ary Elizabeth Coleridge would seem to fit the archetype of the Victorian spinster who wrote minor poetry to purge herself of her frustrations and unexpressed desires, but anyone who reads her work will immediately reject such a stereotype, as will anyone who discovers a little about her life and personality. The Coleridge name and its imposing literary reputation was something of a cursed chalice for the shy, diffident Mary. 'I have no fairy godmother', she wrote to a friend, 'but lay claim to a fairy great-great uncle, which is perhaps the reason that I am condemned to wander restlessly around the Gates of Fairyland, although I have never yet passed them' (Sichel, Gathered Leaves, 11). The motif of the wanderer, the stranger, the outsider, is a recurring image in Coleridge's poetry and novels. She called herself, 'Anodos', which translates as 'Wanderer' or upon no road. The image of the poetess shut out from Fairyland by a male literary heritage which refuses to include her, is a strong one. However, it can also be regarded as disingenuous, because Mary Coleridge's exile was more often than not, self-imposed.
Poems such as 'The Witch','Wilderspin', 'Master and Guest' (text), and 'Unwelcome' (text) articulate the desire of the exile to be allowed to enter, to cross the threshold. However, when entrance is denied, the speakers in the poems show little distress. When a figure is allowed to cross over, as in 'The Witch' (text; 1897), it disrupts or irrevocably transforms its new surroundings. Likewise, Mary Coleridge the poet has little compunction in invading the poetry of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and effecting radical alterations upon it in order to make it hers. 'The Witch' is a poem within a poem and its borders are contained within 'Christabel' (1816), written almost a century before by Coleridge's great-great uncle. Therefore, this particular rover has already encroached upon the parameters of poetic structure by breaking through the narrative frame of the original work in order to arrive in the construction of the later poem, or by escaping out of the later work and into the first poem.
In 'Wilderspin' (text; 1897), the speaker breaks in and destroys the web which is being endlessly spun by the weaver in the little red house. In dismantling the original work, the speaker indicates that she is trying to escape from the historical and literary influences that twist and tangle her in their strands The speaker is in search of a means of breaking away from the literary web in which she is trapped. If she is Mary Coleridge, and we take the perspective that she is wearying of the burden of her literary heritage, then we can see that rather than invading S.T. Coleridge's poetry as she did in 'The Witch', she is actively trying to make herself and her work distinct from his. If S.T. Coleridge is the weaver, it is his great-great niece who takes on the roles of storyteller, intruder and destroyer.
It is important not to dismiss Mary Coleridge as a mediocre lyric poet. Although her poems are conventional in form, her approach is often radical and unexpected. If she refuses to be cowed by her literary heritage, she also rejects cultural and societal conventions and reinforces the motif of herself and her fictional figures as outsiders. Like Christina Rossetti, (to whose poetry Coleridge's work bears a remarkable resemblance), Coleridge makes use of Christian typology in her work, but then goes on to subvert it and to create an alternative discourse which exposes the contradictions and hypocrisies of conventional Christian belief systems. Coleridge had an instinctive dislike of established Christian doctrines, and although she was not an atheist or even an agnostic, her own rather unconventional beliefs were closer to pantheism (God in everything) than to Anglicanism or Roman Catholicism. There was No Place Found and Delusion are examples of her diverse philosophy.
The influences upon Coleridge were many and varied. Her interest in the uncanny and the supernatural which was lifelong (she once took part in a séance with Alfred, Lord Tennyson) were reinforced by her knowledge of the works of the German Romantics, such as E.T.A. Hoffmann. Browning, Tennyson, George MacDonald and the mystic poet, Richard Watson Dixon either inspired her to write or directly influenced her work. It is strange perhaps, that Coleridge never acknowledges the influence of Christina Rossetti. Their work is similar in many ways, and yet the writers publicly acknowledged by Coleridge are all men. If she claimed any 'fairy godmothers', she did so in silence and in private.
Mary Coleridge deserves to be considered as an original and unconventional poet of the Victorian era. Her writing is often disturbing and challenging as it plays with identity and conventions and is haunted by the uncanny, the spectral and the disconcerting.
Coleridge, Mary. Gathered Leaves from the Prose of Mary E. Coleridge. Ed. Edith Sichel. London: Constable and Company Ltd., 1911.
Last modified 26 March 2006