When Peter Swaab’s edition of Sara Coleridge: Collected Poems appeared in 2007, the media leapt upon it with gusto.
“POEMS BY DAUGHTER OF LAKES BARD DISCOVERED IN AMERICA,” ran the headline of the North-West Evening Mail: “The poems, by Sara Coleridge, had lain undiscovered for 150 years and have now been published in a collection for the first time.” “Dr Peter Swaab,” reported the Bridgwater Mercury, “stumbled across an anonymous poem by chance when he was researching for a book on William Wordsworth at the University of Texas.” The national broadsheets were similarly impressed. “A British academic has discovered 120 unknown poems by Sara Coleridge” said The Telegraph; “Now,” said The Guardian, “with the publication of 185 of her poems, two-thirds of which have only recently been discovered, the daughter of Samuel Taylor Coleridge has been revealed as a talented and versatile poet in her own right.”
Conjuring up, as it does, romantic images of inky scrawls, yellowing papers and dust, this story of archival discovery was sure to entertain readers. What none of the reporters from any of these papers knew, however, was that the very same manuscripts they were declaring to be new finds had, over the last century, been read by generations of Coleridge scholars.
My interest in Sara Coleridge began by chance almost fifteen years ago when, as a teenager, I happened to come across her in Virginia Woolf’s Death of a Moth. That interest continued, undiminished, into my undergraduate days; by 1997, pre-Google search engines were bringing up a document entitled “Manuscript Holdings of Selected Nineteenth-Century Women Writers,” compiled in 1992 by Wendy Bowerstock and Jennifer B. Patterson for the Harry Ransom Humanities Resource Center at the University of Texas in Austin. The document, still one of the first entries that modern-day Google comes up with when running a search for “Sara Coleridge”, mentions the notebooks of poems that make up the bulk of the present edition. The existence of these notebooks very much intrigued me, and I was eager to see them for myself. The Center’s website soon provided me with address details of Mrs. Joan Coleridge who was then head of the Coleridge Estate. In 1998, I wrote to Mrs. Coleridge, asking for her permission to have the notebooks and several other documents photocopied and sent to me – this she duly gave.
Over the next few years as I went on to research Sara Coleridge’s life and work for my book on The Literary Protégées of the Lake Poets (2006), I was pleased to have enjoyed a warm correspondence as well as several telephone conversations with Mrs Coleridge. Invariably, our conversations often tended towards the Coleridge papers and, on one occasion, she talked about how the collection had once resided in her family home and how scholars in the past had visited the collection there, where they were often provided with food and accommodation. Curious, I asked which scholars had been there and the answer was a veritable who’s who of literary scholars, from Earl Leslie Griggs (“a dreadfully slow eater, dreadfully slow”) and Ernest de Selincourt (“talked for hours; wouldn’t go to bed”), to other, more contemporary scholars who’d been less than polite and were, therefore, “not to be mentioned.”
At some point during the 1970s, creative accountancy at the Harry Ransom Humanities Resource Center enabled the purchasing of literary manuscripts to be mapped onto the University of Texas’s considerably larger capital acquisitions budget (primarily earmarked for large-scale building projects). The Center’s already substantial holdings were transformed into one of America’s finest manuscript collections, and the Coleridge archive soon became incorporated into that collection. Since then, it’s continued to have its fair share of readers, including Bradford Keyes Mudge for his book Sara Coleridge: a Victorian Daughter (1989); Cherry Durrant for her unpublished but, for a time, much publicized PhD on The Lives and Works of Hartley, Derwent and Sara Coleridge (1994); and Kathleen Jones for her group biography, A Passionate Sisterhood: The Sisters, Wives and Daughters of the Lake Poets (1997).
All of this begs the question: if the poems aren’t, as the Bridgwater Mercury originally reported, newly unearthed discoveries after all, but rather, carefully catalogued items in one of America’s largest and best maintained collections of literary manuscripts, details of which have been freely available and highly visible on the internet for more than a decade, why haven’t they attracted more attention?