‘Sara-ites’ Born at SMU Literary Lecture: Rhyme and Reason Behind Coleridge’s Poems

October 19, 2009  

By Kimmy Ryan

Dr. Peter Swaab elegantly read Sara Coleridge’s unpublished poems Friday afternoon as part of the Gilbert Lecture Series.

Twenty poem-loving students and professors moseyed over to Dallas Hall to listen to Swaab’s lecture on “Sara Coleridge: An Unpublished Poet and Her Audience.”

Coleridge is the daughter of the famous Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Most of her work was unpublished during her lifetime. Swaab found and published many of her poems and discussed them with an engaged audience. Swaab analyzed her life and her work and answered questions.

“This is so fascinating,” Meredith Godbold, a SMU junior said. “I’m definitely a Sara-ite.”

Swaab said that by the end of the lecture he would convert everyone to “Sara-ites,” fans of Coleridge’s rhyming, rhythmic poems.

Swaab moved many members of the audience with his readings of Coleridge’s poems in his thick British accent.

Swaab’s Research at UT-Austin

Swaab is currently doing research on a volume of Coleridge’s prose writings at the University of Texas at Austin. He will return to the University School of London in a few months where he is Reader in English (Britain’s equivalent of a college English professor). Swaab attended Cambridge University and has taught at New York University, Harvard University, and Dartmouth College.

Swaab’s publications include Wordsworth and Dickinson. He also writes about film and television.
Swaab came across Coleridge’s unpublished work while researching memoirs of Wordsworth. Swaab discovered 185 of her poems, 125 of which were published in 2007.

“Her inner voice is projected outward onto the open space of the page,” Swaab said about Coleridge’s poems.

Written mostly in the present tense, Coleridge’s poetry embraces the idea of living in the present and not worrying about the future. She uses peculiar word choice at times and a distinct diction. Almost all of her poems have a rhyming aspect to them and many include a sense of incongruity.

Coleridge’s other themes include being heard, overheard, and not heard, love, relationships, domestic loneliness, isolation, suffering, and the concealment of feelings.

Most of Coleridge’s poems have addressees. They are addressed to family members, friends, and inanimate objects. A majority of Coleridge’s poems are addressed to her fiancé, who was also her cousin, whom she was engaged to for seven years.

Coleridge’s Work Reflects Personal Struggles

Coleridge’s work is closely tied to large events in her life. Coleridge suffered from postnatal depression and was also very ill in the late 1830’s and early 1840’s. Her work reflects the anxiety and depression she felt during these times in her life.

Swaab discussed the difference in Coleridge’s writing between the 1830’s and 1840’s. Her later work has a different kind of cultural authority, Swaab said. Coleridge’s husband died, therefore being a single mother and financially independent caused for a newfound independence in her work. She continued to write on many of the same themes, but with new variations.

“Her poems do not have utter unconsciousness of a listener,” Swaab said, “but are conscious of not having a listener.”

Although the majority of her work was never published in her lifetime, Swaab discussed how Coleridge’s poetry is nevertheless aimed at an audience. During her lifetime, she doubted whether she deserved wider readership, but according to the professor and student reactions to Coleridge’s poems, there is no doubt that her poems are of high literary quality. Professors and students praised the nineteenth-century woman’s work. Many of the professors said they will use her poems in their English classes.

“She is a sharp writer and her poems flow eloquently when read aloud, ” Godbold said.

“Coleridge blends together passion and knowledge,” SMU Professor Dickson-Carr said.

The Gilbert Lecture Series brings writers and literary scholars to the SMU campus. Many of the featured speakers read passages and stanzas by writers and poets while others give scholarly advice to professors. The topics vary but are always related to literature.

The Gilbert Lecture Series teamed up with the Gender Studies Program to feature Swaab. The Gilbert Lecture Series events are free and open to the public.

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