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A Criticism of Samuel Taylor Coleridge

by J. Middleton Murry

It is probably true that Biographia Literaria is the best book of criticism in the English language; nevertheless, it is rash to assume that it is a book of criticism of the highest excellence, even when it has passed through the salutary process of drastic editing, such as that to which, in the present case,[15] the competent hands of Mr George Sampson have submitted it. Its garrulity, its digressions, its verbiage, the marks which even the finest portions show of submersion in the tepid transcendentalism that wrought such havoc upon Coleridge's mind—these are its familiar disfigurements. They are not easily removed; for they enter fairly deeply even in the texture of those portions of the book in which Coleridge devotes himself, as severely as he can, to the proper business of literary criticism.

   [Footnote 15: Coleridge: Biographia Literaria, Chapters I.-IV.,
   XIV.-XXII.—Wordsworth: Prefaces and Essays on Poetry, 1800-1815.
   Edited by George Sampson, with an Introductory Essay by Sir Arthur
   Quiller-Couch. (Cambridge University Press.)]

It may be that the prolixity with which he discusses and refutes the poetical principles expounded by Wordsworth in the preface of Lyrical Ballads was due to the tenderness of his consideration for Wordsworth's feelings, an influence to which Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch directs our attention in his introduction. That is honourable to Coleridge as a man; but it cannot exculpate him as a critic. For the points he had to make for and against Wordsworth were few and simple. First, he had to show that the theory of a poetic diction drawn exclusively from the language of 'real life' was based upon an equivocation, and therefore was useless. This Coleridge had to show to clear himself of the common condemnation in which he had been involved, as one wrongly assumed to endorse Wordsworth's theory. He had an equally important point to make for Wordsworth. He wished to prove to him that the finest part of his poetic achievement was based upon a complete neglect of this theory, and that the weakest portions of his work were those in which he most closely followed it. In this demonstration he was moved by the desire to set his friend on the road that would lead to the most triumphant exercise of his own powers.

There is no doubt that Coleridge made both his points; but he made them, in particular the former, at exceeding length, and at the cost of a good deal of internal contradiction. He sets out, in the former case, to maintain that the language of poetry is essentially different from the language of prose. This he professes to deduce from a number of principles. His axiom—and it is possibly a sound one—is that metre originated in a spontaneous effort of the mind to hold in check the workings of emotion. From this, he argues, it follows that to justify the existence of metre, the language of a poem must show evidence of emotion, by being different from the language of prose. Further, he says, metre in itself stimulates the emotions, and for this condition of emotional excitement 'correspondent food' must be provided. Thirdly, the emotion of poetical composition itself demands this same 'correspondent food.' The final argument, if we omit one drawn from an obscure theory of imitation very characteristic of Coleridge, is the incontrovertible appeal to the authority of the poets.

Unfortunately, the elaborate exposition of the first three arguments is not only unnecessary but confusing, for Coleridge goes on to distinguish, interestingly enough, between a language proper to poetry, a language proper to prose, and a neutral language which may be used indifferently in prose and poetry, and later still he quotes a beautiful passage from Chaucer's Troilus and Cressidaas an example of this neutral language, forgetting that, if his principles are correct, Chaucer was guilty of a sin against art in writing Troilus and Cressida in metre. The truth, of course, is that the paraphernalia of principles goes by the board. In order to refute the Wordsworthian theory of a language of real life supremely fitted for poetry you have only to point to the great poets, and to judge the fitness of the language of poetry you can only examine the particular poem. Wordsworth was wrong and self-contradictory without doubt; but Coleridge was equally wrong and self-contradictory in arguing that metre necessitated a language essentially different from that of prose.

So it is that the philosophic part of the specifically literary criticism of the Biographia takes us nowhere in particular. The valuable part is contained in his critical appreciation of Wordsworth's poetry and that amazing chapter—a little forlorn, as most of Coleridge's fine chapters are—on 'the specific symptoms of poetic power elucidated in a critical analysis of Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis. In these few pages Coleridge is at the summit of his powers as a critic. So long as his attention could be fixed on a particular object, so long as he was engaged in deducing his general principles immediately from particular instances of the highest kind of poetic excellence, he was a critic indeed. Every one of the four points characteristic of early poetic genius which he formulates deserves to be called back to the mind again and again:—

'The delight in richness and sweetness of sound, even to a faulty excess, if it be evidently original and not the result of an easily imitable mechanism, I regard as a highly favourable promise in the compositions of a young man….

'A second promise of genius is the choice of subjects very remote from the private interests and circumstances of the writer himself. At least I have found, that where the subject is taken immediately from the author's personal sensations and experiences the excellence of a particular poem is but an equivocal mark, and often a fallacious pledge, of genuine poetical power….

'Images, however beautiful, though faithfully copied from nature, and as accurately represented in words, do not of themselves characterise the poet. They become proofs of original genius only as far as they are modified by a predominant passion; or by associated thoughts or images awakened by that passion; or when they have the effect of reducing multitude to unity, or succession to an instant; or lastly, when a human and intellectual life is transferred to them from the poet's own spirit….

'The last character … which would prove indeed but little, except as taken conjointly with the former—yet without which the former could scarce exist in a high degree … isdepth and energy of thought. No man was ever yet a great poet without being at the same time a profound philosopher. For poetry is the blossom and the fragrancy of all human knowledge, human thoughts, human passions, emotions, language.'

In the context the most striking peculiarity of this enunciation of the distinguishing marks of poetic power, apart from the conviction which it brings, is that they are not in the least concerned with the actual language of poetry. The whole subject of poetic diction is dropped when Coleridge's critical, as opposed to his logical, faculty is at work; and, although this Chapter XV is followed by many pages devoted to the analysis and refutation of the Wordsworthian theory and to the establishment of those principles of poetic diction to which we have referred, when Coleridge comes once more to engage his pure critical faculty, in the appreciation of Wordsworth's actual poetry in Chapter XXII, we again find him ignoring his own principles precisely on those occasions when we might have thought them applicable.

Coleridge enumerates Wordsworth's defects one by one. The first, he says, is an inconstancy of style. For a moment he appears to invoke his principles: 'Wordsworth sinks too often and too abruptly to that style which I should place in the second division of language, dividing it into the three species; first, that which is peculiar to poetry; second, that which is proper only in prose; and third, the neutral or common to both.' But in the very first instance which Coleridge gives we can see that the principles have been dragged in by the hair, and that they are really alien to the argument which he is pursuing. He gives this example of disharmony from the poem on 'The Blind Highland Boy' (whose washing-tub in the 1807 edition, it is perhaps worth noting, had been changed at Coleridge's own suggestion, with a rash contempt of probabilities, into a turtle shell in the edition of 1815):—

  'And one, the rarest, was a shell
  Which he, poor child, had studied well:
  The Shell of a green Turtle, thin
  And hollow;—you might sit therein,
      It was so wide, and deep.

  'Our Highland Boy oft visited
  The house which held this prize; and led
  By choice or chance, did thither come
  One day, when no one was at home,
      And found the door unbarred.'

The discord is, in any case, none too apparent; but if one exists, it does not in the least arise from the actual language which Wordsworth has used. If in anything, it consists in a slight shifting of the focus of apprehension, a sudden and scarcely perceptible emphasis on the detail of actual fact, which is a deviation from the emotional key of the poem as a whole. In the next instance the lapse is, however, indubitable:—

  'Thou hast a nest, for thy love and thy rest.
  And though little troubled with sloth,
  Drunken Lark! thou would'st be loth
  To be such a traveller as I.
      Happy, happy liver!
  With a soul as strong as a mountain River
  Pouring out praise to th' Almighty Giver
  Joy and jollity be with us both,
  Hearing thee or else some other
      As merry as a Brother
  I on the earth will go plodding on,
  By myself, cheerfully, till the day is done.'

The two lines in italics are discordant. But again it is no question of language in itself; it is an internal discrepancy between the parts of a whole already debilitated by metrical insecurity.

Coleridge's second point against Wordsworth is 'a matter-of-factness in certain poems.' Once more there is no question of language. Coleridge takes the issue on to the highest and most secure ground. Wordsworth's obsession with realistic detail is a contravention of the essential catholicity of poetry; and this accidentality is manifested in laboriously exact description both of places and persons. The poet sterilises the creative activity of poetry, in the first case, for no reason at all, and in the second, because he proposes as his immediate object a moral end instead of the giving of æsthetic pleasure. His prophets and wise men are pedlars and tramps not because it is probable that they should be of this condition—it is on the contrary highly improbable—but because we are thus to be taught a salutary moral lesson. The question of language in itself, if it enters at all here, enters only as the indifferent means by which a non-poetic end is sought. The accidentality lies not in the words, but in the poet's intention.

Coleridge's third and fourth points, 'an undue predilection for the dramatic form,' and 'an eddying instead of a progression of thought,' may be passed as quickly as he passes them himself, for in any case they could only be the cause of a jejuneness of language. The fifth, more interesting, is the appearance of 'thoughts and images too great for the subject … an approximation to what might be called mental bombast.' Coleridge brings forward as his first instance of this four lines which have taken a deep hold on the affections of later generations:—

  'They flash upon the inward eye
  Which is the bliss of solitude!
  And then my heart with pleasure fills
  And dances with the daffodils.'

Coleridge found an almost burlesque bathos in the second couplet after the first. It would be difficult for a modern critic to accept that verdict altogether; nevertheless his objection to the first couplet as a description of physical vision is surely sound. And it is interesting to note that the objection has been evaded by posterity in a manner which confirms Coleridge's criticism. The 'inward eye' is almost universally remembered apart from its context, and interpreted as a description of the purely spiritual process to which alone, in Coleridge's opinion, it was truly apt.

The enumeration of Wordsworth's excellences which follows is masterly; and the exhilaration with which one rises through the crescendo to the famous: 'Last and pre-eminently, I challenge for this poet the gift of Imagination in the highest and strictest sense of the word …' is itself a pleasure to be derived only from the gift of criticism of the highest and strictest kind.

The object of this examination has been to show, not that the Biographia Literaria is undeserving of the high praise which has been bestowed upon it, but that the praise has been to some extent undiscriminating. It has now become almost a tradition to hold up to our admiration Coleridge's chapter on poetic diction, and Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, in a preface that is as unconventional in manner as it is stimulating in most of its substance, maintains the tradition. As a matter of fact, what Coleridge has to say on poetic diction is prolix and perilously near commonplace. Instead of making to Wordsworth the wholly sufficient answer that much poetry of the highest kind employs a language that by no perversion can be called essentially the same as the language of prose, he allows himself to be led by his German metaphysic into considering poetry as a Ding an sich and deducing therefrom the proposition that poetry must employ a language different from that of prose. That proposition is false, as Coleridge himself quite adequately shows from his remarks upon what he called the 'neutral' language of Chaucer and Herbert. But instead of following up the clue and beginning to inquire whether or not narrative poetry by nature demands a language approximating to that of prose, and whether Wordsworth, in so far as he aimed at being a narrative poet, was not working on a correct but exaggerated principle, he leaves the bald contradiction and swerves off to the analysis of the defects and excellences of Wordsworth's actual achievement. Precisely because we consider it of the greatest importance that the best of Coleridge's criticism should be studied and studied again, we think it unfortunate that Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch should recommend the apprentice to get the chapters on poetic diction by heart. He will be condemned to carry about with him a good deal of dubious logic and a false conclusion. What is worth while learning from Coleridge is something different; it is not his behaviour with 'a principle,' but his conduct when confronted with poetry in the concrete, his magisterial ordonnance (to use his own word) and explication of his own æsthetic intuitions, and his manner of employing in this, the essential task of poetic criticism, the results of his own deep study of all the great poetry that he knew.

Book: Shattered Sighs