Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Coleridge and the Female Muse

I’ve recently finished reading Richard Holme’s splendid two volume biography of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and topped it off with Adam Sisman’s equally splendid Wordsworth and Coleridge: A Friendship.

Coleridge’s was not a happy life, what with the failure of his marriage and the opium addiction that caused him such terrible physical and mental suffering. Much as I admire what I know of his work, I’m left with a mix of sympathy and irritation for the man. There’s no doubt that the problems within his marriage caused him much suffering, but I can’t help thinking that this was in large part because his wife Sara did not nurture his creativity. She does not seem to have been his intellectual or creative equal – Dorothy Wordsworth (not an objective witness) called her “the lightest weakest silliest woman” who lacked “sensibility”. Clearly a most unsuitable wife for a poet. She was not his muse, and she was too busy looking after his children, cooking, cleaning, and washing to act as his amanuensis.

So it was that while her husband was swanning around London, the Lakes and Germany, swooning over Sara Hutchinson, and making unfavourable comparisons of her intellect with Dorothy Wordsworth's, she was left to cope on her own. She frequently had to borrow money when he was away, especially as he often delayed his return beyond the expected date. Nor were her troubles merely financial: while Coleridge was in Germany their son died and she was forced to get through the burden of her grief unsupported. And when he was at home he spent days in a stupor of opium and drink, lay in bed until noon, and threw the house into confusion with demands for meals at odd and inconvenient times. Meanwhile the debts piled up.

By contrast, Coleridge’s friend William Wordsworth had all the support an artist could need with his coterie of female admirers. In Dorothy his sister, Mary his wife, and Sara Hutchinson his sister-in-law he had a circle devoted to his care and comfort. Coleridge noted that he lived “wholly among Devotees – having every the minutest Thing, almost his very Eating & Drinking, done for him by his Sister, or Wife”. But what they offered went beyond mere domestic comfort: it was the continual affirmation of the greatness of his talent and the importance of his life’s work. That work may have been hard at times, but it would have been a great deal harder if there had been no one but himself to believe in it.

It’s not an appealing model of creativity, the male artist supported by female labour, both practical and emotional. The old trap of woman as muse, as artist’s model, as servant and secretary, promoter and defender of the male endeavour has blighted too much female creativity to win much sympathy from me. I’m sure that Coleridge would have been happier and more productive if his home had been run entirely to suit his own chaotic habits (wouldn’t we all?); if his wife hadn’t expected him to bring in some money; if she’d written furious letters to anyone who dared criticise his work, as Dorothy did for William. But it is also true that it is hard sometimes for artists to find the strength within themselves to carry on, and the saddest aspects of Coleridge’s situation are the sense of his isolation and the corresponding loss of creative confidence. He and his wife Sara were victims of the very same distorting gender expectations that were so beneficial to Wordsworth. I think some of the saddest lines ever written are these of Coleridge’s:

“I have altogether abandoned it [poetry] being convinced that I never had the essentials of poetic Genius, & that I mistook a strong desire for original power.”

Whatever brought him to such a pass, it was a tragic defeat.