The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Biographia Literaria

BIOGRAPHIA LITERARIA. Samuel Taylor Coleridge's ‘Biographia Literaria’ was originally intended as a mere preface to a collected volume of his poems, explaining and justifying his own style and practice in poetry. The work grew under Coleridge's hands to a literary autobiography, including, together with many facts concerning his education and studies and his early literary adventures, an extended criticism of Wordsworth's theory of poetry as given in the preface to the ‘Lyrical Ballads’ and a statement of Coleridge's philosophical views. The work was published in two volumes in 1817. In spite of its miscellaneous character, the ‘Biographia’ remains one of the few prose works of Coleridge which continues to be read, and it is valuable as being the chief vehicle of his very important contributions to critical theory. In the first part of the work Coleridge is mainly concerned with showing the evolution of his philosophic creed. At first an adherent of the associational psychology of Hartley, he came to discard this mechanical system for the belief that the mind is not a passive but an active agency in the apprehension of reality. The discussion involves his definition of the imagination or “emplastic power,” the faculty by which the soul perceives the spiritual unity of the universe, as distinguished from the fancy or merely associative function. The later chapters deal with the nature of poetry and with the question of diction raised by Wordsworth. While maintaining a general agreement with Wordsworth's point of view, Coleridge elaborately refutes his principle that the language of poetry should be one taken with due exceptions from the mouths of men in real life, and that there can be no essential difference between the language of prose and of metrical composition. A keen and appreciative critique on the qualities of Wordsworth's poetry concludes the volume. Consult ‘Biographia Literaria,’ edited by J. Shawcross (London 1907), and Elton, Oliver, ‘A Survey of English Literature,’ containing the best discussion of the issue between Coleridge and Wordsworth.