Biographia Literaria Summary

Biographia Literaria by Samuel Taylor Coleridge is an 1817 work of autobiography and literary criticism.

  • Coleridge muses on the evolution of poets and writers, using writers’ predilection for compound words as an illustration of their maturity.
  • 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, he feels he chose worthy subjects.
  • Coleridge discusses how human thoughts arise out of interactions with nature, which he views as a spiritual unity.

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

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

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 judgment 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 of 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 and ideas emerge as people interact with nature. He asserts that human minds do not operate mechanically and are not necessarily dependent on an input of old thoughts for newer ideas to appear.

Perhaps the best-known ideas from Biographia Literaria are Coleridge’s definitions of primary imagination, secondary imagination, and fancy. Primary imagination refers to the fundamental layer of perception, the basic activity of taking in reality. Secondary imagination can be understood as an extension of the primary imagination; indeed, Coleridge refers to it as an “echo” thereof. The secondary imagination is essentially creative, transforming perceptions into new ideas, possibilities, and works of art. As Coleridge puts it, the secondary imagination “dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to re−create.” Fancy is the process by which the mind rearranges given materials according to associations and pre-established categories. In this way, fancy is dependent on memory and fixed processes, whereas the secondary imagination can be truly generative and original.

Coleridge considers the universe as a whole and feels that humans have the ability to perceive it as a single spiritual unity. He considers the ability to do so to be the pinnacle of perception. However, it is difficult to achieve this all-encompassing view of things, because humans are hindered by the associative functions of the mind, which pull the senses outwards to objects that appeal to one’s fancy but that ultimately distract from the true pursuit of greater spiritual knowledge and understanding.

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