Language is the armoury of the human mind; and at once contains the trophies of its past, and the weapons of its future conquests.
- Chapter 16, Biographia Literaria.
This book is not just an autobiography of one of the most celebrated authors of the Romantic literary era. It is an in-depth critical analysis of the works of others, laced with musings, quotations from other works and some personal experiences.
It is less of an autobiography and more of a textbook of literary criticism. Anyone looking for literary confessions of an opium addict or even techniques he used while penning some great poetry, such as Kubla Khan or Dejection: An Ode, will be sorely disappointed. However, literature lovers will have much to gain from the brilliant critical inputs of the author, if they have the perseverance and patience to drudge through the length of sentences or the depth of analysis proffered by Coleridge.
The book is just what it actually claims in its full title: Biographical Sketches of My Literary Life and Opinions. Except that the opinions, or analytical musings take up more space than Coleridge's own literary journey, which would have been a little more interesting to read.
The first thing that hits readers is the sheer length of the sentences and their complexity.
Take a look at the first line of the BL:
"It has been my lot to have had my name introduced both in conversation, and in print, more frequently than I find it easy to explain, whether I consider the fewness, unimportance, and limited circulation of my writings, or the retirement and distance, in which I have lived, both from the literary and political world."
Phew. That's one single sentence, and the first one at that. Most modern writers would break it up into at least three-four shorter sentences before they closed the paragraph.
The readers know at once that they are up for one tough journey, if they haven't given up already. While we may concede that this style was common to the century that Coleridge belonged to, readers who are accustomed to simple, uncomplicated language may find it impossible to navigate, without oodles of patience to break up each line into conceivable parts and achieve clearer comprehension. And I just realized that my sentence has turned out just as long as his, albeit with simpler vocabulary.
The initial chapters deal with his motives for writing the book and the influence of the literary scene on his mind.
While some passages seem like rants against his critics, Coleridge offers valuable inputs about how literary criticism must actually be done.
Chapter 4 offers one of the most joyful reads are the parts where he mentions Wordsworth. Throughout the book one can see the great regard he has for his friend's genius, and he iterates this with ample praise and numerous examples.
At the same time, it doesn't stop him from tearing Wordsworth apart in his criticism, for the points he doesn't comply with, in the later chapters.
Chapter 9, where he defends himself against charges of Plagiarism have some interesting lines.
The term used by him, 'Truth, as a divine ventriloquist' is a charming stroke of brilliance, highly characteristic of Coleridge.
The way Coleridge attacks his critics and reasserts his own superiority in the same breath of writing, is amusing to read.
Coleridge's love for literature and his extensive reading becomes obvious to us with each turn of the page.
Some of the chapters are so full of parallel quotations to prove each of his points, that they remind us of the work of F.R.Leavis, the new critic of the mid-twentieth century. Leavis was famous for his usage of corresponding quotations to substantiate his points of contention too.
Chapter 13 contains the important tenets on the concept of Imagination, The Esemplastic Power.
It also contains his iterations on the differences between
Primary and Secondary Imagination.
Also, the way he puts across the difference between true Imagination and mere Fancy is convincing in its argument.
Chapter 14 was interesting for me, because reading about how the Lyrical Ballads came to be penned, from the horse's mouth, so to speak, evokes a poignant thrill.
The plan of the LYRICAL BALLADS iterates the Romanticcharacteristics of the age, when Coleridge talks about the
a faithful adherence to the truth of nature, and 'the modifying colours of imagination' in the proposed contents.
Also, we see how it turned out that Coleridge contribution to the Lyrical Ballads was minimal, when compared to that of Wordsworth.
...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 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...
With this view I wrote THE ANCIENT MARINER, and was preparing among other poems,THE DARK LADIE, and the CHRISTABEL...
- Chapter 14, Biographia Literaria,
Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
The notion of 'willing suspension of disbelief' that Coleridge was famous for, is something that people across the world identify with. Movie lovers worldwide, (Indians included) who willingly suspend disbelief every time they lap up unbelievably impossible scenes in their films are proof of Coleridge's genius interpretation of the human psyche.
I was left wishing that he had spoken a little more about the famous Mariner, and how or what inspired him to write that masterpiece as well.
Coleridge's discussions on Shakespeare in chapter 15 offer new perspectives about the Bard's work. In what he aptly calls 'investigation' the paradox of 'strong promises of strength' and 'immaturity of his genius', in an oxymoronic quality, are brought out convincingly by Coleridge.
Shakespeare's 'creative power and intellectual energy' wrestling in a 'war embrace' to extinction, is another instance of beautiful wordplay of the Romantic poet.
Here again, I find a haunting reminder another pioneer of new criticism, T.S.Eliot, and how discusses the failure of Hamlet in his essay 'Hamlet and his problems' owing to the lack of Objective Correlative.
Chapter 16 caught my interest in a similar fashion, too.
Coleridge points out striking points of difference between the Poets of the present age and those of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.
This at once reminded me of the concept of 'The Dissociation of Sensibility' which was made famous by by T.S.Eliot in his path-breaking essay on Metaphysical poets.
Language is the armoury of the human mind; and at once contains the trophies of its pastand the weapons of its future conquests (...)
Doesn't the passage run along very similar lines to what Eliot feels about the poets of the 16th-17th centuries possessing a 'Unification of Sensibility' that disappeared after the 17th century? Food for thought, indeed.
The Satyrane's Letters are more interesting than other chapters, for readers who need some story-like incidents of Coleridge's life. They are a welcome change from the hardcore literary drudgery of the other chapters.
The letters also have dialogues between the Danes and Coleridge, which give it the feel of a novel juxtaposed with a German travelogue.
Chapter 23 is striking as well, because Coleridge's tenets were echoed by Eliot, almost two centuries later, in his essay 'Tradition and Individual Talent'. Take a look:
'Comparison with some elder production' is exactly what Eliot calls the 'Historical Sense', where Eliot says that the most individual parts of a poet's work maybe those which are most 'alive' with influence of his poetic ancestors.
"For proper evaluation, you must set a poet for contrast and comparison among the dead poets"
One is more convinced of how much influence Samuel Taylor Coleridge wielded on the future Nobel laureate, when one reads such multiple instances of similarity, between the works of the two greats.
Biographia Literaria is one of the toughest books I have read this year. There are times when the analyses become too deep ,to the point of monotonous drudgery. However, one must concede that it may be invaluable for students who study the works of the poets Coleridge has chosen to discuss.
What shines forth is the gargantuan amount of reading the man had undertaken and the sheer depth of his superiorly wired mind. Whether the sheer brilliance of his undeterred flow and intellectual capacity was because of or despite his supposed opium addiction, is food for ample thought, for generations to come.
This is my third book of Virginia Woolf. I'd been wanting to read this since the time I heard that this book is considered as one of the most autobiographical novels of the celebrated author.
Knowing her work to be feminist literature and having read her famous essay, 'A Room of Her Own' and also 'Orlando', I had a fair inkling of what to expect from her work.
Structure and Narrative
"Women can't write. Women can't paint".
- Charles Tansley, The Window,
To the Lighthouse.
'To the Lighthouse', first published in 1927, is comprised of three parts: The Window, Time passes and The Lighthouse.
It is generally harder to read books written in the stream of consciousness mode. What makes this one a little harder is the multiple points of view of characters behind clubbed with the technique.
The paragraphs move fluidly from one mind to another, but this makes the narrative even more confusing because one has to keep figuring out which character's mind musing is being narrated.
That man, she thought, her anger rising in her, never gave; that man took. Mrs. Ramsay had given. Giving, giving, giving, she had died.
- Lily Briscoe, To the Lighthouse.
The imagery is vibrant, detailed and refreshing to read.Woolf captures the subtlest nuances of nature, relationships and ambiance alike, with easy aplomb.
The contrast between the chapters is distinct in the way the protagonist Mrs. Ramsay overpowers the pages with her strong presence and equally powerful absence.
The death of main characters as casual mentions, albeit in bracketted manner shocks the reader at regular intervals in part 2. While there is not much of a storyline to boast about, the book offers heavy symbolism at every turn.
As the title suggests, the lighthouse is the chief symbol of whatever the reader may presume : hope, faith, longing or simply unfulfilled desires of life. The last chapter shows the futility or illusive nature of some such long-term desires. At the same time, it also makes a triumphant statement of a different kind of fulfillment for the character of Lily Briscoe, the artist, who completes her unfinished painting after many years.
Perhaps the most glaring one is it's theme of feminism, knowing what Woolf's genres are famous for. Unconventional roles are depicted through Lily, who defies norms of the century and chooses to stay single, happily so.
One cannot miss the silent statement made by the book, when the ladies who do marry lead unfulfilled lives or face failed marriages. Three of Mrs.Ramsay's daughters want to defy the norms as well. Prue, the daughter who doesn't dies early, so does Andrew Ramsay, the son.
Some interesting nuances of the male-female relationship are noticed. Mrs. Ramsay, being powerful and strong, while her husband is needy, short-tempered, unpleasant, despite his supposed brilliance on the work front, is food for thought. Mr. Ramsay, swathed in self-pity, looking for sympathy and attention first from his wife, and then dramatically from even Lily, displays how emotionally dependent a man is on women, despite the supposed superiority of the species. The way he cheers up like a little boy, when she praises his boots is almost hilarious. Also, Charles Tansley's insecurity that seeks solace from the vibrant woman Mrs.Ramsey heightens the sense of her robust essence.
The ironic contrast between the strong women and somewhat lacking men, in the patriarchal setup of the period it was written in is a symbolic statement in itself. And yet, the scenes are neither artificial or forced, but utterly realistic in the portrayal of characters.
Overall, this classic can be read by avid readers who enjoy the challenge of a book that draws upon their complete concentration and attentiveness. I rate the book a 3.7 out of 5.
Did you find my review useful? Do let me know in the comments.
This is easily the best read of mine in this year, till date. For someone who rarely reads nonfiction, Mary's Vindication caught my attention at the word go and refused to let go till the end.
Those readers who might consider this as mere feminist literature, must do a rethink because it is unfair to label it as such. When we still lap up a lot of the relationship and parenting tips, that the web churns out for us today, the book is an eye opener that surprises and even shocks readers with its timeless wisdom. The book discusses the ills and evils riddling the society right from class distinctions to prostitution. It also points out the role of flawed literature that feeds these very evils, that is relevant even today.
For those who think this is a men-bashing feminist book, think again. Wollstonecraft bashes women more, for false pretenses that fool men into buying into their supposed delicacy.
Moreover, it doesn't stop with mere discussions but provides succinct solutions to every problem, with a foundation of education.
Centuries after it was published, the relevance strikes chords to remind us how ahead of her times Wollstonecraft was.
There are three unusual aspects in the structure : a dedicatory letter, an introduction and a glossary even before the chapters begin.
The dedicatory letter in the beginning of the book to the former bishop of Auren, M.Tallyrand Perigold.
'If the woman isn't fitted by education to become man's companion, she will stop the progress of knowledge'
What is surprising is the length of the dedication, with explanation as to why change needs to be brought into the existing system.
The introduction talks about the neglect of women in society at large owing to the flawed system of education. Also, the glossary is at the beginning, before the chapters, not at the end. This in itself makes a statement as to what is to come in the chapters.
There are 13 chapters, dealing with varied topics, with the underlying themes reiterated at regular intervals.
The narration is distinctive of the age it was written in. The sentences are long and flowing with verbiose embellishments, but the narrative is easy to follow and understand. I found this book a lot easier to finish than Virginia Woolf's books ( although Woolf belonged to an age a century and a half later).
In fact it is difficult to believe that Wollstonecraft was a contemporary writer of Coleridge, whose Biographia Literaria is one of the hardest reads, although the style is more or less similar. One may perhaps attribute this to the variance of topics under discussion in these works, that are not comparable on many counts.
Nevertheless, Wollstonecraft has a gripping style that makes readers turn pages faster than books of her contemporary writers.
While the chapters are dedicated to certain subjects under discussion, there are some common features that run parallel to almost all of them. In addition to Women's education, Rousseau occupies a lot of ink in the pages.
Wollstonecraft tears Rousseau's work (Emile) apart without mincing words. Other authors like Dr.Gregory ( Father's Legacy to his daughters) are attacked in the first three chapters.
Wollstonecraft's definition of education is still different from what it is today. She is on target when she points out
'To gain affections of a virtuous man, is affection necessary?' - Chapter 2
How different are women today? The Facebook-Instagram culture has proved the need for validation or attention.
Having said that, the attention-seeking trait is hardly reserved to women. I wonder what Wollstonecraft's reaction would have been had she been alive today.
As for education, the world has indeed come far in some ways. Today, women educate themselves for independence unlike the education of the eighteenth century, where women were educated for dependence on men.
It is difficult for readers to fathom that this piece of literature was penned in a century where there were no women authors that Wollstonecraft could even cite for reference. The fact that she uses a novel like Clarissa by Richardson to point out the role of rain in ruining the lives of women.
The flaws of literature of the age we're indeed reprehensible. However, the irony is that the same kind of literature still thrives and is lapped up by both men and women in the market till date. This does not augur well for us when we are forced to agree with Wollstonecraft's take.
'But if bodily strength is something men boast of having, why are women so foolish as to be proud of weakness, which is a defect?' - Chapter 3
Bang on. We see too many women who are still ruined by sloth, laziness and silly notions of beauty and delicacy.
We are regular witness to ladies who are robust enough to have birthed multiple kids, and yet put on a show of great weakness & delicacy (read laziness) to perform housekeeping chores or keep their brains active with useful reads. One has to only read WhatsApp group chats to realize the excessive dependence on maids and cooks to even sustain a basic running of the familial unit.
One thing that strikes readers as the book's pages are turned is the powerful way Wollstonecraft puts forth her ideas. Many quotable quotes may be obtained from every other page. It is almost as if the author stands on a podium addressing a rapt audience and demanding answers or churning out her convictions with a convincing air.
'Women are systematically degraded by trivial attentions that men think it manly to pay to females' - Chapter 2
She points out that this is an insult to her intelligence.
The world is still trying to convince itself of the superiority of beauty over brains, to little avail.
Wollstonecraft's grouse against flawed literature takes a powerful stance when she dedicated an entire chapter 5 to point out some stalwarts who were culprits of the same.
Rousseau, Fordyce, Gregory, some women and Chesterfield occupy dedicated portions to receive their share of flak.
Readers cannot help being astounded by the sheer courage of Mary Wollstonecraft to have openly taken such a severe stance, in an age such as that. Even in the supposed advancement of the twentieth century, authors like J.K.Rowling and E.L.James adopted male pseudonyms to tackle the gender bias in literary arena.
The points on modesty in chapter 7 as well as morality and reputation in Chapter 8 hold good till date, unfortunately for society.
Chapter 9 is interesting because it criticizes the evils of being rich, so to speak. The discussion on property rights takes on a different, hilarious but ironic tinge, when she connects it to spoilt lazy sloth of hereditary heirs.
The childcare concerns in the tiny chapter 10 are concise and on target as well. The supposition that meek wives make foolish mother's may not be generally true, however one has come across multiple instances of the same in one's life. Wollstonecraft's premise that a good mother must have sense, with an independent mind cannot be argued with. Looking at how some kids (or adults)have turned out is proof of the respective parenting.
Also, the duty to parents in Chapter 11 is a bold premise that rings true as well.
'Slavish bondage to parents cramps the faculty of the mind'. She points out that there needs to be a line towards respect for parents too.
'Irregular parental authority injures the mind.' - Chapter 11
Aren't all child psychologists saying this even today?
The views on national education in chapter 12 look at the larger picture while the concluding chapter goes back to segmented bashing of certain harms of women's ignorance.
It is important to note that she does not criticize women for dressing up, only for the reasons they dress up for. The arguments made about ignorance on childcare appear largely valid till date.
'From the tyranny of man, greater number if female follows proceed'
- Concluding thoughts, Vindication of the Rights of Woman.
A must read for those who misunderstand feminism, including some so-called feminists
I rate the book 4.8 out of 5. Extra points are for sheer nerve of the author.
Mary Shelley's mom was far ahead of the 18th century. One but wonders what she would have penned, had she been alive today. Her book continues to stay completely relevant centuries after she is gone.