Tuesday 15 September 2020

Book Review of 'Biographia Literaria' by Samuel Taylor Coleridge


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 Romantic characteristics 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 past and 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.

Eliot quotes:
"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. 

All the images were prepared by Chethana Ramesh

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