David M. Baulch
University of West Florida
A book entitled Erotic Mary Robinson or Erotic Byron would not be all that surprising. By contrast, Anya Taylor’s Erotic Coleridge: Women, Love, and the Law Against Divorce is immediately unsettling—and interesting—precisely because tradition has constructed Samuel Taylor Coleridge as one of the least erotic beings imaginable. Canonizing Coleridge alongside “Dry Bob” Southey, Byron’s Don Juan set the terms for reception, contrasting the success of Coleridge’s metaphysical interests with the failure of young Juan’s attempts to sublimate erotic attachments through abstruse contemplations. Slightly less than two centuries of subsequent critical treatment have done little to challenge the orthodoxy of Byron’s irreverence. While Anthony John Harding’s Coleridge and the Idea of Love: Aspects of Relationship in Coleridge’s Thought and Writing (1974) accords a centrality to love in its broadest possible sense as a moral/relational metaphysic, and Raimonda Modiano’s Coleridge and the Concept of Nature (1985) recognizes love as an important element in Coleridge’s complex and shifting engagements with aesthetic theory, Anya Taylor’s remarkable book asserts that Coleridge, throughout his life, was positively sexy and charmingly flirtatious. In short, Erotic Coleridge argues that the vicissitudes of Coleridge’s life, the complexities of his thought, and the protean character of his literary achievement need to be seen alongside his consistent interest in women.
While in its arrangement Erotic Coleridge is a chronological survey of Coleridge’s erotic attachments, it would not be accurate to call the book simply a biography of Coleridge’s love life. Erotic Coleridge makes significant strides in the reassessment of Coleridge’s accomplishment as a poet in the light of J.C.C. Mays’s discovery of numerous unknown Coleridge poems now available in the multipart Poetical Works (six books which collectively constitute volume 16 of The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge). For Erotic Coleridge, the significance of Coleridge’s suddenly expanded twenty-first century canon is that “[t]he large array of poems to and about women crowd out the famous manly poems like ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ and ‘Fears in Solitude,’ and change the focus and reassess the meaning of well-known poems toward womanly themes” (3). So not only does Taylor find the twenty-first century Coleridge turned into a poet who produced more work focused on women than had previously been known to exist, she argues that his most well-known productions must be reassessed in light of these new discoveries.
Chapter 2 presents the pre-1794 Coleridge as an energetically flirtatious writer of verses to and about women. The period immediately before his ill-fated marriage is fertile ground for Erotic Coleridge, which presents some of the first critical readings of poems which have only recently come to light. Coleridge’s poems to Fanny Nesbitt in 1793 are characterized by their witty and frankly physical representations of the female body such as the line: “No lovelier maid e’er heav’d the bosom’s snow.” Coleridge’s engagement to Sara Fricker in 1794 did not monopolize his poetic celebrations of the female body: in that same year Coleridge also produced flirtatious verses for the singers/actresses Ann and Eliza Brunton from Bristol (among others). Most significantly, in late 1794 Coleridge experienced an emerging love with Mary Evans. Taylor argues that the 1798 poem “Lewti; or The Circassian Love-Chant” was initially inspired by his love for Mary Evans four years earlier, an argument which develops into an exploration of the epistolary exchange in which Evans implored Coleridge to give up his preparations for the pantisocracy experiment. Although Coleridge ultimately lost Mary Evans to a West Indian slaver, she became paradigmatic of “the intellectual and ethical agreement … that Coleridge would look for in future relationships” (18).
Moving away from the standard narratives that see Coleridge’s potential for greatness marred by habitual weaknesses for alcohol, opium, and plagiarism, Erotic Coleridge finds a man whose defining moment of weakness was in submitting to Robert Southey’s pressure to marry Sara Fricker. Far from trading one constitutional weakness for another, Erotic Coleridge sees Coleridge’s marriage to Sara Fricker as a compensatory sacrifice engineered by Robert Southey. Southey’s initial interest in Sara suddenly gave way to a quick marriage to Sara’s less spirited sister Edith, while the “obligations and guilt” Southey felt at abandoning Sara were assuaged by his substitution of Coleridge as Sara’s matrimonial partner. Contending that “[b]y persistent pressure Southey made Coleridge feel that he was obligated to Sara Fricker,” Taylor argues that Southey “was passing on his own obligations and guilt to the bewildered and reluctant Coleridge” (22). Insofar as Southey “was the man whom Sara Fricker admired and hoped to marry,” Sara’s subsequent and often justifiable disappointments with Coleridge were only compounded by having Southey in her presence at Greta Hall (31). Through Southey’s bullying, Coleridge’s hasty marriage was “nearly the death of Coleridge’s Soul” (23). For Taylor, Coleridge’s unfortunate marriage and its lifelong consequences constitute the central issue that shaped his poetry and the variety of odd domestic situations that marked his daily life. Not some footnote to a sudden need to find a wife for the quickly abandoned pantisocracy project, Coleridge’s marriage is the defining moment through which Erotic Coleridge effectively reads his subsequent views on women, love, divorce laws, and poetry.