First Loves and Flirting Verses

  • Anya Taylor


The young Samuel Taylor Coleridge (STC) overflowed with songs, anacreontics, and sportive glees. Several Devonshire belles, who had previously blushed unseen, have come to the surface in J. C. C. Mays’s new texts. These girls inspired his passions and verses in the years before he met his future wife in August, 1794, and for many months thereafter. Jenny Edwards, the daughter of the school nurse or matron, received his early sonnet “Genevieve.” Since Coleridge spent “most of the school year 1789–90 in the school sick-ward,” he had ample time to hear her singing, and to see her “breast with pity heave” (PW # 17), and he remembered her in Malta as the victim of a false love letter sent by cruel classmates (CN 2619). A would-be dandy at 17, he begs his brother George for “a good pair of breeches” since the one he has is all scribbled on with sonnets and epigrams and “not altogether so well adapted for a female eye.” The current pair, with shiny fabric, would incur “the charge of Vanity brought against me for wearing a Looking Glass” (May 26, 1789; CL 1, 5). The female eyes noticing his breeches may be those of the Evans sisters, but other girls responded to him in spontaneous meetings. Mays says that Coleridge met Fanny Nesbitt on the coach running between Exeter and Tiverton in July 1793, leading us to imagine the lively flirtations on such a ride, coach rides that he describes with rollicking humor in poems as he crisscrosses the West Country.


German Woman Current Pair Evans Sister Future Wife Evans Girl 
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  1. 2.
    William Carlos Williams’s “The Dance” catches this physical movement: “In Breughel’s great picture, The Kermess, / the dancers go round, they go round and / around…./… those / shanks must be sound to bear up under such / rollicking measures….” (1944), in The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams, ed. A. Walton Litz and Christopher MacGowan (New York: New Directions Books, 1986), 2, pp. 58–59.Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    For more on Coleridge’s admiration of ancient German companionate marriages, see Anya Taylor, “Coleridge, Wollstonecraft, and the Rights of Women,” in Coleridge’s Visionary Languages, ed. Tim Fulford and Morton D. Paley (Suffolk: D. S. Brewer, 1993), pp. 83–98.Google Scholar
  3. 5.
    So, too, Coleridge’s participation in manly drinking fests and drinking songs surprise many Coleridge readers; see Anya Taylor, “Coleridge and Alcohol,” Bacchus in Romantic England: Writers and Drink 1780–1830, (Basingstoke and New York: Macmillan and St. Martins, 1999), pp. 93–125.Google Scholar
  4. 6.
    Feb. 2, 1794; Kenneth Curry, ed., New Letters of Robert Southey, 2 vols (New York and London: Columbia University, 1965), vol. 1, p. 48.Google Scholar
  5. 7.
    Richard Holmes, Coleridge: Early Visions (New York: Viking, 1990), wonders if this commitment was more in Southey’s mind than in Coleridge’s, pp. 75–76.Google Scholar
  6. 8.
    In Coleridge’s Poetry and Prose, selected and edited by Nicholas Halmi, Paul Magnuson, and Raimonda Modiano (New York and London: W.W. Norton, 2004), p. 609, the single entry that is intended to encapsulate Coleridge’s lifelong interest in women comes from a late conversation in Table Talk 1835 (1, 212–213), recorded Sept. 27, 1830, by Coleridge’s conservative nephew and extracted from what may well have been a humorous context. Coleridge remarks that Shakespeare knew that it was “the perfection of women to be characterless. Every one wishes a Desdemona or Ophelia for a wife,—creatures who, though they may not always understand you, do always feel you, and feel with you.” It is possible to imagine that this comment prompted a burst a laughter from his conversational companions who knew his marital history. Suicide and suffocation are the outcomes of marrying these “ideal” wives. These five lines of print do not do justice to Coleridge’s many thoughts about women.Google Scholar

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© Anya Taylor 2005

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  • Anya Taylor

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