Mary Elizabeth Coleridge Essay - Critical Essays

Coleridge, Mary Elizabeth


Mary Elizabeth Coleridge 1861-1907

(Also wrote under the pseudonym Anodos) English poet, novelist, short story writer, essayist, biographer, and critic.

An esteemed novelist in turn-of-fhe-century England best known for her historical romance The King with Two Faces (1897), Coleridge is largely remembered for her relatively small but significant contribution to English verse. In short, lyrical poems she wrote of personal loss, human identity, and the facts of urban existence with a characteristically reserved and dignified voice. Additionally, the pithy, inventive style of Coleridge's many essays and other prose writings—particularly her journals, diaries, and criticism—is valued alongside her poetry and remains a source of critical interest in this versatile writer.

Biographical Information

Coleridge was born in London, the daughter of Mary Anne Jameson Coleridge and Arthur Duke Coleridge, a lawyer, amateur musician, and grandnephew of the Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Relatively shy and reserved, she was educated at home under the instruction of a private tutor, read eagerly, and learned a variety of languages, including French, German, Italian, Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. She traveled widely throughout Europe but lived with her parents for her entire life, never marrying. At the age of thirteen Coleridge—typically surrounded by the literary and artistic acquaintances of her parents: John Ruskin, Holman Hunt, Anthoy Trollope, Fanny Kemble, Robert Browning, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and others—had taken an interest in painting and begun to write poetry. By age twenty her essays started to appear in periodicals such as the Monthly Review and later the Times Literary Supplement. Coleridge published her first novel, The Seven Sleepers of Ephesus, in 1893. Two years later she opted to spend a portion of her time teaching at the Working Women's College in London, a position she held until the end of her life. In the meantime Coleridge continued to write poetry, fiction, and essays. She published her first collection of verse, Fancy's Following, under the pseudonym Anodos in 1896 and a companion piece, Fancy's Guerdon, the following year. In 1897 her second novel, The King with Two Faces, appeared and firmly established Coleridge's popular reputation in England. She also wrote several more novels, poems, and an assortment of prose, as well as a biography of the painter Holman Hunt, written at the artist's request. This last work was published posthumously in 1908, the year after Coleridge's death due to a severe attack of appendicitis.

Major Works

The majority of verse Coleridge published during her lifetime is contained in the slight volume Fancy's Following. This collection includes her notable piece on the subject of estrangement from one's self, entitled "The Other Side of the Mirror," along with forty-seven more poems that meditate on themes of love, personal loss, and human identity. Fancy's Guerdon, her second collection, contains only seven additional pieces of verse, while The Collected Poems of Mary Coleridge, published posthumously in 1954, extends this number to almost two hundred. In her first novel, The Seven Sleepers of Ephesus, Coleridge offers a dream-like depiction of the adventures of several young men. She followed this work with a trio of historical romances, The King with Two Faces, The Fiery Dawn (1901), and The Shadow on the Wall (1904). In the first, her most popular, Coleridge evokes a fictional world based upon the life of Sweden's King Gustav III. Her introspective novel The Lady on the Drawing Room Floor (1906) is recounted by a middle-aged male narrator as he explores the intricacies of deeply hidden emotions that resurface from his past. In this story of romantic constancy, the narrator recalls a woman he once loved but never pursued, and a letter she wrote to him, now lost, that he never opened. Examples of Coleridge's essays, criticism, journal entries, short fiction, and other writings are contained in her Non Sequitur (1900) and Gathered Leaves from the Prose of Mary E. Coleridge (1910). The former includes several articles on literary subjects and travel, while the latter demonstrates her characteristically imaginative, humorous style in essays on various topics—literature, art, and spirituality among them—and in a handful of short stories.

Critical Reception

During her lifetime Coleridge was widely hailed as a novelist and essayist. Since her death, however, critics have tended to emphasize the importance of her poetry, which is thought to bear affinities to that of the PreRaphaelites and to stylistically prefigure the writings of the Imagists in its lyrical austerity. Coleridge's fiction, on the other hand, has most recently been deemed of secondary importance to her verse, and many commentators have agreed that her novels and short stories are marred by weaknesses of plot and execution. Her essays, furthermore, have been valued more for their historical significance than their literary merit, though many are still studied and appreciated, particularly as documents suitable for feminist inquiry.

Principal Works

The Seven Sleepers of Ephesus (novel) 1893

Fancy's Following (poetry) 1896

Fancy's Guerdon (poetry) 1897

The King with Two Faces (novel) 1897

Non Sequitur (essays) 1900

The Fiery Dawn (novel) 1901

The Shadow on the Wall (novel) 1904

The Lady on the Drawing Room Floor (novel) 1906

Holman Hunt (biography) 1908

Poems by Mary E. Coleridge (poetry) 1908

Gathered Leaves from the Prose of Mary E. Coleridge (essays, letters, and short stories) 1910

The Collected Poems of Mary Coleridge (poetry) 1954


Robert Bridges (essay date 1907)

SOURCE: "Mary Elizabeth Coleridge," in The Cornhill Magazine, Vol. 5, November, 1907, pp. 205-229.

[In the following essay, Bridges eulogizes Coleridge and analyzes some of her best-known works.]

Mary Elizabeth Coleridge, whoo died unexpectedly abaut two months ago, after a few deys of acute illnes, is very widely moorn'd. Her personality was wun of those rare combinations of caracter and intelect whoose presence is everywhere beneficent and welcum; nor amung all whoom she cumforted, instructed, incurag'd, or amus'd wil ther be eny whoo can think of her with more sorrow than is inseparable from mortality. We mey imagin hau elegantly a Latin epitaph miht indulge the superlativs of its Ciceronian solicitude lest the good shud be interred with her bones; it is better tu think hau her fragment of life, a good seed of bewty, imperishable as eny link of physical cause and effect, must liv on bi the lau which writes aur fates in eternity.

But of the little ships that she bilt and launch'd, hau long wil eny wun of them flot on the surging deluge of literatur? I am not surpris'd that sume of her frends hav alredy hoisted her flag on the poems; for, tho' the fact was generally unknown or neglected, Mary Coleridge was a poetess. It was Fancy's Following, a deinty volume of forty-eiht short lyrics, privatly printed bi Mr. Daniel in 1896, that first wun her adequet recognition, and gave her real distinction as a writer. His 125 copies, hauever, must hav been distributed almost entirely amung her personal frends and the collectors of rare books. In the following yeer she was persueded tu reprint sume of these poems in Mr. Elkin Mathews' Shilling Garland; but this second ventur, in which a few new poems appeer'd, met with so little fevor in the market that not half of the edition of Fancy's Guerdon, as she nem'd it, has sold aut in ten yeers, and the book mey still be purches'd in Vigo Street for twelve pence.

The delicat harmony of special excellences that makes originality, if it dues not at wonce fascinat, is likely bi its very strangenes tu embarras the judgment of eeven a professional connoisseur; and ther is no uther account tu be given of the neglect of these poems, for they are both bewtiful and original, and of'n exhibit imagination of a very rare kind, convey'd bi the identical expression of true feeling and artistic insiht. Indeed I hav seen it asserted that of al her distinguish'd family Mary Elizabeth was the wun whoo alone inherited eny share of the magic faculty which fruted in Christabel and The Ancient Mariner, nor is the contention absurd. It is likely inuff that the smallnes of the volum affected the opinion of its importance; and yet forty-eight lyrics, meinteining so hih a standard as these, wil not be deem'd a trifling performance.

They hav alreddy prov'd their vitality bi usurping the fevor'd place in meny families where they are known. They wer selected from a much larger number, among which wer uthers wurthy tu rank with them; but the hope of Mary Coleridge's admirers is that, since she wrote continuusly tu the end of her life, the promis'd selection from her complete wurk wil be of considerable bulk, and secure her a hih position amung English lyrical poets.

Besides her bold and sumwhat capricius imagination, with its natural and simple expression, the qualities which Mary Coleridge brauht tu her poetry, so far as I can analise or tabulate them, wer a grat literary appetite, knoledge, and memory—a wide sympathy, tendernes of feeling, and profaund spirituality—and a humur withaut which such seeriusnes and devotion of life as wer hers can hardly be mede palatable in literatur. Her humur was almost super-abundant, and in her social life supli'd deep roots tu thatt luxuriant merriment and fun which brihtly culur'd all her conversetion and letters when ther was nuthing tu forbid their pley.

She was in no sense a blue-stocking. She did not write poems because she had lern'd the grammar of verse, nor because she thauht she had valuable moral lessons for well-intention'd peeple. Her poetry is the irrepressible song of fancy whoose vageries she wud hav thauht it impertinent tu analise; and, al tho' these records of her soul wer so sacred tu her that she wud hardly show them tu her most intimat frends, she did not appeer tu set eny greit value on them. They are at wunce sincere and mysteerius, so that Fancy's Following is apt tu giv a reeder the impression that its author had sum desperat life-seecret for the spring of her inspiration, and that she wud reveel it only in enigma.

I have forged me in seven-fold heats
A shield from foes and lovers,

And no one knows the heart that beats
Beneath the shield that covers.

If I had met with thatt in Heine's Buck der Lieder, I think I shud hav noted it for its excellence, certeinly not hav distinguish' d it for difference; and the seme miht be sed of sum uther lyrics in this book; but most of those that recall Heine's manner add sumthing tu it. The following poem is call'd


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.

These quotations wil justifi the inevitable reference tu Heine, and ther are uther points of contact where Miss Coleridge wil sustein sume comparison; but it must be understood that she was not in eny wey a copyist or imitetor of Heine; nor was she more comparable with him in conscivs artistic fabrication than in spiritual likenes. Heine's file was as full of geenius as his soul, so that, like Beethoven, the more he retuch'd his work the neerer it approch'd the perfect eese of spontaneeity; and his atteinment in his very best songs seems tu show the baundary of what was possible in his mateerial. His wurkmanship is so definit and cleen and mesur'd that the flaus appeer as inevitable incommodities of the German langueg; he set himself abuv rivalry, and yet Mary Coleridge has of n the seme kind of masterful eese, while the facility with which his form adapts itself tu varieties of mood and subject has also its caunterpart in her work. Tu take only wun well-mark'd class for example, I wud cite the meny poems which, like Im wunderschönen Monat Mai, revivifi and etheerialise the popular poetry of the forteenth century, with its everlasting topic of luve and springtime, where the seesons are us'd as landscap for the elemental human passions, preserv'd tu us in such namenlose Lieder as the following:

Ich wil trûren varen lân.
Uf die heide sul wir gân,
Ir wil liebe gespilen mîn:
Dâ seh wir der bluomen schîn.
Ich sage dir, ich sage dir,
Mîn geselle, kum mit mir.

Süeze Minne, rame mîn,
Mache mir ein krenzelîn:
Das sol tragen ein stolzer man,
Der wol wîben dienen kan.
Ich sage dir, ich sage dir,
Mîn geselle, kum mit mir.

In this universal tipe Miss Coleridge is eequally modern, successful and original. The last poem quoted from her is an example, but this is simpler:

When wintry winds are no more heard,
And joy's in every bosom,
When summer sings in every bird,
And shines in every blossom,
When happy twilight hours are long,
Come home, my love, and think no wrong!

When berries gleam above the stream
And half the fields are yellow,
Come back to me, my joyous dream,
The world hath not thy fellow!
And I will make thee Queen among
The Queens of summer and of song.

And this same facility she exhibits in meny varieties of matter; but, not tu press the likenes further, it is just where Heine shows defect that Miss Coleridge is rich. If the sheeld which Heine forg'd tu hide his heart was of finer workmanship than hers, it is not only because of its bewty that we doo not desire tu thrust it aside; and tho' it wud be unjust tu him tu sey that he is not spiritual, yet he is of'n contemptuus and infected with a cynicism—tu use an old wurd in its modern sense—which is antagonistic tu what is spiritual.

It may be difficult tu sey what the artistic requirements of modern poetry are or shud be, but twoo things stand aut, nemely, the Greek atteinment and the Christian ideeal; and art which nauadeys neglects ither of these is imperfect; thatt is, it wil not command aur highest luve, nor satisfi our best intelligence. Heine, I think, for al his incomparable bewty and tendernes, manifestly falls short of the Christian ideeal. Where, for instance, he procleims himself ein Ritter von dem Heiligen Geist, tho' the metaphor correctly givs his meening, and exactly serves his purpos, and is in a sense profaundly true, yet it is plein that in his mauth the expression looses all its glamur and the bewty proper tu the ideea. Compere the half-jocular self-assertion of his devotion tu the good of mankind with the following:

I may not call what many call divine,
And yet my faith is faith in its degree;
I worship at a dim and lonely shrine
On bended knee.

The secret grace of faith's celestial part
I hoard up safely for my own selfs own;
Within the hidden chambers of my heart
I love alone.

This poem, so far as the distinction has meening, exhibits ideeal rather than ideealis'd luve. It mey be call'd a religius poem; but the attitude of the poetess is generally the seme in poems which cud not be call'd religius. Almost eny wun of her lyrics wud illustrate it, but the following sonnet must be preferr'd here for the seke of its matter:

True to myself am I, and false to all.
Fear, sorrow, love, constrain us till we die.
But when the lips betray the spirit's cry,
The will, that should be sovereign, is a thrall.
Therefore let terror slay me, ere I call

For aid of men. Let grief begrudge a sigh.
'Are you afraid?—unhappy?' 'No!' The lie
About the shrinking truth stands like a wall.
'And have you loved?' 'No, never!' All the while
The heart within my flesh is turned to stone.
Yea, none the less that I account it vile,
The heart within my heart makes speechless moan;
And when they see one face, one face alone,
The stern eyes of the soul are moved to smile.

Her wide spiritual autlook is very like Dixon, a poet so absolutely different from Heine that it is wurth while tu compere the following poem bi him with the twoo poems quoted [earlier]. The solitary givs the landscap without the figurs.

The feathers of the willow
Are half of them grown yellow
Above the swelling stream;
And ragged are the bushes
And rusty now the rushes,
And wild the clouded gleam.

The thistle now is older,
His stalk begins to moulder,
His head is white...

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The Spectator (essay date 1910)

SOURCE: A review of Gathered Leaves from the Prose of Mary E. Coleridge, in The Spectator, Vol. 105, No. 4, 279 July 2, 1910, pp. 20-1.

[In the following review, the critic praises the posthumous collection of letters, diary entries, stories, essays, and poems by Coleridge.]

This book [Gathered Leaves from the Prose of Mary E. Coleridge] is something more than an act of pious homage to a rare, gracious, and gifted woman. Mary Coleridge's talents as a writer of exquisite, if unequal, fiction and of verse of true poetic quality have already been acknowledged. Her claims to abiding recognition are now enhanced by extracts from her correspondence,...

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Laurence Binyon (essay date 1925)

SOURCE: "Mary Coleridge," in The English Poets, edited by Thomas Humphry Ward, M.A., The Macmillan Company, 1925, pp. 614-5.

[In the following essay, Binyon praises Coleridge's "lyric art."]

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...

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B. Ifor Evans (essay date 1933)

SOURCE: Chapter X, English Poetry in the Later Nineteenth Century, Methuen & Co. Ltd. 1933, pp. 208-10.

[In the following essay, Evans discusses Coleridge's lyric poetry.]

Mary Elizabeth Coleridge (1861-1907), who had Samuel Taylor Coleridge among her forebears, published in her lifetime but little poetry, and that under the pseudonym of 'Anodos'. In 1896 Robert Bridges persuaded her to issue a private and limited edition of poems, Fancy's Following, and a modified form of this collection appeared in 1897 as Fancy's Guerdon in one of Elkin Mathews's Shilling Garland Series. The main collection of her verses was made in 1907, after...

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Joseph J. Reilly (essay date 1942)

SOURCE: "In Praise of Mary Coleridge," in Of Books and Men, Julian Messner, Inc. 1942, pp. 166-75.

[In the following essay, Reilly provides a brief overview of Coleridge's works and explains prominent themes in her writing.]

A contemporary woman critic is on record as lamenting the paucity of women poets in literary history and asserting that those who have achieved fame are inferior to their brother lyrists even in the writing of cradle songs. My concern is not with the fact alleged or with possible explanations of it, but with the danger of overlooking real poetry because its author was a woman who, being dead, can depend on no clique to press her claims....

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Theresa Whistler (essay date 1954)

SOURCE: An introduction to The Collected Poems of Mary Coleridge, edited with an introduction by Theresa Whistler, Rupert Hart-Davis, 1954, pp. 21-76.

[In the following introduction to The Collected Poems of Mary Coleridge, Whistler discusses Coleridge's family background, her literary influences, and her aesthetic sense.]

Not very many people today have heard of Mary Coleridge. Yet her poems, when they first appeared, were praised with delight by Bridges, Newbolt, Binyon, Edward Thomas, and the young Walter de la Mare, and they have continued to give a special pleasure to their small circle of readers for half a century. This is not fame, but it is, in a modest...

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Further Reading

Newbolt, Henry. "Preface." In Poems, by Mary E. Coleridge, pp. v-xii. London: Elkin Mathews, 1908.

Introduction to Coleridge's verse that mentions some of her exceptional poems.

Review of Gathered Leaves from the Prose of Mary E. Coleridge. In The Dial XLIX, No. 584 (16 October 1910): 289-90.

Acknowledges the "human insight" of Coleridge's writing, but observes that "abruptness and obscurity and lack of construction mar her fiction."

Review of Gathered Leaves from the Prose of Mary E. Coleridge. In The New York Times (27 August 1910): 466.

Comments on Coleridge's "gracious and exquisite spirit"...

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