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following pages, falls mainly under three heads. First, and bulking much most largely as it was thought out and recorded most deliberately, comes that which is directly connected with Wordsworth, and with the movement in English poetry which Wordsworth and himself had initiated. Next, but at once less full and less systematic, is that on Shakespeare, and incidentally or collaterally on the other dramatists of the Shakespearian age. Lastly come a few pages, brief in substance but of great importance, on poetry itself. These may be read either before or after the rest, according as we are disposed to regard them as the root-principles, or the summing - up and distillation, of the whole body of his criticism. But that circle returns into itself and ends where it began; and so it is well to read these few pages both before and aiter the rest. The editor has very properly chosen to place them at the beginning of this volume, as giving the essential groundwork of ideas, the scheme of thought, on which all Coleridge's specific literary criticisms are based. But, on the other hand, it is only in the light of those criticisms that we can gradually come to understand the ideas themselves and their connexion with one another. Only in that light do the formulae in which he embodies them become clearly intelligible-if they always become intelligible even then. Without a sufficient knowledge of their applications these formulae are abstract, and have not an obvious relevance to actual poetry or its effect upon us. But though Coleridge, in interpreting and accounting for poetry, followed a
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deductive method, the definitions and axioms from which he starts were themselves induced from a wide discursive survey. His reading in poetry was large and varied; the response of his senses to it was of unequalled delicacy, the response of his intelligence to it was almost instantaneous; his power of analysing and recording impressions was extraordinarily great. In his theorizing he is really following the guidance, or at all events the suggestions, of his instinct: he is justifying impressions already made, habits of appreciation already formed.
Comprehensive definitions, or what purport to be such, in matters which deal with life, or with any art which, like poetry, is a function of life, must always be taken at their worth. They are not so much definitions as crystallized impressions. The thing to be defined is infinitely delicate, mobile, and complex. A definition can express one or another aspect of it, not the thing itself. The problem is somewhat similar to that which presented itself to painters when they set themselves to paint not outlines but the things indicated by outlines, not colours but light. The more the definition approaches reality, the less it becomes a definition at all. Even with Coleridge we shall find that his attempts to define poetry are best, are most helpful, when they are most obviously incomplete. “Poetry is the best words in the best order': that is a mere improvisation to be sure, a piece of table-talk, but it is a phrase which he often repeated, and dwelt on with obvious satisfaction. It does not bear analysis ; but it stimulates thought. It suggests more than it conveys. It throws one strong ray of light full on its subject : formally, it is an epigram rather than a definition ; still less is it what Coleridge calls it, a homely definition. But when he goes beyond a saying like this, he becomes, like all others who have made similar attempts to define poetry, confused and unreal. In the extract from the Biographia Literaria which has been chosen to head the following selection, we have Coleridge possibly at his most characteristic, but certainly not at his best or his most illuminating.
“The poet, described in ideal perfection, brings the whole soul of man into activity, with the subordination of its faculties to each other according to their relative worth and dignity. He diffuses a tone and spirit of unity, that blends, and (as it were) fuses, each into each, by that synthetic and magical power to which we have exclusively appropriated the name of Imagination. This power, first put in action by the will and understanding, and retained under their irremissive, though gentle and unnoticed, controul, reveals itself in the balance or reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities : of sameness, with difference ; of the general with the concrete ; the idea with the image; the individual with the representative; the sense of novelty and freshness with old and familiar objects; a more than usual state of emotion with more than usual order ; judgement ever awake and steady self-possession with enthusiasm and feeling profound or vehement; and while it blends and harmonizes the natural and the artificial, still subordinates art to nature, the manner to the matter, and our admiration of the poet to the sympathy with the poetry.”
· There is not much help here; it is rhetoric, not criticism. And when we go on to read that “Good Sense is the Body of poetic Genius, Fancy its Drapery, Motion its Life, and Imagination the Soul that is everywhere, and in each', we seem to be back in the barren word-play of a century earlier, in the desert from which poetry had already been delivered, and from which Coleridge himself had been one of her deliverers.
But as soon as we pass from these large incoherent abstractions to the body of criticism which they introduce, our feet are on firm ground, and Coleridge is a guide who seldom fails to show us a way. This is especially so when he handles Wordsworth. The conjunction and mutual interaction of the two minds in the Annus Mirabilis of 1796-7 had created much more than the volume of Lyrical Ballads. It had created a new world; and in that world Coleridge lived and had his effective being. All that he did afterwards may be traced back in germ to that year and its results. When he returns upon it he always recovers something of its original radiance and strength.
Apart from this, Coleridge the critic is generally at his best when he is, directly or by implication, criticizing criticism : for then he had something to bite on, and he was kept to the point. [ His critical faculty, like his creative faculty, was subject to fits of torpor; his delight in dialectic was constantly enticing him into bypaths of speculation. His powers were only called into full activity by some external excitation; and that they might be exercised coherently he required a tonic, not an opiate.] Both requirements were met when he addressed himself to a sustained consideration of Wordsworth's poetry and Wordsworth's poetical doctrine. Both the poetry and the poetical doctrine were enough his own to excite in him the keenest sympathy and the most delicate appreciation ; both were enough not his own for him to have no illusions about them.
Hence this section of Coleridge's literary criticism should be read in close connexion with the companion volume of Wordsworth’s literary criticism. Wordsworth's greatness was in poetry, not in criticism or exposition. He was unskilful as a dialectician, and lacked persuasiveness of rhetoric ; as Coleridge very justly points out, the opposition and obloquy which his poetry for long encountered were very largely brought on by his own prefaces. Again, the qualities which make the special greatness of his poetry are alien, or even opposed, to those of the accomplished critic. Wordsworth thought and felt with great intensity; but his experience of letters (as we speak of a man's experience of life) was not great, and his intellect lost in range and fexibility what it gained in concentration. Throughout life he brooded over his own mind, over his own ideas, over his own writings. He found his own life an unfathomable well into which, as his eye grew trained to see in darkness, he could plunge deeper and deeper down among the springs of life. From those depths—and they were inexhaustible-he drew the water of which