Sara Coleridge


Illustration of Sara Coleridge, from A Poet’s Children, Hartley and Sara Coleridge

by Virginia Woolf

Coleridge also left children of his body. One, his daughter, Sara, was a continuation of him, not of his flesh indeed, for she was minute, aetherial, but of his mind, his temperament. The whole of her forty-eight years were lived in the light of his sunset, so that, like other children of great men, she is a chequered dappled figure flitting between a vanished radiance and the light of every day. And, like so many of her father’s works, Sara Coleridge remains unfinished. Mr. Griggs [1] has written her life, exhaustively, sympathetically; but still . . . dots intervene. That extremely interesting fragment, her autobiography, ends with three rows of dots after twenty-six pages. She intended, she says, to end every section with a moral, or a reflection. And then “on reviewing my earlier childhood I find the predominant reflection. . . . ” There she stops. But she said many things in those twenty-six pages, and Mr. Griggs has added others that tempt us to fill in the dots, though not with the facts that she might have given us.

“Send me the very feel of her sweet Flesh, the very look and motion of that mouth — O, I could drive myself mad about her,” Coleridge wrote when she was a baby. She was a lovely child, delicate, large-eyed, musing but active, very still but always in motion, like one of her father’s poems. She remembered how he took her as a child to stay with the Wordsworths at Allan Bank.

The rough farmhouse life was distasteful to her, and to her shame they bathed her in a room where men came in and out. Delicately dressed in lace and muslin, for her father liked white for girls, she was a contrast to Dora, with her wild eyes and floating yellow hair and frock of deep Prussian blue or purple — for Wordsworth liked clothes to be coloured. The visit was full of such contrasts and conflicts. Her father cherished her and petted her. “I slept with him and he would tell me fairy stories when he came to bed at twelve or one o’clock. . . . ” Then her mother, Mrs. Coleridge, arrived, and Sara flew to that honest, homely, motherly woman and “wished never to be separated from her.” At that — the memory was still bitter —“my father showed displeasure and accused me of want of affection. I could not understand why. . . . I think my father’s motive,” she reflected later, “must have been a wish to fasten my affections on him. . . . I slunk away and hid myself in the wood behind the house.”

But it was her father who, when she lay awake terrified by a horse with eyes of flame, gave her a candle. He, too, had been afraid of the dark. With his candle beside her, she lost her fear, and lay awake, listening to the sound of the river, to the thud of the forge hammer, and to the cries of stray animals in the fields. The sounds haunted her all her life. No country, no garden, no house ever compared with the Fells and the horse-shoe lawn and the room with three windows looking over the lake to the mountains. She sat there while her father, Wordsworth and De Quincey paced up and down talking. What they said she could not understand, but she “used to note the handkerchief hanging out of the pocket and long to clutch it.” When she was a child the handkerchief vanished and her father with it. After that, “I never lived with him for more than a few weeks at a time,” she wrote. A room at Greta Hall was always kept ready for him but he never came. Then the brothers, Hartley and Derwent, vanished, too; and Mrs. Coleridge and Sara stayed on with Uncle Southey, feeling their dependence and resenting it. “A house of bondage Greta Hall was to her,” Hartley wrote. Yet there was Uncle Southey’s library; and thanks to that admirable, erudite and indefatigable man, Sara became mistress of six languages, translated Dobritzhoffer from the Latin, to help pay for Hartley’s education, and qualified herself, should the worst come, to earn her living. “Should it be necessary,” Wordsworth wrote, “she will be well fitted to become a governess in a nobleman’s or gentleman’s family. . . . She is remarkably clever.”

But it was her beauty that took her father by surprise when at last at the age of twenty she visited him at Highgate. She was learned he knew, and he was proud of it; but he was unprepared, Mr. Griggs says, “for the dazzling vision of loveliness which stepped across the threshold one cold December day.” People rose in a public hall when she came in. “I have seen Miss Coleridge,” Lamb wrote, “and I wish I had just such a — daughter.” Did Coleridge wish to keep such a daughter? Was a father’s jealousy roused in that will-less man of inordinate susceptibility when Sara met her cousin Henry up at Highgate and almost instantly, but secretly, gave him her coral necklace in exchange for a ring with his hair? What right had a father who could not offer his daughter even a room to be told of the engagement or to object to it? He could only quiver with innumerable conflicting sensations at the thought that his nephew, whose book on the West Indies had impressed him unfavourably, was taking from him the daughter who, like Christabel, was his masterpiece, but, like Christabel, was unfinished. All he could do was to cast his magic spell. He talked. For the first time since she was a woman, Sara heard him talk. She could not remember a word of it afterwards. And she was penitent. It was partly that my father generally discoursed on such a very extensive scale. . . . Henry could sometimes bring him down to narrower topics, but when alone with me he was almost always on the star-paved road, taking in the whole heavens in his circuit.

She was a heaven-haunter, too; but at the moment “I was anxious about my brothers and their prospects — about Henry’s health, and upon the subject of my engagement generally.” Her father ignored such things. Sara’s mind wandered.

The young couple, however, made ample amends for that momentary inattention. They listened to his voice for the rest of their lives. At the christening of their first child Coleridge talked for six hours without stopping. Hard-worked as Henry was, and delicate, sociable and pleasure-loving, the spell of Uncle Sam was on him, and so long as he lived he helped his wife. He annotated, he edited, he set down what he could remember of the wonderful voice. But the main labour fell on Sara. She made herself, she said, the housekeeper in that littered palace. She followed his reading; verified his quotations; defended his character; traced notes on innumerable margins; ransacked bundles; pieced beginnings together and supplied them not with ends but with continuations. A whole day’s work would result in one erasure. Cab fares to newspaper offices mounted; eyes, for she could not afford a secretary, felt the strain; but so long as a page remained obscure, a date doubtful, a reference unverified, an aspersion not disproved, “poor, dear, indefatigable Sara,” as Mrs. Wordsworth called her, worked on. And much of her work was done lastingly; editors still stand on the foundations she truly laid.

Much of it was not self-sacrifice, but self-realization. She found her father, in those blurred pages, as she had not found him in the flesh; and she found that he was herself. She did not copy him, she insisted; she was him. Often she continued his thoughts as if they had been her own. Did she not even shuffle a little in her walk, as he did, from side to side? Yet though she spent half her time in reflecting that vanished radiance, the other half was spent in the light of common day — at Chester Place, Regents Park. Children were born and children died. Her health broke down; she had her father’s legacy of harassed nerves; and, like her farther, had need of opium. Pathetically she wished that she could be given “three years’ respite from child bearing.” But she wished in vain. Then Henry, whose gaiety had so often dragged her from the dark abyss, died young; leaving his notes unfinished, and two children also, and very little money, and many apartments in Uncle Sam’s great house still unswept.

She worked on. In her desolation it was her solace, her opium perhaps. “Things of the mind and intellect give me intense pleasure; they delight and amuse me as they are in themselves . . . and sometimes I think, the result has been too large, the harvest too abundant, in inward satisfaction. This is dangerous. . . . ” Thoughts proliferated. Like her father she had a Surinam toad in her head, breeding other toads. But his were jewelled; hers were plain. She was diffuse, unable to conclude, and without the magic that does instead of a conclusion. She would have liked, had she been able to make an end, to have written — on metaphysics, on theology, some book of criticism. Or again, politics interested her intensely, and Turner’s pictures. But “whatever subject I commence, I feel discomfort unless I could pursue it in every direction to the farthest bounds of thought. . . . This was the reason why my father wrote by snatches. He could not bear to complete incompletely.” So, book in hand, pen suspended, large eyes filled with a dreamy haze, she mused —“picking flowers, and finding nests, and exploring some particular nook, as I used to be when a child walking with my Uncle Southey. . . . ”

Then her children interrupted. With her son, the brilliant Herbert, she read, straight through the classics. Were there not, Mr. Justice Coleridge objected, passages in Aristophanes that they had better skip? Perhaps. . . . Still, Herbert took all the prizes, won all the scholarships, almost drove her to distraction with his horn-playing and, like his father, loved parties. Sara went to balls, and watched him dance waltz after waltz. She had the old lovely clothes that Henry had given her altered for her daughter, Edith. She found herself eating supper twice, she was so bored. She preferred dinner parties where she held her own with Macaulay, who was so like her father in the face, and with Carlyle —“A precious Arch-charlatan,” she called him. The young poets, like Aubrey de Vere, sought her out. She was one of those, he said, “whose thoughts are growing while they speak.” After he had gone, her thoughts followed him, in long, long letters, rambling over baptism, regenerations, metaphysics, theology, and poetry, past, present and to come. As a critic she never, like her father, grazed paths of light; she was a fertilizer, not a creator, a burrowing, tunnelling reader, throwing up molehills as she read her way through Dante, Virgil, Aristophanes, Crashaw, Jane Austen, Crabbe, to emerge suddenly, unafraid, in the very face of Keats and Shelley. “Fain would mine eyes,” she wrote, “discern the Future in the past.”

Past, present, future dappled her with a strange light. She was mixed in herself, still divided, as in the wood behind the house, between two loyalties, to the father who told her fairy stories in bed; and to the mother — Frettikins she called her — to whom she clung in the flesh. “Dear mother,” she exclaimed, “what an honest, simple, lively minded affectionate woman she was, how free from disguise or artifice. . . . ” Why, even her wig — she had cut her hair off as a girl —” was as dry and rough and dull as a piece of stubble, and as short and stumpy.” The wig and the brow — she understood them both. Could she have skipped the moral she could have told us much about that strange marriage. She meant to write her life. But she was interrupted. There was a lump on her breast. Mr. Gilman, consulted, detected cancer. She did not want to die. She had not finished editing her father’s works, she had not written her own, for she did not like to complete incompletely. But she died at forty-eight, leaving, like her father, a blank page covered with dots, and two lines:

Father, no amaranths e’er shall wreathe my brow —
Enough that round thy grave they flourish now.