Summary

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Last Reviewed on March 4, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 360

The Biographia Literaria by Samuel Taylor Coleridge was published in 1817. It is autobiographical in nature and discusses Coleridge's sense of the stages that a poet goes through during their lifetime, though not in chronological order.

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Coleridge muses on the evolution of writers, using writers' predilection for compound words as an illustration of their maturity. He notes that even famous writers such as Milton and Shakespeare moved away from such articulations as they evolved.

He remarks that even in his early days as a poet, he leaned toward an austere phrasing, as compared to an ornate one, without compromising on expression. Coleridge says that the simplicity of expression in his earlier works was inspired by the Greek poets and that even though he wasn’t mature enough to fully comprehend the abstract and metaphysical topics that he chose to write on, his judgement in choosing the right subject matter was something that he is proud of.

Coleridge reminisces about his days in secondary school at Christ’s Hospital. His poem “Frost at Midnight” recollects his experiences with formal education, which he believes were detrimental to his naturally curious spirit. He opines that true learning can be had outside classrooms. Coleridge would rather allow children to roam free and absorb knowledge than force them to learn it from books in classrooms.

Coleridge then proceeds to discuss how the mind perceives reality. Initially, he chooses to agree with David Hartley that new thoughts are necessarily born out of existing ideas. However, in time, he moves away from this concept and posits that new realities emerge as people interact with nature. He asserts that human minds do not operate mechanically and are not dependent on an input of old thoughts for newer ideas to appear.

Coleridge considers the universe as a whole and feels that humans have the ability to perceive it as a spiritual unity. He considers the ability to do so as the pinnacle of perception; it is difficult to achieve, hindered by associative functions of the mind that pull the senses outwards to objects that are “fancy," but which ultimately distract from the true pursuit of greater spiritual knowledge and understanding.

Introduction

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 434

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 the Biographia Literaria that correspond to translations of the German philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling. Commentator Thomas McFarland has pointed out that Schelling did not consider his work to have been plagiarized and that in large measure what Coleridge was doing was registering a congruence of his thinking with that of Schelling, before both diverged in opposite directions. Moreover, McFarland notes that Coleridge fully intended to return to the manuscript later to insert his own words for the words of the German, which were at the moment merely holding a place in the text, as it were, for Coleridge’s words. Alas, Coleridge never returned, never substituted, and never completed the work. Thus, it might be described most accurately as an “anatomy,” as critic Northrop Frye defines it, a congeries of digressions, meditations, and reflections, the unity of which may be unclear but the sum of which clearly exceeds its parts.

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