Thursday, March 2, 2017

For Mary Coleridge

As long-time (and much-appreciated!) readers of this blog may recall, one of my oft-repeated precepts regarding poetry is this:  It is the individual poem that matters, not the poet.  Of course, I make no claim of originality for this thought.  Thus, for instance, I happened upon the following observation by Rosanjin (a Japanese potter and artist) this past week:

"The sort of person who, when shown a painting, steps up to examine the artist's seal understands nothing about paintings.  The same may be said of the sort who immediately asks who painted it."

Rosanjin (1883-1959) (translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter), in Sidney Cardozo and Masaaki Hirano, The Art of Rosanjin (Kodansha 1987), page 120.

So it is with poems and poets.  Whether a poet is a "major" or a "minor" poet in the estimation of readers or critics is of no moment to me.  Likewise, I have no interest in debating which poets are "good," "better," or "best."  Do I have favorite poets?  Of course.  But I never think of them as being in competition with one another.  Again, it is the individual poem that matters.

I came to know Mary Coleridge by discovering the following poem in an anthology two or three decades ago (I don't recall the exact year).

               L'Oiseau Bleu

The lake lay blue below the hill.
     O'er it, as I looked, there flew
Across the waters, cold and still,
     A bird whose wings were palest blue.

The sky above was blue at last,
     The sky beneath me blue in blue.
A moment, ere the bird had passed,
     It caught his image as he flew.

Mary Coleridge, in Theresa Whistler (editor), The Collected Poems of Mary Coleridge (Rupert Hart-Davis 1954).

Mary Coleridge was the great-grandniece of Samuel Taylor Coleridge.  She was born in 1861, and she died in 1907 at the age of 45.  Hence, one might be tempted to describe her as a "Victorian poet."  But that would be a mistake.  The use of terms such as "Victorian," "Romantic," or "Modernist" is over-simplistic, and often provides an excuse for not reading and appreciating individual poems.  I think that "L'Oiseau Bleu" is a lovely poem that happens to have been written in the Victorian era.  To me it seems timeless.

William Holman Hunt (1827-1910)
"The Festival of St Swithin (The Dovecot)" (1866)

Now, having just pontificated upon the need to focus upon poems rather than poets, I am going to contradict myself (perhaps).  To wit:  I find it very comforting to spend time in the company of Mary Coleridge.  She is thoughtful, sensitive, sensible, and self-effacing.  These are qualities that I admire in any poet -- and in any person.

A comment made by Kingsley Amis about Edward Thomas (which has appeared here on more than one occasion) comes to mind:

"How a poet convinces you he will not tell you anything he does not think or feel, since you have only his word for it, is hard to discover, but Edward Thomas is one of those who do it."

Kingsley Amis, The Amis Anthology (Hutchinson 1988), page 339.  For me, Mary Coleridge does this as well.

We never said farewell, nor even looked
     Our last upon each other, for no sign
Was made when we the linkèd chain unhooked
          And broke the level line.

And here we dwell together, side by side,
     Our places fixed for life upon the chart.
Two islands that the roaring seas divide
          Are not more far apart.

Mary Coleridge, The Collected Poems of Mary Coleridge.  The poem is untitled.

William Holman Hunt, "The Haunted Manor" (1849)

A thread of unrequited, disappointed, and lost love runs through Coleridge's poetry.  It is a hint, not a preoccupation.  There is no woe-is-me melancholy or complaint.  She was clear-eyed about life.

"It comes to me that what we seem to need we are not given.  Joy cannot be born of necessity.  There is need of patience and need of peace, but no cry of need will bring joy."

Mary Coleridge, in Edith Sichel (editor), Gathered Leaves from the Prose of Mary E. Coleridge (Constable 1910), pages 277-278.

Death and transience were often on her mind, but, again, not in a melancholy way.  She had an enviable perspective on things:  "Birthdays now seem to me to be like the lamp-posts along a road when you are nearing the end of a long, dark, delicious drive."  Mary Coleridge, in The Collected Poems of Mary Coleridge, page 73.  Or, consider this:

"Art is an odd thing, isn't it?  It's almost the only thing that seems to me to remain unchanged throughout one's life, and it does away with all possibility of hell, and all necessity of heaven.  You forget the dead too, and yet you know it is no treason to forget them there.  And you forget yourself."

Mary Coleridge, Gathered Leaves from the Prose of Mary E. Coleridge, pages 267-268.

Yet she was ever mindful of a larger context as well:

"More and more as life goes on I feel as if one of the big temptations of it were to rest content with negative ease and freedom from worry, and to forget that that's only the body of happiness and not the soul.  Looking into the fluffy white heart of an oleander, the other day, a kind of rapture at its uselessness came over me, at the divine heedlessness of anything but glory and beauty at the making of it."

Mary Coleridge, Ibid, page 276.


Is this wide world not large enough to fill thee,
     Nor Nature, nor that deep man's Nature, Art?
Are they too thin, too weak and poor to still thee,
                         Thou little heart?

Dust art thou, and to dust again returnest,
     A spark of fire within a beating clod.
Should that be infinite for which thou burnest?
                         Must it be God?

Mary Coleridge, The Collected Poems of Mary Coleridge.

William Holman Hunt, "Our English Coasts, 1852" (1852)

Each poem that we read has unknown possibilities within it.  We never know where it will lead us.  It may very well change our life.  I will be forever grateful for having long ago encountered "L'Oiseau Bleu."  Without it, I might never have known of Mary Coleridge, and my life would be much diminished.

"When we were out this afternoon, we saw the larks descending to the ground, almost without a flutter of their wings, as if they flew upon their singing.  Some people's lives are like that; they progress by harmony rather than movement."

Mary Coleridge, Gathered Leaves from the Prose of Mary E. Coleridge, page 229.

She is buried in Grove Road Cemetery in Harrogate, North Yorkshire.  She and her family were on holiday in Harrogate when she died of complications from surgery for acute appendicitis.  The epitaph on her gravestone reads: "Perfect Love."

Some in a child would live, some in a book;
     When I am dead let there remain of me
Less than a word -- a little passing look,
Some sign the soul had once, ere she forsook
     The form of life to live eternally.

Mary Coleridge, The Collected Poems of Mary Coleridge.  The poem is untitled.

John Everett Millais (1829-1896), "The Vale of Rest" (1858)


Wurmbrand said...

Mr. Pentz, a tangential comment: poet-musician Malcolm Guite's book Mariner has just been published. I'm over a hundred pages into it now. It reads Samuel Taylor Coleridge's life and major poems together. So far it seems to me very good.

Stephen Pentz said...

Wurmbrand: Thank you very much for the recommendation: I was not aware of either Mr. Guite or his book. I've now done some quick internet research: Mr. Guite is a very interesting person, and the book sounds fascinating. I am reminded of Lowes's The Road to Xanadu, which I'm sure you know well. It appears that Guite's book is a similar no-stone-unturned exploration, from a religious perspective. I see that the book is available at Amazon UK (which also contains excerpts from a number of laudatory outside reviews). I suspect I'll be adding it to my Shopping Cart.

Thanks again for giving me a head's-up on this.

Esther said...

Today's post was absolutely beautiful.

Stephen Pentz said...

Esther: Thank you so much. I greatly appreciate your kind words. Of course, all of the credit goes to Mary Coleridge: I am merely the messenger.

As always, thank you for visiting. It is good to hear from you again.

Denise said...

Thank you for the wonderful poetry of Mary Coleridge, quite new to me, and for the beautiful pre Raphaelite paintings. So much appreciated.

Stephen Pentz said...

Denise: You're welcome. I'm pleased to have introduced you to Coleridge's poetry. She deserves more attention, I think.

Thank you very much for visiting, and for your kind words.