Discuss Coleridge's major contentions with Wordsworth in Biographia Literaria?

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Payal Khullar | College Teacher | (Level 2) Associate Educator

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A considerable portion of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria is devoted to the critique of William Wordsworth’s ideas, which he presented in his Preface to Lyrical Ballads in 1800. Coleridge and Wordsworth were contemporary romantic poets and also good companions. Together, they wrote Lyrical Ballads in 1798, which is considered to pioneer the Romantic Movement in England. Coleridge admired Wordsworth and considered him to be one of the best poets of his generation, but he also disagreed and diverged from him on many points.

Coleridge developed his own theories about imagination, nature of poetry, poetic composition, etc. in Biographia Literaria, which are regarded as a very significant piece of literary theory and criticism.

According to Wordsworth, "nature" is the ultimate source of inspiration for creating poetry. He claimed poetry to be “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings…it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility” and poetic diction or the language of poetry as the language of the “common man”. He even believed that there was essentially “no difference between language of prose and that of poetry”. He shunned the use of a lofty and elevated poetic diction.

Coleridge, however, did not agree with Wordsworth on his take on source of poetry as well as on poetic diction and meter. Coleridge relied on strong imagination as the source for creating great poetry. He also talked at length about primary and secondary imagination as well as fancy. For Coleridge, there ought to be a difference in language of prose and metrical composition, and they were strictly not identical. Coleridge, moreover, believed that low form of diction reflected poor poetic genius and vocabulary. He also questioned Wordsworth’s practice of his own theory of art. He said Wordsworth’s poetry shows conscious and reflective creation, which was at odds with his theory. Coleridge also differed from Wordsworth in explaining the origin of the idea of Lyrical Ballads. While Wordsworth took up natural scenes, he created poetry that took supernatural themes. Besides this, Wordsworth's claims of his choice of only rural, rustic life in creating art also found disagreements from Coleridge. Coleridge pointed out that not all of Wordsworth’s characters were essentially low and rustic. Besides, their appeal was not due to their rustic occupations, but because of the sentiments and character behind them, and these would have been the same had they been urban and not rural. Coleridge also agreed with Aristotelian concept of universal and representative characters. In later chapters, Coleridge also listed instances of Wordsworth’s poetic defects as well as his poetic excellences.

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