- “Oh, lift me over the threshold, and let me in at the door!”: Boundaries and Thresholds in Mary Coleridge’s Poetry
Mary Elizabeth Coleridge tucked her manuscript of “The Witch” into a letter to Lucy Violet Hodgkin on March 21, 18931: “Home again in the company of this Witch. What do you think of her? Is she very bad? or not so very bad? The metre’s all wrong any way.”2 The letter is filled with episodes that exemplify the sort of boundaries Coleridge manipulates even in her questions about the poem—whether the witch is morally reprehensible or dangerous in a deliciously alluring way that makes her badness palatable or even desirable. For Coleridge, the witch’s badness originates in her transgressive plea: “Oh, lift me over the threshold, and let me in at the door!” The poem’s modified dramatic monologue form accentuates the central moment when the boundary transforms into a threshold—when the two speakers inhabit the house together. Coleridge revisits these transgressive moments repeatedly in her poetry: in “The Other Side of a Mirror,” the moment occurs when the speaker whispers, “‘I am she!’” (l. 30); in “Master and Guest,” it is when the speaker invites inside the man who “stood in the shadow of the door” (l. 4), a man who later tells her, “You have kissed a citizen of Hell, / And a soul was doomed when you were born” (ll. 19–20). In “On a Bas-relief of Pelops and Hippodameia,” the moment happens when the waves “cut [the stone] more smoothly than the knife” (l. 6); in “Wilderspin,” it occurs when the speaker cries, “I broke the web for ever, / I broke my heart as well. / Michael and the Saints deliver / My soul from the nethermost Hell!” (ll. 33–36).3 In each case, what seemed a barrier—between individuals and between objects—melts into a threshold for interpenetration. Building upon previously unexamined archival material, in particular the letter that envelopes “The Witch” in one of its earliest forms, I would like to offer a new reading of the poem that re-envisions Coleridge’s poetic project through the lens of her personal experiences.
In “On a Bas-relief of Pelops and Hippodameia,” the force of art shapes the forms of the couple through the joint work of the sculptor and the sea. [End Page 195] Coleridge describes art as a process in which the stone, “the thing least like to life” (l. 2), becomes “A perfect thing . . . rescued from the deep” (l. 14). Only by succumbing to the processes of evolution and devolution, which happen in tandem, and by allowing external forces to reshape the original form, can the object become “at length / a perfect thing” (ll. 13–14). In “The Witch,” composed two years before “On a Bas-Relief,”4 the woman’s cry, as she begs for entrance to the house, captures a related struggle: “Oh, lift me over the threshold, and let me in at the door!” (ll. 7, 14). Like the bas-relief, “The Witch” carries the etchings of history, becoming “A perfect thing” through Coleridge’s textual memory, which reveals text as a site of struggle between past and present and self and other, re-creating poetic identity. Furthermore, Coleridge’s letters reveal that her poetry results from her experiences in a network of relationships she has created. She constantly modifies, re-creates, and negates her poetic identity through masks like “Anodos” and through the poetic re-writings that her network produced. As we shall see, “The Witch” results from such re-writings.
Although in her edition of Coleridge’s poetry Theresa Whistler gives the poem’s composition date as 1892, the manuscript in the letter in 1893 is the first version in existence, as far as I am aware. Only two other versions of the poem are extant; one, in a black notebook titled “Fancy’s Followings by Vespertilio,” and the other in one of two volumes of red notebooks titled “Verses by Vespertilio.” Neither notebook is dated, but both contain Robert Bridges’s editorial comments. Bridges appears to have seen Coleridge’s poems for the first time in...