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Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria: Chapter XIV

Introduction: The written monument of Coleridge’s critical work is contained in 24 chapters of Biographia Literaria (1815–17). In this critical disquisition, Coleridge concerns himself not only with the practice of criticism, but also, with its theory. In his practical approach to criticism, we get the glimpse of Coleridge the poet; whereas in theoretical discussion, Coleridge the philosopher came to the centre stage. In Chapter XIV of Biographia Literaria, Coleridge’s view on nature and function of poetry is discussed in philosophical terms. The poet within Coleridge discusses the difference between poetry and prose, and the immediate function of poetry, whereas the philosopher discusses the difference between poetry and poem. He was the first English writer to insist that every work of art is, by its very nature, an organic whole. At the first step, he rules out the assumption, which, from Horace onwards, had wrought such havoc in criticism, that the object of poetry is to instruct; or, as a less extreme form of the heresy had asserted, to make men morally better. Q1. Which two cardinal point of poetry are discussed by Coleridge in Chapter 14 of Biographia Literaria? Q2. “During the first year that Mr. Wordsworth and I were neighbours, our conversations turned frequently on the two cardinal points of poetry”. Explain with reference to Coleridge’s view in Ch. 14 of Biographia Literaria.

Two cardinal points of poetry: Coleridge begins this chapter with his views on two cardinal point of poetry. To him these cardinal points are (i) the power of exciting the sympathy of the reader by a faithful adherence to the truth of nature, and (ii) the power of giving the interest of novelty by modifying with the colours of imagination. According to him, it was decided that Wordsworth would write poetry dealing with the theme of first cardinal point and the other was to be dealt by him. For the first type of poetry, the treatment and subject matter should be, to quote Coleridge, “The sudden charm, which accidents of light and shade, which moon-light or sun-set diffused over a known and familiar landscape, appeared to represent the practicability of combining both. These are the poetry of nature.” In such poems, subjects were to be chosen from ordinary life; the characters and incidents were to be such, as will be found in every village and its vicinity, where there is a meditative and feeling mind to seek after them, or to notice them, when they present themselves. In the second type of poetry, the incidents and agents were to be supernatural. In this sort of poetry, to quote Coleridge, “the excellence aimed at was to consist in the interesting of the affections by the dramatic truth of such emotions as would naturally accompany such situations, supposing them real. And real in this sense they have been to every human being who, from whatever source of delusion, has at any time believed himself under supernatural agency.” Thus with the help of imagination the natural will be dealt supernaturally by the poet and the reader will comprehend it with ‘willing suspension of disbelief’.

The Lyrical Ballads consists of poems dealing with these two cardinal points. Wherein, the endeavour of Coleridge was to deal with “persons and characters supernatural”, and that of Wordsworth “was to give the charm of novelty to things of every day, by awakening the mind's attention from the lethargy of custom, and directing it to the loveliness and the wonders of the world before us.” Q3. What are Coleridge’s views towards Wordsworth’s poetic creed? Q4. “Had Mr. Wordsworth's poems been the silly, the childish things … they must have sunk at once, a dead weight, into the slough of oblivion, and have dragged the preface along with them”. Explain with reference to Coleridge’s view in Chapter 14 of Biographia Literaria.

In defence of Wordsworth’s poetic creed: Coleridge, even though he did not agree with Wordsworth’s views on poetic diction, vindicated his poetic creed in chapter 14 of Biographia Literaria. Coleridge writes in defence to the violent assailant to the ‘language of real life’ adopted by Wordsworth in the Lyrical Ballads. There had been strong criticism against Wordsworth’s views expressed in Preface also. Coleridge writes in his defence: “Had Mr. Wordsworth's poems been the silly, the childish things, which they were for a long time described as being; had they been really distinguished from the compositions of other poets merely by meanness of language and inanity of thought; had they indeed contained nothing more than what is found in the parodies and pretended imitations of them; they must have sunk at once, a dead weight, into the slough of oblivion, and have dragged the preface along with them”. He wrote that the ‘eddy of criticism’ which whirled around these poems and Preface would have dragged them in oblivion. But it has not happened. Instead, to quote Coleridge, “year after year increased the number of Mr. Wordsworth's admirers. They were found too not in the lower classes of the reading public, but chiefly among young men of strong ability and meditative minds; and their admiration (inflamed perhaps in some degree by opposition) was distinguished by its intensity, I might almost say, by its religious fervour.” Thus, Coleridge gives full credit to the genius of Wordsworth.

It does not mean that he agreed with Wordsworth on all the points. Colridge writes: “With many parts of this preface in the sense attributed to them and which the words undoubtedly seem to authorize, I never concurred; but on the contrary objected to them as erroneous in principle, and as contradictory (in appearance at least) both to other parts of the same preface, and to the author's own practice in the greater number of the poems themselves. Mr. Wordsworth in his recent collection has, I find, degraded this prefatory disquisition to the end of his second volume, to be read or not at the reader's choice”. Hence, we may say that, Coleridge is frank enough to point out that some of the views of Wordsworth were wrong in principle and contradictory, not only in parts of the Preface but also to the practice of the poet himself in many of his poems.

Q5. How does Coleridge distinguish between Prose and Poem? Q6. Does the super addition of metre make the difference between prose and poem? Q7. Would then the mere super addition of metre, with or without rhyme, entitle these to the name of poems? Explain. Q8. “A poem contains the same elements as a prose composition”. Elucidate. Q9. What according to Coleridge is the nature and function of poem?

The poem contains the same elements as a prose composition. But the difference is between the combination of those elements and objects aimed at in both the composition. According to the difference of the object will be the difference of the combination. If the object of the poet may simply be to facilitate the memory to recollect (remember) certain facts he would make use of certain artificial arrangement of words with the help of metre. As a result composition will be a poem, merely because it is distinguished from composition in prose by metre, or by rhyme. In this, the lowest sense, one might attribute the name of a poem to the well-known enumeration of the days in the several months; Thirty days hath September, April, June, and November, &c.

Thus, to Coleridge, mere super addition of meter or rhyme does not make a poem.

He further elucidates his view point by various prose writings and its immediate purpose and ultimate end. In scientific and historical composition, the immediate purpose is to convey the truth (facts). In the prose works of other kinds (romances and novels), to give pleasure in the immediate purpose and the ultimate end may be to give truth. Thus, the communication of pleasure may be the immediate object of a work not metrically composed.

Now the question is “Would then the mere super addition of metre, with or without rhyme, entitle these to the name of poems?” To this Coleridge replies that if metre is super added the other parts of the composition also must harmonise with it. In order to deserve the name poem each part of the composition, including metre, rhyme, diction and theme must harmonise with the wholeness of the composition. Metre should not be added to provide merely a superficial decorative charm. Nothing can permanently please, which does not contain in itself the reason why it is so, and not otherwise. If metre is super added, all oher, parts must be made constant with it. They all must harmonise with each other. A poem, therefore, may be defined as, that species of composition, which is opposed to works of science, by proposing for its immediate object pleasure, not truth; and from all other species (having this object in common with it) it is discriminated by proposing to itself such delight from the whole, as is compatible with a distinct gratification from each component part. Thus, according to Coleridge, the poem is distinguished form prose compositions by its immediate object. The immediate object of prose is to give truth and that of poem is to please. He again distinguishes those prose compositions (romance and novels) from poem whose object is similar to poem i.e. to please. He calls this poem a legitimate poem and defines it as, “it must be one, the parts of which mutually support and explain each other; all in their proportion harmonizing with, and supporting the purpose and known influences of metrical arrangement”. Therefore, the legitimate poem is a composition in which the rhyme and the metre bear an organic relation to the total work. While reading this sort of poem “the reader should be carried forward, not merely or chiefly by the mechanical impulse of curiosity or by a restless desire to arrive at the final solution; but by the pleasurable activity of mind excited by the attractions of the journey itself”. Here Coleridge asserts the importance of the impression created by the harmonious whole of the poem. To him, not one or other part but the entire effect, the journey of reading poem should be pleasurable. Thus Coleridge puts an end to the age old controversy whether the end of poem is instruction or delight. Its aim is definitely to give pleasure, and further poem has its own distinctive pleasure, pleasure arising from the parts, and this pleasure of the parts supports and increases the pleasure of the whole. Q10. How does Coleridge differentiate between Poem and Poetry? Q11. “Poetry of the highest kind may exist without metre and even without the contradistinguishing objects of a poem.” Explain. Q12. “A poem of any length neither can be, nor ought to be, all poetry”. Explain. Q13. The difference between poem and poetry “is a distinction resulting from the poetic genius itself, which sustains and modifies the images, thoughts, and emotions of the poet's own mind”. The difference between Poem and Poetry: In the last section of the chapter 14, Coleridge considers to distinguish poem from poetry. Coleridge points out that “poetry of the highest kind may exist without metre and even without the contradistinguishing objects of a poem”. He gives example of the writings of Plato, Jeremy Taylor and Bible. The quality of the prose in this writings is equal to that of high poetry. He also asserts that the poem of any length neither can be, nor ought to be, all poetry. Then the question is what is poetry? How is it different from poem? To quote Coleridge: “What is poetry? is so nearly the same question with, what is a poem? The answer to the one is involved in the solution of the other. For it is a distinction resulting from the poetic genius itself, which sustains and modifies the images, thoughts, and emotions of the poet's own mind. Thus the difference between poem and poetry is not given n clear terms. Even John Shawcross (in Biographia Literaria with Aesthetical Essays – 1907 Ed.) writes “this distinction between ‘poetry’ and ‘poem’ is not clear, and instead of defining poetry he proceeds to describe a poet, and from the poet he proceeds to enumerate the characteristics of the imagination”. This is so because ‘poetry’ for Coleridge is an activity of the poet’s mind, and a poem is merely one of the forms of its expression, a verbal expression of that activity, and poetic activity is basically an activity of the imagination. As David Daiches(A Critical History of English Literature) points out, ‘Poetry’ for Coleridge is a wider category than a ‘poem’; that is, poetry is a kind of activity which can be engaged in by painters or philosophers or scientists and is not confined to those who employ metrical language, or even to those who employ language of any kind. Poetry, in this larger sense, brings, ‘the whole soul of man; into activity, with each faculty playing its proper part according to its ‘relative worth and dignity’. This takes place whenever the synthesizing, the integrating, powers of the secondary imagination are at work, bringing all aspects of a subject into a complex unity, then poetry in this larger sense results.

David Daiches further writes in A Critical History of English Literature, “The employment f the secondary imagination is a poetic activity, ad we can see why Coleridge is let from a discussion of a poem to a discussion of the poet’s activity when we realize that for him the poet belongs to the larger company of those who are distinguished by the activity of their imagination.” By virtue of his imagination, which is a synthetic and magical power, he harmonize and blends together various elements and thus diffuses a tone and spirit of unity over the whole. It manifests itself most clearly in the balance or reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities – such as (a) of sameness, with difference, (b) of the general, with the concrete, (c) the idea, with the image, (d) the individual, with the representative, (e) the sense of novelty and freshness, with old and familiar objects, (f) a more than usual state of emotion, with more than usual order, (g) judgment with enthusiasm. And while this imagination blends and harmonizes the natural and the artificial, it subordinates are to nature, the manner to the matter, and our admiration of the poet to our sympathy with the poetry.

To conclude, we may say In his own words, he endeavored ‘to establish the principles of writing rather than to furnish rules about how to pass judgment on what had been written by others’.

Thus, Coleridge is the first English critic who based his literary criticism on philosophical principles. While critics before him had been content to turn a poem inside out and to discourse on its merits and demerits, Coleridge busied himself with the basic question of ‘how it came to be there at all’. He was more interested in the creative process that made it, what it was, then in the finished product.