Saturday, October 01, 2011

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, Ed. George Watson, Everyman’s Library, Dutton, New York, 1967.

[note 3] Cowper’s Task was published some time before the Sonnets of Mr Bowles; but I was not familiar with it till many years afterwards. The vein of satire which runs through that excellent poem, together with the somber hue of its religion opinions, would probably, at that time, have prevented its laying any strong hold on my affections. The love of nature seems to have led Thomas to a cheerful religion; and a gloomy religion to have led Cowper to a love of nature. The one would carry his fellow-men. In chastity of diction however, and the harmony of blank verse, Cowper leaves Thomson unmeasurably below him; yet still I feel the latter to have been the poet. (13)

In Spenser, indeed, we trace a mind constitutionally tender, delicate and, in comparison with his three great compeers, I had almost said effeminate… But nowhere do we find the least trace of irritability, and still less of quarrelsome or affected contempt of his censurers. /
The same calmness and even greater self-possession may be affirmed of Milton, as far as his poems and poetic character are concerned. He reserved his anger for the enemies of religion, freedom and his country. (19)

I know it, alas! By woeful experience! I have laid too many eggs in the hots sands of the wilderness, the world, with ostrich carelessness and ostrich oblivion. (27)

In times of old, books were as religious oracles; as literature advanced, they next became venerable preceptors; they then descended to the rank of instructive friends; and as their numbers increased they sank still lower to that of entertaining companions; and at present they seem degraded into culprits to hold up their hands at the bar of every self-elected yet not the less peremptory judge who chooses to write from humour or interest, from enmity or arrogance, and to abide the decision (in the words of Jeremy Taylor) ‘of him that reads in malice, or him that reads after dinner.’ [note 3:

Probably a vague recollection of a proverb quoted by Taylor in his Rules and Advice to the Clergy of Down and Connor (Dublin, 1661), xlix: ‘After a good dinner let us sit down and backbite our neighbours.’] (33)

What literary man has not regretted the prudery of Spratt in refusing to let his friend Cowley appear in his slippers and dressing-gown? [note 1: Thomas Sprat (1635-1713), in the biography of his friend Abraham Cowley which he wrote after Cowley’s death in 1667 and published in his edition of Cowley’s English Works (1668), declined to include Cowley’s letter as too private for publication. Johnson in his Life of Cowley condemned the biography as ‘confused and enlarged through the mist of panegyrick.’] (37)

…that fancy and imagination were two distinct and widely different faculties, instead of being, according to the general belief, either two names with one meaning, (50)

Yet even in this attempt I am aware that I shall be obliged to draw more largely on the reader’s attention than so immethodical [53] a miscellany can authorize, when in such a work (the Ecclesiastical Polity) of such a mind as Hooker’s the judicious author, though no less admirable for the perspicuity than for the port and dignity of his language and though he wrote for men of learning in a learned age, saw nevertheless occasion to anticipate and guard against ‘complaints of obscurity’ as often as he was to trace his subject ‘to the highest well-spring and fountain.’ Which (continues he), ‘because men are not accustomed to, the pains we take are more needful a great deal than acceptable; and the matters we handle seem by reason of newness (till the mind grow better acquainted with them) dark and intricate.’ I would gladly therefore spare both myself and others this labour, if I know knew how without it to present an intelligible statement of my poetic creed; not as my opinions, which weigh for nothing, but as deductions from established premise conveyed in such a form as is calculated either to effect a fundamental conviction or to receive a fundamental confutation. (53)

[note 1] I here used the word ‘idea’ in Mr Hume’s’s sense of its general currency among the English metaphysicians; though against my own judgment, for I believe that the vague use of this word has been the cause of much error and much confusion. The word, idea [greek text], in its original sense as used by Pindar, Aristophanes and in the Gospel of Matthew, represented the visual abstraction of a distant object when we see the whole without distinguishing its parts. Plato adopted it as a technical term, and as the antithesis to [?], or sensuous images; the transient and perishable emblems, or mental words, of ideas. The ideas themselves he considered as mysterious powers, living, seminal, formative, and exempt from time. In this sense the word became the property of the Platonic school; and it seldom occurs in Aristotle, without some such phrase annexed to it as according to Plato, or as Plato says. Our English writers to the end of Charles 2nd’s reign, or somewhat later, employed it either in the original sense, or platonically, or in a sense nearly correspondent to our present use of the substantive ideal, always however opposing it more or less to image, whether of present or absent objects. The reader will not be displeased with the following interesting exemplification from Bishop Jeremy Taylor; ‘St Lewis the King sent Ivo Bishop of Chartres on an embassy, and he told that he met a grave and stately matron on the way with a censer of fire in one hand, and a vessel of water in the other; and observing her to have a melancholy, religious and phantastic deportment and look, he asked her what those symbols meant, and what she meant to do with her fire and water; she answered, my purpose it with the fire to burn paradise and with my water to quench the flames of hell, that men may serve God purely for the love of God. But we rarely meet with such spirits which love virtue so metaphysically as to abstract her from all sensible compositions, and love the purity of the idea.’ [Jeremy Taylor, Golden Grove (1651), Sermon xxi] (57)

‘As therefore physicians are many times forced to leave such methods of curing as themselves know to be fittest, and being overruled by the sick man’s impatience are fain to try the best they can; in like sort, considering how the case doth stand with this present age full of tongue and weak of brain, behold we would (if our subject permitted it) yield to the stream thereof. That way we are contented to prove our thesis, which being the worse in itself, is notwithstanding now by reason of common imbecility the fitter and likelier to be brooked.’ – Hooker. [Ecclesiastical Polity, I. viii.] (90)

During the first year that Mr Wordsworth and I were neighbours our conversations turned frequently on the two cardinal points of poetry, the power of exciting the sympathy of the reader by a faithful adherence to the truth of nature, and the power of giving the interest of novelty by the modifying colours of imagination. … The thought suggested itself (to which of us I do not recollect) that a series of poems might be composed of two sorts. In the one, the incidents and agents were to be, in part at least, supernatural; and the excellence aimed at was to consist in the interesting of the affections by the dramatic truth such of emotions as would naturally accompany such situations, supposing them real. … For the second class, subjects were to be chosen from ordinary life; … In this idea originated the plan of the Lyrical Ballads; in which it was agreed that my endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic; yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a [169] semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith. Mr Wordsworth, on the other hand, was to propose to himself as his object to give the charm of novelty to things of every day, and to excite a feeling analogous to the supernatural, by awakening the mind’s attention form the lethargy of custom and directing it to the loveliness and the wonders of the world before us; (168-9)

But if this should be admitted as a satisfactory character of a poem, we have still to seek for a definition of poetry. The writings of Plato, and Bishop Taylor, and the Theoria Sacra of Burnet, furnish undeniable proofs that poetry of the highest kind may exist without metre, and even without the contradistinguishing objects of a poem. The first chapter of Isaiah (indeed a very large proportion of the whole book) is poetry in the most emphatic sense; yet it would not be less irrational then strange to assert that pleasure, and not truth, was the immediate object of the prophet. (173)

The language of Hooker, Bacon, Bishop, Taylor and Burke differs from the common language of the learned class only by the superior number and novelty of the thoughts and relations which they had to convey. (198)

‘There neither is or can be any essential difference between the language of prose and metrical composition.’ Such is Mr Wordsworth’s assertion. Now prose itself, at least in all argumentative and consecutive works, differs, and ought to differ, from the language of conversation; even as reading [note 1] ought to differ from talking. [note 1: It is no less an error in teachers than a torment to the poor children to enforce the necessity of reading as they would talk. In order to cure them of singing, as it is called, that is, of too great a difference, the child is made to repeat the words with his eyes from off the book; and then, indeed, his tones resemble talking, as far as his fears, tears and trembling will permit. But as soon as the eye is again directed to the printed page the spell begins anew; for an instinctive sense tells the child’s feelings that to utter its own momentary thoughts, and to recite the written thoughts of another, as of another and a far wiser than himself, are two widely different things; and as the two acts are accomplished with widely different feelings, so must they justify different modes of enunciation. (203)

And, first, from the origin of metre. This I would trace to the balance in the mind effected by that spontaneous effort which strives to hold in check the workings of passion. … Assuming these principles as the data of our argument, we deduce form them two legitimate conditions which the critic is entitled to expect in every metrical work. First, that as the elements of metre owe their existence to a state of increased excitement, so the metre itself should be accompanied by the natural language of excitement. Secondly, that as these elements are formed into metre artificially, by a voluntary act, with the design and for the purpose of blending delight with emotion, so the traces of present volition should throughout the metrical language be proportionally discernible. Now these two conditions must be reconciled and co-present. There must be not only a partnership, but a union; an interpenetration of passion and of will, of spontaneous impulse and of voluntary purpose. Again, this union can be manifested only in a frequency of forms and figures of speech (originally the offspring of passion, but now the adopted children of power) greater than would be desired or endured where the emotion is not voluntarily encouraged and kept up for the sake of that pleasure which such emotion so tempered and mastered by the will is found capable of communicating. It not only dictates, but of itself tends to produce, a more frequent employment of picturesque and vivifying language than would be natural in any other case in which there did not exist, as there does in the present, a previous and well understood, though tacit, compact between the poet and his reader, that the latter is entitled to expect and the former bound to supply this species and degree of pleasurable excitement. (206)

Metre in itself is simply a stimulant of the attention, and therefore excites the question: Why is the attention to be thus stimulated? Now the question cannot be answered by the pleasure of the metre itself; for this we have shown to be conditional and dependent on the appropriateness of the thoughts and expressions to which the metrical form is superadded. Neither can I conceive any other answer that can be rationally given, short of this: I write in metre because I am about to use a language different from that of prose. (209)

The ultimate end of criticism is much more to establish the principles of writing than to furnish rules how to pass judgment on that has been written by others; if indeed it were possible that the two could be separated. (217)

When I was at Rome, among many other visits to the tomb of Julius II I went thither once with a Prussian artist, a man of genius and great vivacity of feeling. As we were gazing on Michael Angelo’s Moses, our conversation turned on the horns and beard of that stupendous statue; of the necessity of each to support the other; of the superhuman effect of the former and the necessity of the existence of both to give a harmony and integrity both to the image and the feeling excited by it. Conceive them removed, and the statue would become un-natural, without being super-natural. We called to the mind the horns of [244] the rising sun, and I repeated the noble passage from Taylor’s Holy Dying. [Holy Dying (1651), I. iii. 2. ‘For the life of a man comes upon him slowly and insensibly. But as when the sun approaches towards the gates of the morning he first opens a little eye of Heaven, and sends away the spirits of darkenesse, and gives light to a cock, and calls up the lark to matins, and by and by gilds the fringes of a cloud and peeps over the eastern hills, thrusting out his golden horns like those which decked the browes of Moses when he was forced to wear a vail because himself had seen the face of God…’ (243-4)


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