Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
Ostensibly a literary biography, Biographia Literaria: Or, Biograhical Sketches of My Literary Life and Opinions, is also one of the greatest works of literary criticism. Coleridge begins by discussing his secondary education, particularly in classical poetry, under James Bowyer at Christ’s Hospital Grammar School. From there, he launches a discussion of Wordsworth’s poetry, to which he later returns. Coleridge takes Wordsworth at face value and applies to Wordsworth’s poetry what Wordsworth in his 1800 preface to the Lyrical Ballads claimed to do. Coleridge shows that Wordsworth’s protestations that his craft was the common language of common people was not strictly true, and that his poetry is nonetheless artifice, consciously crafted and not the unreflective, thoughtless speech he said it represented. Still, Coleridge argues that Wordsworth is the finest contemporary poet and an example of poetic genius. He also gives his version of the origin of the Lyrical Ballads of 1798, saying that Wordsworth was to write of natural scenes made extraordinary by his craft, while Coleridge was to write of the supernatural rendered credible by his art. This interpretation is somewhat at odds with Wordsworth’s emphasis in his preface on the volume’s intended singular purpose.
Coleridge also proffers his definition of imagination. He distinguishes the “primary,” which he describes as the divine ability to create, the source of...
(The entire section is 434 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria begins as an account of the major influences on the development of the author’s philosophy and literary technique, but the total effect of the work is considerably less coherent than this plan would indicate. As he progresses, Coleridge apparently alters his purpose, and he discusses at considerable length intellectual problems of special interest to him and gives some of his standards of literary criticism, with comments on specific works. In his opening paragraph, he speaks of his work as “miscellaneous reflections,” and such a description seems appropriate.
The loose, rambling structure of the Biographia Literaria accords well with the picture of Coleridge that has been handed down: that of a man with great intellectual and poetic gifts who lacked the self-discipline to produce the works of which he seemed capable. Charles Lamb and William Hazlitt both characterized him as an indefatigable and fascinating talker, full of ideas; this trait, too, plays its part in the creation of the Biographia Literaria, which is, in essence, a long conversation ranging widely over the worlds of poetry, drama, philosophy, and psychology. The lack of a tight organizational plan in no way prevents the book from being both readable and profound in its content; Coleridge’s comments on the nature of the poetic imagination have never been surpassed, and his critique of William Wordsworth’s...
(The entire section is 1691 words.)