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MORE than seventy years have passed since the death of Coleridge; and we now stand far enough off him to see him in intelligible perspective ; he begins to take shape, to assume something like a permanent place and value. He affected his own age as a changeable and complex force, at first revolutionary, then constructive and interpretative. His influence on English poetry was far-reaching and profound. His influence on English thought was, as it appeared at the time, even greater. To the younger generation of his own contemporaries he was a prophet, a teacher who gave light on life. That side of his influence was in its nature transitory; for life is in perpetual progress, and each age has to face the problem of life afresh and find its own interpretation, For six wonderful years he was a poet and one of the immortals. That immortality remains. But he was also, both during the brief culmination of his powers and in the long succeeding period of shattered energy and fragmentary production, a critic of the first rank. In virtue of that faculty alone he was not only an expounder but a creator ; and, like all creative work, his criticism has a substantive artistic value, an inherent vitality.
The saying that poetry is a criticism of life, so far as it is more than a brilliant paradox, has reference to poetry as the highest form of literature, and to criticism as something constructive and vital. In
faculty of the ished from life, we presented.
this sense, not only poetry but all literature is a criticism of life. It interprets life and, so to speak, recreates it. But literature itself requires interpretation ; for it also is life: it is a world of its own. The critical faculty as applied to the masterpieces of literature, and still more the critical faculty as applied to the art of literature itself, is akin to the creative faculty of the artist. It does not deal with letters as something detached from life, but as the form or substance in which life is intelligibly presented. Its interpretation is also creation. A sharp line can be drawn between the artist and the critic where they work in different material, as in the criticism of painting, or of music. No such line can be drawn in literary criticism ; for the critic works in the same material, and his criticism so far as it is vital (that is to say, so far as it is relevant and worth preservation) is also a work of art. Criticism of literature is literature.
Like all the other gifts with which he was so richly endowed, and which he misused so tragically, Coleridge exercised his superb critical faculty fitfully and capriciously. It was often overclouded; it often ran to waste. The body of criticism which he contributed to literature has to be pieced together from fragmentary records ; some of it from published writings, some from records of his conversation and notes taken at his lectures. But even so it is of lasting value and interest. What a great artist says about his own art is never negligible. Coleridge was a great literary artist, one whose mastery of his art in practice it was impossible to deny, any more than it was possible to deny his subtlety of intellect and copiousness of eloquence. We have here the judgements in letters of one who had singular qualifications for judging. For he was one who impressed all his contemporaries as, in no common sense of the words, noble in reason, infinite in faculty, in action like an angel, in apprehension like a god.)
This volume, as its title indicates, includes passages dealing with the art of literature in general, and in particular with a number of prose authors and prose writings. These include some of Coleridge's best known and most brilliant sayings. In prose, as much as in poetry, he read largely, and seldom read without making some comment on the effect produced by the author whom he was reading upon his sensitive appreciation and vivid intelligence. Among his criticisms on men of letters other than the poets are such things as the famous epigram on Swift, anima Rabelaisii habitans in sicco, or the equally famous antithesis between Richardson and Fielding, sayings which have become, as one might say, part of the thing they criticize. But they are comparatively few in number, and for the most part detached or occasional. Coleridge himself was a prose writer of distinction, as a pamphleteer, an essayist, an expounder of artistic, religious, and philosophic doctrine. But his highest achievement in letters was as a poet ; and his chief work as a critic of letters is in his criticism of poetry.)
This criticism, as it will be found collected in the