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 all animate power. The “secondary” imagination is the human ability to create through the inventive perception and recollection of images. Last is the “fancy,” which is simply the ability to remember.
Coleridge, in addition, discourses at length on philosophy. Beginning with Thomas De Quincey, who was himself later similarly charged, critics have noted, censured, or excused the extensive portions of...
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