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...
(The entire section is 4931 words.)