Anya Taylor’s lively and erudite Bacchus in Romantic England: Writers and Drink, 1780-1830 (1999) made us rethink drunkenness in the Romantic period; her new book about Coleridge recharges the study of this poet with equal vigour by moving away from an emphasis on the poet’s paralyzing laudanum addiction, debilitating depression, and his sublimation of vaguely unrequited love into abstruse musings. Instead the focus is on “the man of joy, whose energy radiates outward to all his activities, the precocious and passionate lover, the devoted observer of women” (1); in other words the man of flesh and blood who was “’very fond of earth,’ very fond of dinner, sex, and drink” (7). The affirmative emphasis on Coleridge as an individual explains that less attention is paid to the intricacies of Coleridge’s eroticized relationship with the extended Wordsworth household as a whole. My only regret is the simplification of two key players, Robert Southey and Sara Fricker: I believe that the argument of the physical, earth-bound Coleridge would have been stronger if he had been portrayed less like a sacrificial victim in his interactions with these two characters who are reduced to two caricatures in an otherwise so humane book.
While each of the ten chapters of the book can easily be read separately for Taylor’s astute insights on Coleridge’s diverse, exuberant expressions about his responses to female bodies and voices, delicate issues of reputation, women’s education, property ownership, and marriage and its legislation, the book does follow a roughly biographical trajectory which, after an initial section on first loves, mainly centers on the crucial mistake in Coleridge’s life, his hasty dutiful marriage to Sara Fricker and his passionate, reciprocated love for Sara Hutchinson in a country where divorce was illegal. Chapters 9 and 10 also explore Coleridge’s involvements, in the wake of the 1810 loss of “the infinitely beloved darling” Sara Hutchinson, with a wider community of women, including Mary Morgan and her sister Charlotte Brent, and then from 1816 onwards, Anne Gillman and her circle. The movement which Taylor traces with great acumen and sensitivity extends from the passionate, more youthful, centre of Coleridge’s experience into the more rational realm of advice in later life, “from relishing the particularity of young women, to swooning at women’s voices sung and spoken, to sympathizing with women’s unique ordeals, to reverencing them as individuals, to forecasting a better civilization that would provide them with spheres for free agency” (185).
The main strength of this engaging, readable book is the gusto which Taylor herself brings to her reading of Coleridge and which she extends into her perception of the whole period. For those of us who might still associate the Romantics with a certain spiritual puritanism, all plain living and hard thinking, she redresses the physicality of the period and its fashions by reminding us of the “eye-catching décolletages at the Bath Fashion Museum” (43) when writing about the young Coleridge’s involvement in fashionable life, full of exposed flesh and flimsy dresses, during the 1797-1802 Morning Post years. Her joyful approval of Coleridge’s appreciation of physicality (“Women are bright eyefuls and warm armfuls. He notices their heft, dress or undress, and foibles”) is matched by her cogent understanding of not only the poetry but also the notebooks and letters (12). Coleridge, considering his own lifelong obsession with the importance of a unified One Life, could not have asked for a better reader for this main reason that Taylor, whose own writing enhances the physicality of Coleridge’s texts, never loses sight of Coleridge’s reverence for the whole individuality of the other person. As in her previous work, Taylor’s readings are refreshingly independent from narrowly defined critical approaches. Her keen eye and ear for the sensual vividness of Coleridge’s poetry and prose extends into a sympathetic and often humorous awareness of the larger issues of human sexuality, social expectations and increasingly repressive legislation.
Taylor’s book owes much to Jim Mays’s edition of the Poetical Works which has made so many more early and minor poems available. In addition to convincing readings of major poems such as “Christabel” as a companion piece to “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (Chapter 5), “Love” and “A Letter to —” (Chapter 6), Taylor also draws in a wealth of early and minor poems, such as “The Keepsake,” to substantiate her readings of the passionate Coleridge. In the case of the early verse in particular these poems are often conventionally sentimental and, within the larger context of the cult of sensibility, a socially acceptable form of flirting. The energy of this book impels the author occasionally into overstatement and at times I felt that a few teasing, but all the same slight lines of verse were propelled a bit too precipitously into affirmative statements about Coleridge’s whole being (Chapter 2). Still, as Taylor comments about one such poem, references to Mary Evans’s “bedtime habits, her ‘ease and energy,’ her beautiful little leg’ keep alive for us two hundred years later the physicality of his noticing with amusement and tenderness her short body, her activities, and her vivacious physical responses to him” (12). In addition to writing masterpieces of psychological probing and philosophical insights, Coleridge in this way also reveals himself not unlike many of his versifying contemporaries.
There is no doubt that plenty can be said against Sara and Southey but the reduction of Coleridge, under their influence, to a much acted upon, bullied man does not sit well with the outgoing, vivacious character which Taylor otherwise so skilfully portrays. Southey’s role in the match with Sara is told as if Coleridge had no part in it whatsoever. Right from the start we are seduced into siding against Southey: “Who does not feel the encroachment of Robert Southey’s small, hard, prudential will as it bore down on Coleridge, forcing him to take his own leavings and breaking his spirit” (21). Every interaction between Sara Fricker and Coleridge demonizes Sara and martyrs Coleridge, which is unfortunate considering how sensitive and generous Taylor is elsewhere about the vulnerability and bewilderment of young women, deserving or not. Poems which involve Sara (such as “Eolian Harp”) are read entirely in terms of her disapproving frown. Her letters are reduced to gossiping, bragging, jeering, and complaining (27); her imaginary language, shared with Southey, is “estranging” and puts Coleridge “outside the perimeter of their distorted discourse” (37). But in addition to narrow minded materialism and insecurity which is easy to scorn, I also see a mystified woman who is desperately trying to figure out what her bohemian husband is getting up to. Her remark about the Lyrical Ballads (“not liked at all by any”) is surely more a sign of bafflement than pernicious “glee” (27), and her account of the visit to the Gillmans in the wake of Coleridge’s death is not necessarily sarcastic (28) but the plain account of a woman who pays her respects to the carers of a husband who has long ceased to be one.
Undeniably we are different people when we love and are loved; Taylor’s account of the transformative power of this “sudden miracle of intimate affinity” (78) which Coleridge and Sara Hutchinson experienced is compelling and entirely believable despite the absence of incontrovertible evidence about sex. Taylor provides a wealth of circumstantial evidence of shared passion in her fervent readings of “Love,” “The Keepsake” and “A Letter to —.” All future readings of these poems and many others will be enhanced by Taylor’s book, which I warmly recommend.