castle, near Belford in Northumberland, was often visited by Coleridge, Newbolt, Margaret, and Ella between 1901 and 1906, when they were all involved in establishing the Monthly Review. (47) It was owned by Sir Andrew Noble the arms manufacturer, who at the time of these visits often experimented in his laboratory with a new gunpowder and explosions in closed steel vessels. (48) Coleridge's poems make no reference to these unpastoral intrusions, nor do they refer to the more ancient gothic traditions (as narrated by Newbolt) of the castle's haunted medieval dungeons and the legend of the Till, celebrated in an old ballad for its sudden murderous torrents. The Chillingham poems, instead, tug and test the limits of their own freedom from referentiality. This is the first allusive lyric:
Through the sunny garden The humming bees are still; The fir climbs the heather, The heather climbs the hill. The low clouds have riven A little rift through. The hill climbs to heaven, Far away and blue. (49)
Within the formal constrictive limits of this lyric, the imagery gestures to subtle and incremental movement. The perspective of the poem begins through the space of a garden where bees are still, upwards towards the hill, and then the clouds and heaven beyond. The play between static space and slight movement against and within that space is figured by the image of the bees, which hum, of course, only when in motion. The line 'The humming bees are still' suggests both movement and stasis as it disrupts a sense of time and tense (the bees that once hummed are now still and, paradoxically, bees that are humming are still). The 'little rift' in the clouds has a similar effect, combining both limits and its transgression. In the last line, the transcendence implied in 'Far away and blue' is so opaque and expansive as to resist meaning, comparable to the layering of lake and sky in 'Winged Words' (and the 'blue in blue' of 'L'Oiseau Bleu'). (50)
The sense of a hidden but opaque secret depth that pulls at its own referentiality is both an undoing of context and an inscription of a haunting allusiveness. As her lyrics often empty out their meaning and record the erasure of own limits, they will an erotic possession by an other. Reminiscences of Mary Coleridge often comment on her fascination with despots and egoists. Edith Sichel, for example, notes that 'she worshipped vitality and a strong consciousness, the forces she longed for and missed in herself' (p. 30). Furthermore, she implies that this willed possession by others is related to her poetry, for:
Her friends' existences were hers. She did not share their joys and sorrows--she identified herself with them; so much so, that she hardly distinguished them from her own, and thus, unknown to herself, they went on furnishing her with the experiences she lacked. Some, indeed, of her poems that seem the most intimately personal give a false impression of wishes and sufferings she never had. They are inspired by what happened to those she loved. [...] She was a lyre over whose responsive strings every emotion swept, making music. (pp. 30-31)
The erasure of boundaries invites inhabitation by an other, and, as I have argued elsewhere, Coleridge's poems often erase a sense of the subject's agency. (51) 'The Witch', for example, allows the lamia figure over the threshold, and, as a result, the voices of the witch and the maiden become intermeshed and confused.
Another poem of haunting addresses a lover whose voice is heard everywhere--the wind, the waters, the sea, the clouds, waves, light, and even empty air. Finally, the terse lyric closes with finding the lover deep within: 'When in my heart of hearts I would escape thee, | I find thee there'; an earlier poem addresses a lover in similar terms: 'We crossed the boundary line, | I saw my soul look out of your eyes, | You saw your soul in mine'. (52)
This sense of a willed possession, together with the traversing of boundaries and an uncanny contextlessness, is perhaps the condition of Victorian women's lyricism taken to an extreme, the 'responsive strings' open entirely to the influence of another. Coleridge's poems figure the undoing of an originary lyric voice, as the other inhabits the space of the poem; indeed, the lyrics illicitly desire such a formal and subjective contamination. The poem, like the body of the poet, becomes in Susan Stewart's words 'both the agent and vessel of sense perception' of both self and other. (53) Coleridge's lyric contextlessness parodically overdoes the Victorian association of women's poetry with pure voice, but the explicit eroticism of her uncanny responsiveness to the other suggests something more. Although we have lost much of the private associations and allusions of Coleridge's poems, which were mostly not intended for publication, their erasure of referentiality produces a ghostly effect that dramatizes the erasure of context and sometimes also of meaning. The eroticism of this effect corresponds to Terry Castle's term the 'apparitional lesbian', a ghostly decontextualized figure. Castle argues that 'The literary history of lesbianism [...] is first of all a history of derealization'. (54) The logic of the open secret of lesbianism, as described by Martha Vicinus, also works rhetorically to make lesbian desire liminal, an uncanny double of acknowledgement and denial. (55) Castle's study of the self-ghosting of lesbian figures describes the historical inability of people to see the 'elusive, vaporous' 'wanderer' of the woman. (56)
Coleridge's poetic self-dislocation and willed possession by an other can be understood in these terms, as the ghosting of an illicit desire and a tentative space for female aestheticism. A powerful example is offered by her 1906 valediction poem written for Ella Coltman, 'On a Sudden Departure', (57) written after hearing of her imminent holiday in Switzerland. The poem is a Petrarchan lament for the loss of the beloved, spoken as a dialogue between speaker and her heart:
Stay, stay, my heart, what is it thou dost feel? There's many cross the sea and come again. Why should the waves thy only treasure steal? Is she alone the sport of wind and rain? She will return once more to help and heal, Refrain, my heart, refrain. Possess thyself in patience, thinking how Thou wilt endure the inevitable day When for that voyage, either she or thou, Whence there is no return, must go away. Then, gird up thy strength to bear; but now Stay, stay my heart, thy restless beating stay.
The poem makes a sharp analogy, traditional in valedictions, between temporary departure and a final severance that is not named but is, implicitly, death. The sea is framed as the threshold over which the beloved must traverse, and the speaker tries to persuade her heart that 'There's many cross the seas and come again'. The poem is a plea for a safe return and a proleptic preparation for final loss. Typically for a Coleridgean lyric, the two stanzas contrast and attempt to separate the two types of 'sudden departure'; nevertheless, death haunts and undoes the speaker's self-reassurance. In the first stanza the rhetorical questions imply doubt and anxiety about a safe return across the channel. Furthermore, the assertion that 'She will return once more to help and heal' is undercut by the next line ('Refrain, my heart, refrain'), which implies both meanings of 'refrain' as a verb (cessation) and a noun (a chorus). The Petrarchan trope of the heart's anxiety cannot be reassured by the speaker's logical assurance. In the second stanza the heart's fears become a question of self-possession. Although the speaker addresses her heart with 'Possess thyself in silence', the lyric voice cannot be self-possessed: it is haunted by both the lover and her absence. This is affirmed again at the end of the stanza. Despite fearing that there will one day be no return from a voyage for either of them, the 'restless beating' of the heart cannot be stayed. The heart cannot possess itself.
'On a Sudden Departure' thus sets up and undermines the distinctions between the speaker and the beloved and between the speaker and her heart, just as it inscribes a limit (the sea) that must be crossed. As the poem fears an absolute separation and absence, it counters that anxiety by willing the heart to be possessed by the other. As with so many of Coleridge's output, this lyric is in dialogue with another of her poems, 'All One', of 1885, (58) which repeats the refrain with a slight variation: 'Be still, my beating heart, be still!'. The first stanza describes the speaker's hopelessness, set up in opposition to the second stanza's fearlessness. The refrain links the two contrasts and, through repetition, undermines the difference between them as it also suggests an uncanny union with the lover: 'The moon has risen white and clear, | And we shall neither meet nor part'. The 'beating heart' in the poem, which beats its rhythm throughout just as it does in 'A Sudden Departure', is not necessarily only the heart of the speaker. The slight alteration in the metre's pattern of stresses as the spondaic refrain 'Be still' is repeated--and a significant metrical alteration also occurs in the later poem--suggests another heart rhythm overlaid and intermeshed with the speaker's.
As Susan Stewart argues in her study of lyric possession, metrical interruptions and echoes dislocate the speaker's self-mastery. (59) For Coleridge's lyrics, the metrical alterations underscore the dislocation of space and time and the testing of the limits of subjectivity. Her poetry's contextlessness, the erasure of specificity and referentiality, is the condition of the haunting of illicit desire. As her poems stage the process of their own erasure and the flight from history, however, their pure lyricism undermines not only authorial origin and authenticity. Despite both desiring and fearing Anodos to be 'a wild thing apart, without a home', (60) to be so wayward as to evade classification, these poetic characteristics carve out a provisional and tentative space for female aestheticism, but an aestheticism that also implies the illicit. Although Whistler argues that 'Her paramount need was for spiritual, more than aesthetic beauty' (61), her lyrical indeterminacy and dislocations, as well as her attraction to what Angela Leighton terms 'empty contextless space' (62) and their illicit secrets, signify an uncanny haunted aestheticism that not only restlessly probes its own limits, but also captures in the poems' form a lyrical unravelling. This is exemplified in a letter to Ella Coltman that wittily links the aestheticist celebration of beauty for its own sake with enclosed, secret, and feminine spaces: 'Looking into the fluffy white heart of an oleander, the other day, a kind of rapture at its uselessness came over me, at the divine heedlessness of anything but glory and beauty in the making of it'. (63)
(1) See Victorian Women Poets: An Anthology, ed. by Angela Leighton and Margaret Reynolds (Oxford: Blackwell, 1995); Nineteenth-Century Women Poets: An Oxford Anthology, ed. by Isobel Armstrong and Joseph Bristow (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996); and Victorian Women Poets: A New Annotated Anthology, ed. by Virginia Blain (London: Longman, 2001). Coleridge's 'The Other Side of the Mirror' and 'The Witch' are also represented in The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 7th edn, ed. by M. H. Abrams and Steven Greenblatt (New York: Norton, 2000), ii, 1861-62.
(2) Margaret Newbolt, The Later Life and Letters of Sir Henry Newbolt (London: Faber and Faber, 1942), p. 102.
(3) Linda Hughes, 'A Female Aesthete at the Helm: Sylvia's Journal and "Graham R. Tomson", 1893-1894', Victorian Periodicals Review, 29.2 (1996), 173-92 (p. 173).
(4) Angela Leighton, 'Women Poets and the Fin-de-siecle: Towards a New Aestheticism', Victorian Review, 23 (1997), 1-14 (p. 15).
(5) Talia Schaffer, The Forgotten Female Aesthetes: Literary Culture in Late-Victorian England (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2000).
(6) The Fin-de-siecle Poem: English Literary Culture and the 1890s, ed. by Joseph Bristow (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2005).
(7) See Ana Parejo Vadillo, Women Poets and Urban Aestheticism: Passengers of Modernity (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005).
(8) See Theresa Whistler's introduction to her edition of The Collected Poems of Mary Coleridge (London: Hart-Davis, 1954), pp. 26-28.
(9) Katharine McGowran, 'Re-reading Women's Poetry at the Turn of the Century', Victorian Poetry, 41 (2003), 584-89 (pp. 586-87).
(10) Edith Sichel, Gathered Leaves from the Prose of Mary E. Coleridge (London: Constable, 1910), p. 34.
(11) The letter is reproduced in part in Sichel, p. 36.
(12) Recent critics have suggested the importance of Wilde for the development of the female aesthete, in particular through his editing of Woman's World; see, for example, Schaffer, The Forgotten Female Aesthetes.
(13) In Collected Poems of Mary Coleridge, p. 123. All texts for Coleridge's poetry, as well as their dating, are taken from this edition, hereafter abbreviated CPMC.
(14) Sichel, pp. 252-53. Compare also another comment by Coleridge: 'Roman ruins depress me. It seems so impossible to reconstruct people out of them. [...] A Roman hairpin is something. It helps one just a little towards a lady' (Sichel, p. 223).
(15) Compare the captivation by the past in Vernon Lee, another late Victorian pseudonymous woman writer who frequently turns to history as a ghostly enchantment; see, for example, Catherine Maxwell, 'Vernon Lee and the Ghosts of Italy', in Unfolding the South: Nineteenth-Century British Women Writers and Artists in Italy, ed. by Alison Chapman and Jane Stabler (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003), pp. 201-21.
(16) See Henry John Newbolt, My World as in my Time: Memoirs of Sir Henry Newbolt, 1862-1932 (London: Faber and Faber, 1932), p. 183.
(17) See CPMC, pp. 77-78.
(18) See Mary E. Coleridge, Poems, ed. by Henry Newbolt (London: Elkin Matthews, 1908), pp. vi-vii.
(19) See CPMC, p. 77.
(20) Colin Franklin, Poets of the Daniel Press (Cambridge: Rampant Lions Press, 1988), p. 13.
(21) CPMC, p. 63.
(22) Franklin, pp. 16, 10.
(23) Coleridge was introduced to Dixon by Bridges; she wrote an introductory preface to Bridge's edition of The Last Poems of Richard Watson Dixon (London: Frowde, 1905).
(24) Franklin, p. 73.
(25) Franklin, p. 65.
(26) See Victorian Women Poets, p. 284.
(27) Hughes, pp. 124-25.
(28) Sichel, pp. 23-24.
(29) Sichel, p. 11.
(30) See, for example, McGowran, p. 585.
(31) Angela Leighton, headnote, in Victorian Women Poets, p. 612.
(32) Alison Chapman, 'Mary Elizabeth Coleridge, Literary Influence and Technologies of the Uncanny', in Victorian Gothic: Literary and Cultural Manifestations in the Nineteenth Century, ed. by Ruth Robbins and Julian Wolfreys (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2000), pp. 109-28.
(33) CPMC, p. 78.
(34) Cited in M. Newbolt, Later Life, p. 92.
(35) M. Newbolt, Later Life, p. 92.
(36) M. Newbolt, Later Life, p. 97.
(37) CPMC, p. 22.
(38) Tricia Lootens, Lost Saints: Silence, Gender, and Victorian Literary Canonization (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1996). See also Kathy Alexis Psomiades, 'Whose Body? Christina Rossetti and Aestheticist Femininity', in Women and British Aestheticism, ed. by Talia Schaffer and Kathy Alexis Psomiades (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1999), pp. 101-18.
(39) H. Newbolt, My World, p. 178.
(40) CPMC, p. 39.
(41) Susan Chitty, Playing the Game: A Biography of Sir Henry Newbolt (London: Quartet, 1997), p. 91.
(42) Leighton, in Victorian Women Poets, pp. 612, 611.
(43) Leighton, 'Women Poets and the Fin-de-siecle', p. 4.
(44) CPMC, p. 90.
(45) 'Women Poets and the Fin-de-siecle', p. 8.
(46) For a connection between photography and Coleridge's poetic moments see Chapman, 'Mary Elizabeth Coleridge'.
(47) See H. Newbolt, My World, pp. 258-65. Newbolt mentions that there are five Chillingham poems, but Whistler reproduces only three in her edition (CPMC, p. 261).
(48) See Chitty, p. 148.
(49) CPMC, p. 232.
(50) CPMC, 114 and 163, respectively.
(51) See Chapman, 'Mary Elizabeth Coleridge', pp. 110-13.
(52) CPMC, p. 179 and 164, respectively.
(53) Susan Stewart, 'Lyric Possession', Critical Inquiry, 22 (autumn 1995), 34-63 (p. 36).
(54) Terry Castle, The Apparitional Lesbian: Female Homosexuality in Modern Culture (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), p. 34.
(55) See Martha Vicinus, Intimate Friends: Women Who Loved Women, 1778-1928 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004).
(56) Castle, p. 2.
(57) CPMC, p. 249.
(58) CPMC, pp. 104-05.
(59) See Poetry and the Fate of the Senses (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), ch. 3, esp. p. 116.
(60) This phrase is taken from a letter to Margaret Newbolt (Later Life, p. 102).
(61) CPMC, p. 33.
(62) In Victorian Women Poets, p. 612.
(63) See CPMC, p. 71, where the fragment is identified as a letter to Ella. In Sichel, p. 276, a slightly fuller extract is given, though (according to Whistler) with a slight misquotation.
University of Victoria
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|Publication:||Yearbook of English Studies|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2007|
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