Biographia Literaria by Coleridge Summary
Introductory : Biographia Literaria by Coleridge Summary
While Lectures on Shakespeare are predominently devoted to practical criticism, The Biographia Literaria, 1817, is a work on literary aesthetics or literary theory. Practical criticism there is, Coleridge does analyse particular works now and then, but such analysis is meant to illustrate some particular critical view point of the poet. Biographia Literaria is a work of great value, but it too suffers from the usual faults of Coleridge. As its name signifies, it pretends to be a record of the poet’s literary upbringing, but there is little consecutive narrative, there is too much of philosophising and too many sideissues and disgressions. “After sixteen chapters of philosophising, almost entirely irrelevant, he discusses the poetical theory of his friend Wordsworth, and then in the last seven chapters of the book, he gives a remarkable demonstration of his critical powers. He analyses the Wordsworthian theory in a masterly fashion, and separating the good from the bad, upon the sounder elements bases a critical dogma of great and permanent value. These last chapters of the book, which are the most enduring exposition of the Romantic theory as it exists in English, place Coleridge in the first flight of critics.-(Albert)
Its Origin and Genesis
Coleridge’s letters, written from time to time, throw valuable light on the origin and genesis of The Biographia Literaria. From his letters to his friend Humphry Davy it appears that around 1800, the poet intended to write a Life of the German poet Lessing, and also a treatise on the philosophy of poetry entitled An Essay on the Elements of Poetry. Then an illness intervened and the idea was given up. The poet next planned to write a study of contemporary poetry. It was to be in two volumes and the purpose was to examine what was good in each writer, and what were the sources of poetic pleasure. However, this plan, too, was given up, and the treatise was never written.
But the intention of writing a treatise on aesthetics still persisted, and in 1803, he decided to write the book in an autobiographical form. The book was to contain both his metaphysical and literary theories. But even of this book, not even a single page was written for full twelve years, i.e., till 1815. The project was seriously undertaken only in 1815, when a publisher-friend, J.K. Gutch, advanced him ample money in the hope of getting his works for publication.
Its Plan: Its Publication
The first part of Biographia Literaria, the philosophical part from Chapters I-XIII, was completed in July, 1815. It contained his philosophical and metaphysical theories, and their impact on his life. Then he began writing the Preface to the book, the Preface grew in his hand, and was soon as long as the book itself. It now forms the Part I of Biographia Literaria, Chapters XIV-XXII, the part which examines critically Wordsworth’s theory of poetry and poetic diction, and which is of far-reaching significance as far as literary theory is concerned. The link between the two parts is the poet’s theory of imagination. The manuscript was then handed over to the publisher. Coleridge first intended to call the work Autobiographia Literaria, but later changed it to Biographia Literaria.
When the book was under print fresh trouble arouse. The publishers had calculated that the manuscript contained enough matter for two volumes of three hundred pages each. Now it was found that there was not enough matter for the second volume. In order to bring the size of the second part to requisite length much extraneous and irrelevant matter was added, and the book was at last published in July 1817, after a delay of nearly two years.
Its Faults: Its Originality
Biographia Literaria has serious and obvious faults. As pointed out above, there is much in it that is irrelevant and extraneous. There are too many side-issues and digressions. Coleridge is often unsystematic and haphazard. There is a strange mixture of philosophy, literary theory and biography. But still the Biographia remains a great “world-book”. According to Saintsbury, “the whole book is among the few which constitute the very Bible of Criticism.” The greatness and originality of the book arises from the fact that here, for the first time, a synthesis of philosophy and literature has been achieved. Coleridge has based literary criticism on human psychology; he has used psychology to explain the process of artistic creation. Thus the work is a unique landmark in the history of literary criticism.
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