Coleridge, S. T.

Assigned: Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. From Biographia Literaria, from Vol. 1, Chs. 1, 4, 13; from Vol. 2, Ch. 14 (590-97). Also read the editors’ introduction (587-89).

From Biographia Literaria (1817)

From Volume 1, from Chapter 1

1. On 590 (“As the result of all my reading…”), Samuel Taylor Coleridge offers two aphorisms (pithy summations); the first defines “essential poetry” as “not the poem which we have read, but that to which we return.” What do you understand to be the point of this aphorism? Which poems or other literary works do you keep returning to even though you already know them well? Why do you return to them?

2. On 590 (“As the result of all my reading…”), Coleridge’s second critical aphorism is that “whatever lines can be translated into other words of the same language, without diminution of their significance, either in sense, or association, or in any worthy feeling, are so far vicious in their diction.” What is wrong with any poem whose words can be changed without changing the poem’s meaning? If you agree with Coleridge that in the best works of Shakespeare and Milton, the words could not be changed without diminishing the works’ meaning and style, what might it be about their mode of composition that allows them to avoid such a problem?

3. On 590 (“As the result of all my reading…”), how does Coleridge compare the relative faults and merits of poets from Donne to Cowley, and then after those authors’ time? What changes, by implication, would reform poetry and redeem it from the schism that Coleridge identifies?

From Volume 1, from Chapter 4

4. On 591-92 (“This excellence, which in all…”), how does Coleridge begin to differentiate “fancy” and “imagination” in this chapter? Look up online the etymological hints he provides (the Greek word phantasía, φαντασία and the Latin words imago and imaginatio). What do the terms “fancy” and “imagination” mean, in their properly Coleridgean sense? What does Coleridge’s enlistment of Wordsworth and Milton as imaginative poets add to your understanding of the term “imagination”?

5. On 591-92 (“This excellence, which in all…”), according to Coleridge, what is “the only way to imitate without loss of originality” (592)? Why? By his remarks here, how is Coleridge criticizing the most common neoclassical theory of poetic creativity? How do you yourself think of originality—when do you consider a work of art truly original, and how important is that status to you?

From Volume 1, from Chapter 13

6. On 592 (“The imagination then I consider…”), Coleridge offers his celebrated definition of the imagination, which faculty or power he further differentiates into a primary and secondary mode. What is the primary mode, why does Coleridge resort to the Scriptures to define it, and what does this mode of imagination do or make possible? What is the secondary imagination? What does it do, and how is it related to the primary imagination? (Hint: the consensus seems to be that Coleridge’s “primary mode” has to do with the gift of consciousness that allows us to perceive things, and the “secondary mode” with poetic creativity; now you can develop the definitions, starting with these statements and using Coleridge’s language along with your own explanation.)

7. On 592 (“fancy, on the contrary…”), Coleridge also concerns himself briefly with a capacity he calls “the fancy.” What sort of operations does this faculty perform? Why is “fancy” of less interest to Coleridge than the power of imagination, whether primary or secondary?

From Volume 2, Chapter 14

8. On 592-93 (“During the first year that Mr. Wordsworth…”), what respective tasks does Coleridge say he and Wordsworth set for themselves in agreeing to collaborate on the poems that became Lyrical Ballads? What was Coleridge’s responsibility towards the “supernatural” characters and subjects with which he worked? In turn, what was Wordsworth’s task with regard to the more common, workaday characters and situations with which he was mainly concerned? All the same, what common goal does Coleridge suggest the two poets were trying to achieve in Lyrical Ballads?

9. On 594-95 (“The office of philosophical disquisition…”), what initial definition of a poem does Coleridge set forth—what is a poem in “the lowest sense” (595 top)? What “additional ground of distinction” (595) does he soon provide, and what “final definition” of poetry does he offer for this way of discussing what a poem is? How do you interpret Coleridge’s key distinction here; namely, that a poem differs from other kinds of composition that have pleasure as their immediate object by “proposing to itself such delight from the whole, as is compatible with a distinct gratification from each component part” (595)? In what sense is Coleridge offering us an organic definition of what a poem is and how it affects its readers?

10. On 595-96 (“Controversy is not seldom excited…”), how does Coleridge elaborate on his definition of what a poem is? How do the several parts of a “legitimate poem” (596) relate to one another, and to the whole? How does the effect of such a poem on a reader’s attention differ from the effect of two other kinds of poem, the first of which he describes as “a series of striking lines or distichs” and the second as “an unsustained composition” in which the reader immediately gathers an abstract sense of the whole? Why, in Coleridge’s view, is the mind’s progression in reading a poem best described as resembling “the motion of a serpent”? (596) By inference, what should a reader’s mind not be doing when that reader is engaged with a poem?

11. On 596 (“But if this should be admitted…”), how does Coleridge define poetry as opposed to an individual poem? Why does he find it necessary to concede that “a poem of any length neither can be, or ought to be, all poetry”? How does he deal with this admission so as to preserve the sense that poetry produces a “harmonious whole” rather than a disjunctive collection of styles and effects?

12. On 596-97 (“My own conclusions on the nature…”), Coleridge turns his attention to explaining what poets are and what they do. How is the Romantic concept of “imagination” central to his definition? What spiritual and perceptual benefits flow to readers when they enjoy the imaginative efforts of excellent poets? What transformative effect does poetry—the product of a poet’s imagination—have upon a reader’s mind and spirit? Consider also Coleridge’s claim that imagination “reveals itself in the balance or reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities” (597)? How does the list of paired terms that follows this phrase help to explain what material the imagination works with, and what it accomplishes?

13. On 597 (“‘Doubtless this could not be…’”), how does the quotation from John Davies’ Elizabethan poem Nosce Teipsum reinforce the claims Coleridge has been making in favor of the dignity and vitality of “the poetic IMAGINATION”? What metaphors does Davies use that suit Coleridge’s purpose? Explain. Finally, what sense of the “graceful and intelligent whole” that creative or poetic imagination sets forth in poetry does Coleridge provide?

14. General question: Since we know that Coleridge, as he indicates in our selections from Biographia Literaria, believes Wordsworth to be possessed of poetic imagination in the highest degree, how does that author’s poetry achieve “the balance or reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities” (597)? How might it be said that Wordsworth’s poetry “blends and harmonizes the natural and the artificial” (597) without exalting art over nature? Give an example or two of such accomplishments from Wordsworth poems you know.

15. General question: All of the major English Romantic poets—Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, and Keats—had his own way of delineating the power and value of expression and, above all, imagination. In our Norton anthology, we have selections by Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Shelley as well as by the German Idealist philosopher Georg Hegel (Leitch 545-63), Friedrich von Schiller (Leitch 492-503), and the American Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson (Leitch 619-40). Briefly compare Coleridge’s central “Romantic” ideas in our selections from Biographia Literaria with those of any one of these authors that we may have read. What similarities or affinities (and differences) do you find between Coleridge on imagination, expression, etc. and the other author whom you select?

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

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