How might one summarize the main ideas of Chapter 17 of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Biographia Literaria?
Chapter 17 can be understood as a debate with Wordsworth on poetry. Even though Coleridge contributed to Wordsworth's Preface to Lyrical Ballads, by the time of writing his Biographia Literatia, or literary autobiography, Coleridge had grown apart from Wordsworth and the two had quarreled. In chapter 17, Coleridge hones in on Wordsworth's assertions that a poet can learn particular truths from rustic people and that poetry should reflect the language of the common man.
The essay is well-structured. Like a good debater, Coleridge first affirms the strengths of his opponent's position. For that reason, he praises the merits of Wordsworth's work and his theory of poetry, then moves to attacking what he considers Wordsworth's apparent weaknesses. He argues that he does this because it is too easy to misinterpret what Wordsworth is saying.
Coleridge focuses on dissecting Wordsworth's idea that the rustic man has an exceptional wisdom. In reality, Coleridge argues, this wisdom can be found in any man, whether he lives in the city, the town, or the country. This man needs two attributes. First, he has to work for a living but not live in dire poverty. The other attribute needed for wisdom is knowledge of the Bible and other religious texts.
As the two principal I rank that independence, which raises a man above servitude, or daily toil for the profit of others, yet not above the necessity of industry and a frugal simplicity of domestic life; and the accompanying unambitious, but solid and religious, education, which has rendered few books familiar, but the Bible, and the Liturgy or Hymn book.
Coleridge continues to argue that the country or nature itself has no magical quality that confers wisdom or insight. To gain value from rustic life one must either be educated or have been born with a particular sensitivity to the natural. In fact, without one or both of these attributes, the country is likely to wither the spirit. Coleridge writes:
It is not every man that is likely to be improved by a country life or by country labours. Education, or original sensibility, or both, must pre-exist, if the changes, forms, and incidents of nature are to prove a sufficient stimulant. And where these are not sufficient, the mind contracts and hardens by want of stimulants: and the man becomes selfish, sensual, gross, and hard-hearted.
Coleridge leans into Aristotle to say the most effective poetry captures a person typical of a certain class, which is why Coleridge particularly likes Wordsworth's "Michael" but not poems that display the attributes of a person not typical of a class.
Coleridge also counters Wordsworth's idea that poetry should reflect the real language of real people. Coleridge contends that the poets don't and shouldn't use the "real" language of the rustic. Poetic language should be more reflective and incorporate the higher thoughts of the poet.
In Chapter 17 of his work titled Biographia Literaria, Samuel Taylor Coleridge makes a number of major points, including the following:
- He agrees with William Wordsworth that poetic language needed to be reformed because the kind of poetic diction used by many poets in the eighteenth century had come to seem stale, artificial, and affected:
. . . mere artifices of connection or ornament, constitute the characteristic falsity in the poetic style of the moderns [that is, fairly recent poets] . . .
- Coleridge nevertheless objects to Wordsworth’s claim that poetry should be written in the language actually spoken by real persons, especially real persons of the rustic or lower classes.
- Wordsworth’s own best poems are not written in a truly “rustic” or “low” style.
- The language of poetry should imitate the language spoken by persons who possess both independence of mind and a certain level of education.
- Only those who possess education or an “original sensibility” (or sensitivity and intelligence) are likely to truly appreciate the real attractions of rural life. Ironically, many actual rural persons are unlikely to be capable of this kind of appreciation.
- Many rural people are only interested in conveying very simple ideas; educated persons seek to convey more complex connections between isolated things and ideas.
- The proper language of poetry is more reflective than is usually found in the language of must rural people:
The best part of human language, properly so called, is derived from reflection on the acts of the mind itself.
In short, Coleridge cautions against any interpretation of Wordsworth’s views that might seem to endorse the idea that poetry should be written in “low,” common, entirely colloquial and commonplace language.