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The Bondage of Love: A LIFE OF MRS. SAMUEL TAYLOR COLERIDGE by Molly Lefebure (Norton: $17.95; 287 pp., illustrated)

May 03, 1987|Paul D. Sheats | Sheats teaches English literature at UCLA

Few marriages can have inspired as much literate second-guessing as that of Mrs. Samuel Taylor Coleridge and her myriad-minded husband, the poet and critic who left us "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" and other great poems, and who helped shape the political and literary thinking of his century and ours. Received opinion finds the marriage a lamentable mistake. Dragooned into the match by a friend, the story goes, Coleridge quickly sounded the shallows of his new wife's character, in contrast to such women as Dorothy, the sensitive sister of his friend and fellow poet, William Wordsworth. In later years, Coleridge, the Wordsworths, and the literary historians all blamed Sarah (or, as he insisted she spell it, Sara) for his paralyzing addiction to opium, his passionate, Platonic attachments to more sympathetic women, and, most important to posterity, his failure to fulfill the high promise of his youth. As Coleridge put it in justificaton of a final separation in 1807, "Mrs. C. has a temper and general tone of feeling which . . . I have found wholly incompatible with an endurable Life, and such as to preclude all chance of my ever developing the talents, which my Maker has entrusted to me."

In a previous book, Molly Lefebure told Coleridge's story. In "The Bondage of Love," it is Sara's turn, and a very different story it is. Drawing on hitherto unpublished correspondence, Lefebure argues that Sara was not only a strong and intelligent woman but an emergent feminist, whose expectations of intellectual equality in marriage were molded by the radical ideology of the French Revolution. Like the 1970s, the 1790s witnessed a highly selective change in attitudes to marriage, and the young Coleridge, for all his political radicalism, was far more traditional than his future mate. A wife, he wrote, should exhibit a "docility of nature" that would dispose her to "adopt my opinions on all important subjects."

If Sara repeatedly disappointed her husband on this score, in Lefebure's account, she proved a steadfast and loyal wife and mother. She was a careful housekeeper, whose eye for economies had been sharpened by a father's bankruptcy. She delivered her first child herself and nursed a second through the smallpox only to watch him die months later from convulsions. Coleridge's absence on both occasions was, as the book shows, regrettably predictable.

It was Sara's justifiable demand that Coleridge give up opium that drove him to the separation. Middle age brought the auspicious marriage of a brilliant daughter, the alcoholism of an equally brilliant son, and what Lefebure calls "the disillusioned, bed-rock camaraderie of long-established marriage." At the end, we see Sara and Samuel as near neighbors in north London, meeting occasionally to reminisce about their children and their past.

Marriage ought not to be anatomized without a delicate scalpel, and Lefebure's indignant defense of Sara verges on special pleading. To her credit, she does not indulge in easy moralizing about Coleridge's opium habit--the biological mechanisms of addiction were not understood in the 1790s, and the drug was as commonly prescribed for pain as aspirin is today. She does however blame opium for the failure of the marriage, and dismisses Coleridge's criticisms of Sara as an addict's desperate attempts to deny responsibility and guilt. Coleridge himself she presents as a kind of metaphysical whirling dervish, a spoiled visionary whose irresistible charm masked a pathological need for admiration. That Sara said yes to such an unlikely fellow is put down not to any solid virtues but to his occult powers--"the poor woman . . . had fallen under Coleridge's spell and was totally enchanted by him." Coleridge's writing is presented as Sara might have seen it, as a source of income or a rival. Our perspective is often that of the kitchen or laundry, where we are invited to share her resentment of the "privileged role of the exclusive man of letters" and to join the "sisterhood of domestic slavery" she in turn shares with Nanny, the tubercular maid. If such perspectives offer insight into the social history of marriage, they surely tend to oversimplify Coleridge. His mind and art--his greatness, in short--disappear from the field of view, deepening our sense that Sara would not or could not share her husband's work any more than he shared hers. This, indeed, became his major complaint.

Such indignities to the husband may be the price of a spirited attempt to rehabilitate the wife. In the latter attempt the book must be judged a success: As represented by Lefebure, Sara wins our respect and admiration. More important however than her vindication is Lefebure's recovery, in rich and evocative detail, of the quality of Sara's experience--of how and what a remarkable and representative woman saw, felt, and thought nearly 200 years ago. Despite its lurid title, "The Bondage of Love" exemplifies the power of a revisionist history to recover a more complete past, and does so more winningly, indeed.

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