73. Sara Coleridge, “Song”

He came unlook’d for, undesir’d,

A sun-rise in the northern sky:

More than the brightest dawn admir’d,

To shine and then for ever fly.

His love, conferr’d without a claim,

Perchance was like the fitful blaze,

Which lives to light a steadier flame,

And, while that strengthens, fast decays.

Glad fawn along the forest springing,

Gay birds that breeze-like stir the leaves,

Why hither haste, no message bringing

To solace one that deeply grieves?

Thou star that dost the skies adorn

So brightly heralding the day,

Bring one more welcome than the morn,

Or still in night’s dark prison stay.

It’s an old story. Girl meets boy. Boy sweeps her off her feet, then loses interest. Girl gains interest, becomes an invalid. Boy leaves. Spring comes. Girl grieves. Etc. This is either an incredibly depressing poem or else it’s not. Sure, the tropes are depressing enough, but we hardly feel like we’re listening to, say, Tennyson’s Mariana, that archetype of trapped Victorian womanhood, wishing she were dead in the moated grange. (I actually think that there’s a lot to like about Tennyson’s poem, but my curse is that I know Measure for Measure too well so it’s hard to forget that she’s there pining for stupid Angelo. Which is largely beside the point of the poem, and yet–those of us who live by the intertext must also occasionally die by it.)

In fact, there’s something to be said for the way this female speaker assesses her situation–this skepticism about spontaneous love (“conferr’d without a claim”–which did, admittedly, make me think at first of rape or at least fornication), the fairly clear-eyed simile to explain the mechanics by which male indifference leads to female obsessiveness. In fact, it’s rather similar to the way I recently described a failed relationship from last fall: his flaky activated my crazy.

So in some ways, this is very much a Victorian double poem–and one that would probably fruitfully read according to some of the ideas that Warwick Slinn puts forth in Victorian Poetry as Cultural Critique–at least to the extent that it both expresses broken-heartedness and examines the discourses, tropes, and general cultural assumptions through which that broken-heartedness is constructed and experienced. On the other hand–and perhaps I’m overthinking the biographical part of this–there’s something about this sensibility that seems to come from an earlier time, that seems to be more suited to someone who was seeped in, say, the romanticist milieu.

Someone like, perhaps…Sara Coleridge! (Her dates are 1802-1852; Quiller-Couch lops two years off her already short life.) Sara Coleridge as in “the daughter of Samuel Taylor Coleridge Sara Coleridge.” If you take a look at her Wikipedia page (above) you get a pretty good sense of the extent to which she must have been a kind of quintessential child of romanticism, though also, no doubt, very much a mid-Victorian. She’s remembered today less for her poetry then for the editing of her father’s last works, including the Biographia Literaria. A good place to start to learn more about her role in the posthumous construction of S. T. Coleridge is the anthology Nervous Reactions: Victorian Recollections of Romanticism, edited by Joel Faflak and Julia Wright. They take Sara Coleridge as representative of the Victorians’ grappling with the inheritance left by their romantic predecessors–and the section includes a contribution by the Graduate Center’s own Alan Vardy.

To come back to the poem itself. I suppose what I find really appealing about this at the moment is that it calls out a certain kind of Shelleyan (I’m using the term broadly, though possibly to express something different than the equally broad “Byronic”) masculinity that sweeps in with promises of celestial or psychological union and ideal beauty, then pretty much annihilates you (or tries to, or does so by accident) and then moves on, Alastor chasing his ideal love, and so on. (Yes, I’m being reductive, but I have actually thought at length about some of this.) It’s not angry and it’s not a renunciation–she still loves the guy, but that doesn’t make him less of an asshat–and it seems to avoid some of the more obvious tropes of the abandoned women of the Victorian realist novel. You wouldn’t mistake it for Augusta Webster or Amy Levy, but you also wouldn’t (I hope) mistake it for one of Christina Rossetti’s poems. Like many of the poems I’ve been blogging, it doesn’t change the world, but it does flash a light onto something in it–and that’s really all I’m looking for on a Monday night.

On a somewhat more personal note: I finished reading the eighth book in the Anne of Green Gables series last night, which means I’m now scanning my shelves for something else to ease my often difficult passage into dreamland. For about two and a halfy years, I pretty much only read Trollope before bed, though that stopped when I started working on my orals lists. Trollope was not on them, but Dickens, Eliot, Gaskell, and Schreiner were, and my evening reading habits changed accordingly. Somewhat perversely, the first book I read after my orals were over was, in fact, The Prime Minister, but I think that may have been the last Victorian novel I’ve read, period, since then. This makes me feel weird. Unfortunately, it appears that the only novels I own that I haven’t read or at least made a concerted effort to try to read are Barnaby Rudge and Disraeli’s Sybil. This does not seem promising. I suppose I could always give Charlotte Yonge’s The Daisy-Chain another go.

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