In life, the only daughter of Samuel Taylor Coleridge kept her light under a bushel, dying at 49 with her work largely unknown. Now, 150 years on, she is emerging as a considerable poet in her own right.
A British academic has discovered 120 unknown poems by Sara Coleridge at a university in Texas which, he says, rank her as a significant poet.
Though Dr Peter Swaab does not make extravagent claims for the Lake Poet’s daughter – he ranks her as “an important minor poet” – he says that the astonishing discovery casts remarkable light on the struggles of an intellectual woman constrained by Victorian mores.
In the hoard, Dr Swaab has discovered barely-disguised love poems written by Sara to an Irish poet and, most poignantly, a three-verse poem written in 1852 about her fight against breast cancer which was apparently dictated to her daughter from her sick bed. Six weeks later she was dead.
Addressed to “a little lump of malignity”, she says in the poem: “Crack away, tumour, I pray thee to crack/ Just now you seem to be on the right track.”
Sara, born in 1802, was a noted beauty – it is said that on one of her first visits to the London theatre the thunderstruck audience broke into applause – with a clever mind.
She published two collections of poetry in her lifetime, but anonymously. Dr Swaab believes that Sara did not want to trade on her family name.
His discovery, among Sara Coleridge’s papers in the Harry Ransom Centre in Texas, almost doubles her known output. He said yesterday: “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.”
The poems fall into three categories: romantic poems written to her cousin, Henry Nelson Coleridge, a lawyer, during their seven-year engagement; mostly short story poems written to entertain her children; and a group written to the Irish Romantic poet Aubrey de Vere, 12 years her junior, with whom she struck up a close – but probably not intimate – relationship after the death of her husband.
Dr Swaab, who teaches English at University College, London, said: “The most important group is those to de Vere. She says in her papers that they were written under the influence of their friendship. A lot of them are really love poems but she is describing her confusion.
“She writes about her attraction to him but also about her need to deny it. She writes about how she was too old for him, about ageing and about how the season for love has passed.”
Other poems paint a picture of motherhood and family life but melancholy seeps through many of them, as well it might.
Sara had a difficult life. She was born in the Lake District but her parents’ marriage was not a success and her father, who had already developed a taste for opium to which he later became addicted, left home before Sara was three. She was brought up with the help of two other Romantic poets, William Wordsworth and Robert Southey.
Her husband’s parents disapproved of her marriage, three of their five children died soon after birth, she suffered severe depression in the 1830s and her husband died young in 1843. She often turned to her deep Christian faith to pull her through.
The new poems were published by Carcanet Press yesterday, under the title Sara Coleridge – Collected Poems. Dr Swaab found them in a bound volume which Sara called The Red Book. He suspects that Sara wanted her children to read them after her death.
Dr Swaab said: “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.”