Biographia Literaria by ST Coleridge| Coleridge as a Critic

Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) is most famous as a romantic poet but also held equally valuable as a critic. One of the greatest poet-critics, Coleridge is remembered for his genius poetic creations and critical opinions on poetry and literature. His major critical views are combined in his two elaborate works:
1. Biographia Literaria or Biographical Sketches of My Literary Life and Opinions (1817)
2. Lectures on Shakespeare and Other Poets—delivered irregularly between 1808 and 1819. These lectures are based on practical criticism.
Coleridge secures a valuable place as a poet and critic in Romantic Age (1798-1832). He was the combination of a creative and critical mind with deep knowledge of human psychology which is dominantly reflected in his critical theory of literature.
Though Biographia Literaria is not well planned or a systematic treatise, it is more accountable critical work which exposes, for the first time, the base of criticism in psychology. For Coleridge, the work meant as an autobiographical piece disclosing the literary growth of the author, but it does not fit in any category than a fine piece of literary criticism. The discourse of Biographia Literaria is extensively based on the critical views of Coleridge on poetry rather than his autobiography. Most of his celebrated critical ideas find place in this literary treatise.
The Plan of Biographia Literaria: the book is composed in two volumes having 23 chapters. First Volume includes chapter I-XIII and second Volume comprises chapters XIV-XXIII and later one more chapter (XXIV) added to it in the form of conclusion. But only following chapters received more critical attention:
Chapter IV: deals with the concept of fancy and imagination.
Chapter XIII: imagination and its power.
Chapter XIV: definitions of poem and poetry.
Chapter XVI-XX: difference between his contemporaries and past poets (15th century), the language of Wordsworth and Milton, the language of poetry and choice of diction, metre, etc.
Chapter XXII: defects of Wordsworth’s poetry.
Coleridge should be given the credit of marrying philosophy and poetry—the two major branches debated since many centuries. He formed the link between philosophy and literature through his theory of imagination. Both philosophy and poetry were his favourite areas of contemplation which he fully elaborates in the first part of Biographia Literaria and the second part devoted largely to the critical concerns of Wordsworth’s theory of poetry, and hence many considers it as the staunch critic of Wordsworth. But the fact is that he builds his own critical opinions through the analysis of Wordsworth’s theory of poetry. Following are the major critical ideas of Coleridge expressed in Biographia Literaria:
1. His Theory/ Concept of Imagination: for him, poetry is nothing but the act of imagination and imagination is different than fancy. Now it is mandatory to know both the terms to better understand his theory of imagination as for that he is well established in the field of literary criticism. We can understand the difference between imagination and fancy through the following table:
Sr. No. Imagination Fancy
1 A creative faculty. Common to all human beings, not creative.
2 It is a dynamic process, creates new images. It is mechanical in nature, processes already existed
3 It has unifying power. It creates shapes and modifies the images.
4 It is original faculty of human mind. It collects and pre-supposes imagination.
5 It is original act of creation. It systematically synthesises sensory images
6 It is superior as it has power of creation. It is inferior to imagination as it has power of combining
7 Imagination has a creative power to transform Fancy takes the help of imagination to reshape and
the existing objects completely into new. reconstruct the objects.

Let’s recite the words of Coleridge in Chapter IV in this regard:
“Repeated meditations led me first to suspect (and a more intimate analysis of the human faculties…matured my conjecture into full conviction) that fancy and imagination were two distinct and widely different faculties instead of being, according to the general belief, either two names with one meaning, or, at furthest, the lower and higher degree of one and the same power.” (Biographia Literaria,
For him, the poetry of Shakespeare and Milton is purely based on imagination and the poetry of Cowley is fanciful. Further he goes into the explanation of imagination and divides it into two kinds—primary and secondary imagination. Here is the analogy and difference between primary and secondary imagination:
Sr. No. Primary Imagination Secondary Imagination
1 It is the basic faculty to all humans—senses It is the poet’s faculty—senses the inner world i.e.
the outer world. psychology of a poet.
2 It is a static faculty and pre-existed. It is a dynamic faculty derived from primary imagination.
3 It is in the form of raw material. The poet uses raw material to renew and reshape it to
create the fit images.
4 It brings forth the objects to the senses It dissolves, dissipates, diffuses the objects to
or perception. recreate them.
In this regard here, we have the words of B. Prasad:
“The primary imagination is simply the power of perceiving the objects of senses—processes, places, things—both in their parts and as wholes. It enables mind to form a clear picture of the object perceived by the senses. It is an involuntary act of mind….The secondary imagination is the conscious use of this power.” (180).
So the primary imagination becomes universal whereas secondary particular highly productive for poets and artists. Again he delves into imagination and fancy by citing the example from Shakespeare’s poem Venus and Adonis:
“Full gently now she takes him by the hand.
A lily prisoned in a goal of snow
Or ivory in an alabaster band
So white a friend engirds so white a foe.”
According to him, these lines are just evoking the memory and are sensory best serve the example of fancy.
“Look! How a bright star shooteth from the sky
So glides he in the night from Venus’ eye.”
Here we find the secondary imagination of Shakespeare that he combined existing objects to create an artistic effect over the mind of readers. We know about the sky, the star, the Venus, night but not know how to combine them to create an effect.
2. His Concept of Art: from Plato to Neo-classical critics, art has been held as an imitation of the objects in the nature but Coleridge added a dimension to it and said art is not an imitation only but a product of purely imagination. It is the faculty of imagination that combines and recreates the objects from nature into an art, particularly poetry. There is greater connection between art and individual soul as it colours the outer objects through imagination. The artist’s soul does not respond to all the phenomenon in the nature or outer world but only to these which has something common among them—the soul and nature. It is the fusion or union of soul with the nature or outer world through art or poetry. Here, a poet adds to the effects of poetry by his faculty of imagination. For him, there should be reconciliation between head and heart and combine the thought by natural diction and hence he praised the poets like Cowper and Bowles. In this connection, he showed agreement with his friend Wordsworth:
“It was the union of deep feeling with profound thought; the fine balance of truth in observing, with the imaginative faculty in modifying, the objects observed; and above all the original gift of spreading the tone, the atmosphere, and with it the depth and height of the ideal world around forms, incidents, and situations, of which, for the common view, custom has bedimmed all the lustre, had dried up the sparkle and the dew drops.” (Blamires, 225).
Thus imagination plays a crucial role than what is direct imitation; a unifying force finds balance or reconciliation among the opposite entities; e.g. what is dark, imagination makes it bright, what is low imagination makes it high.
3. What is a Poem & Poetry? Coleridge must be the only critic who thought a poem and poetry as the separate entities having a clear bifurcation. The language of a poem resembles to a piece of prose but the distinction is in the composition and selection of diction. A poem is meant to provide pleasure, poetry to reveal the truth. For him, a poem is ‘best words in their best order’ where emphasis is on the selection of diction and its composition. He more clearly puts his concept of poetry as:
“A poem is 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 strict gratification from each component part.” (Blamires, 226).
A poem is different than that of the works of science or any other branch because the pleasure is an objective of a poem which does not have in any other branch. But a poem cannot reach to the truth i.e. the prime object of poetry. He considers poetry synonymous to a poet and answers the question what is poetry by explaining the qualities of a poet:
“The poet, described in ideal perfection, brings the whole soul of man into activity, with the subordination of its faculties to each other according to their relative worth and dignity. He diffuses a tone and spirit of unity, that blends and (as it were) fuses, each into each, by that synthetic and magical power, to which I would exclusively appropriate the name of Imagination….” (Blamires, 227).
So the task of poet is higher of bringing the soul into activity forming union of soul with nature. The poetry has greater distinction with other forms of writing e.g. science, philosophy or subgenres of literature like novel or short story. The metrical composition and diction is crucial in poetry which, in general, is not an essential part of other writings. The immediate object of science or philosophy is truth and not the pleasure but poetry can have its immediate object a profound truth with pleasure and hence it can be ranked higher.
4. His Views on Diction and Language: as we saw, Coleridge differs between the language of prose and poetry, he is selective in the use of words and their arrangement—‘best words in their best order’. Generally it is his reply to Wordsworth’s theory of poetry and poetic diction. He criticised Wordsworth for his ideas of poetry and use of diction in the Chapter XVII and XVIII of Biographia Literaria. For Wordsworth, the language of common men or real men is essential in poetry but Coleridge shows that how Wordsworth avoids this rustic language or diction in his poems like The Brother, Michael, and Ruth. According to Coleridge, the language of the rustics, the words they use does not need to have reflection because their life is what it is. Hence the diction they use is of poor kind. Their language only can express the facts of nature but not the ideas or thoughts or universal laws. Education has a major stake in developing such language of ideas and contemplation. The communicative language of the rustics cannot be the language of poetry, though they use poetic phrases or words or arrange words to form an effect, all is derived from the Bible or sermons of preachers. Here he takes objection to Wordsworth’s rule that the language of ‘poetry is taken from the mouths of men in real life’:
“My objection is, first that in any sense this rule is applicable only to certain classes of poetry; secondly, that even to these classes it is not applicable, except in such a sense as hath never by anyone (as far as I know or have read) been denied or doubted; and lastly, that as far as, and in that degree in which it is practicable, it is yet as a rule useless, if not injurious, and therefore either need not or ought not to be practised.” (Chapter XVII).
His intention is clear that the rustic language cannot be the language of poetry or he objected to the very words ‘men in real life’:
“I object, in the very first instance, to an equivocation in the use of the word ‘real’. Every man’s language varies according to the extent of his knowledge, the activities of his faculties and the depth or quickness of his feelings. Every man’s language has, first, its individualities; secondly, the common properties or the class to which he belongs; and thirdly, words and phrases of universal use.” (Chapter XVII).
The language of these rustic or common people is not real but ordinary or ‘lingua communis’ to use his own words.
5. His Concept of Genius and Talent: the idea of poetic genius and talent is very much identical with his concept of imagination and fancy with due difference between the two. Genius is what imagination bears, a creative faculty and talent is like fancy synthesises or combines already existed elements of imagination. Genius is the faculty received by birth, talent can be enhanced or acquired. Genius is original, talent is made. In the Chapter XV of Biographia Literaria based on Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis and Lucrece, he provided the four landmarks of poetic genius:
1. Sweetness of versification and melody and music in the soul of the poet. In his own words: “The man that hath not music in his soul can indeed never be a genuine poet.”
2. Objectivity in the selection of subject, it should be far from the poet’s personal life. “A second promise of genius is the choice of subjects very remote from the private interest and circumstances of the writer himself.”
3. The modification of images through imagination: “They (images) become proofs of original genius only as far as they are modified by a predominant passion; or by associated thoughts or images awaked by that passion;….”
4. The poet must have the depth and energy of thought without which no great poetry would born:
“The last character I shall mention, which would prove indeed but little except as taken conjointly with the former, yet without which the former could scarce exist in a high degree and (even if this were possible) would give promises only of transitory flashes and a meteoric power, is depth and energy of thought. No man was ever yet a great poet, without being at the same time a profound philosopher. For poetry is the blossom and fragrancy of all human knowledge, human thoughts, human passions, emotions, language.”
The depth and energy of thought is as essential a quality as the above three mentioned criteria. Poetry has to play a very great role in delivering human thoughts, passions and emotions and it employs the medium of language. Poetry is higher to all other branches because it is ‘the blossom and fragrancy of all human knowledge’. These four landmarks are the recognition of genius poetry.
6. His Concept of Willing Suspension of Disbelief: though he did not use the words directly in Biographia Literaria but the explanation in Chapter XXIII is clearly states the concept of willing suspension of disbelief. There we find a powerful effect of poetry or drama, though we know that it is not real but fictitious. There is pleasure in fiction. The audience has faith in the poet or dramatist and they read or watch that play or tale—a fiction. To quote B. Prasad:
“But to believe what the poet says, to have faith in his fictitious world, he willingly suspends his disbelief in it for the duration of his reading or its performance in the theatre. Only by doing so can he derive any pleasure from a tale or pay.”
Here Coleridge subscribes to Dr. Johnson’s idea that the audience knows the fact about stage and players that they are not real but only performing on the stage. The spectators get pleasure because they have already willingly assumed the disbelief.
Thus the above is the critical analysis of Biographia Literaria manifesting the much discussed critical ideas of Coleridge still we have it for our university syllabus.

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