"Work without Hope": Anxiety and Embarrassment in Coleridge's Sonnets

Article excerpt

"I love Sonnets; but upon my honor I do not love my Sonnets."

--Samuel Taylor Coleridge

PERHAPS BECAUSE FROM A FORMAL STANDPOINT HE WAS SO DOGGEDLY unconventional, Samuel Taylor Coleridge seems an unlikely sonneteer. Fourteen lines, it would seem, hardly could contain his expansive imagination. Coleridge's muse, unlike Wordsworth's, naturally would "fret" at the narrow confines of its convent. While not as prolific a sonneteer as Wordsworth or even Keats, Coleridge, however, did play an important role in the romantic-era sonnet revival, beginning in 1788 when he composed "To the Autumnal Moon" and continuing through 1796 when he published a volume of his own sonnets as well as the pamphlet Sonnets from Various Authors, with its prefatory essay, one of the few coherent statements of the theory and practice of the romantic-period sonnet. The essay is also where Coleridge credits Charlotte Smith and William Lisle Bowles with reviving the English-language sonnet, "deducing its laws," he says emphatically, "from their compositions" instead of Petrarch's.(1) Bowles's early influence on Coleridge has been the subject of much curiosity and study, wonder even, but few scholars have studied Coleridge as a sonneteer or have considered his sonnets in light of the romantic-era sonnet revival, particularly in the decade prior to Wordsworth's serious adoption of the form.(2) Doing so puts into sharper focus his complex attitude towards the sonnet during the 1790s, the period of his most active involvement with the form. As a sonneteer, Coleridge, not surprisingly, is deferential to Bowles, his model; but he also is curiously defensive about the sonnet itself. His active participation in the sonnet revival, his preoccupation with the form, and his admiration for Bowles's sonnets reveal that the sonnet is the source of anxiety and embarrassment for Coleridge. As he wrote to fellow sonneteer John Thelwall in 1796, "I love Sonnets; but upon my honor I do not love my Sonnets."(3) The form itself becomes for Coleridge a locus of considerable angst, troping his personal worries in sonnets that are, in fact, the most intimate poems in his oeuvre. The sonnet, with its considerable formal demands, becomes, moreover, the site of Coleridge's most self-conscious and deliberate poetic composition and ultimately of his self-perceived inadequacies as a poet. Coleridge's sonnet writing is, as he later would call it, "work without hope."

1. "So tender, and yet so manly"

The anxieties of form Coleridge associates with the sonnet are complicated by the embarrassments of gender. Considering Coleridge's participation in the female-dominated sonnet revival sheds new light on the ways in which male poets, such as Coleridge, Bowles, Charles Lamb, and Charles Lloyd, followed directly Charlotte Smith's lead. First published in 1784, Smith's Elegiac Sonnets, as Coleridge's praise indicates, revived the sonnet form and became part of the cultural consciousness during the 1780s and '90s.(4) Smith's feminization of the sonnet also became somewhat of an embarrassment for the sonnet tradition. The sonnets are not themselves defective; rather, their popularity and influence made them perfect targets for parroting and parody.(5) Even Coleridge published, in 1796, an imitation of Smith's Elegiac Sonnets in subject, tone, and form, the sonnet "To the Autumnal Moon":

   Mild Splendour of the various-vested Night!
   Mother of wildly-working visions! hail!
   I watch thy gliding, while with watery light
   Thy weak eye glimmers through a fleecy veil;
   And when thou lovest thy pale orb to shroud
   Behind the gather'd blackness lost on high;
   And when thou dartest from the wind-rent cloud
   Thy placid lightning o'er the awaken'd sky.

   Ah such is Hope! as changeful and as fair!
   Now dimly peering on the wistful sight;
   Now hid behind the dragon wing'd Despair:
   But soon emerging in her radiant might
   She o'er the sorrow-clouded breast of Care
   Sails, like a meteor kindling in its flight. …