Coleridge and the ‘Learned Ladies’


Linda L. Reesman


(Coleridge Bulletin, New Series 20, Winter 2002, pp 122-128)


THE QUEST FOR HAPPINESS is a pervasive theme in literature reflecting the basic human need for love – a love of work, a love of family and a love of friends.  Seeking to satisfy this yearning, Samuel Taylor Coleridge attempted to unify his life and work while consistently facing and struggling with separation, absence and distance.  Coleridge explored political, social, religious, historical, and personal issues in ‘that deep romantic chasm’ of his writing, ‘And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething’.[1] of chaos and instability arise several relationships with women that attempt to instill order into Coleridge’s life and work which, however, fall short of this goal leaving him to wrestle with his own feelings of ambivalence.

       This same divergence of sentiments appears in several theoretical explanations of the Romantic Era defining this period of literature as an imaginative answer to a rational eighteenth-century world.[2]  Rather than oversimplifying the characteristics of the Romantic period and thus, at the same time, mistakenly reducing Coleridge’s ambivalence towards his intimate relationships to a superficial cause, I have chosen to examine how Coleridge’s relationships with women reflect the ambivalence in the eighteenth-century debate on the virtues of the fair sex, a debate fostered by the writings of Jean Jacques Rousseau and Mary Wollstonecraft.  Consequently, this paper will address how this debate has shaped the role of the Romantic wife, an invention of Romantic poetry and prose.

       The Romantic poets, primarily Coleridge, enlarged the view of domestic love by developing a clearer concept of friendship in marriage, bringing intellectual pursuits and literary interests into a more intimate perspective.  As more and more married women challenged their values of domestic life with shifting paradigms of virtue, based on learning and morality, the fair sex began to identify themselves more as intellectual equals and independent thinkers.  The women of central interest in Coleridge’s life whom I have chosen to discuss in the context of ‘learned ladies’ include his wife, Sarah Fricker; his literary friend and companion, Dorothy Wordsworth; and his literary admirer and love, Sara Hutchinson.  From letters Coleridge exchanged with his wife, letters written to Sara Hutchinson, and letters written by Dorothy Wordsworth, the intimate world of Coleridge and his domestic conflicts are revealed.  More than a rehearsal of biographical details, these letters form an




epistolary and literary connection that shape the portrait of the Romantic wife, literally and figuratively, since the wife, friend, and writer are intermingled among these relationships for Coleridge. 

       Coleridge encouraged education for women, so he naturally gravitated towards Sarah Fricker and her family.  Describing Sarah’s background, Stephen M. Weissman explains, ‘Coming from a prosperous and cultivated family, Mrs. Fricker had taken great pains to insure that her vivacious daughters  [Sarah, Mary, and Edith] attained a higher level of education than most young women in their sagging circumstances managed to achieve’.[3]  It is no wonder that in October of 1795 Coleridge chose Sarah Fricker for his wife, a woman sympathetic to his philosophical ideal of pantisocracy.  Sarah was raised in Bath and in Bristol where Hannah More, a member of the Bluestocking Club, founded a school of education for girls that revolutionized female education through higher instruction in intellectual pursuits. These methods of education promoted freedom in thinking yet still remained sympathetic to a conservative morality.  Not only was Sarah schooled in English and French as well as mathematics, but she was ‘brought up in liberal, Unitarian surroundings’ where Sarah and her sisters were introduced to Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman published in 1792.[4]  As Kathleen Jones explains, ‘For Sarah its ideals of sexual equality accorded with her own passionate nature… The idea of being a loving friend to your husband rather than a “humble dependent” was very attractive, and what Wollstonecraft wrote about female independence and self-reliance had become so evidently necessary by the time Sarah read the book, it seemed a fundamental truth’.[5]

       The poetic sensibility in Coleridge inspired Dorothy Wordsworth’s affection for her brother’s friend, and his admiration for her ‘quick romantic mind—what he called her “eager soul,” her creative gifts, and her quicksilver personality and “the ascendancy of imagination over intellect” ’ attracted Coleridge more to Dorothy than to his wife’s independent ideas and intellectual accomplishments.[6]  In his letter to Joseph Cottle circa 3 July 1797 Coleridge describes Dorothy as Wordsworth’s ‘exquisite sister’ and with ‘her eye watchful in observation of nature—and her taste a perfect electrometer—it bends, protrudes, and draws in, at subtlest beauties & most recondite faults’ which further defines the growing intimacy between the two.[7]  Drawing on the sensitivity of Coleridge’s language in his essay ‘Coleridge’s Poetic Sensibility,’ George Whalley discerns these poetic ties between Coleridge and Dorothy Wordsworth as he examines how sensory perception is rendered in the language of the poet.  As Whalley asserts, ‘That Coleridge’s sensibility was in fact, like Dorothy’s, “a perfect [goldleaf] electrometer” there can be no




question’.[8]  The development of the imaginative over the intellectual marks the Coleridgean element of poetry, the primary imagination, and forms an essential quality of the Romantic wife.  Imagination and a pleasing temperament add form and color to the portrait of the wife imbued with these traits.

       Dorothy’s appealing temperament can be attributed in part to her upbringing.  In contrast to Sarah Fricker, she was educated through the influence of Erasmus Darwin’s Plan for the Conduct of Female Education and Dr. Gregory’s A Father’s Legacy to His Daughters, both imparting traditional virtues of submission and obedience as the Conduct Books of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were intended to do, and which provoked Mary Wollstonecraft into an avid refutation of these ideas in her Vindication: ‘The only object of female education at that time, wrote Mary Wollstonecraft, was to train girls to be a “fit companion for a man of sense” and to make them “agreeable and useful” ’.[9]  Dorothy learned to sublimate her own desires and inclinations thereby making her a more ‘fit companion’ for someone like Coleridge and perhaps also establishing her susceptibility to the use of laudanum that plagued Coleridge as well. 

       Among Coleridge’s circle of friends were the Hutchinson sisters, Mary and Sara, who were distant relatives of William and Dorothy Wordsworth as well as childhood friends.  The closeness of brother and sister is again evidenced in the Hutchinson family where Mary kept the household for her brother Tom in Sockburn while Sara and her sister Joanna kept the household for another brother, George Hutchinson, near Durham at Bishop’s Middleham.[10]  The continuation over the years of sisters caring for the households of unmarried brothers, exchanging households and positions, set the tone for a wider definition of ‘wife’ that Coleridge longed to incorporate into his own experience.  After William Wordsworth’s marriage to Mary Hutchinson in October of 1802, seven years to the date of Coleridge’s marriage to Sarah Fricker, the Wordsworth household included William, Mary, and Dorothy.  Weissman characterizes Coleridge’s marital strife as symptomatic of his envy of William Wordsworth’s happiness at having a compatible marriage partner in Mary and, at the same time, a literary companion in his sister Dorothy.[11]  For Coleridge the image of the Romantic wife was evolving into an ideal visionary love that embodied the intimacy of a brother-sister relationship, an attraction both chaste and pure, binding the sentimental with an ordinary human need for friendship.  As J. Robert Barth affirms, ‘Coleridge’s paradigm [for marriage] is friendship, and he represents “sexual love as an especially intense form of confraternity” ’.[12]

       Coleridge’s visit to Sockburn in November of 1799 cultivated his




emotional attachment to Sara Hutchinson and his friendship with her at a gathering of the Wordsworths and Hutchinsons ‘around the hearth… enjoying conundrums, puns, stories, and laughter, while Samuel furtively held Sarah’s hand for a long time behind her back, and “for the first time was wounded by Love’s dainty but deadly poisoned dart” ’.[13]  Inspired by these feelings of love Coleridge wrote his Introduction to the Tale of a Dark Ladie, a fragment published in the Morning Post December 21, 1799, and which was later published as a poem entitled Love in 1810.[14]  From an entry in his notebook of November 1799, Coleridge’s inscription describes ‘The long Entrancement of a True-love’s Kiss’.[15]  Whether this single sentimental line is an expression of his fanciful imagination or a more accurate representation of his true feelings for Sara cannot easily be determined.[16]  However, when examining Coleridge’s description of the ‘guileless’ woman, her ‘modest grace’ and ‘virgin-shame’ in his poem Love, it becomes apparent that Coleridge is attracted to a union of romantic and platonic sentiments.  Coleridge poetically paints the portrait of a woman honored for her chastity and forgiveness, virtues embedded in the submissive and obedient wife.

       On the one hand, he saw his marriage to Sarah Fricker as an essential component in his pantisocratic scheme; and then becoming discouraged with the relationship only four years later, falls in love with another ideal, that of a literary admirer and friend.  For Coleridge, perhaps, this new relationship redefines his initial sense of love, becoming now a capital ‘R’ Romantic love that integrates wife, friend, and literary companion in contrast with the virtues of submission and obedience that characterize the eighteenth-century values of domestic love.  When first married to Sarah Coleridge, he exclaimed, ‘Mrs. Coleridge—MRS. COLERIDGE!!—I like to write the name’.[17]  Determined that he had found happiness, he declared, ‘I love and am beloved and I am happy’.[18]  However, in his notebook entry of 1796 Coleridge begins to question the nature of marriage: ‘Marriage—sole Propriety  In Paradise.  The thorn in the flesh—vide St. Paul—reason on this//’.[19]  Whether he was discovering the human or the divine purpose for marriage may depend on what he meant by ‘the thorn in the flesh’ (II Cor 12:7) which J. R. Dummelow’s Commentary on The Holy Bible explains as a painful bodily disease recurring at intervals.[20] 

       During times of doubt in his marriage which led to his absenteeism as a father and husband, Coleridge tried to unify himself with his literary friends




looking for an antidote to his emotional conflict.  Yet, he was to continue this struggle within himself as Earl Leslie Griggs notes, ‘Believing, however, in the “indissolubleness” of marriage, Coleridge was thrown into a state of constant turmoil and a dependence on laudanum for relief’.[21]  For Coleridge his conflicts deepened and his physical condition worsened: ‘Continuing ill-health, frustration over his love for Sara Hutchinson, and knowing that he could not live with his wife reduced him to a pitiable condition’.[22]  Coleridge was driven by the need to unify his feelings into an organic wholeness that he philosophically and poetically embraced yet was unable to experience with any sense of permanence in his domestic life.

       Coleridge’s attention to the momentary experiences in his life overshadowed his ability to maintain a consistency in his relationships, especially his most intimate ones.  As his discontent with his marriage loomed larger, he wrote to Robert Southey in October 1801, when he was turning twenty-nine, ‘that his marriage, though indissoluble, was unendurable; “for what is life,” he cried on the last day of the year, “gangrened, as it is with me, in its very vitals, domestic tranquillity?” ’.[23]  However, Sarah Coleridge also suffered within the marriage: tensions developed as she tried to become her husband’s intellectual equal, his friend and not his servant, whilst simultaneously attempting to maintain a comfortable home for her family, and resolve the financial deprivations that made her turn to others for support. 

       Inspired by her love for Coleridge early in their relationship, Sarah wrote several poems recorded in letters from Coleridge to Cottle.  Her poem entitled ‘Silver Thimble’ was described by Coleridge as ‘ “remarkably elegant and would do honor to any Volume of any Poems” ’.[24]  However, despite her creative attempts at poetry and inventive language, ‘Coleridge went to great lengths to deny Sarah any creative or perceptive powers at all, and it was one of the Wordsworths’ most damning criticisms of her that she had no “creative sensibility” ’.[25]  Of course, this denial occurred as soon as the marriage began to dissolve, and any recognition of Sarah’s literary ability was belittled by Coleridge when he found his literary companions in other women such as Dorothy Wordsworth and Sara Hutchinson.  Thomas Poole, a close friend of both Sarah and Samuel, remained loyal to Sarah throughout her years of ordeal with her husband.  He saw Sarah ‘as possessing just the elements of practicality and common sense that her husband needed to function as a poet’.[26]  Despite her acute awareness of and training by Wollstonecraft’s radical ideas on female education, Sarah chose to enhance the domestic environment for Coleridge which proved to be detrimental instead of supportive for their relationship. 




Even though Coleridge’s third issue of The Watchman published on March 17, 1796 advocated Wollstonecraft’s ideas that wives should become their husbands’ intellectual equals, his literary writings and his personal life remained in conflict.[27]

       Coleridge lived his life inconsistent with his philosophical ideals and appears to have been caught in the snare of rhetorical hypocrisy, an hypocrisy not personal to him but one that surfaced in the late eighteenth century as writers such as Rousseau and Wollstonecraft earnestly explored the problems of virtue in a troubled society. As social reformers Rousseau and Wollstonecraft significantly shaped the subjective identity of the wife, mother, and independent woman, new concepts of virtuous behavior for middle-class women emerged, concepts that Coleridge embraced in his writing but which he could not sort out in his relationship with his wife.  Paradoxically, Rousseau reinforces the superiority of men over women depicting the social environment during this period with accuracy and illustrating the subordination of women intellectually and politically as long as they are educated by men and not by nature.[28]  Wollstonecraft counteracts Rousseau’s denigration of women by attacking the source of virtue, not as Rousseau would have it, as originating in the natural construct of women, but by asserting that virtue relies on ‘immutable principle’, as Catherine Macaulay affirms in her Letters on Education published in 1790.[29]  Coleridge acknowledges the freedom of those women who choose intellectual equality over feminine charm when he agrees with Wollstonecraft’s ‘philosophy of sensuality’ in the third issue of The Watchman noted earlier.  As Coleridge notes,  ‘The women of Germany were the free and equal companions of their husbands: they were treated by them with esteem and confidence, and consulted on every occasion of importance’.[30]  He also recognizes the problem inherent in this debate over virtue when he continues, ‘What then, is this love which woman loses by becoming respectable?’.[31]  On the one hand, women were treated with esteem and respect, while on the other hand, it would appear that their passionate nature was sacrificed for this respectability as individual thinkers.  The identity of the wife began to include not just intellectual freedom but political and civil freedoms as well, and the ideal of marriage became a partnership based on liberty and equality.

       Did Sarah, despite her domestic attempts to keep her husband happy,




become a sacrificial lamb for the freedom of women from moral and social traditions that would subjugate the female intellect?  Was Samuel trapped in shaping a Romantic imagination that could not reconcile the literary experience with the life experience of the poet?  Perhaps the rules of the imagination that Coleridge refers to in his Biographia Literaria that ‘are themselves the very powers of growth and production’ are the same rules that govern his personal relationships.[32]  Elevating happiness to poetic fancy and, perhaps fantasy, Coleridge writes,  ‘ “Domestic happiness is the greatest of things sublunary—and of things celestial it is perhaps impossible for unassisted Man to believe any thing greater—…” ’.[33]  Here Coleridge poetically interprets domestic happiness in its essence and not its form as he so precisely defines the faculties of imagination and fancy in Chapter 4 of his Biographia.  Marriage is ‘a promise’, he proclaims, describing it as ‘a pledge’ between two individuals, a pledge that seeks to love, honor, obey, and cherish each other, and as Coleridge so insightfully acknowledges in his fragment ‘The Happy Husband’ (1802), marriage is also ‘a mystery’.[34]  The contradiction between the real and the ideal wife imitates Coleridge’s poetical theory and ultimately shapes the image of the Romantic wife from the extraordinary into the ordinary, exalting the familiar and bringing the individual traits of wife, friend and literary companion into an organic union.  At the heart of this unity remains a burning conflict of eighteenth-century virtues, submission and obedience, enveloped by the hue of imagination, the tone of fancy, and the form of familiarity.


[1]       Coleridge: Poetical Works, ed. Ernest Hartley Coleridge (Oxford, 1988) 297; hereafter PW.

[2]       Several theories of Romanticism base their ideas on competing ideologies, contrary beliefs, and systems of thought that have emerged from a complexity of ideological systems of the eighteenth-century as evidenced in the writings of Morse Peckham, W. J. Bate, James Engell, Earl R. Wasserman, Northrop Frye, Anne K. Mellor, Michael G. Cooke, M. H. Abrams and others.  L. J. Swingle, The Obstinate Questionings of English Romanticism (Louisiana State University Press, 1987) 13-20.

[3]       Stephen M. Weissman, His Brother’s Keeper: A Psychobiography of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (International Universities Press, 1989) 54.

[4]       Kathleen Jones, A Passionate Sisterhood: The Sisters, Wives and Daughters of the Lake Poets (St.Martin’s Press, 2000) 4.

[5]       Jones 4

[6]       Jones 60

[7]       Collected Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. E. L. Griggs (6 volumes, Oxford 1956-71) I 195; hereafter CL.

[8]       George Whalley, ‘Coleridge’s Poetic Sensibility,’ Coleridge’s Variety, ed. John Beer (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1975) 7. 1-30.

[9]       Jones 30

[10]     George Whalley, Coleridge and Sara Hutchinson and the Asra Poems (Toronto, 1955) 35-36.

[11]     Weissman 212

[12]     For a fuller explanation see J. Robert Barth, ‘Coleridge’s Ideal of Love,’ Studies in Romanticism 24 (1987): 115. 113-39.

[13]     Oswald Doughty, Perturbed Spirit: The Life and Personality of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (Associated University Presses, 1981) 191.

[14]     PW 330

[15]     The Notebooks of Samuel Taylor Coleridge 1794-1804, ed. Kathleen Coburn, (Pantheon, 1957) I 578; hereafter CN.

[16]     Conceivably, Coleridge is trying to achieve in his art what he is seeking in his life, a union of friendship and marriage, but he also seems to recognize the fancifulness of poetic expression when he remarks in an earlier notebook entry of 1796 that ‘Poetry—excites us to artificial feelings—makes us callous to real ones’.  CN I 87.

[17]     CL I 160

[18]     CL I 164

[19]     CN I 79

[20] A Commentary on The Holy Bible, ed. J. R. Dummelow (Macmillan, 1936) 942.

[21]     See E. L. Griggs, ‘Coleridge as Revealed in his Letters,’ which appears in Coleridge’s Variety, ed. John Beer (University of Pittsburgh, 1975) 40. 31-53.

[22]     Griggs 41

[23]     Coleridge and Sara Hutchinson  41

[24]     Jones 47

[25]     Jones 48

[26]     Jones 49

[27]     Jones 50

[28]     Rousseau’s contribution to the debate on education for women can be summarized in the following explanation from his novel Émile (1762): ‘As I see it, the special functions of women, their inclinations and their duties, combine to suggest the kind of education they require.  Men and women are made for each other but they differ in the measure of the dependence on each other. . . .To play their part in life they [women] must have our willing help, and for that they must earn our esteem.  By the very law of nature women are at the mercy of men’s judgments both for themselves and for their children’.  The Émile of Jean Jacques Rousseau: Selections, ed. and trans. William Boyd (Bureau of Publications, 1965) 135.

[29]     Moira Ferguson and Janet Todd, Mary Wollstonecraft (Twayne, 1984) 62.

[30]     The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge: The Watchman, ed. Lewis Patton (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1970) 91; hereafter Watchman.

[31]     Watchman  91

[32]     The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge: Biographia Literaria or Biographical Sketches of My Literary Life and Opinions, eds. James Engell and W. Jackson Bate (Princeton, 1983) 84; hereafter BL.

[33]     Anthony John Harding, Coleridge and the Idea of Love: Aspects of Relationship in Coleridge’s Thought and Writing (Cambridge, 1974) 10.

[34]     PW 388