Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria

The Lyrical Ballads were written in 1798 as a joint project between Wordsworth and Coleridge. In 1800 Coleridge said the new preface, contains our joint opinions on Poetry however by 1802 things took a wrong turn and Coleridge proclaimed he knew Wordsworth better than he knew himself. Coleridge believed Wordsworth was brilliant, but as time went by his poetic power and passion peaked and declined. Wanting to distance himself from Wordsworth’s philosophy on poetry he wrote his Biographia Literaria in 1817. Speaking of Wordsworth in his prime, he has this to say of him:

From Chapter 4

[On Wordsworth’s Earlier Poetry]

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 To find no contradiction in the union of old and new; to contemplate the ANCIENT of days and all his works and feelings as fresh, as if all had then sprang forth at the first creative fiat[1]; characterizes the mind that feels the riddle of the world, and may help to unravel it. To carry on the feelings of childhood into the powers of manhood; to combine the child’s sense of wonder and novelty with the appearances, which every day for perhaps forty years had rendered familiar This is the character and privileged of genius, and one of the marks which distinguish genius from talents. And therefore is it the prime merit of genius and its most unequivocal mode of manifestation, so to represent familiar objects as to awaken in the minds of others a kindred feeling concerning them and that freshness of sensation which is the constant accompaniment of mental, no less than of bodily, convalescence. Who has not a thousand times seen a snow fall on water? Who has not watched it with a new feeling, from the time that he has read Burns comparison of sensual pleasure

To snow that falls upon a river

A moment white then gone forever![2]

It’s this synthesis that the romantics constantly point to, to the deep feeling with the profound, with the old and the new, the feelings of childhood with the powers of manhood. The list of juxtapositions go on and on. But what the Romantics all agree upon is making the ordinary seem new and fresh again, as given in the simple poem by Robert Burns.

From Chapter 13


The IMAGINATION then I consider either as primary, or secondary. The primary IMAGINATION I hold to be the living Power and prime Agent of all human Perception. And as a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite IAM. The secondary I consider as an echo of the former, co-existing with the conscious will, yet still as identical with the primary in the kind of its agency, and differing only in degree, and in the mode of its operation. It dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to re-create; or where this process is rendered impossible, yet still at all events it struggles to idealize and to unify. It is essentially vital, even as all objects (as objects) are essentially fixed and dead.

This passage needs some unpacking. The Primary IMAGINATION perceives everything, and creatively knits all of those experiences together to and makes everything coherent and understandable to the person. The secondary IMAGINATION varies only in degree. It adds fresh, vital flavor to how we understand the world and is where the wealth of poetical vision comes from.

From Chapter 14

[Criticism on Wordsworth’s Preface to the Lyrical Ballads]

[T]he plan of the Lyrical Ballads; in which it was agreed, that my endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic; yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith. With this view I wrote the Ancient Mariner. Mr. Wordsworth, on the other hand, was to propose to himself as his object, to give the charm of novelty to things of every day, and to excite a feeling analogous to the supernatural, by awakening the mine’s attention from the lethargy of custom, and direction it to the loveliness and the wonders of the world before us; an inexhaustible treasure, but for which in consequence of the film of familiarity and selfish solitude we have eyes, yet we see not, ears that hear not, and hearts that neither feel nor understand.

What Coleridge means by the “willing suspension of disbelief” is that in which the supernatural forces us, by some truth to human nature or the human condition, to suspend the supernatural and see something more real than reality in its fiction. Wordsworth, on the other hand, would shake us out of the film of familiarity which a mechanical sort of life would imposes upon us in this ever increasing industrializing world.

[The Poem]

A poem is that species of composition, which is opposed to works of science, by proposing for its immediate object of pleasure, not truth; and from all other species (having this object in common with it) it is discriminated by proposing itself such delight from the whole, as is compatible with a distinct gratification from each component part. 

Poetry’s object is pleasure firstly, Coleridge believes. It may contain Truth, and I believe the highest poetry will and does. But, it is of Coleridge’s belief that its primary goal is pleasure, which I am wrestling with, because what if one knows the only way to teach Truth is to move people using pleasure? In this case, the primary goal is Truth, not pleasure. The idea of the Lyrical Ballads was to instruct one to use one’s imaginations so to break the bonds of the film of familiarity. What about all that I’ve learned from the Greeks, and how bent they were on blurring the line between Beauty and Truth? Maybe it depends on the poet.

[The 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 tone, and spirit of unity, that blends, and (as it were) fuses, each into each, and by that synthetic and magical power, to which we have exclusively appropriated the name of imagination. This power, first put in action by the will and understanding, and retained under their irremissive,[3] though gentle and unnoticed, control [guided by loose reins] reveals itself in the balance or reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities: of sameness, with differences; of the general, with the concrete; the idea with the image; the individual, with the representative; the sense of novelty and freshness, with old and familiar objects; a more than usual state of emotion, with more than usual order; judgement ever awake and steady self-possession, with enthusiasm and feeling profound or vehement; and while it blends and harmonizes then natural and the artificial, still subordinates art to nature; the manner to the matter; and our admiration of the poet to our sympathy with the poetry.

The ideal poet then can use his imagination as a great orchestra using all its parts in a great harmony. The poet then diffuses, unifies, blends, and fuses ideas, words, and sounds so to touch the sensibilities and sympathy of its readers.

[1] Divine command

[2] Robert Burns, Tam Shanter (lines 61-62)

[3] unforgiving

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