dwarf tree


©   John Spencer Hill

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The Structure of Biographia Literaria

This section contains a number of links out to my Imagination in Coleridge
(Macmillan 1978), which will allow readers access to significant portions
of the text of Biographia Literaria.   These links are marked with a .

[222]   "I can assert," Thomas DeQuincey declared in 1834, "upon my long and intimate knowledge of Coleridge's mind, that logic, the most severe, was as inalienable from his modes of thinking, as grammar from his language".1   What, then, is the "logic" of the Biographia Literaria?   How, and on what principles, is the work structured -- or, indeed, has it any structure at all?
      Adverse criticism begins (as is not unusual) with Coleridge himself, who deprecatingly refers to Biographia Literaria as an "immethodical miscellany" and a "semi-narrative" (BL, i 64, 110).   Early reviewers took the author at his word:   the kindest epithet any of them could manage for the work was "strange medley", and usually they were searing in their condemnation of its rambling structure.   The legacy of these early reviewers persisted unchallenged until well into the present century.   T. S. Eliot, for example, saw reflected in Biographia Literaria the "state of lethargy" produced by "the disastrous effects of long dissipation and stupefaction of [Coleridge's] powers in transcendental metaphysics"; and Maurice Carpenter, for whom the book was "a long monologue" of incorrigible heterogeneity, felt justified as late as 1954 in dismissing it as "the most exasperating book in the English language".2   The first serious attempt to dispel the prevailing notion of Biographia as "a whimsical and absent-minded improvisation, a mushroom growth in which toughness of fibre is scarcely to be expected", was made by George Whalley in 1953.
      Whalley's defence of the structural integrity of Biographia Literaria proceeds along two lines.   First, he refutes the view that it was a hasty improvisation by pointing out that the issues which it explores had been in Coleridge's mind for well over a decade and that the work "has many indelible marks of prolonged, patient, and mature consideration".3   Second, he stresses the centrality of Wordsworth, both in the early development and in the final execution of Biographia Literaria.   The original motivation to compose the work was rooted in Coleridge's desire to explain the [223] novel power of Wordsworth's art and the related desire to solve the "radical Difference" between his own and Wordsworth's theoretical opinions about poetry.   Both these desires come to fruition in Biographia Literaria and, in the final analysis, it is Coleridge's view of Wordsworth that imparts unity and purpose of design to this soi-disant "immethodical miscellany".   A substantial portion of the work, of course, is devoted to a critical appraisal and exposition of Wordsworth's theory and poetic achievement.   Most of the second volume (chs 14-22) deals directly with these matters.   The largely philosophic first volume, on the other hand, prepares the ground for the literary analysis to follow and deals, sometimes directly, sometimes by implication, with Wordsworth.   Certainly, the philosophical chapters are not gratuitous metaphysical embroidery unrelated to the book's central concerns, and (as Whalley observes) it is not often enough remembered that "the centre of the philosophical critique -- the distinction between Fancy and Imagination -- arose from Wordsworth's poetry and was intended to elucidate it".4   In short, then, Wordsworth is omnipresent; and Whalley argues convincingly that, with the long examination of Wordsworth's work in chapters 14-22, "the Biographia Literaria comes full circle, spun upon the firm centre of Coleridge's poetic and philosophic life, his admiration for Wordsworth's work, his need to utter forth an intuition [fancy-imagination] that had long haunted and enlightened his thinking".5
      Although dissenting voices may still be heard,6 Whalley's position has been endorsed -- sometimes enthusiastically7 -- by most recent commentators.   Subsequent readers have often wished to modify or qualify Whalley's conclusions, or to adjust the emphasis of the argument by focusing on other unifying threads in Biographia Literaria.   Thus, J.E. Barcus, for example, argues that "if the Biographia Literaria is read in the light of Coleridge's own literary principles, it becomes a practical demonstration of the principles he was propagating";8 and George Watson, although part of his argument is untenable,9 finds in the work a "peculiarly Coleridgean" unity in the fact that here Coleridge
succeeds for the first and (so far) for the last time in English criticism in marrying the twin studies of philosophy and literature, not simply by writing about both within the boards of a single book or by insisting that such a marriage should be, but in discovering a causal link between the two in the century-old [224] preoccupation of English critics with the theory of the poet's imagination.   (BL[W], p. xix)
What Whalley has taught us to see (wherever we may choose to place the emphasis) is that Biographia Literaria is not without method or purpose.   The point no longer is whether or not the book is unified, but rather to identify the nature (and degree) of its thematic and structural organisation.
      Coleridge's success is, of course, debatable:   some critics (most notably J.A. Appleyard) regard the Biographia as "a remarkable failure, an important fragment";10 others, such as Lynn M. Grow, find it to be "a coherent expression . . . a cogent and compelling statement".11   These opposing arguments, in their elaboration, often show the defects of their qualities; and a true assessment lies in a middle ground where these extremes meet.

In the opening paragraph of Biographia Literaria Coleridge states, clearly and concisely, the scope and purpose of his book:
It will be found, that the least of what I have written concerns myself personally.   I have used the narration chiefly for the purpose of giving a continuity to the work, in part for the sake of the miscellaneous reflections suggested to me by particular events, but still more as introductory to the statement of my principles in Politics, Religion, and Philosophy, and an application of the rules, deduced from philosophical principles, to poetry and criticism.   But of the objects, which I proposed to myself, it was not the least important to effect, as far as possible, a settlement of the long continued controversy concerning the true nature of poetic diction; and at the same time to define with the utmost impartiality the real poetic character of the poet, by whose writings this controversy was first kindled, and has since been fuelled and fanned.   (BL, i 1-2)
The book is not, then, an autobiography in any usual sense of the term.  Rather, autobiography is a thread used to give continuity to the central themes and concerns of the work:  (a) a statement of Coleridge's principles in politics, religion, philosophy, and literary theory;12 (b) a philosophic investigation of the principles13 governing poetry and criticism; and (c) the practical application of these [225] principles, once established, to the poetry and poetic theory of Wordsworth.  At the heart of the book stands, not Coleridge himself, but Coleridge's principles -- the general laws which underlie and direct his judgement.  Biographia Literaria, then, is not an expository outline of its author's life and times, but an exploration of the formative stages of his intellectual development.  It is, too, a selective history of mental and moral growth, concentrating on poetry; however, the homogeneity of the principles to which he has been guided (and which he hopes to explicate and to illustrate) allows him without being irrelevant to explore their exfoliation into the fields of politics, theology and philosophy.  But this procedure is not without its difficulties and drawbacks.  It involves Coleridge, for example, in a paradox -- for he finds himself engaged simultaneously in the two quite different activities of exploring and expounding fundamental principles.  That is, he sees his task as the philosophic deduction of principles; yet, at the same time, he is concerned with applying to politics and religion and (especially) literary theory the very principles that he is involved in deducing.  "One has the sense", as M.G. Cooke observes, "of his reporting his universe in order to be able to see it".14  The dilemma of Biographia Literaria is that it is both process and product.  Whether or not Coleridge is able to reconcile these methodological difficulties, and the degree of his success, are debatable issues.
      Although Biographia Literaria is concerned primarily with Coleridge's response to Wordsworth, the introductory chapters deal with preliminary matters and acknowledge debts predating his association with Wordsworth.
      The opening chapter emphasises the formative influence exerted on Coleridge's understanding of poetry by James Boyer and William Lisle Bowles.   From Boyer, his headmaster at Christ's Hospital, Coleridge learned that poetry was fundamentally and formally distinct from other modes of writing and that it possessed "a logic of its own, as severe as that of science; and more difficult, because more subtle, more complex, and dependent on more, and more fugitive causes" (BL, i 4).   From Bowles, whom he considered the first modern poet to combine "natural thoughts with natural diction", he learned that poetry could (and should) bring together thought and feeling, that it should reconcile the workings of both the head and the heart.   In the poetry of Bowles he first caught the accents of the true voice of feeling, and what he heard led him [226] to appreciate that the epigrammatic couplets of fashionable eighteenth-century verse were artificial and were characterised "not so much by poetic thoughts, as by thoughts translated into the language of poetry" (BL, i 11).   These insights from Boyer and Bowles originated in Coleridge's mind the whole question of the nature of poetry, and they prompted him to labour at establishing "a solid foundation, on which permanently to ground my opinions, in the component faculties of the human mind itself, and their comparative dignity and importance" (BL, i 14).   From the outset, then, philosophy and psychology were intimately connected with poetry and poetic experience in the search for aesthetic principles and an individual poetic vision.
      In chapters 2 and 3, which superficially appear gratuitously digressive, Coleridge exposes the malicious inadequacy of the pseudo-criticism of anonymous reviewers, whose views, unsupported by sound principles, are both wrongheaded and uncritical.   Since Coleridge's purpose in Biographia Literaria is to establish sound critical principles as the basis for literary judgement, these chapters are far from irrelevant.
      In chapter 4 Coleridge returns to the early formation of his poetic creed and to the third (and most important) influence upon it -- the poetry of Wordsworth.   Boyer and Bowles provided indispensable preliminary insights, but Wordsworth struck him with the disturbing force of radical revelation.   While still at Cambridge, Coleridge had read Wordsworth's Descriptive Sketches, and "seldom, if ever," (he declared) "was the emergence of an original poetic genius above the literary horizon more evidently announced" (BL, i 56).   The full revelation of Wordsworth's genius and power, however, came two years later in September or October 1795, when, at their first meeting, Wordsworth recited his manuscript poem Guilt and Sorrow.   The effect of this reading on Coleridge was instant, profound and revolutionary:   what made "so unusual an impression on my feelings immediately, and subsequently on my judgement" 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 had [227] bedimmed all the lustre, had dried up the sparkle and the dewdrops.   (BL, i 59)
Here was the seminal insight, though Coleridge found it difficult to define its nature precisely.   To a degree unknown in English literature since Milton, Wordsworth had unified thought and feeling in poetic utterance, had both realised and idealised the commonplace, had made the reader see man and nature as if he were seeing them for the first time.   Wherein lay the source of this "freshness of sensation"? What was it in Wordsworth's poetry, what power there manifested itself, that distinguished his poetry from that of eighteenth-century writers?   "Repeated meditations", says Coleridge, anticipating yet laying the ground-work for arguments and illustrations to follow,
led me first to suspect, (and a more intimate analysis of the human faculties, their appropriate marks, functions, and effects 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.   (BL, i 60-l)
      The desynonymisation of fancy and imagination lies at the heart of Biographia Literaria and is, in a very real sense, its raison d'être.   Coleridge's object in the work is "to investigate the seminal principle" of imagination and, in so doing, "to present an intelligible statement of my poetic creed; not as my opinions, which weigh for nothing, but as deductions from established premises" (BL, i 65).   The terminus a quo of this investigation is largely Wordsworth, whose Guilt and Sorrow first directed Coleridge's attention to the subject of poetic imagination; the terminus ad quem, which will follow the philosophic deduction of the imagination, is a mature assessment of Wordsworth's poetic achievement.
      Chapters 5-13 constitute the philosophic core of the Biographia Literaria -- and the major stumbling-block for the majority of its readers.   They are, certainly, difficult reading; but they are integral to the book's purpose and meaning.   They trace the growth of Coleridge's philosophic consciousness, his rejection of empirical epistemology and the influence on his thought of German idealism, and they lead, in chapter 12, to an outline (heavily [228] dependent on Schelling) of his own "dynamic" philosophy -- an outline intended as the metaphysical substratum from which was to arise the promised (but undelivered) deduction of a theory of imagination.   Chapters 5-7 are devoted to a detailed refutation of associationist psychology, especially that of David Hartley, among whose fervent adherents Coleridge had once (and Wordsworth still) counted himself; chapter 8 deals, briefly but effectively, with the problem of Cartesian dualism and the inadequacy of post-Cartesian materialism; and chapter 9 sketches Coleridge's intellectual obligations, in breaking free of materialism and associationism, to the mystics (such as Jacob Boehme) who "contributed to keep alive the heart in the head", to Immanuel Kant who "took possession of me as with a giant's hand", and to the post-Kantian idealists, especially Schelling, in whose work "I first found a genial coincidence with much that I had toiled out for myself, and a powerful assistance in what I had yet to do" (BL, i 98-9, 102).   There is, as J.A. Appleyard observes, an imbalance in these chapters (5-9) that is not easily explained and is, in the final analysis, unsatisfactory:
This ninth chapter disappoints the reader who hopes to find in the Biographia some clue to the extent of the idealist influence on Coleridge's thinking.   What he gives by way of comment amounts to not much more than a hasty outline, a cartoon that will not do where a finished painting is demanded . . . .   The fact is that Coleridge devotes most of four chapters to a long and very circumstantial refutation of associationist psychology, but only one short chapter to the influence of the whole idealist tradition on his thought.15
To say that there is a structural imbalance in these chapters is not, however, to say that they are irrelevant.   Indeed, both their relevance and their peculiar emphasis on philosophical positions that Coleridge rejects rather than on those he accepts may be explained -- though perhaps not excused -- by bearing in mind two things.   First, Coleridge's theory of the imagination as a vital, active, poietic ("making") power was achieved only after he had exploded the doctrine of passive perception on which the associationist hypothesis depended.   In England the prevailing epistemology was stolidly empirical, holding that the human mind was merely a passive receiver of external impressions through the senses; and [229] Coleridge, for whom perception involved an active and vital interchange between the perceiver and the perceived, was only too conscious that he was swimming against the current.   Given the intellectual climate of the day and the philosophic preconceptions of English readers (who knew little or nothing of German transcendentalism), it is not surprising that Coleridge considered a detailed confutation of associationism more important than a lengthy acknowledgement of his obligations to obscure or unknown foreign thinkers.   In the second place, the emphasis on associationism in Chapters 5-8 is partly to be explained as an answer to Wordsworth's indistinct but essentially Hartleian doctrine of association in the Preface to Lyrical Ballads.   Since 1802 Coleridge had regarded this tenet of his friend's theory as inadequate and jejune; it formed part of the "radical Difference" that he perceived and came gradually to understand between their theoretical views on poetry.   In later chapters of the Biographia Coleridge would deal with the other areas of his disagreement with Wordsworth's theory (namely, the problems of poetic diction and metre); but here, on the threshold of the proposed deduction of imagination, it was necessary to explore in detail the failure of associationism -- a doctrine which had encumbered Wordsworth's theory in the Preface to Lyrical Ballads and which, in Wordsworth's 1815 Preface, had led him to muddle and misconstrue Coleridge's fancy-imagination distinction.   Obviously, such a doctrine could not go unchallenged.
      Chapters 10 and 11 are confessedly digressive.   Like the "Landing-Place" essays in The Friend, they are largely anecdotal interludes interposed for amusement, retrospect and preparation.   They shift our attention in an engaging manner from Coleridge's intellectual history to more personal episodes in his biography, narrating with relish such events as his trials with enrolling subscribers for his early periodical The Watchman and the now legendary "Spy-Nosy" incident belonging to his Somerset years with Wordsworth.   They stress, too, with respect to his political and theological thinking especially -- and this is not often enough noticed -- his lifelong commitment to the "establishment of principles . . . by [which] all opinions must be ultimately tried" (BL, i 124).   More is meant, more is implied in these apparently unassuming chapters, than meets the eye of a purely casual reader.   They are digressive, it is true, but they are not without purpose -- for they pursue and consolidate insights already gained, applying them to other of Coleridge's [230] myriad-minded interests, and so prepare the ground indirectly for insights still to come.
      Chapters 12 and 13, the most difficult and perplexing in the book, resume the discussion of Imagination.  No summary of their contents is possible, although some rudimentary signposts and milestones may help the belabyrinthed traveller keep his bearings and hold the journey's end in sight.  Chapter 12, heavily indebted to Schelling's Abhandlungen and System des transcendentalen Idealismus,16 is concerned with establishing the postulates of the dynamic (as opposed to mechanistic) philosophy upon which Coleridge's theory of imagination depends.  The chapter is very heavy reading, full of what James Joyce would call "abstruosities".  From anyone familiar with Carlyle's comically vindictive portrait of Coleridge snuffling about "sum-m-mject" and "om-m-mject", it elicits an involuntary shudder of recognition:
I have heard Coleridge talk, with eager musical energy, two stricken hours, his face radiant and moist, and communicate no meaning whatsoever to any individual of his hearers . . . .   He began anywhere:   you put some question to him, made some suggestive observation:   instead of answering this, or decidedly setting out towards an answer of it, he would accumulate formidable apparatus, logical swim-bladders, transcendental life-preservers and other precautionary and vehiculatory gear, for setting out; perhaps did at last get under way . . . .   He had knowledge about many things and topics, much curious reading; but generally all topics led him, after a pass or two, into the high seas of theosophic philosophy, the hazy infinitude of Kantean transcendentalism, with its "sum-m-jects" and "om-m-mjects".17
      In chapter 12 Coleridge (via Schelling) postulates the existence and the simultaneous reality of two diverse states of being, which he distinguishes as SUBJECT and OBJECT.   By subject he means human intelligence, the self and self-consciousness, the I AM; by object he means external Nature, the non-self, the IT IS.   The existence and reality of these polarities are assumed (on the basis of experience) as axioms, and the problem is to discover the relationship between the subjective and the objective in any act of knowledge.18   If the perceiving subject and the perceived object are equally "real" yet equally distinct, then (a) what is a perception (the [231] product of their union), and (b) how does it come about?   To the first question Coleridge answers, satisfactorily enough, that in all acts of perception there is an interpenetration of self and non-self resulting in a tertium aliquid or third entity partaking of both.   Perceptions, then, are modifications of self-consciousness:   the perceiver knows himself in and through the objects which he perceives.   This hypothesis yields, as Coleridge says, the paradox that true idealism "is only so far idealism, as it is at the same time, and on that very account, the truest and most binding realism" (BL, i 178).   So far, so good -- but how (turning to the second question) does this fusion of subject and object take place?   Coleridge does not say.   At the crucial point of his argument he defers "the demonstrations and constructions of the Dynamic Philosophy" to the third treatise of his projected "Logosophia" and is content to restate, in the categorical form of ten "theses" (largely appropriated from Schelling), the main conclusions already reached.   Now, we know from chapter 7 (esp. i 85-6) of Biographia Literaria, as well as from elsewhere in his writings, that Coleridge proposed to defend his "true and original realism" and explain the relationship between thoughts and things by positing the existence of "an intermediate faculty [of the mind], which is at once both active and passive".   This faculty is, of course, the imagination.   Why, then, does he draw up short in chapter 12, asking us to "assume such a power as [a] principle" (BL, i 188) so that he can deduce from it in his next chapter what is, after all, merely another aspect or degree (i.e. the poetic imagination) of the very power he wishes us to assume as an axiom?   Perhaps he was too short of time with the printer snapping at his heels to elaborate such a complex argument; perhaps, in a work concerned with his literary opinions, he felt it improper to develop in the detail required so purely philosophical a proposition; perhaps, as Father Appleyard maintains, he was himself confused by his own arguments and found it necessary (in 1815) to resort to Schelling in order "to bolster a not very satisfactory theory which he had obligated himself to explain".19   Perhaps all of these factors were involved.
      Chapter 13 "On the imagination, or esemplastic power",20 is fragmentary and disappointing, and its failure is doubtless to be explained as a flow-on from the untidy and inconclusive arguments of chapter 12.   After a brief excursus into Kant and Schelling, Coleridge abruptly breaks in with a "letter from a friend" advising him to postpone his deduction of imagination to fuller [232] consideration in his "Logosophia". (This letter, as Coleridge told Thomas Curtis in April 1817, he had written himself "without taking my pen off the paper except to dip it in the inkstand" -- CL, iv 728).   Chapter 13 stops (rather than ends) by "stating the main result" of the unwritten chapter in the celebrated definitions of Primary Imagination, Secondary Imagination, and Fancy.
      This is not the place to enter into a discussion of the meaning and critical utility of these distinctions.   However, one or two brief explanatory notes will not be out of place.   From a structural point of view, the three definitions constitute a watershed between the philosophy of chapters 5-13 and the literary criticism of chapters 14-22.   In opposition to the empirical philosophies of the followers of Locke and Hume, for whom the mind was like an inert block of wax or a blank sheet of paper on which external objects imprint themselves, Coleridge asserts that the mind is active in perception.   This activity, which is subconscious and is the common birthright of all men, is the work of the Primary Imagination, which may be defined as the inborn power of perceiving that makes it possible for us to know things.   This vital, synthesising power effects a coalescence of subject (self) and object (non-self), yielding, as its product, a modified combination of the percipient and the thing-perceived; by blending and fusing "thoughts" and "things", self and non-self, Man and Nature, this esemplastic power generates new realities in which opposites are reconciled, unity is drawn from diversity, and parts are shaped into wholes.   Moreover, since the Primary Imagination is "a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM" (BL, i 202), it has a theological as well as a philosophical dimension:   Coleridge insists, as he had done for over a decade (see CL, ii 1034), that the activity of the perceiving mind is an analogue, at a finite level, of the eternally generative activity of God.   And finally, by denominating the power of perception as "primary Imagination", Coleridge establishes at one stroke the intimate relationship between philosophy and poetry:   like the poetic or Secondary Imagination, the Primary Imagination is poietic -- that is to say, seeing is making.21
      The Secondary Imagination is, in effect, the poetic imagination.   It differs from the Primary Imagination in degree, but not in kind.   While all men possess the Primary Imagination, only some men possess the heightened degree of that universally human power to which the poet lays claim.   Secondary Imagination differs in two important respects from Primary Imagination.   First, [233] Primary Imagination is subconscious, while Secondary Imagination coexists "with the conscious will" and involves, therefore, elements of conscious and subconscious activity.   Poetic "making" -- I take it that this is Coleridge's meaning -- blends conscious selection with subconscious infusion:   a poem is both predetermined and preterdetermined, some elements intentionally chosen while others are mysteriously given or supplied from the deep well of the poet's subconscious mind.   Indeed, the two impulses may (and probably do) operate simultaneously in many instances:   for example, a poet may consciously choose a particular image or expression without being consciously aware of its full implications -- such an image or expression, therefore, being both voluntary and involuntary.   Second, the Secondary Imagination is described as a power that "dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to recreate" (BL, i 202).   Dissolves what?   Presumably, it dissolves the original union of subject and object effected by the Primary Imagination, a union which most of us take for granted, and then reintegrates the components in a new way that draws attention to their coalescence.   In works of genius, this idealising and unifying power operates (as Coleridge had noted in chapter 4) by producing "the strongest impressions of novelty, while it rescues the most admitted truths from the impotence caused by the very circumstance of their universal admission" (BL, i 60).   Through the agency of the Secondary Imagination, as Shelley (in a very Coleridgean moment) observes, poetry
reproduces the common universe of which we are portions and percipients, and it purges from our inward sight the film of familiarity which obscures from us the wonder of our being.   It compels us to feel that which we perceive, and to imagine that which we know.   It creates anew the universe, after it has been annihilated in our minds by the recurrence of impressions blunted by reiteration.22
      Fancy, on the other hand, is distinguished from Imagination (both Primary and Secondary) because it is not poietic.   Fancy differs from Imagination in kind.23   Imagination is coadunative, blending Man and Nature in modified educts participating in, and bridging the gap between, the divided and distinguished worlds of spirit and matter.   Imaginative writing is characterised by its seamless fusion of perception, intellect, feeling (or passion), [234] memory, association and language.   Fancy, however, is merely aggregative and associative; it is a "mode of Memory" receiving "all its materials ready made from the law of association" (BL, i 202).   In other words, Fancy joins without blending, yokes together pre-existing sensations without creating anything organically new, fabricates without refashioning the elements which it combines.
      An image or illustration may be useful in clarifying these abstractions.   Take two metal rods, one of tin, the other of copper.   If we simply weld these two rods together, then we produce a single rod which is half tin and half copper, in which the elements are joined yet still separate:   this is an emblem of the operation of Fancy.   If, however, we put the two rods (one copper, one tin) into a crucible together and melt them down, we shall end up producing a bronze rod in which the original elements of copper and tin have coadunated to form a third form (a tertium aliquid) which is both and yet neither:   this is an emblem of the blending, synthesising power of Imagination.   Fancy, which manifests itself in poetry chiefly through formal similes, is (Coleridge would argue) inferior to Imagination, which operates primarily through symbols.24   However -- and this is important -- he would maintain that both Fancy and Imagination are appropriate to poetry and that both modes may coexist in a single poet or an individual poem; but Imagination is the higher mode and the most predominant characteristic of "great" poetry.25   "A Poet's Heart & Intellect", he told William Sotheby in September 1802,
should be combined, intimately combined & unified, with the great appearances in Nature -- & not merely held in solution & loose mixture with them, in the shape of formal Similies.   I do not mean to exclude these formal Similies -- there are moods of mind, in which they are natural -- pleasing moods of mind, & such as a Poet will often have, & sometimes express; but they are not his highest, & most appropriate moods.   (CL, ii 864)
      The bridge between philosophy and aesthetics provided in the fancy-imagination distinction is followed, in chapters 14-22, by a detailed examination -- an analysis promised from the beginning -- of Wordsworth's theory and art.   Coleridge's method in these chapters is interesting.   Basically, as R.H. Fogle has pointed out,
Coleridge establishes an ideal Wordsworth, or an idea of Wordsworth, and finds him at fault when he does not measure up to this ideal . . . .  That is to say, Coleridge attempts to provide not a Wordsworth of literal actuality, but rather an interpretation in which something of himself is infused.  Along with an idea of Wordsworth go an idea of poetry and an idea of criticism.  The ideal poetry is characterized by universality, and the ideal criticism is a reconciliation of a deduction from critical principles with an induction or intuitive apprehension of the body of poetry to be criticized.26
In other words, Coleridge's object in these chapters is, by using Wordsworth as an example and an ideal, to establish the ground-rules or fixed principles of poetic criticism generally.   Such a procedure allows Coleridge (a) to articulate what poetry should ideally be and on what fundamental criteria it should be judged or assessed; (b) to measure Wordsworth's poetry and poetic theory against the ideal on the basis of these criteria; (c) to identify and explore discrepancies between Wordsworth's theory and actual poetry, and to mark out clearly Coleridge's disagreement with aspects of Wordsworth's theory and its poetic application; and (d) to demonstrate how Wordsworth's critics have erred because they have not assessed his achievement in the light of fixed canons of criticism.   The movement in these chapters is from the general to the particular, from the establishment of critical principles to their application to Wordsworth's poetry.   Coleridge's concern is not to provide "recipes" for writing poems or "rules" to be used in passing judgement on them; rather, he proposes, like Aristotle in the Poetics or Sidney in his Apologie for Poetrie, to deduce from an existing body of poetry the principles of its construction.27
      In chapter 14 Coleridge outlines his poetic creed.   All the major issues to be discussed are raised here.   He begins by recalling how conversations with Wordsworth on "the two cardinal points of poetry" (namely, "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" -- BL, ii 5) had originated the plan of the Lyrical Ballads; and he describes how their different contributions to the volume were intended as explorations of different ideas about poetry.   He then turns to Wordsworth's Preface to Lyrical Ballads, declaring that with "many parts" of it he had "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 [236] preface, and to the author's own practice in the greater number of the poems themselves" (BL, ii 8).   While it is necessary for Coleridge to state where he differs from Wordsworth, it is imperative first to state the essential tenets of his own position.   This he accomplishes in the famous definitions of poem and poet.   Both definitions describe an ideal against which to set particular examples.   A poem he defines as an organic construct which, unlike works of science, proposes "for its immediate object pleasure, not truth" (BL, ii 10).28   In other words, while truth is the ultimate end of poetry, pleasure is its immediate end:   Coleridge is reversing the emphasis in the Christian humanist poetic dictum docere cum delectatione, "to teach with delight", in which the didactic element is pre-eminent both as immediate and ultimate end, while pleasure or delight is a kind of sugar-coating to help the moral pill go down.   Coleridge's second definition, that of the ideal poet, is characterised by its emphasis on imagination (and it repeats in formal terms his earlier description, in chapter 4, of the impact of Wordsworth on him in 1795):
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 we have exclusively appropriated the name of imagination.   This power, first put in action by the will and understanding, and retained under their irremissive, though gentle and unnoticed, controul (laxis effertur habenis) reveals itself in the balance or reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities . . . .   (BL, ii 12)
In a final image, poetic genius is described in the organic metaphor of a human figure in which the various elements are united in "one graceful and intelligent whole":   Imagination (the unifying power) is the omnipresent soul, Good Sense (sound logic, meaning, and judgement) forms the body, and Fancy provides the superficial drapery in which this living, moving figure is clothed.
      Chapter 15, substantially a reproduction of Coleridge's 1811 lecture on Shakespeare's early narrative poems (see CN, iii 4115), at first seems wantonly excursive.   But it is not.   In fact, two important things are happening.   First (and most obviously), [237] the discussion of Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis and selected sonnets allows Coleridge to apply the critical principles of chapter 14 to the greatest of English poets and to demonstrate how his poetic genius manifested itself in even his earliest productions before he turned to dramatic writing.   Second, there is an oblique admonition of Wordsworth's theory and practice that both anticipates and prepares the ground for the criticism in the following chapters.   At the end of chapter 15 Coleridge distinguishes two imaginative modes:   the centrifugal imagination of Shakespeare and the centripetal imagination of Milton.   While Shakespeare (especially in his dramatic works) "darts himself forth, and passes into all the forms of human character and passion", Milton "attracts all forms and things to himself, into the unity of his own IDEAL" (BL, ii 20).29   The Miltonic mode is explained in more detail in Coleridge's Table Talk (18 Aug 1833):
In the Paradise Lost -- indeed in every one of his poems -- it is Milton himself whom you see; his Satan, his Adam, his Raphael, almost his Eve -- are all John Milton; and it is a sense of this intense egotism that gives me the greatest pleasure in reading Milton's works.   The egotism of such a man is a revelation of spirit.   (TT, pp. 267-8)
Now, in Coleridge's view, Wordsworth's particular genius was Miltonic, not Shakespearean; his strength lay, as The Prelude had demonstrated, in impressing the stamp of his own mind and character on all that he chose to write about.   The "egotistical sublime" (as Hazlitt and Keats later deprecatingly denominated it) was the mark of his mind and the proper province of his poetic voice.   In The Excursion, however, which Coleridge had criticised in letters to Lady Beaumont and Wordsworth himself (CL, iv 564, 572-4), Wordsworth had adopted unsuccessfully a pseudo-Shakespearean mode of refracting his own personality through externalised, theoretically "dramatic" characters.   Some of the Lyrical Ballads had also suffered from Wordsworth's "undue predeliction for the dramatic form".   And Coleridge's dicta on Shakespeare in chapter 15 are, as U.C. Knoepflmacher has demonstrated convincingly, "as integral to the explanation of [Coleridge's] reservations about Wordsworth's theories as they are to his wider efforts to reclaim Wordsworth from practicing forms of poetry unsuited to a peculiarly Miltonic genius".30
  [238]     Chapter 16 is transitional.   In it, by detailing some of the "striking points of difference between the Poets of the present age and those of the 15th and 16th centuries", Coleridge prepares the ground for examining the specific qualities of Wordsworth.   In chapters 17-20 Coleridge concentrates on those aspects of Wordsworthian theory in the Preface to Lyrical Ballads with which he disagrees -- specifically, the theories of poetic diction and metre.   Both are misguided, because both falsify Wordsworth's true inclinations, aptitude, and actual practice in the best of his poetry.   In these four technical chapters Coleridge believed, as he told R.H. Brabant in July 1815, that "I have done my Duty to myself and to the Public, in (as I believe) compleatly subverting the Theory & in proving that the Poet himself has never acted on it except in particular Stanzas which are the Blots of his Compositions" (CL, iv 579).   His purpose in refuting Wordsworth's theories of poetic diction and metre was twofold:   on the one hand, he wished to make clear his own position and to settle "the long continued controversy" (BL, i 1) between himself and Wordsworth on these issues; on the other hand, he wished (as Nathaniel Teich has said) "to restore critical perspective and rescue Wordsworth from the incomplete and misleading theorizing that left him vulnerable to attack and ridicule" in the contemporary journals.31   While not all recent commentators would accept that Coleridge is entirely fair or accurate in his analysis of Wordsworth's theory,32 most (if not all) readers would accept R.H. Fogle's general assessment of Coleridge's critique.   According to Coleridge's account, Fogle says,
Wordsworth's defects both of theory and of practice are defects of his positive qualities.   His faults of theory are truths that have been carried beyond their proper limits; his faults of practice are virtues inadequately controlled and realized.   They arise from imperfect knowledge of the craft of poetry, and from imperfect knowledge of himself as a poet.   Coleridge would not have said of Wordsworth, as he did of Shakespeare, that his judgment was equal to his genius.33
      Having admonished in chapter 21 the journals (in particular the Edinburgh Review) for their want of critical principles and their wanton ad hominem vituperation, Coleridge turns in chapter 22 to "a fair and philosophical inquisition into the character of Wordsworth, as a poet, on the evidence of his published works" [239] (BL, ii 85).   His examination, based on the fixed principles established in earlier chapters, takes the form of an illustrated exploration of Wordsworth's characteristic poetic defects and strengths.   Of the five "defects" listed, the two most important are (1) "matter-of-factness", which reveals itself either "in a laborious minuteness and fidelity in the representation of objects" or in "a biographical attention to probability, and an anxiety of explanation and retrospect" (BL, ii 101, 103); and (2) a form of "mental bombast" in which thoughts or images -- such as the panegyric on the child-philosopher in stanzas 7 and 8 of the Ode:   Intimations of Immortality -- are "too great for the subject" (BL, ii 109).   Wordsworth's poetic excellences, which set his work apart from all other contemporary poets, are six in number:   (1) "an austere purity of language" in which there is "a perfect appropriateness of the words to the meaning" (BL, ii 115), (2) a fine balancing of "Thoughts and Sentiments, won -- not from books, but -- from the poet's own meditative observation" (BL, ii 118), (3) "the frequent curiosa felicitas of his diction" (BL, ii 121), (4) "the perfect truth of nature in his images and descriptions, as taken immediately from nature" (BL, ii 121), (5) "a meditative pathos, a union of deep and subtle thought with sensibility; a sympathy with man as man" (BL, ii 122), and (6) lastly and pre-eminently, "the gift of IMAGINATION in the highest and strictest sense of the word" -- although in "the play of Fancy, Wordsworth, to my feelings, is not always graceful, and sometimes recondite" (BL, ii 124).   One has only to set this assessment against that of any other contemporary or, for that matter, modern commentator on Wordsworth to appreciate the sensitivity and acuity of Coleridge's criticism.   On Wordsworth in particular, and on poetry in general, Coleridge first said what most of us now take for granted.
      Chapter 22 is followed by "Satyrane's Letters" and the critique of Maturin's Bertram, both of which (as makeweight materials) we may disregard.   Chapter 24, the "Conclusion", however, merits a word, although it was not part of the book conceived and written in the summer and early autumn of 1815.   This chapter was added in the spring of 1817, shortly before printing of the volumes was completed by Rest Fenner, Coleridge's London publisher.   It is partly exculpation, partly explanation, partly assertion.   Coleridge declares that the long delay in publication has not been due to any laziness or neglect on his part; he defends Christabel and laments the "malignity and spirit of personal hatred" by which it had been [240] assailed in the Edinburgh Review without motive, without substance, without principle; and he laments, too, that much that has appeared under his name in print has been "condemned beforehand, as predestined metaphysics" (BL, ii 212).   The Statesman's Manual had excited such motiveless malignity, even before its publication, from the pen of William Hazlitt.
      What then is to be done?   Nothing, nothing more.   Coleridge has prompted the age to quit its clogs, to judge by principles in geniality of spirit, but the age has chosen to ignore him.   The truths which he has sought to propagate are, however, none the less true -- in politics, in philosophy, in literary criticism, and, most of all, in religion; and he closes by asserting that Christianity,
though not discoverable by human Reason, is yet in accordance with it;    . . . that Religion passes out of the ken of Reason only where the eye of Reason has reached its own Horizon; and that Faith is then but its continuation:   even as the Day softens away into the sweet Twilight, and Twilight, hushed and breathless, steals into the Darkness.   (BL, ii 218)
Truth, known in the pulses of the heart and corroborated by the activity of the head, is a goal and a refuge beyond the reach of scorners, beyond the quills of Hazlitt, beyond the myopic temporising of the unimaginative and the unprincipled.

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[Click on asterisk (*) at the end of a note to return to the point you left in the text]
  1. Thomas DeQuincey, Recollections of the Lakes and the Lake Poets, ed. David Wright (Harmondsworth, 1970) p. 46.   DeQuincey's essay on Coleridge first appeared (in four instalments) in Tait's Edinburgh Magazine, Sep 1834-Jan 1835. *
  2. T.S. Eliot, The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (London, 1933; repr. 1975) p. 67; and Maurice Carpenter, The Indifferent Horseman:   The Divine Comedy of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (London, 1954) p. 304. *
  3. George Whalley, "The Integrity of Biographia Literaria, E&S, n.s. 6 (1953) 87-101; the quotation is from p. 92. *
  4. Ibid., p. 95. *
  5. Ibid., p. 100. *
  6. Jerome C. Christensen, for example, argues in a recent paper that no reading of Biographia Literaria could ever produce a unified reading of the text:   "It would likely produce a parody of such a reading.   The Biographia is itself a parody, but not one which could accurately be called intentional or unintentional -- just because the Biographia is the parody not of a particular book but a parody of the idea of [a] book, a parody of the kind of book it would like to be."   See "The Genius in the Biographia Literaria", SIR, 17 (1978) 215-31; the quotation is from p. 231. *

  7. See, for example, Lynn M. Grow's chapter "The Consistency of the Biographia Literaria" (pp. 128-47) in her book The Prose Style of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (Salzburg, 1976). *
  8. J.E. Barcus, "The Homogeneity of Structure and Idea in Coleridge's Biographia Literaria, Philosophical Lectures, and Aids to Reflection", unpublished doctoral dissertation (University of Pennsylvania, 1968):   see Dissertation Abstracts, 29 (1969) 2205A-6A. *
  9. Watson argues that Coleridge "set out to write a work of metaphysics to which he hoped the events of his life would give a continuity:   he ended by producing a work of aesthetics to which such narrative as there is has failed to give continuity.   But there is another unity, and it is peculiarly Coleridgean . . ." (BL[W], p. xix).   Coleridge did not, however, set out to write a work of metaphysics:   see Composition, n. 7; indeed, Biographia Literaria began as an aesthetic work (a preface to Coleridge's poems) and the metaphysical section was the last part of the book composed in 1815. *
  10. J.A. Appleyard, Coleridge's Philosophy of Literature (Cambridge, Mass., 1965) p. 169.   Appleyard also stresses (contra Whalley) that Biographia Literaria was "the result of little planning and foresight" (ibid.). *
  11. Grow, The Prose Style of Coleridge (above, note 7), p. 136. *
  12. See also CL, iv 591, 598. *
  13. It is impossible to overstate the importance for Coleridge of the establishment of right principles:   "It is my object", he declared in the first number of The Friend (June 1809), "to refer men to PRINCIPLES in all things; in Literature, in the Fine Arts, in Morals, in Legislation, in Religion" (CC, IV ii 13).   This was his lifelong conviction and his lifelong endeavour, which found its most mature expression in his "Essays on the Principles of Method" in the much revised 1818 version of The Friend:   see CC, IV i 448-524.   With respect to literary critical principles, it should be pointed out that there is a direct and unbroken belief, stretching from 1802 to 1815 and beyond in Coleridge's thought, in the existence of such underlying criteria.   The "object" of the Ur-Biographia described to Southey in July 1802 had been "not to examine what is good in [an individual poet], but what has ipso facto pleased, & to what faculties or passions or habits of the mind they may be supposed to have given pleasure" (CL, ii 829-30); then, in chapter 18 of the Biographia itself, we meet the following restatement of the same conviction:   "The ultimate end of criticism is much more to establish the principles of writing, than to furnish rules how to pass judgement on what has been written by others; if indeed it were possible that the two could be separated" (BL, ii 63). *
  14. M.G. Cooke, "Quisque Sui Faber:   Coleridge in the Biographia Literaria", PQ, 50 (1971) 208-29; the quotation is from p. 225. *
  15. Appleyard, Coleridge's Philosophy of Literature (above, note 10), p. 187. *
  16. See Composition p. 218 and also nn. 14 and 16. *
  17. Thomas Carlyle, "The Life of John Sterling", in Thomas Carlyle's Works, 18 vols (London, 1905) ii 46-7. *
  18. Three points must be made about this sentence.   First, it must be insisted upon that Coleridge is concerned with epistemology not with ontology, with "knowing" not with "being".   (Being -- that is, the reality and existence of the subjective and the objective, of self and non-self, is ASSUMED.)   That is why he [277] declares that "We are not investigating an absolute principium essendi [principle of being] . . . but an absolute principium cognoscendi [principle of knowing]" (BL, i 186).   Second, Coleridge argues that any true theory of knowledge and knowing must begin from the subjective pole and then take into account the objective pole in order to arrive at the fullness of the human intelligence.   Third, following Fichte (see BL, i 101), Coleridge asserts that knowledge involves an act, that knowing is an active not a passive activity:   "in all acts of positive knowledge there is required a reciprocal concurrence" of both conscious intelligence (or subject) and unconscious nature (or object), and the "problem is to explain this concurrence" (BL, i 174). *
  19. Appleyard, Coleridge's Philosophy of Literature (above, note 10), p. 197.   It may be added that the probability of confusion on Coleridge's part is supported by his own statement of mid-1834, only a month before his death:   "The metaphysical disquisition at the end of the first volume of the Biographia Literaria is unformed and immature; it contains the fragments of the truth, but it is not fully thought out.   It is wonderful to myself to think how infinitely more profound my views now are . . ." (TT, p. 311). *
  20. Coleridge had defined the neologism "esemplastic" in the opening sentences of Biographia, ch. 10:   "'Esemplastic.   The word is not in Johnson, nor have I met with it elsewhere.'   Neither have I.   I constructed it myself from the Greek words, eis hen plattein, to shape into one; because, having to convey a new sense, I thought that a new term would both aid the recollection of my meaning, and prevent its being confounded with the usual import of the word, imagination" (BL, i 107). *
  21. Appleyard (above, note 10) would not accept this point; he believes that there is "a fatal difficulty implicit in [Coleridge's] approach, a confusion of knowing and making" (Coleridge's Philosophy of Literature, p. 207).   Appleyard's analysis of the "weaknesses" of Coleridge's mingling of philosophy and aesthetics is well worth reading, esp. pp. 203-8. *
  22. Percy Bysshe Shelley, A Defence of Poetry, ed. J.E. Jordan (New York, 1965) pp. 74-5. *
  23. It was this point that Wordsworth had misunderstood in the Preface to his Poems (1815), where he had asserted that "To aggregate and to associate, to evoke and to combine, belong as well to the imagination as to the fancy": see Coleridge's retort at the end of Biographia, ch. 12 (BL, i 194). *
  24. Coleridge defines symbol in The Statesman's Manual (1816).   A symbol, he says there, is characterised "Above all by the translucence of the Eternal through and in the Temporal.   It always partakes of the Reality which it renders intelligible; and while it enunciates the whole, abides itself as a living part in that Unity, of which it is the representative" (CC, vi 30).   (For the context of this quotation from The Statesman's Manual, see Extract 35-A in my Imagination in Coleridge [London: Macmillan, 1978].) *
  25. The complementary relationship existing between the two distinct powers of fancy and imagination is stated clearly in a Coleridgean aphorism of 1833:   "Genius must have talent as its complement and implement, just as in like manner imagination must have fancy.   In short, the higher intellectual powers can only act through a corresponding energy of the lower" (TT, p. 269). *
  26. R.H. Fogle, The Idea of Coleridge's Criticism (Berkeley and Los Angeles, Calif., 1962) p. 71. *
  27. Coleridge confronts these issues directly in chapter 18.   First, "The ultimate [278] end of criticism is much more to establish the principles of writing, than to furnish rules how to pass judgement on what has been written by others; if indeed it were possible that the two could be separated" (BL, ii 63).   Second, in answer to the notion that poetry (Wordsworth's or anybody else's) could be produced by the formulaic application of external rules, he responds:   "Could a rule be given from without, poetry would cease to be poetry, and sink into a mechanical art.   It would be morphôsis [a shaping power], not poiêsis [a making power]" BL, ii 65. *
  28. There are numerous early drafts (dating as early as 1809) of this definition:   see CN, iii 3615, 3827, 4111, 4112; SC, i 148 and ii 41, 50-1, 68. *
  29. This is a favourite Coleridgean distinction:   see, for example, CL, ii 810; CN, ii 2086 and iii 3247-8; TT, pp. 92-4 (12 May 1830) and 309-10 (23 June 1834). *
  30. U.C. Knoepflmacher, "A Nineteenth-Century Touchstone:   Chapter xv of Biographia Literaria", in Nineteenth-Century Literary Perspectives, ed. C. de L. Ryals (Durham, NC, 1974) pp. 3-16; the quotation is from p. 4.   See also Fogle, The Idea of Coleridge's Criticism (above, note 26), pp. 97-104. *
  31. Nathaniel Teich, "Coleridge's Biographia and the Contemporary Controversy about Style", TWC, 3 (1972) 61-70; the quotation is from p. 65. *
  32. D.H. Bialostosky, "Coleridge's Interpretation of Wordsworth's Preface to Lyrical Ballads", PMLA, 93 (1978) 912-24.   Bialostosky argues that Coleridge frequently distorts or misinterprets Wordsworth's meaning:   "Not only has he variously and inconsistently identified the passages to which he objects, but he has misleadingly distinguished between what the Preface can legitimately be taken to mean and what it probably does mean" (p. 912). *
  33. Fogle, The Idea of Coleridge's Criticism (above, note 26), p. 79. *

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