Samuel Taylor Coleridge Questions and Answers

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Discuss Samuel Coleridge as a literary critic.

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Coleridge is remembered for his theory of imagination as set forth in his book Biographia Literaria, a kind of literary memoir. Coleridge divided the imagination into two parts: primary and secondary.

Primary imagination has to do with interpreting the real world; it is the "the living power and prime agent of all human perception." Secondary imagination, on the other hand, is creativity or the ability to see how ideas connect and form new constructs; it:

dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to recreate: or where this process is rendered impossible, yet still at all events it struggles to idealize and to unify.

In this sense, the poetic imagination is a kind of reflector or interpreter of Nature or of the divine.

Coleridge's other famous concept has to do with his famous description of reading as the "willing suspension of disbelief." That is, in encountering a poetic work, the reader must suspend their tendency to question the logic of the piece and enter into a kind of "poetic faith" in the imaginative power of the writer. This idea—that the reader enters into a kind of shared imaginative space with the writer, and that literature is not meant to be read like an instruction manual—has been extremely influential in criticism to this day.

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Coleridge's great contributions to literary criticism were his lectures on poetry and Shakespeare, given after leaving the Lake District and staying in Italy, and his response to Wordsworth's dissertation in Lyrical Ballads, in which some of Coleridge's poem's are published. As to Coleridge's lectures on Shakespeare, some critics contend that his reputation as England's premier critic lies with his criticism of Shakespeare's works.

Other critics give equal place to Biographia Literaria (1817) in which he expresses his criticism of Wordsworth's work and clarifies (1) how Lyrical Ballads (1800) came to be; (2) where he and Wordsworth differ on "common language" and (3) his critique of the concept of "common language;" (4) his idea of poetry with metaphysical meaning underlying the poetry of words, which he states is different from poetry containing a moral.

To briefly elaborate on an important point, Coleridge contends in Biographia Literaria that writing poetry in the common language of low class people cannot ever be accomplished in the way that Wordsworth asserts--and indeed had not been accomplished. Coleridge gives numerous examples from Lyrical Ballads of verses in which Wordsworth's superior language and command of poetic diction (high poetic language) paraphrases the speech of the low class subjects of his poetry couching the "common language" in a bed of elevated language modified by an elevated understanding to render common language palatable, musical and poetical.

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