Essay on Poetic Theory

from Biographia Literaria, Chapter XIV (1817)

by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Introduction

Philosopher, poet, and religious and political theorist Samuel Taylor Coleridge was born in Devonshire, England, and attended the University of Cambridge. In 1795 Coleridge met poet William Wordsworth, with whom he was to work closely. Under Wordsworth’s influence, Coleridge’s poetry shifted to a more conversational voice and began to find inspiration in daily life. In 1796 Coleridge published his first poetry collection, Poems on Various Subjects, and from 1797 to 1798 he lived close to Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy in Somersetshire.

Coleridge and Wordsworth collaboratively published Lyrical Ballads in 1798, marking the rise of the British Romantic movement. According to Coleridge, in their collaborative plans it was agreed Coleridge would compose a series of lyrical poems exploring the Romantic and supernatural, and seeking there to earn a readers’ “poetic faith,” while Wordsworth planned to use the self and the everyday as his subject in poems that would replace a sense of familiarity with an air of the supernatural. Pairing these two approaches, the poets hoped, might bring into harmony “the two cardinal points of poetry, the power of exciting the sympathy of the reader by a faithful adherence to the truth of nature, and the power of giving the interest of novelty by the modifying colors of imagination.”

Coleridge contributed his well-known poem, “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” while Wordsworth ultimately composed the bulk of the collection. After the publication of Lyrical Ballads, the pair traveled throughout Europe. Afterwards, Coleridge lectured and traveled extensively, and, while battling an opium addiction, moved in with physician James Gillman in 1816. The following year Biographia Literaria, a fusion of autobiography, literary criticism, and religious and philosophical theory, was published.

While consistently praising Wordsworth’s creative work, Coleridge was unhappy that when the second edition of the book was published, Wordsworth added a preface containing a statement of poetics emphasizing the “language of ordinary life,” which Coleridge considered to be a significant departure from the collaborative impulse that shaped the work.

In this rebuttal, Coleridge considers the elements of a poem—sound and meter, communication, pleasure, and emotional affect—as they function together. On attempts to shape a work into meter, or consciously add any of these elements to a poem, Coleridge notes, “nothing can permanently please, which does not contain in itself the reason why it is so, and not otherwise.” Emphasizing the harmony of these elements as what sustains a poem, Coleridge describes the reader’s path through such a poem as “like the motion of a serpent . . . or like the path of sound through the air; at every step he pauses and half recedes, and from the retrogressive movement collects the force which again carries him onward.”

Occasion of the Lyrical Ballads, and the objects originally proposed—Preface to the second edition—The ensuing controversy, its causes and acrimony—Philosophic definitions of a poem and poetry with scholia. During the first year that Mr. Wordsworth and I were neighbors, our conversations turned frequently on the two cardinal points of poetry, the power of exciting the sympathy of the reader by a faithful adherence to the truth of nature, and the power of giving the interest of novelty by the modifying colors of imagination. 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 thought suggested itself (to which of us I do not recollect) that a series of poems might be composed of two sorts. In the one, the incidents and agents were to be, in part at least, supernatural; and 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. For the second class, 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 this idea originated the plan of the “Lyrical Ballads”: in which it was agreed, that my endeavors 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. 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 mind’s attention from the lethargy of custom, and directing 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 solicitude we have eyes, yet see not, ears that hear not, and hearts that neither feel nor understand.

With this view I wrote the “Ancient Mariner,” and was preparing among other poems, the “Dark Ladie,” and the “Christabel,” in which I should have more nearly realized my ideal, than I had done in my first attempt. But Mr. Wordsworth’s industry had proved so much more successful, and the number of his poems so much greater, that my compositions, instead of forming a balance, appeared rather an interpolation of heterogeneous matter. Mr. Wordsworth added two or three poems written in his own character, in the impassioned, lofty, and sustained diction, which is characteristic of his genius. In this form the “Lyrical Ballads” were published; and were presented by him as an experiment, whether subjects, which from their nature rejected the usual ornaments and extra-colloquial style of poems in general, might not be so managed in the language of ordinary life as to produce the pleasurable interest, which it is the peculiar business of poetry to impart. To the second edition he added a preface of considerable length; in which notwithstanding some passages of apparently a contrary import, he was understood to contend for the extension of this style to poetry of all kinds, and to reject as vicious and indefensible all phrases and forms of style that were not included in what he (unfortunately, I think, adopting an equivocal expression) called the language of real life. From this preface, prefixed to poems in which it was impossible to deny the presence of original genius, however mistaken its direction might be deemed, arose the whole long continued controversy. For from the conjunction of perceived power with supposed heresy I explain the inveteracy and in some instances, I grieve to say, the acrimonious passions, with which the controversy has been conducted by the assailants.

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. But 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 fervor. These facts, and the intellectual energy of the author, which was more or less consciously felt, where it was outwardly and even boisterously denied, meeting with sentiments of aversion to his opinions, and of alarm at their consequences, produced an eddy of criticism, which would of itself have borne up the poems by the violence, with which it whirled them round and round. 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. But he has not, as far as I can discover, announced any change in his poetic creed. At all events, considering it as the source of a controversy, in which I have been honored more than I deserve by the frequent conjunction of my name with his I think it expedient to declare once for all, in what points I coincide with his opinions, and in what points I altogether differ. But in order to render myself intelligible I must previously, in as few words as possible, explain my ideas, first, of a POEM; and secondly, of POETRY itself, in kind, and in essence.

Originally Published: October 13, 2009
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 Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Biography

Samuel Taylor Coleridge is the premier poet-critic of modern English tradition, distinguished for the scope and influence of his thinking about literature as much as for his innovative verse. Active in the wake of the French Revolution as a dissenting pamphleteer and lay preacher, he inspired a brilliant generation of writers and attracted the patronage of progressive men of the rising middle class. As William Wordsworth’s . . .

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