The most remarkable part of Biographia Literaria lies in Coleridge’s criticism of Wordsworth’s theory of poetry and Poetic Diction. While critically analyzing Wordsworth’s theory, Coleridge has offered his views on the choice of rustic themes and characters as well as the language of poetry.
In chapter XVII of Biographia Literaria, Coleridge refers to Wordsworth’s preface to the Lyrical Ballads (second edition). In this preface, Wordsworth made three critical statements that Coleridge found unacceptable.
First, Wordsworth asserts that the proper diction of poetry consists of the language or the real conversation of men under natural feelings. So, he chose a humble and rustic life.
Coleridge points out that this statement is imperfect as he did not choose the characters from low and rustic life, e.g., the characters in poems like “Ruth,” “Michael,” “The brothers,” etc.
Coleridge argues that their language and sentiments do not necessarily arise from their social standing. They spring from the general causes, which produce similar feelings in urban life or the country. Moreover, Coleridge maintains that Wordsworth’s theory of poetic diction can only be applied to particular types of poetry, and it can never be a rule of general application.
He refers to Aristotle’s conception of poetry as essentially ideal in this connection. Individual characters in poetry should be general and typical, and their feelings should be typical and representative of the whole class.
Examining Wordsworth’s Theory of Poetic Diction
Coleridge maintains that the language of the rustic, purified from its defects and grossness, will not differ materially from the language of any other man of common sense, no matter how learned or refined he is.
Coleridge points out that the rustic experience is minimal; the facts at his disposal are society. So, he cannot think logically. He cannot connect with facts and express himself logically, as an educated man can.
Therefore, the rustic language lacks expressive visions (and range), making it unfit for poetry. Coleridge also finds fault with Wordsworth’s conviction that the best part of the human language is derived from the objects into which the rustic daily communicates. He argues that rural life is narrow, and the rustic acquits with only a few things of life.
Therefore, the combinations of words derived from the very few objects familiar with the rustic cannot be considered to form the best part of human language. It is the reflection of mind.
Poetry is formed by using appropriate signs and symbols of human imagination and reflection, which the uneducated man cannot have. Whatever noble and poetic phrases the rustic use are derived not from nature but repeated words, listening to the Bible, and the sermons.
Given his critical assessment of the language of prose and poetry as reflected in Wordsworth’s theory of Poetic Diction, Coleridge objects to the ambiguity in using the word ‘real.’ Wordsworth maintains that the language of poetry is the selection of the natural language of men.
Coleridge argues that everyone’s language varies depending on the extent of his knowledge. It further depends on his faculties’ activities and the depth and quickness of his feelings.
Everyman’s language has its characteristics and the common properties of the social class to which he belongs.
Everyman has a set of words and phrases to use universally. He points out that the language used in the poems of Wordsworth differs significantly from the language of a common peasant.
Coleridge opines that the word ‘real’ should be substituted with the word ‘ordinary.’ He also objects to Wordsworth’s addition of the words ‘in a state of excitement for emotional excitement, which may result in a more concentrated expression. However, it cannot create a noble and richer vocabulary.
Moreover, an ordinary uncultivated mind, overpowered by a strong passion, can utter broken words or repeat the sets of words and phrases known to him. So, it would be tough for a poet to make such a language fit for poetry.
Coleridge also disagrees with Wordsworth regarding the statement that there is an essential difference between the language of prose and metrical composition. Coleridge asserts that there ought to be an essential difference between the languages of prose and poetry.
Coleridge argues that the language of written prose differs from the ordinary conversation; in the same way, reading differs from talking. Even though some words are familiar to prose and poetry, they are differently arranged in the two compositions, making the language of the two essentially different.
This difference arises because the poetry uses meter, and meter requires a different arrangement of words. Coleridge has already pointed out that the meter is not a mere superficial decoration but an essential organic part of a poem.
Therefore there must be an ‘essential’ difference between the language of prose and that of poetry. The use of meter creates a different atmosphere in poetry, and using metaphors and similes make all the differences in quality but not in art.
Thus, Wordsworth’s theory of poetic Diction is critically examined by Coleridge in his Biographia Literaria.
While assessing Wordsworth’s views, Coleridge offers his views on the language of poetry in general.