Biographia Literaria Themes
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...
(The entire section is 649 words.)