Mary Robinson and the Abyssinian Maid: Coleridge's Muses and
                                   Feminist Criticism

                                        by Tim Fulford

 [Fulford, Tim. "Mary Robinson and the Abyssinian Maid: Coleridge's Muses and Feminist Criticism." Romanticism On the
                Net 13 (February 1999) <>]

According to Thomas De Quincey, the poetics of Romanticism were organised around a gender opposition: 'the Sublime...
in contraposition to the Beautiful, grew up on the basis of sexual distinctions - the Sublime corresponding to the male, and
the Beautiful, its anti-pole, corresponding to the female'. (1) The principal proponent of these gendered poetics was
Edmund Burke, for whom the sublime was characterised by the masculine traits of power, terror, strength, greatness, and
the beautiful by the feminine qualities of softness, sympathy, and feeling. (2) Burke's view of the feminine was criticised by
the contemporary feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, who argued that it amounted, when used to define women's social role, to
a prescription for libertinism. (3) Burke's views, she asserted, rendered women helpless, ill-educated beings. Valued (if at
all) only for their bodily appearance and compliance, they were rejected when their looks faded because men found them
mentally dull. No longer entranced by their beauty, men became contemptuous of the very weakness they had encouraged
women to adopt. They cast them off, to replace them with other mistresses whose weakness was still attractively
accompanied by beauty. In the process, both men and women were degraded. Inequality was perpetuated; men became
tyrants, women became victims.

Coleridge was briefly a friend of Wollstonecraft. He was, in the 1790s, a political enemy of Burke. But he was not a
feminist. Despite his political differences from the Reflections on the Revolution in France, he often viewed the feminine in
a way similar to its author. And, according to a number of recent critics, he adopted a Burkean view of the feminine in his
poetry. His poetry and poetics, it is suggested, borrowed a gendered sublime and beautiful, in order to empower the
masculine and disempower the feminine. The male poet, it is argued, was the principal beneficiary. He became sublime,
whereas he made of the female a beautiful but subordinate muse. Marlon B. Ross, for instance, sees Coleridge as
participating in male Romanticism's struggle for a transcendent 'power of self-possession, a power that is repeatedly willed
in the poetry by both overt and subliminal appeals to the virility and masculinity of his creative project'. (4)

Ross's view of male Romanticism has as its test case Wordsworth's poetic treatment of women. For Mary Jacobus too,
Wordsworth's poetic power was gained at the expense of the feminine, and at women's cost. She shows that in
Wordsworth's poetry Dorothy is enlisted as a muse, only for her insights and words to be absorbed into Wordsworth's
contemplation of his own superior genius. (5) For Anne K. Mellor, Wordsworth's silencing of Dorothy was replicated by
Coleridge in 'Kubla Khan'. The treatment in that poem of the Abyssinian maid is paradigmatic of the procedure of male
Romantics: they effect a 'total absorption' of the feminine which leaves it - and the women who feature in their work -
'conquered' and 'enslaved'. (6) Margaret Homans declares that Wordsworthian Romantic poetry 'states most compellingly
the traditional myth . . . of woman's place in language as the silent or vanished object of male representation and quest'. (7)
The male Romantics, in other words, far from being opponents of the gender inequality which Burke, and the social order
he defended, perpetuated, were complicit with his defence - and with the social order itself (at least in so far as it concerned
women). They were not, in this area, radicals, and if they were not libertines they were, in their poetry, conquerors.

In what follows I want to take issue with the idea that Coleridge participates in a conquest and enslavement of the feminine.
(8) By investigating the poetics of 'Kubla Khan' and the implications of his verse correspondence with Mary Robinson, poet
and spurned mistress of the Prince of Wales, I shall offer a more historically nuanced account of Coleridge's versions of
femininity. (9) I shall contend that he undermined (sometimes even as he set out) what Ross calls male Romanticism's
strategy of presenting poetry as 'a form of masculine empowerment' and 'a paradigmatic form of manly action'. (10) Rather
than blame Coleridge for a poetic 'conquest' of the feminine, we need to see him as an unstable writer, who, at his best,
opens gender roles and gendered poetics to question. Unsure of his own masculinity, in poetry as in life, Coleridge often
leaves masculine and feminine, men and women, in undetermined relationships, their gender and sexual identities uncertain
and fluid (Geraldine in 'Christabel' being an example of this). (11) As Laura Claridge notes,

     the economies energising the majority of [male Romantics'] poems aimed at recuperating the special potency
     that accrues to marginalised forces, in this case, woman as that which is not always already written. Saying this
     is not the same as accusing the poets of appropriating such female voices. (12)

                                        I. 'Kubla Khan'

'Kubla Khan' is Coleridge's most concentrated dramatisation of the conflicts, sexual and implicitly political, produced
through the adoption of the gendered sublime and the beautiful. It features a male figure of power, the Khan, who is a
sublime genius - a conqueror, a statesman, a master-builder. It also features a poetic genius, sublime in his capacity to
command awe, who also builds - builds domes in the air, or the imagination. Each of these figures is associated with a
female: the Khan with the 'woman wailing for her demon lover', the poet with the Abyssinian maid, who sings rather than
wails. (13)

Critics of the poem divide on the crucial question of whether the sublime conqueror Kubla Khan is analogous to, or
contrasts with, the sublime poet, and whether the Abyssinian maid resembles, or differs from, the wailing woman. (14) If
one accepts that conqueror and poet, woman and maid are analogous, then the poem seems to suggest that the poet's vision
seeks desperately to preserve, in transcendent form, the masculine creativity that has built the pleasure dome. For the Khan
is like God in Genesis: he decrees and the dome is erected. His word has immediate and direct power in the world: it seems
neither to require mediation nor the assistance of another. The Khan is a creator who needs neither a muse; nor a wife. But
his creation is flawed: being a production of masculinity, and of a violent masculinity to boot, it is haunted by a dominance
that issues in violent and libertine sexuality:

     A savage place! as holy and enchanted
     As e'er beneath a waning moon was haunted
     By woman wailing for her demon-lover!
     And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,
     As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
     A mighty fountain momently was forced:
     Amid whose swift half-intermittent burst
     Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail.
     (PW, I, 297; ll. 14-21)

Shaped by a masculine sexuality to which women become victims, the Khan's dome is a place in which women's suffering
and desire are heard as one in the sound of a 'savage' wail. But if the dome is characterised by conquest and violence, it is
threatened by it too, for it is vulnerable to destruction, to 'ancestral voices prophesying war' (l. 30).

The dome that the sublime poet proposes to build is not similarly vulnerable, for it exists only in the imagination. But it is not
clear whether the poet can ever build it, for he doubts his own creative power. He ends not with a successful construction,
but with a vision of the awe he would inspire, the sublimity he would acquire, could he envision the dome in words. In a
recent article Jane Moore has construed this outcome as a failure by the poet to attain the potency he desires. Reading the
poet at the poem's end as being analogous to the Khan, she sees him as trying, but failing, to become a Khan himself, to
become a sublime creator whose masculinity is produced through the conquest of the feminine. She declares

     it is exactly at the moment when the poet fails to master woman that he fails also to be master of himself, of his
     own actions: the dome is never built and the poem, at least the poem the preface promises, is never finished.

For Moore, the poet cannot 'revive within me / [the]symphony and song' of the Abyssinian maid (ll. 42-43) and therefore
can neither master the feminine nor complete the poem.

Moore's argument is an intriguing one, for it highlights the extent to which sublimity, creativity, and masculinity are bound
together in the poem, over and against visions of femininity. But in assuming that Khan and poet are simply analogous
Moore overlooks some of the poem's distinctions in its portraits of women and of master-builders. The damsel with a
dulcimer is to be distinguished from the 'woman wailing for her demon-lover!' (l. 16). She is from the start an apparition in a
'vision', and she is not subordinated to a masterful and evil lover. She does not wail, but sings and plays - signs of culture.
She offers 'deep delight' with her lyric; she gives a gift of poetry. In other words, she is a muse, one who communicates the
arts of an ancient culture to which a poet might aspire - especially as she unites words and music, like the minstrels and
bards whom Coleridge idealised. (16) She does not resemble, but differs from, the unidentified woman who wails for her
demon lover, defined as that woman is by her bodily cry of desire/suffering. Coleridge, that is to say, sets up an opposition,
not an analogy, making the poet and maid represent a cultured relationship, a communication of spirit through song, to
contrast with the tyrannical and violent sexual relationship of the Khan's building.

The building which the Abyssinian maid's symphony and song sponsors is significantly different from the Khan's. Whereas
Kubla tries to conquer nature by his decree, to shape it to his will, aping God and producing a dome vitiated by 'ancestral
voices prophesying war' (l. 30), the poet's dome exists only as a possibility registered in the consciousness of writer and
reader. The poet's dome of air, no more substantial than the breath of speech, is a more beneficent creation than the Khan's,
is an alternative to Kubla's mastery and to the subjugation it demands, precisely because it exists only in the other-world of
fiction - a world in which the conditional has, through imagery, the visual intensity of the apparently real. By the end of the
poem the dome can only be held together in suspension - not in a scene imagined which might exist beyond the poem but as
a possibility of renewal held for as long as it takes to read the lines - a tentative half state in which to say 'I would build that
dome in air' is to build it - a castle in the air of poetry.

The poet's dome, then, is dependent not on a Satanic conqueror of women, but on the revival of their envisioned song in the
self-conscious creativity of the male poet. The damsel with a dulcimer is a muse, a feminine song-within, without the
acceptance of which the male poet's creation is vitiated by exclusivity and mastery as was the Khan's. The poet's
remodelling of creative power, for Coleridge, is dependent upon his (for it is a he) willingness to be sponsored by the
feminine, to incorporate (his ideas of) a woman's voice into his own: as he put it in a late notebook, 'in every true and manly
Man there is a translucent Under-tint of the Woman'. (17) It is, of course, the male poet who sets this agenda, forms this
vision of the feminine, but it is one of revival, of sponsorship (in Coleridge's terms, reciprocity) not mastery in the sense that
Moore suggests. Nor is it one of conquest or enslavement: it is the male poet's failure to revive within himself the maid's
song that makes his building of the dome doubtful. It is the willingness to hear another's voice within, but still to recognise
it as another's voice, that he seeks. The male poet does not absorb, or wish to absorb, the feminine; rather, he seeks to
retain it as the other within the self. To do this is not to conquer or enslave, but neither is it to allow the female her own
independent position: her voice remains hers, but it is valued for its ability to complete the male's creative masculinity.
Coleridge does not reverse the process - value his masculinity in so far as it may complete the femininity of the maid (or any
female poet).

In 'Kubla Khan' Coleridge constructs a feminine voice in order to licence the masculine to create a poetry which both
envisions and itself enacts a fragile and timeless harmony. In this sublime state male poet, poetry and audience are united in
rapture. They participate in a paradisial sublime to contrast with the demonic and tyrannical sublime which the Khan's
masculinity creates. Coleridge, in other words, had made a version of masculinity in opposition to the version, so powerful in
eighteenth-century politics and poetics, that defined a man as a sublime conqueror of women. He had made the sublime man
dependent on a feminine Muse, thus replacing mastery with sympathy, dominance with poetic chorus. In doing so, he
offered himself - and his readers - a more inclusive masculinity, one attentive to and completed by a feminine voice. If,
however, this voice is not absorbed, silenced, or conquered, it is registered in order that it may sponsor the semi-divine
vision which the male poet builds. It is he who gains, via a more inclusive masculinity, a vision that seems to encompass both
masculine and feminine, centre and circumference, reason and sensibility. It is because it can sponsor him, and lift him
beyond the vitiating gender stereotype provided by the Khan, that the maid's voice is valued. Reviving her song allows the
male poet a transcendent wholeness that she herself does not attain:

     His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
     Weave a circle round him thrice,
     And close your eyes with holy dread,
     For he on honey-dew hath fed,
     And drunk the milk of Paradise.
     (ll. 50-54)

What the Abyssinian maid would think of this is not recorded.

If Coleridge's new man's sublime is not built on or vulnerable to violence, it is accessible only in renewed readings of the
poem - or hearings of the maid's song. In the Preface he added later to the poem, Coleridge further qualified its already
tentative conclusion. He argued that the poem was a 'psychological curiosity,' a fragment from 'reverie' whose vision he
could not consciously revive once the person from Porlock had interrupted him. Thus he placed limits on his poem's
visionariness and on its revision of gender roles, denying it the status of poetry and removing from himself the power to
consciously modify his own masculinity through poetic vision. The Preface, that is to say, blurs the poet's responsibility for
what he has achieved. It implies that he provides no detailed model for the revision of masculinity and sublimity in society or
self save by the example of the poem as a language of social and sexual harmony accessible only in dreams and
drug-induced reveries. It is, apparently, only whilst half-asleep that Coleridge can discover a new sublime and a new
manliness in which the feminine completes the masculine. (18)

                       II. Coleridge and Mary Robinson: Feminising the Sublime

After 1798 inspiration by a feminine muse seemed, for a while, no dream. Coleridge found a poet prepared to act as his
Abyssinian maid, willing to sponsor his bardic song with her own music. He found Mary Robinson, the former actress
whose appearance as Perdita in The Winter's Tale had, in 1778, brought her to Prince George's attention. He had wooed
her under the name Florizel, and turned the Shakespearian 'shepherdess' into his mistress. But he had later abandoned her,
leaving her to the life of the kept mistress of a series of well-known public men, including Charles James Fox and Banastre
Tarleton. Robinson had turned to poetry to support herself after being deserted by Tarleton.

Robinson's desertion by the Prince had led to a public scandal in 1781; (19) in 1796 George's desertion of his wife for
another mistress reminded the public of what had formerly happened to Robinson. George's tyrannical treatment of women
attracted widespread criticism, for it seemed to epitomise the aristocratic immorality which was thought to be undermining
the constitution. Coleridge had himself published a poem critical of George's treatment of his wife, 'On A Late Connubial
Rupture in High Life,' in which he hoped that George would mend his ways and act, as he was supposed to do, as
protective husband and father: 'And ah! that Truth some holy spell might lend / To lure thy Wanderer from the Syren's
power' (PW, I, 152).

Robinson's sexual life became a political issue. To conservative supporters of the social order she was an emblem of female
immodesty, an example of the dangers posed to Britain by radical change. Richard Polwhele attacked her along with
Wollstonecraft as ‘female Quixotes of the new philosophy’. (20) His phrase saw them as self-deluding knights, seduced by
the romance of radical French ideas, when they should have been innocent damsels. Similarly, the Annual Review reminded
women readers of her sexual past in order to deny her the power to speak for them; Robinson, it proclaimed, wielded a
‘pen of vice’:

     Before a tender-hearted young lady has committed to memory the invocation to ‘Apathy', or learned to recite
     with tragic emphasis the ‘Ode to Ingratitude', let her at least be aware from what reflections the author
     wished to take shelter in insensibility, and for what favours her lovers had proved ungrateful. (21)

Opposition Whigs and radicals saw Robinson differently: to them she became a symbol of the injustice perpetuated by the
aristocratic establishment which they were seeking to change. Her status as a victim of royal libertinism was cemented by
the fact that she was, in fact, suffering from a paralysing disease. Coleridge pitied her for this, but also admired her writing.
He did not seek to silence her authorial voice but promoted it in publications over which he had influence. He and she
published poetic compliments to each other in the anti-ministerial newspaper The Morning Post, the paper which printed
his political criticism of the government.

In the newspaper Coleridge presented their poetic relationship as one of mutual sympathy, in noticeable contrast to the
sexual despotism Robinson had suffered as George's mistress. This gave gender relations a political context because
sympathy for Robinson was implicitly a criticism of the Prince who had abandoned her, undermining his chivalric duty to
protect. If George was Robinson's demon lover, abandoning her to wail, Coleridge was, as he represented it, her fellow
poet, she his maid - as much French as Abyssinian. Coleridge placed his ‘The Visions of the Maid of Orleans’ immediately
before Robinson's 'The Snow Drop' in the Morning Post of 26 December 1797. Taking advantage of the seasonal
emphasis on peace and forgiveness, Robinson's poem used the flower as an image of herself as an abandoned, tender,
crippled female:

     All weak and wan, with head inclined,
     Its parent breast, the drifted snow;
     It trembles while the ruthless wind
     Bends its slim form; the tempest lours,
     Its em'rald eye drops crystal show'rs
     On its cold bed below. (22)

Coleridge's ‘Visions’ (an extract from ‘The Destiny of Nations’) use similar maternal and sentimental imagery to link
Robinson with a French maid. He portrays Joan of Arc as a paragon of female virtue: Joan encounters a family frozen to
death as they tried to escape the sacking of their village:

     She meantime,
     Saw crowded close beneath the couverture
     A mother and her children - lifeless all,
     Yet lovely! not a lineament was marred -
     Death had put on so slumber-like a form!
     It was a piteous sight! and one, a babe,
     Lay on the woman's arm, its little hand
     Smooth on her bosom. Wildly pale the maid
     Gaz'd at the living wretch ... (23)

Coleridge's poem had a political purpose: by arousing sympathy for innocent French womanhood besieged by war it
opposed the government's current war with revolutionary France. And preceding Robinson's poem, it contextualised her
work in an implicitly political way as that of another innocent female who, like Joan, was sacrificed to the cruelty of the
British aristocracy.

Robinson herself did not simply play upon her status as a suffering victim of libertinism. She also offered herself as a muse
and respondent. In her 'To the Poet Coleridge' Robinson positioned herself as the sympathetic admirer of a poet already
known for his radical opinions. She also positioned herself as a fellow lyricist, as a woman whose song responded to, but
also inspired, Coleridge's words. Specifically, she associated herself with the Abyssinian maid of 'Kubla Khan':

     I'll mark thy 'sunny dome', and view
     Thy 'caves of ice', thy fields of dew!
     Thy ever-blooming mead, whose flower
     Waves to the cold breath of the moonlight hour! (24)

Here Robinson offers herself as the delighted viewer of and believer in Coleridge's poetic landscape; her own verse appears
as the offspring of his fertility, his 'ever-blooming mead'. Mutual sympathy replaces the sexual servitude Robinson had
suffered (or was agreed to have suffered) at the hands of the libertine Prince. Coleridge's literary masculinity, Robinson
suggests, is productive through sympathy, rather than dominant through sexuality. She shares the Abyssinian maid's song
with Coleridge, and then gives him a song of her own inspired by it:

     And now, with lofty tones inviting,
     Thy Nymph, her dulcimer swift-smiting,
     Shall wake me in ecstatic measures,
     Far, far removed from mortal pleasures!
     In cadence rich, in cadence strong,
     Proving the wondrous witcheries of song!
     I hear her voice! thy 'sunny dome,'
     Thy 'caves of ice,' aloud repeat,
     Vibrations, maddening sweet!
     Calling the visionary wanderer home.
     She sings of thee, O! favoured child
     Of minstrelsy sublimely wild!
     Of thee, whose soul can feel the tone
     Which gives to airy dreams a magic all thy own!
     (ll. 59-72)

Reading Kubla Khan, she is inspired to write, rather than reduced to being the wailing victim of a demon lover.

If Robinson found her poetic field enriched by Coleridge's, Coleridge found in her - at least briefly - a lyric voice capable of
modifying his own. He admired her for exactly that for which he praised the Abyssinian maid - her music. Recommending
her 'Jasper' for inclusion in the Annual Anthology, he 'thought the metre stimulating'. (25) He also praised 'the fascinating
metre' of 'The Haunted Beach'. This latter poem was derivative of 'The Ancient Mariner' in subject matter but succeeded in
intertwining lines of different metrical balance with an intricate and unusual rhyme-scheme:

     The Spectre-band, his messmates brave
     Sunk in the yawning ocean,
     While to the mast he lash'd him fast
     And brav'd the storm's commotion.
     The winter moon, upon the sand
     A silv'ry carpet made,
     And mark'd the Sailor reach the land,
     And mark'd his murd'rer wash his hand
     Where the green billows play'd. (26)

The last three lines of what Coleridge publicly called 'that absolutely original Stanza' (27) suspend the expected resolution,
protracting the verse by introducing a couplet which, conclusive though its rhyme might normally be, is itself superseded.
Suspending the reader's expectations of narrative sequence was, of course, vital to Coleridge's own supernatural poetry,
and in appreciating Robinson's music Coleridge was paying tribute to an ability which he understood to be more than merely
technical. It was, he thought, through control of metre and rhyme that poetry could make readers suspend their disbelief in
the supernatural. (28) Prosody, Coleridge knew, could lull audiences into 'poetic faith', make them temporarily believe in
events they had thought to be beyond nature. What was, and was not, natural might then become a matter of doubt. And
this process, of course, was potentially radical, since what had been assumed to be natural might include the established
social and political order.

Robinson's control of music intrigued Coleridge with the possibility of modifying the understanding of gender on which the
established order was dependent. It was through a lyrical revision of the sublime, made in reply to Robinson, that Coleridge
again attempted, as he had in 'Kubla Khan', to undo the Burkean assumption that authority takes the form of a dominant
masculinity. He did so in a poem called 'A Stranger Minstrel' (1800). This poem replied to Robinson's tributes to him. It
alluded to her poem to his son Derwent, in which she imagines, via allusions to Coleridge's own verse, his son wandering
through 'Romantic Mountains' with 'brows sublime'. It echoed Robinson's description of herself as a 'Stranger' and an
'untaught minstrel' in comparison with 'his loftier Muse'. (29) In that poem Robinson had concluded with the hope that her
poetic sublime would outlive the sublime mountains of his birthplace: 'Still may thy name survive, sweet Boy! till Time / Shall
bend to Keswick's vale - thy Skiddaw's brow sublime!' (ll. 101-2).

Coleridge's ‘A Stranger Minstrel’ takes up the questions Robinson had posed to the natural sublime. It too is set on
Skiddaw. It too considers the role of the poet, even as it alludes to her poems:

     In that sweet mood of sad and humorous thought
     A form within me rose, within me wrought
     With such strong magic, that I cried aloud,
     'Thou ancient Skiddaw by thy helm of cloud,
     And by thy many-colour'd chasms deep,
     And by their shadows that for ever sleep,
     By yon small flaky mists that love to creep
     Along the edges of those spots of light,
     Those sunny islands on thy smooth green height,
     And by yon shepherds with their sheep,
     And dogs and boys, a gladsome crowd,
     That rush e'en now with clamour loud
     Sudden from forth thy topmost cloud,
     And by this laugh, and by this tear,
     I would, old Skiddaw, she were here!
     A lady of sweet song is she,
     Her soft blue eye was made for thee!
     O ancient Skiddaw, by this tear,
     I would, I would that she were here!'
     Then ancient Skiddaw, stern and proud,
     In sullen majesty replying,
     Thus spake from out his helm of cloud
     (His voice was like an echo dying!):-
     'She dwells belike in scenes more fair,
     And scorns a mount so bleak and bare'.
     (PW, I, 351, ll. 9-33)

So far, so conventional: Skiddaw speaks through the Burkean sublime. But as he reads and quotes Robinson in the poem,
Coleridge seems to challenge his own need to have his nature poetry confirmed as a protective and powerful masculine
authority. The masculine Skiddaw ('His voice was like a monarch wooing') redefines his own sublimity in the words of
Robinson's poetry:

     Now to the 'haunted beach' can fly,
     Beside the threshold scourged with waves,
     Now where the maniac wildly raves,
     'Pale moon, thou spectre of the sky!'
     No wind that hurries o'er my height
     Can travel with so swift a flight.
     I too, methinks, might merit
     The presence of her spirit!
     To me too might belong
     The honour of her song and witching melody,
     Which most resembles me,
     Soft, various, and sublime,
     Exempt from wrongs of Time!
     (ll. 55-67)

A strange shift has occurred, for although Skiddaw says that Robinson's song 'resembles me' it seems rather that he now
resembles it in being 'soft, various and sublime' rather than 'stern and proud' and sublime (l. 28). The masculine majestical
sublime has been modified from within by Robinson's words as, for the sake of the nation's moral health, Coleridge wished
the Prince of Wales to have been. Here Coleridge was publicly providing an alternative version of masculine authority in
which monarchical mountains and the male poet are presented as softened into feminine sensibility and yearning:

     Thus spake the mighty Mount, and I
     Made answer, with a deep-drawn sigh:-
     'Thou ancient Skiddaw, by this tear,
     I would, I would that she were here!'
     (ll. 68-71)

This conclusion is as near as Coleridge comes to a poetry in which the sublime is feminised. Here the conventionally
masculine is not just redefined as a power capable of encompassing the feminine in an all embracing vision. Instead, the
mountain is both sublime and feminine, its masculinity in abeyance. Borrowing the words of Robinson, words offered in
poetic correspondence as those of a muse writing of/from Coleridge's own poetic landscape (the Lake District), Coleridge
lets woman's verse and a feminine discourse reset his own. He was able to accept and adapt those words because they
were offered in poetic friendship, indeed in tribute, in terms with which he identified himself. In a sense, then, Robinson, the
self-appointed Abyssinian muse, had colonised Coleridge's landscape from within, by moving to Skiddaw and making it a
feminised ground. Coleridge, in response, neither acts as fatherly protector, nor as a male poet bolstering his threatened
mastery with the admiring verse of a subordinate poetess. He envisages not just a suspension of sublime power but a
feminine occupation of the traditionally masculine.

As was the case in 'Kubla Khan', Coleridge did not succeed in developing a way in which the visions conjured up in his
poem could be translated into actions in the world beyond. That he did not succeed was due in part to his own fear of the
radical unorthodoxy of the poetics he had sketched out. Susan Luther has written astutely of both his unorthodoxy and his
fear. He was, she argues, groping towards a redefinition of the sublime in which authority would be based not on
subordination but interchange, one that 'attempts to bring the lady's terms to his own'. Ultimately unsuccessful, it was flawed
by Coleridge's desire simply to incorporate Robinson as woman and as poet in his own self-reflection. In Luther's words it
displays 'the difference between the WOMAN and the MUSE as well as their unsettling similarity, the hazards encountered
when the sublime of "SENSIBILITY!" and Fancy meets the sublime of . . . Imagination'. (30) Coleridge's feminised sublime
proved too hot for him to handle.

After having written 'A Stranger Minstrel', Coleridge tended to retreat from its implicitly radical version of femininity. He
reinscribed Robinson within a more conventional relationship, in which sublime authority was again gendered as masculine.
In a letter of 1801, for example, he wished for Robinson the protection of a good husband and of his own poetry. And he
quoted a letter of hers which suggests that she was ready to appeal to such chivalric values. The quotation suggests that
Coleridge took refuge in the belief that Robinson simply confirmed him in the role of powerful man and sublime nature poet:

     Poor dear Mrs Robinson! you have heard of her Death. She wrote me a most affecting, heart-rending Letter a
     few weeks before she died, to express what she called her death bed affection & esteem for me - the very last
     Lines of her Letter are indeed sublime -

     'My little Cottage is retired and comfortable. There I mean to remain (if indeed I live so long) till Christmas.
     But it is not surrounded with the romantic Scenery of your chosen retreat: it is not, my dear Sir! the nursery of
     sublime Thoughts - the abode of Peace - the solitude of Nature's Wonders. O! Skiddaw! - I think, if I could
     but once contemplate thy Summit, I should never quit the Prospect it would present till my eyes were closed
     for ever!'

     O Poole! that that Woman had but been married to a noble Being, what a noble Being she herself would have
     been. Latterly, she felt this with a poignant anguish. - Well! -

          O'er her pil'd grave the gale of evening sighs;
          And flowers will grow upon it's grassy Slope.
          I wipe the dimming Water from mine eyes -
          Ev'n in the cold Grave dwells the Cherub Hope!
          (CL, II, 669)

Here Coleridge's lines of verse respond to Robinson's own idealisation of the mountain as an abode of peace and a 'nursery
of sublime Thoughts'. They depict her death as a release of the kind she sought when her 'eyes were closed for ever'. Her
grave becomes a nursery of the cherub hope; in the poetry of the man who himself dwelt under Skiddaw pity for her is able
to release her from her thraldom to the sensible world of nature. Not Skiddaw, but the male poet who writes under its
authority, becomes the locus of a sublime of translation from the sensible to the spiritual, from bondage to nature to hope of
heaven. Coleridge, as the Lake District man and poet to whom Robinson appeals in her dying weakness, becomes, in his
own eyes, the poetic husband who restores her lost nobility and respectability. It is his capacity for pity and grief ('the
dimming Water') that allows her a possible future existence. Burkean subjection before natural power is transformed,
through a feminine appeal to masculine pity and protectiveness, into a discourse which allows the woman a limited (but
subordinate) position of freedom. Here though it is after death, and through the man's nature poetry, that the freedom is
possible. Coleridge here falls short of his achievement in 'A Stranger Minstrel': he flatters rather than questions himself as he
imagines himself in the conventional role of the strong male protector of the helpless female.

Coleridge continued to fight shy of the implications of his poem. In 1802 he rebuked Robinson's daughter for planning to
publish in a collection of her mother's works a poem of his own alongside ones by Moore and 'Monk' Lewis, 'men, who
have sold provocatives to vulgar Debauchees' (CL, II, 905). Idealising Robinson as a pure and dear Mother, 'of all names
the most awful, the most venerable, next to that of God', Coleridge wished to save Robinson's posthumous reputation from
the notoriety of the writers she had been associated with, to reinscribe her within the discourse of literary as well as personal
propriety. But he also wished to save himself: faced with the prospect of publicly appearing as one of a company of libertine
men who were associated with her, Coleridge was afraid. No longer able to see himself as her private literary protector, he
panicked. He wished to avoid having his verse seem to be indebted to a poetic muse known for her loose morals and the
bad company she kept.

Coleridge was neither disinterested nor feminist: he was trying to shape an authority-in-writing that he could himself adopt.
He needed to be lord of his own utterance, to gain a position at the top, but through words that rejected the prevailing kinds
of manliness. Robinson had inspired in Coleridge what his Abyssinian maid inspired in the idealised poet of 'Kubla Khan', a
poetry which can escape the kind of masculinity set out by Burke and practised by the Prince, the kind predicated on its
capacity to inspire awe and fear. As in ‘Kubla Khan’, however, Coleridge found difficulties in making this kind of poetic
masculinity that on which he took his public stand. He remained unable and unwilling to risk staking his poetic character on a
language of suspension and enchantment which flourished from positions that were culturally unconventional - from drug
induced reverie, from the inspiration of a feminine sublime, from dialogue with a woman whom many regarded as notorious.

Luther sums up Coleridge's problems in doing justice to what Robinson had shown him as she had become a more
challenging and creative muse than at first appeared:

     If the problem for [the female lyricist] is how to recreate for herself the space of the beautiful within the
     sublime, or the sublime within the beautiful, how to claim her erotic and lyrical power without having to deny
     their contiguity so as to escape being once more (negatively) defined as her flesh, the problem for [the male
     lyricist] seems to be how to assimilate, accommodate, encompass and compose those moods, rhetorical
     modes and human impulses that his own and his culture's values deny him, unless he is willing to relinquish his
     position at the top. (31)

Coleridge may have been unable wholly to relinquish his desire for a position at the top, yet his Romanticism should not as a
consequence be seen as a consistent 'conquest' and 'enslavement' of the female. If it often idealises a role for women that is
at best supportive of and at worst subordinate to male creativity, if it often presents the feminine as merely a supplement to
masculine power, it nevertheless also often calls women's subordination to those languages into question. Coleridge did
sketch - but only sketch - an alternative model of poetic power through a feminising dialogue with a woman poet and muse.
In doing so he revealed some of the limitations of the traditional (and interlinked) discourses of/about political and poetic



This essay has benefited from the suggestions of Tilar Mazzeo, Lucy Newlyn, and Seamus Perry. I am most grateful to

(1) Collected Works of Thomas De Quincey, ed. David Masson, 14 vols. (Edinburgh, 1889-90) vol. X, pp. 300-301.

(2) Burke set out his gendered definition in A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and
Beautiful, ed. J.T. Boulton (London, 1958). (back)

(3) See A Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790), in The Works of Mary Wollstonecraft, ed. Janet Todd and Marilyn
Butler, 7 vols. (London, 1989) vol. V, p. 45. The argument is continued in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792),
ed. Miriam Brody (London, 1985). (back)

(4) Marlon B. Ross, 'Romantic Quest and Conquest: Troping Masculine Power in the Crisis of Poetic Identity,' in
Romanticism and Feminism, ed. Anne K. Mellor (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1988) p. 34. See also
Ross's The Contours of Masculine Desire — Romanticism and the Rise of Women's Poetry (New York, 1988). (back)

(5) See Mary Jacobus, Romanticism, Writing and Sexual Difference (Oxford, 1989). (back)

(6) See Anne K. Mellor, Romanticism and Gender (New York and London, 1993) pp. 20-27. (back)

(7) In Bearing The Word: Language and Female Experience in Nineteenth-Century Women's Writing (Chicago and
London, 1986) p. 40. (back)

(8) I discuss these issues at greater length in my Romanticism and Masculinity: Gender, Politics and Poetics in Burke,
Coleridge, Cobbett, Wordsworth, Hazlitt and De Quincey (Basingstoke: Macmillan; New York: St. Martin’s Press,
1999). (back)

(9) In this project I follow the subtle historicist work of Claudia L. Johnson in Equivocal Beings: Politics, Gender and
Sentimentality in the 1790s. Wollstonecraft, Radcliffe, Burney, Austen (Chicago and London, 1995) pp. 3-23. Also
important for an approach of this kind are Mary Poovey, The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer: Ideology as Style in
the Works of Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley and Jane Austen (Chicago and London, 1984) pp. 18-35. See also
Gary Kelly, Women, Writing, and Revolution 1790-1827 (Oxford, 1993). (back)

(10) Marlon B. Ross, 'Romantic Quest...', p. 40. For a similar critique of Ross see Judith Page, Wordsworth and the
Cultivation of Women (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London, 1994) p. 36. (back)

(11) Hazlitt identified Geraldine as a man in disguise, an identification Coleridge resented. The matter is discussed in John
Beer, 'Coleridge, Hazlitt, and "Christabel"', Review of English Studies 37 (1986) 40-54 (pp. 50, 47, 50). See also Karen
Swann, 'Literary Gentlemen and Lovely Ladies: The Debate on the Character of Christabel,’ ELH 52 (1985) 398-418.
More recently, Camille Paglia, in Sexual Personae (London, 1991) pp. 331-46, and myself, in Romanticism and
Masculinity, have analysed gender fluidity in the poem. (back)

(12) Romantic Potency: The Paradox of Desire (Ithaca and London, 1992) p. 17. See also the introduction to Laura
Claridge and Elisabeth Langland, Out of Bounds. Male Writers and Gendered Criticism (Amherst, Mass., 1990) pp. 4,
13. (back)

(13) I take the text from The Poetical Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. E. H. Coleridge, 2 vols. (London, 1912)
vol. I, pp. 295-98; hereafter abbreviated as PW. (back)

(14) Contrasts are made by E. S. Shaffer, 'Kubla Khan' and the Fall of Jerusalem: The Mythological School in
Biblical Criticism and Secular Literature 1770-1880 (Cambridge, 1975) p. 185 and Geoffrey Yarlott, Coleridge and
the Abyssinian Maid (London, 1967) p. 142. Analogies are discoverable in John Drew, India and the Romantic
Imagination (Delhi, 1987) pp. 219-20, as well as in Paglia, Sexual Personae, p. 328 and Mellor, Romanticism and
Gender, p. 20. (back)

(15) Jane Moore, 'Plagiarism with a Difference: Subjectivity in "Kubla Khan" and Letter Written During a Short
Residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark', in Beyond Romanticism: New Approaches to Texts and Contexts
1780-1832, ed. Stephen Copley and John Whale (London and New York, 1992) p. 157. (back)

(16) For Coleridge’s idealisation of bards and minstrels, see Bard Bracy in 'Christabel' and the discussion in John Beer,
Coleridge the Visionary (London, 1959) pp. 46, 64-65, 187-88, 258-62. (back)

(17) S. T. Coleridge, Marginalia, ed. George Whalley, 5 vols. (London and Princeton, N.J., 1980-) vol. III, p. 906n.

(18) By 1816, when the poem was published with its Preface, Coleridge was already more socially and politically
conservative than in 1797, and was inclined, like the later Burke, to blame social ills on a feminisation of culture. (back)

(19) On Robinson's public notoriety and the political satire directed through ridicule of her towards the Prince, see
Marguerite Steen, The Lost One: a Biography of Mary (Perdita) Robinson (London, 1937). Details of Robinson's life
and loves were made available by her daughter in 1801 in Memoirs of the Late Mrs. Robinson, Written By Herself [2nd
edn (London, 1930)]. (back)

(20) Richard Polwhele, The Unsex'd Females, A Poem (London, 1798) p. 6. (back)

(21) Review of The Poetical Works of the Late Mrs. Mary Robinson, in the Annual Review for 1806 5 (1807) 516-17.

(22) For ease of reference I quote the text from Robinson's novel, where it is incorporated in order to present the author as
a sentimental heroine: Walsingham or, the Pupil of Nature, 4 vols. (London, 1797; facsimile rpt. New York and London,
1974) vol. I, pp. 53-54. (back)

(23) The newspaper variants from the longer poem are recorded in David V. Erdman, 'Unrecorded Coleridge Variants',
Studies in Bibliography II (1958) 152; cf. PW, I, 138; 209-18. (back)

(24) I take the text from Romantic Women Poets 1770-1838: An Anthology, ed. Andrew Ashfield (Manchester and
New York, 1995) pp. 131-32. (back)

(25) The Collected Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. E. L. Griggs, 6 vols. (London, 1956-71) vol. I, p. 562;
hereafter abbreviated as CL. (back)

(26) I quote the seventh stanza, ll. 55-63, from the text included in Lyrical Tales (London, 1800; facsimile rpt. Oxford,
1989) pp. 72-77. (back)

(27) The phrase, from the introduction to The Solitude of Binnorie in the Morning Post, is quoted in S. T. Coleridge,
Essays on his Times, ed. David V. Erdman, 3 vols. (London and Princeton, 1978) vol. III, p. 291. (back)

(28) Coleridge's theories about the preconditions for suspension of disbelief are explained in John Beer, Coleridge's Poetic
Intelligence (London and Basingstoke, 1977) pp. 87-90. (back)

(29) ‘Ode Inscribed to the Infant Son of S. T. Coleridge, Esq.’ lines 54, 68, in Ashfield (ed.), Romantic Women Poets,
pp. 133-34. In The Poetical Works of the Late Mrs. Mary Robinson, ed. M.E. Robinson, 3 vols. (London, 1806).

(30) Susan Luther, 'A Stranger Minstrel: Coleridge's Mrs Robinson', SiR 33 (1994) 407. (back)

(31) Luther, 'A Stranger Minstrel', p. 408. (back)

                                          Tim Fulford
                                   Nottingham Trent University

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