Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Filling the Blanks: Coleridge and the Inscrutable Female Subject

Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Filling the Blanks: Coleridge and the Inscrutable Female Subject

Article excerpt

"The trick of that voice I do remember well"

(King Lear 4, 6, 105)

Lacking Byron's glamor and Wordsworth's domesticity, Coleridge nevertheless lived in an unusual flutter of female attention. Many women in his own milieu and many American women in the years after his death cared for and about him. When he watched the "meek" baby Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin at "Catacomb-ish" play on William Godwin's floor (CL 1,553), she also listened to him; she would later call him "the most imaginative of modern poets" and, as Beth Lau has demonstrated in "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Frankenstein," would model her novel step by step on his narrative poem (207-223). He prided himself that the "genius" Mary Robinson (as he called her [CL 1, 562 and 575]) wrote him a death-bed farewell thanking him for nourishing her creativity (CL. 2,669), a relationship Ashley Cross traces in "From Lyrical Ballads to Lyrical Tales: Mary Robinson's Reputation and the Problem of Literary Debt," forthcoming in SiR. Late in his life, talking about love and yearning, he traveled with Mrs. Gillman, her si ster, and several nubile women to Ramsgate. (1) Across the Atlantic, as Joel Pace and Chris Koenig-Woodyard have recently found (TWC, 32, 3, 138-141), Rhoda Newcomb wrote daily letters with Coleridge's ideas to her transcendentalist son, Charles, providing a missing link between the English Coleridge and his New England disciples.

Such affinity with the misunderstood Coleridge persists even now in the face of evidence indicating his essentialist notions of the Feminine, belief in his superiority as a male, and mockery of a "feminine" and trivially gallic style. (2) Anne Fadiman in the American Scholar (68, 4, 8) admits to belonging to a generation of American women who keep Coleridge's name on their screen savers and wish that they had changed the course of literature by loving him as he should have been loved. Women past and present knew Coleridge from his published or spoken words, ardent words that made them forget his sometimes stout anatomy, his large lips, moist eyes, and flabby carcass of a face (CL 1, 259-60), in some lights sensual, in others self-indulgent and weak.

From his own vantage point Coleridge saw women in a number of ways; once he began listening to them as well, he gained a stereoscopic understanding of their depths. Faced with the dazzling surfaces of the Georgian and Regency female, his sensuously spiritual admiration often stopped short at the body. In convivial mode he laughed heartily at female shapes and peculiarities: heavy inking covers the name of someone whose wife is "a nasty hard-hearted, hatchet-fac'd, droop-nos'd, eye-sunken, rappee-complexioned [old Bitch]" (CL 2, 880). Fat women amused him: "A superfluity of Beef!....Vulgarity enshrin'd in blubber!" (Poems, Beer, 74), and breasts always caught his eye: "Blessed, blessed were the breasts!" (3)

During the 1797-1802 years he traveled in and out of London, wrote for the Morning Post, and charmed actresses, writers, and hostesses whose low-cut dresses provided a fleshy vista for his moist and protruding eyes. In this cosmopolitan interlude he dined at Charlotte Smith's house (CL 1, 571), and several times with Mr. and Mrs. Barbauld (CL 1,577); he spent a night surrounded by the three Allen girls, innocently, he writes his wife (CL 2, 890), while arguing the case that no one can promise to love just one person for the rest of his life (CL 2,887-8). He boasted of his fashions and flirtations and dared Sara to scratch out the eyes of his admirers (CL 2, 789; Feb.24, 1802).

In several rarely noticed poems from this period Coleridge observed women performing their roles in society. These poems investigate how women hide their characters in obedience to the requirements of deportment and subdue vitality to meet the expectations of other women, those "elderly young women that discuss the love-affairs of their friends and acquaintances at the village tea-tables" (Friend 1, 49), and of men assessing them as commodities. …

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