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The lost Coleridge

Publication date: Jan 25, 2007 10:23:14 AM

A UCL academic has uncovered poems, which have been held in private hands and archives for the past 150 years, by the daughter of the Lake District poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Found in a Texan archive, the poems by Sara Coleridge are published in a collection for the first time today. They show a woman’s preoccupation with family, children and literary career and end by dealing with her struggle to fight breast cancer.

‘Sara Coleridge – The Collected Poems’, edited by Dr Peter Swaab, of the UCL Department of English Language & Literature, consists largely of previously unpublished works. He said: “After a career editing, translating and making time to fit in her own writing, she died of breast cancer at the age of 49, leaving unfinished and unpublished work. One of the most poignant poems was written after a two-year battle with cancer, just before she died. It convinced me to explore and edit this work.”

The poem, called ‘Doggrel [sic] Charm’, is addressed “To a little lump of malignity”. She writes: “Crack away tumour, I pray thee to crack,/Just now you seem to be on the right track”. Dr Swaab said: “It is a nervous poem, havering between jollity and hysteria; and a poem about courage and piety, exemplifying both. ‘On the right track’ voices her wan hope for recovery but is also a euphemism for death. Recovery and death are both in their different ways ‘the right track’ for a Christian imagining the life to come.”

Sara Coleridge lived in the shadow of her father and has been little known as a poet ever since. Dr Swaab said: “Very few people have seen any of these poems before. I think this is partly because she had inhibitions and qualms about putting herself forward as a poet, being the daughter of Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

“Since her death her work hasn’t been well-represented even in the major collections of Victorian women poets, even though she has a lot to say to female readers today. This may be because she is still seen by many academics as a sacrificial offshoot of the family business, having devoted so much of her time to editing her father’s work. She’s an exceptionally gifted writer and deserves a much wider readership. She needs to be nudged up the list of people we consider to be important in Romantic and Victorian culture.”

Of the 180 poems collected here and found among the Sara Coleridge papers in the Harry Ransom Center in Texas, a massive 120 have never been published before. One, ‘Howithorn’, has been partly reconstructed by Dr Swaab from 78 pages of drafts and fragments. Set in the Lake District, she describes it in a letter as “a wild poem”. Much of the manuscript material was indecipherable, fragmentary and provisional, but enough remained to piece together the story.

Dr Swaab said: ”It’s a magical world of witches and warriors, love and desertion, madness and disguise. It’s quite bold in its treatment of sexual love and very different to what other female poets at the time were doing.”

This book is mainly a collection of poems for adults although some of the darker children’s poems are included. One is a poem to her son Herbert that describes the poppy flower, which he finds so pretty and she finds such a useful ‘liquor’. She writes: “He loves their colours fresh and fine,/As fair as fair may be;/But little does my darling know/How good they are to me.”

Dr Swaab said: “This poem reveals the frequent emotional loneliness of adults that spend their time mainly in the company of children and there’s an undercurrent of exasperation.

“The title of her most famous collection of children’s poems, ‘Pretty Lessons in Verse for Good Children’, was chosen by her husband, and makes them sound meek and moralistic. In fact, there are many poems that have quite unorthodox and adventurous ideas about children, and others that are starkly truthful about her own experience of motherhood.”

Notes for Editors

1. For further information please contact Alex Brew in the UCL Media Relations Office on tel: +44 (0)20 7679 9726, mobile: +44 (0) 7747 565 056, out of hours +44 (0)7917 271 364, e-mail: a.brew@ucl.ac.uk

2. ‘Sara Coleridge – Collected Poems’ Edited with an introduction by Dr Peter Swaab, UCL Department of English Language & Literature, is published today by Carcanet Press

3. Journalists can obtain copies of the book by contacting Stephen Procter at Carcanet Press on Stephen@carcanet.co.uk or 0161 834 8730 ex. 22