Critical Evaluation

(Critical Survey of Literature, Revised Edition)

Samuel Taylor Coleridge is one of the most complex and richly suggestive writers in English. Poet, philosopher, critic, and, not infrequently, genius, he has left an indelible mark on the history of English poetry and criticism. His major critical work, BIOGRAPHIA LITERARIA, stands as the source of much modern critical theory. With William Wordsworth, Coleridge led the “Romantic revolt” in English poetry. They asserted not only that the source of poetry is the ordinary life and language of men, but also reasserted the validity and beauty of the imagination. Coleridge’s poetry is not voluminous, and the great pieces were nearly all written in a space of from two to five years, but at his best his poems are rich in their concrete, forthright evocation of the psychological and the mysterious.

Coleridge believed in the “feeling heart,” in the spiritual power of the individual imagination to apprehend, in images of beauty, the completeness and harmonious beauty of God’s creation. He was, therefore, the first of the English idealistic Romantics who asserted the primacy of the inner vision in the face of eighteenth century theories of materialism and mechanical, sense-bound perception. He derived from the German idealists, notably the Schlegels and Schelling and through them, Kant, many of his ideas of reason and imaginative vision, both of which qualities free men from bondage to the senses alone.

His earlier poetry is notable for its subtly patterned use of ordinary speech and its quiet, imaginative manipulation of scene and mood.

Low was our pretty cot; our tallest RosePeeped at the chamber-window. Wecould hearAt silent noon, and eve, and early morn,The sea’s faint murmur: In the openairOur myrtles blossomed; and across theporchThick jasmins twined: The little land-scape roundWas green and woody, and refreshedthe eye.

Here is a distinctive ease of manner, of rhythm and direct observation which, as in Wordsworth’s verse and according to the credo announced in his Preface to their LYRICAL BALLADS, replaces the artificially poetic, “literary” manner of much eighteenth century verse. An example of how Coleridge can develop a passage of such simplicity into a more elaborate vision may be found in “The Nightingale.” He does so without sacrificing the basic tone and texture of ordinary speech. Here, he writes disapprovingly of the closeted, ink-horn poet:

Poet who hath been building up therhymeWhen he had better far have stretchedhis limbsBeside a brook in mossy forest-dell,By Sun or Moon-light, to the influxesOf shapes and sounds and shifting ele-mentsSurrendering his whole spirit, of hissongAnd of his name forgetful! so his fameShould share in Nature’s immortality,A venerable thing!

The alliteration and the repetition of prepositional phrases create a heightened effect, expressive of Coleridge’s faith, not in a poetry of midnight oil, but of a direct, spiritual connection between man and actual nature. As Coleridge’s poetry developed, however, he became even more strikingly the poet of the imagination, of the supernatural, as is evidenced in such poems as “Kubla Khan” and THE RIME OF THE ANCIENT MARINER.

For though Coleridge shared with Wordsworth a desire to return poetry to the ordinary, the concrete, and the language of speech, he was also desirous of discovering the spiritual, supernatural principles of unity within, and lying behind, the concretely sensed multiplicity of ordinary experience. Thus, he writes, the best style is that written “when the author has had his own eye fixed steadily on the abstract, yet permits his readers to see only the concrete.” Accordingly, Coleridge expresses his conception of poetry in terms of a synthesis of imaginative vision and of actual perception, of “outer” and “inner,” in other words, or of “object” and “subject.” His earlier verse usually had nature as the “object,” but later poems approach treatment of the symbolic, mythic, and general consciousness of the inner man. Myths of death and symbolic rebirth predominate. Historically, this conception of poetry, a synthesis of the individual and subjective with the concrete and objective, moves sharply away from neoclassic doctrines of a poetry as imitation governed by rules. To Coleridge, art is less imitative than “organic”; a poem is a growing unity, the parts related to one another and all comprising a whole. The “end” of poetry is pleasure, not instruction, and yet a poem tells a higher truth. A poem expresses “a more than usual state of emotion with more than usual order.” The order, however, is not imposed from without, by aid of rules for writing poems, nor according to agreed-upon “laws” of nature. The order grows out of the synthesizing power of the individual imagination. Indeed, according to Coleridge’s notion, the creative act of the imagination is first a breaking down of the usual sensations and perceptions...

(The entire section is 2372 words.)