Thomas Humphry Ward, ed. The English Poets. 18801918. Vol. V. Browning to Rupert Brooke
Critical Introduction by Laurence Binyon
Mary Elizabeth Coleridge (18611907)
[Mary Elizabeth Coleridge was born in London, September 23, 1861. Her grandfather was the son of Samuel Taylor Coleridges elder brother James. Her first novel, The Seven Sleepers of Ephesus (1893), mystified most readers, though it attracted the notice of Stevenson. The King with Two Faces (1897) was far more successful. It was followed by a few other novels and a book of essays. Mary Coleridge published no poetry under her own name. Her first book of verse, Fancys Following, by Anodos, was printed by Mr. Daniel at his private press at Oxford in 1896; and Fancys Guerdon, mostly reprinted from this, was published the next year in Elkin Mathewss Shilling Garland. A volume of collected poems was edited after her death by Henry Newbolt. She died in London, unmarried, on August 25, 1907. Her friend Edith Sichel published a collection of her stories and essays in 1910, with a short memoir.]
NO one was ever less of a professional poet than Mary Coleridge. She was writing verse for twenty-five years, but the greater part of her poems were never printed in her lifetime, and she refused to publish under her own name. Yet assuredly her place is secure among the lyric poets of England. Perhaps just because they were produced with so little thought of the public, her poems have a fresh directness and intimacy which few lyrists attain so perfectly. They were the spontaneous overflow of her spirit; and that spirit was one of rare gift and charm. The most obviously striking characteristic of Mary Coleridges nature was the combination of unusual depth with unusual vivacity. She was quick to be moved, but it was not only the surface which was stirred, it was her whole being. She was as gay as she was serious; but the gaiety was not a mere disguise to the seriousness, the imaginative humour from which it sprang was a fundamental part of her nature and gave it the strength of elasticity. The bright effervescence of her intellect did not prevent her from being as enthusiastic as she was warm-hearted. She was not less tender than high-spirited. And though her mind was nothing if not adventurous, at the core of her being was an exquisite humility.
With all this complexity of nature she had a great sincerity. What she wrote in one mood might be contradicted by what she wrote in another; but the reader of her poems feels that each is sincere, that it is even a part of her rich sincerity to give spontaneous utterance to those inconsistencies of thought and feeling which exist in all the most human hearts and minds, though philosophers may believe it a duty to reconcile or gloze them.
Mary Coleridges poetry was so direct an expression of her nature that it could not fail to be original, in the truest sense of originality. Though her reading was wide, she does not follow any master or tradition. Among English poets there is hardly one to whom she shows any essential affinity, though in evocation of a magic atmosphere she shows herself the kinswoman of the author of Christabel. Now and again we may be reminded of Browning at his most lyrical and direct; Mr. Bridges finds in some of her poems a likeness, both of matter and manner, to Blake; and it is certainly remarkable in such things as the song called Prosperity. But the resemblance to Heine, which he also notes, may strike more readers. In what does this resemblance consist? For certainly the resemblance is not greater than the difference. Heines manner is often recalled by Mary Coleridges use of simple measures, her light touch, her bold and vivid fancy:
But also it is recalled by the fusion of an intellectual element in the poignant treatment of emotion;
The weapon that you fought with was a word,
And with that word you stabbed me to the heart.
Not once but twice you did it, for the sword
Made no blood start.
They have not tried you for your life. You go
Strong in such innocence as men will boast.
They have not buried me. They do not know
Life from its ghost.
With a keen mind continually darting fresh light on the subjects of her thoughts and feelings, Mary Coleridge, like Heine, sometimes turns upon herself, but in a different way. With Heine it seems to be the sudden recognition of an over-indulgence in sentiment, which the other side of him turns upon and mocks. With Mary Coleridge it seems to be a sudden apprehension that some emotion she has expressed may not have been absolutely true to herself after all, and she seeks yet more exactingly to strip all disguise from the reality within. This is especially seen in some poems of religious inspiration, and these are the farthest removed from likeness to Heines spirit. Heine was easily bitter: Mary Coleridge could never have been made bitter, any more than she could have become sentimental, though she was capable of profound grief. Her spirituality of nature was too radiant and alive for either weakness. In that she was akin to Blake.
No one would suggest that Mary Coleridges actual production could be compared to Heines in power or range; but it is a tribute to her originality and lyric art that the best of her poems bear comparison with the work of so renowned a master.
Some of the most successful of the poems are impersonal or dramatic in Brownings sense. They have a romantic strangeness for their beauty, and are concerned with mysterious themes or actual wizardry. The situation is suggested rather than defined; and the reader is left baffled in his curiosity yet content with an enigmatic effect, so powerful is the impression of magical atmosphere. Instead of telling a complete story, the poetess prefers to show a glimpse of figures in passionate action, as if seen in a momentary beam of intense light against darkness; and the verse in such pieces has a kind of gay vehemence that is very characteristic of her genius. There was indeed in the movements of her mind, as her verse reflects them, something of the caprice of a birds motion and a birds singing; and, though the inconsequence is partly a weakness, it certainly belongs to her charm.
The little volume that contains all of Mary Coleridges poetical production is remarkable for lyric variety, but not less for the impression it gives of an impassioned unity beneath. The poems remain, in Mr. Bridges words, as an absolutely truthful picture of a wondrously beautiful and gifted spirit; and this, beyond all other qualities that they possess, is the main secret of their sometimes mysterious attraction.