How does Coleridge define the nature and function of poetry?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In chapter 14 of the Biographia Literaria, Samuel Taylor Coleridge provides criteria for the definition of a poem and of poetry. He comments on the qualities contained in a poem, such as rhyme or meter, and then notes that any given work that contains these elements may be considered a poem, depending on the perspective of its reader, even if Coleridge or another person might disagree. Much depends on the writer’s intention and on the spirit that the reader derives from reading the work.

Nevertheless, defining a poem is not the same as defining poetry. Poems need not utilize meter, Coleridge notes. Poetry has a quality that excites “a more continuous and equal attention than the language of prose.” To define poetry requires considering what a poet is. This

is a distinction resulting from the poetic genius itself, which sustains and modifies the images, thoughts, and emotions of the poet's own mind.

Through the “poetic genius,” the poet’s charge is to engage the human soul by applying a “synthetic and magical power” that Coleridge calls “imagination.” It is a power revealed in the balance of opposites, as sameness is reconciled with difference. Here Coleridge names the general and the concrete, idea and image, and individual and representative. Poetry thus brings a freshness into the familiar, and engages an unusual state of emotion. Poetry must blend the natural with the artificial as it subordinates art to nature.

In chapter 15, he applies these elements to his analysis of William Shakespeare’s “Venus and Adonis.” After reviewing specific achievements in that poem, Coleridge links the work to his definition:

poetry is the blossom and the fragrancy of all human knowledge, human thoughts, human passions, emotions, language.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
Soaring plane image

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial