Biographia Literaria Themes
The three main themes in Biographia Literaria are artistic influences, poetic form, and individual expression.
- Artistic influences: Coleridge discusses the influences that shaped his development as an artist.
- Poetic form: Coleridge considers various topics regarding poetic form, including diction.
- Individual expression: The book both emphasizes the importance of individuality in art and demonstrates Coleridge’s individual sensibility.
Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 649
Coleridge devotes the opening chapters to a discussion of his own intellectual upbringing and the forces that shaped his artistic temperament. He cites both personal relationships and his extensive reading and assignments at school. He devotes much attention to the sonnets of William Lisle Bowles (1762–1850)—perhaps surprisingly so, given that Bowles is not well known today. But one of his most significant points regards his reading of the more famous poets, such as Alexander Pope:
I was not blind to the merits of this school [Pope, the French poets from whom Coleridge says Pope derived his style, and Pope's successors] yet, as from inexperience of the world, and consequent want of sympathy with the general subject of these poems, they gave me little pleasure. . . . the matter and diction seemed to me characterised not so much by poetic thoughts, as by thoughts translated into the language of poetry.
This passage gives a sense of the sweeping change in taste and aesthetic values that had occurred in poetry in the years since Pope was the dominant figure in English literature. Coleridge's evaluation is that the subject matter of Pope's verse was basically not appropriate for poetry. In this, Coleridge is restating, with a slightly different emphasis, a central point of his friend Wordsworth's Preface to Lyrical Ballads from nearly twenty years earlier. It is perhaps the most important factor in the development of the artistic sensibilities of the Romantic generation.
Coleridge is concerned throughout Biographia Literaria with exploring the relationships between the circumstances and the events of his own life on the one hand, and, on the other hand, his poetry and its reception by the public. His sense of the latter is that it has been largely negative, and a major theme of this work seems to be his attempt to account for this.
Like most artists, Coleridge was extremely sensitive, and much of his evaluation of this issue relates to the prominence of irrelevant, or only indirectly related, factors in the way critics and the public judge an artist's work. For example, he tends to blame the negativity of critical attitudes toward him on his association with both Wordsworth and Robert Southey before launching into an explanation of why their works have been criticized.
An important point is that the negative reception of Wordsworth was due not so much to Wordsworth's poems but to their interpretation in light of the Lyrical Ballads Preface. Critics, Coleridge indicates, have reacted negatively to Wordsworth's critical principles, expressed in the Preface, and have then transferred their dislike of Wordsworth's aesthetics to his poetry. Coleridge's own point, the central message or theme of this section of his book, concerns the subjectivity—and unreliability—of such critical evaluations.
Coleridge's also expresses his critical opinions regarding what sort of language is appropriate for poetic expression. Wordsworth had famously indicated that "poetic diction"—that is, words and phrases used only in poetry and not prose or ordinary speech—is actually unpoetic. Coleridge takes issue with Wordsworth's evaluation. Coleridge's point is important for himself and his contemporaries, and serves as a basic principle of aesthetics for poetry of all periods. That he would disagree with Wordsworth on this point is evident from Coleridge's own poetry, with its own idiosyncratic diction that distances it both from prose writing and from speech.
Despite Coleridge's disagreements with specific points in Wordsworth's aesthetics, the Biographia Literaria is something of a prose analogue to Wordsworth's The Prelude. Both works are records of the development of a poet's mind and are celebrations of a poet's personality and individualism. Ultimately, the Biographia can be seen as a kind of fantasia of the creative mind and thus a celebration of an artist's personal vision and his individuality as a creative person. Rather than seeking out critical praise or understanding, Coleridge advocates for mental, spiritual, and linguistic exploration on the part of the poet.