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Analysis of "Biographia Literaria" by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

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The composed landmark of Coleridge’s basic work is contained in 24 sections of Biographia Literaria (1815– 17). In this basic disquisition, Coleridge concerns himself with the act of feedback, as well as, with its hypothesis. In his down to earth way to deal with feedback, we get the look at Coleridge the writer; while in hypothetical exchange, Coleridge the logician went to the center stage. In Chapter XIV of Biographia Literaria, Coleridge’s vision of the nature and function of poetry in philosophical terms is discussed. The poet within Coleridge speaks of the distinction between poetry and prose, and the function of poetry, and the immediate function of poetry, while the philosopher analyzes the difference between poetry and poem. He was the first English writer to insist that each work of art is, by its very nature, an organic whole. In the first step, it discards the supposition, which, from Horace onwards, had caused such havoc in criticism, that the object of poetry is to instruct; or, as a less extreme form of heresy had affirmed, to make men morally better. In chapter fourteen, Coleridge talks about how he and Wordsworth decided that a series of poems can be composed of two types.

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The first would be supernatural and the second would be themed they chose from ordinary life. This is what led them to the idea of the “lyrical ballads”. Coleridge was the one who focused on the supernatural, while Wordsworth focused on the ordinary or the ordinary. Coleridge talks about how his poems were not as successful as Wordsworth. In the first edition, Wordsworth published 19 of the 23 poems. Coleridge said that his poems made the ballads not flow well. Coleridge also talks in this chapter about what poetry is. He says “What is poetry? Because it is a distinction that results from the poetic genius itself, which sustains and modifies the images, thoughts, and emotions of the poet’s own mind.” Coleridge talks about what the poet is in ideal perfection. He says that an ideal poet would put into activity the whole soul of a man. He also says that the ideal poet “diffuses a tone and spirit of unity that blends and fuses by that synthetic and magical power, the imagination.”

The poetry according to Coleridge had two cardinal points in it, which Wordsworth and Coleridge often had a conversation about. With his views on these two cardinal points, Coleridge began this chapter. These cardinal points were, firstly, by adhering faithfully to the truth of nature to excite the sympathy of the reader, and secondly, by modifying the colors of imagination giving the interest of novelty. It was decided according to Coleridge that, poetries written by Wordsworth would focus on the first cardinal point while the other would apparently be dealt with by him. The treatment and subject matter for the first type of poetry quoting Coleridge should be, “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.” The characters and episodes for such poems were to be taken from common life situations, as they would be found in each town and its region, those where there is a thoughtful and feeling psyche to look for after them or to see them when they would introduce themselves. The incidents and agents in the second sort of verse were to be of supernatural contents.

To cite Coleridge, this kind of poetry should have “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 the imagination, the poet will supernaturally treat the natural and the reader will understand it with “voluntary suspension of disbelief”. In defense of Wordsworth’s poetic creed: Coleridge, although he did not agree with Wordsworth’s views on poetic diction, claimed his poetic creed in chapter 14 of Biographia Literaria. Coleridge writes in defense of the violent assailant to the “language of real life” adopted by Wordsworth in the lyrical ballads. There were strong criticisms against Wordsworth’s views expressed in the Preface as well. Coleridge writes in his defense: “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 into 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 the opposition) was distinguished by its intensity, I might almost say, by its religious fervor.” Thus, Coleridge gives full credit to the genius of Wordsworth. It does not mean that he agreed with Wordsworth on all the points. 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. The difference between the poem and poetry is not given in clear terms. Even John Shawcross (in Biographia Literaria with Aesthetical Essays – 1907 Ed.)

Writes that “this distinction between ‘poetry’ and ‘poem’ is not clear, and instead of defining poetry he proceeds to describe a poet, and the poet 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 simply one of the forms of its expression, a verbal expression of that activity, and poetic activity is basically an act of the imagination. David Daiches further writes in A Critical History of English Literature, “The employment f the secondary imagination is a poetic activity, and we can see why Coleridge islet from a discussion from a poem to a discussion of the poet’s activity when we realize that for him the poet belongs to the greatest company of those who are distinguished by the activity of his imagination. “By virtue of his imagination, which is a synthetic and magical power, he harmonizes and combines various elements and thus diffuses a tone and a spirit of unity over the whole, manifested more clearly in the balance or reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities. , like equality, difference, the general, the concrete, the idea, the image, the individual, the representative, the sensation of novelty and freshness, with old and familiar objects, a state of emotion more than usual, with a more than usual order, judgment with enthusiasm, and while this imagination mixes and harmonizes the natural and the artificial, its subordinates are to nature, in the manner of matter, and our admiration of the poet to our sympathy with poetry. Coleridge is based on Wordsworth’s statement that poetry should reflect the language of the common man and the poet can learn the particular truth of rustic people. This debate with Wordsworth on poetry is well understood in chapter 17 of Biographia Literaria.

The chapter is well-structured and proves to be a good debater. Coleridge directly does not attack Wordsworth’s apparent weakness, in the beginning, he accepts his fellow oppositions strengths. The ideas of Wordsworth that “Rustic Man has exceptional wisdom is critiqued by Coleridge that any man can have this wisdom no matter where he lives city, town or country. Provided, the man should have two important virtues of characteristics they are, firstly, the man should not be living in poverty but working hard for as living and the other quality needed for wisdom is knowledge of the Bible or other religious texts. He goes on to argue that neither the country nor nature itself have magical qualities that can confer insight or wisdom. He comments on the “wisdom of rustic life” of Wordsworth: a man can only gain value if he is educated or both with particular sensitivity to the natural, both attributes are very important. According to Wordsworth, a poem should reflect the ‘real’ language of real people whereas Coleridge feels poet should use a language that is contemplative, meditative, cogitative, it should be thoughtful and should reflect superior thoughts of the poet.

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Hence for him, the proper language of poetry is more reflective than which is usually found in the language of must rural people. In brief, Coleridge spreads awareness or brings to the reader’s attention to any interpretation of Wordsworth’s view that might seem to support the idea that poetry should be written in ‘low’ commonly entirely colloquial and commonplace- language. To conclude, we may say in his own words, he endeavored ‘to establish the principles of writing rather than to furnish runes 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 the critics before him had been content to turn a poem from the inside out and talk about its merits and demerits, Coleridge dealt with the basic question of “how it came into existence”. I was more interested in the creative process. that he did it, what it was, then in the finished product.


  1. Modiano, R. (2012). Coleridge as Literary Critic: Biographia Literaria and Essays on the Principles of Genial Criticism. (
  2. Fogel, D. M. (1977). A Compositional History of the” Biographia Literaria”. Studies in Bibliography, 30, 219-234. (
  3. Coleridge, S. T. (1847). Biographia Literaria Or Biographical Sketches of My Literary Life and Opinions by Tayl. Sam. Coleridge (Vol. 2). W. Pickering. (
  4. Burwick, F. (1989). Coleridge’s Biographia literaria: text and meaning. The Ohio State University Press. (
  5. Christensen, J. C. (1977). Coleridge’s Marginal Method in the Biographia Literaria. PMLA, 92(5), 928-940.

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