The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.

VI. Lesser Poets of the Middle and Later Nineteenth Century

§ 31. Mary E. Coleridge

But the most remarkable poetess, after Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Christina Rossetti, of the later and latest nineteenth century, was one of whose poetical capacity few people, except personal friends, had any opportunity of judging till the century itself was nearly closed; while her death, not long after its actual close, was the first occasion of extensive eulogy and collected publication of her poems. Then, the name of Mary E. Coleridge became widely divulged, and her poems (printed in a fairly full collection, besides some remarkable prose essays) were, for a time, quite eagerly bought. The eulogists, in some cases, were of the highest competence, but not quite always so; and the chorus of compliment, in some cases, had its frequent, if not constant, effect of arousing something like the feeling of the historical or legendary Athenian in regard to Aristides. But it is recorded that one critic, who, by accident, had known nothing of her work and was somewhat inclined to revolt against this chorus, having gone to a public library and obtained her poems, opened them at a venture in three places, and read the poems on which he chanced. He then shut the book, returned it to the librarian and immediately ordered a copy from his bookseller, in obedience to the law which ordains that true poetry shall never (cases of necessity being excluded) be read except in a book belonging to the reader. Nor did the complete reading contradict—on the contrary, it confirmed and intensified—the impression derived from these sortes Coleridgianae. It is not, of course, to be expected that everyone will—and it would be unreasonable to insist that everyone should—agree with the estimate implied in this anecdote. There are, in particular, two objections to Mary Coleridge’s verse which cannot be merely dismissed—as we have dismissed others in these historic reviews of poetry—with a simple “disabling of judgment.” One such objection might be derived from the almost unbroken gloom of the general atmosphere; the other, from the frequent use (and, as some may call it, abuse) of the parabolic method—employed with such complication that an imaginative interpreter, whose “cocksureness” is not equal to his imagination, may wisely decline to be certain of the special moralitas to be adopted. An objection of the first class is sometimes met by the retort sarcastic, “Oh! you want the universe to be universally regarded through a horse-collar,” but this is obviously idle. The house of mourning deserves its bards at least as well as the house of mirth, and is likely to get poetry of a higher class out of them. There are poems and poem-books of all kinds, from In Memoriam to A Little Child’s Monument, which, even in recent times, justify a statement hardly needing any justification. But, when a collection of poems, written on no common subject, and at periods apparently extending over more than five and twenty years, is something like a cypress-grove, a certain morbidity of temperament may be not unfairly suggested. And, on the other hand, the person who is quite sure of the exact intention of such a poem as Unwelcome—

  • We were young, we were merry, we were very very wise,
  • with all its welcome strangeness, and its quaint urbanity of rhythm, may, perhaps, rather be commiserated on his certainty than complimented on his acuteness. Let the reader, however, prepare himself for a garden of Proserpine rather than of Adonis, for a region if not exactly of “mystery” at any rate of “enigma”—the words come from Mary Coleridge’s most distinguished eulogist—and he will, if he have any taste for poetry, find no further difficulty and a great deal of delight. When she did not publish quite anonymously, she seems to have generally adopted, from George Macdonald, the signature” Avoδoζ—which, evidently, means, in the two writers, not so much (as it has been inadequately translated) “wanderer” as “wayless one”—a person who is not only not travelling by a definite road to a definite goal, but who hardly sees any road before him at all. In fact, the influence of that most unequal genius who produced Phantastes and The Portent and Lilith was evidently much stronger on Mary Coleridge than the mere adoption of the pseudonym would show—though her shorter life, her greater poetical and critical gift and the absence of any temptation to produce hack-work all told in her favour.

    She is said to have refrained from publishing her poems herself and to have objected to others publishing them, at least in her lifetime, out of ancestral reverence—for fear of dishonouring the shade of S.T.C. As a matter of fact, there is more of the “Estesian” character in her than there is in Hartley or in Sara, while her pure originality is, perhaps, also greater than that of either of these kinsfolk. She was only unlucky in her time. It has been observed more than once—Matthew Arnold himself, though he sometimes exemplifies the feature poetically censured, might be cited in critical support of the censure—that mere discouragement, mere quest, as it were, of a stool to be melancholy upon, and remonstrances, from that cathedra when it has been found, with the arrangements of the universe—though by no means an unpoetic mood, is apt to become monotonous in its expression. Since Byron and Shelley, in their lower and higher ways respectively, until the present day, we have had a very great deal of it. But the unavoidable monotony of the key can be overcome by the variety and idiosyncrasy of note, and this is most eminently true of Mary Coleridge. Others may have lent her fiddles to play, melancholy or mysticism; but, in Latimer’s famous phrase, her rosin is her own—borrowed from, and, as yet, borrowed by, none. To specify pieces from the nearly 240 poems found in her collected poems is at once very difficult and rather idle, for, as has been said above, the merest chance-medley will serve in the case of readers likely to care for her, and there is hardly a poem in the book which will not displease or weary others. For those who must have specimens, The Other Side of a Mirror, A Difference, He came unto His Own and His Own received Him not, The Witch (a worthy progeny of Christabel), A Day-dream and On the Arrival of a Visitor may serve. And it may, perhaps, be added that it will be found useful to read her in close connection with canon Dixon (see post), whose work may not impossibly have influenced hers. The connection, at any rate, struck the present writer independently; and it adds a somewhat interesting touch to the mental map of the poetry of our time.