This presentation deals with chapter 14 of 'Biographia Literaria' written by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. It deals with his famous defence of Wordsworth's poetic creed, difference between prose and poem; and more importantly, difference between poem and poetry
Difference between Poem and Poetry
The written monument of Coleridge’s critical work is contained
in 24 chapters of Biographia Literaria (1815–17). In this critical
disquisition, Coleridge concerns himself not only with the
practice of criticism, but also, with its theory. In his practical
approach to criticism, we get the glimpse of Coleridge the poet;
whereas in theoretical discussion, Coleridge the philosopher
came to the centre stage.
In Chapter XIV of Biographia Literaria, Coleridge’s view on
nature and function of poetry is discussed in philosophical
terms. The poet within Coleridge discusses the difference
between poetry and prose, and the immediate function of
poetry, whereas the philosopher discusses the difference
between poetry and poem. He was the first English writer to
insist that every work of art is, by its very nature, an organic
whole. At the first step, he rules out the assumption, which, from
Horace onwards, had wrought such havoc in criticism, that the
object of poetry is to instruct; or, as a less extreme form of the
heresy had asserted, to make men morally better.
Q1. Which two cardinal points of poetry are
discussed by Coleridge in Chapter 14 of
Q2. “During the first year that Mr. Wordsworth
and I were neighbours, our conversations turned
frequently on the two cardinal points of poetry”.
Explain with reference to Coleridge’s view in Ch.
14 of Biographia Literaria.
Two cardinal points of poetry: Coleridge begins this chapter
with his views on two cardinal points of poetry. To him these
cardinal points are (i) the power of exciting the sympathy of
the reader by a faithful adherence to the truth of nature, and
(ii) the power of giving the interest of novelty by modifying
with the colours of imagination. According to him, it was
decided that Wordsworth would write poetry dealing with the
theme of first cardinal point and the other was to be dealt by
him. For the first type of poetry, the treatment and subject
matter should be, to quote Coleridge, “The sudden charm,
which accidents of light and shade, which moon-light or sun-
set diffused over a known and familiar landscape, appeared to
represent the practicability of combining both. These are the
poetry of nature.” In such poems, subjects were to be chosen
from ordinary life; the characters and incidents were to be
such, as will be found in every village and its vicinity, where
there is a meditative and feeling mind to seek after them, or to
notice them, when they present themselves.
In the second type of poetry, the incidents and agents
were to be supernatural. In this sort of poetry, to quote
Coleridge, “the excellence aimed at was to consist in
the interesting of the affections by the dramatic truth
of such emotions as would naturally accompany such
situations, supposing them real. And real in this sense
they have been to every human being who, from
whatever source of delusion, has at any time believed
himself under supernatural agency.” Thus with the
help of imagination the natural will be dealt
supernaturally by the poet and the reader will
comprehend it with ‘willing suspension of disbelief’.
The Lyrical Ballads consists of poems dealing with
these two cardinal points. Wherein, the endeavour of
Coleridge was to deal with “persons and characters
supernatural”, and that of Wordsworth “was to give the
charm of novelty to things of every day, by awakening
the mind's attention from the lethargy of custom, and
directing it to the loveliness and the wonders of the
world before us.”
Q3. What are Coleridge’s views towards
Wordsworth’s poetic creed?
Q4. “Had Mr. Wordsworth's poems been the silly,
the childish things … they must have sunk at once,
a dead weight, into the slough of oblivion, and
have dragged the preface along with them”.
Explain with reference to Coleridge’s view in
Chapter 14 of Biographia Literaria.
Coleridge, even though he did not agree with Wordsworth’s views on
poetic diction, vindicated his poetic creed in chapter 14 of Biographia
Literaria. Coleridge writes in defence to the violent assailant to the
‘language of real life’ adopted by Wordsworth in the Lyrical Ballads.
There had been strong criticism against Wordsworth’s views expressed
in Preface also.
Coleridge writes in his defence: “Had Mr. Wordsworth's poems been the
silly, the childish things, which they were for a long time described as
being; had they been really distinguished from the compositions of other
poets merely by meanness of language and inanity of thought; had they
indeed contained nothing more than what is found in the parodies and
pretended imitations of them; they must have sunk at once, a dead
weight, into the slough of oblivion, and have dragged the preface along
with them”. He wrote that the ‘eddy of criticism’ which whirled around
these poems and Preface would have dragged them in oblivion.
But it has not happened. Instead, to quote Coleridge, “year after year
increased the number of Mr. Wordsworth's admirers. They were found too
not in the lower classes of the reading public, but chiefly among young
men of strong ability and meditative minds; and their admiration
(inflamed perhaps in some degree by opposition) was distinguished by its
intensity, I might almost say, by its religious fervour.” Thus, Coleridge
gives full credit to the genius of Wordsworth.
It does not mean that he agreed with Wordsworth on all the
Coleridge writes: “With many parts of this preface in the
sense attributed to them and which the words undoubtedly
seem to authorize, I never concurred; but on the contrary
objected to them as erroneous in principle, and as
contradictory (in appearance at least) both to other parts of
the same preface, and to the author's own practice in the
greater number of the poems themselves.
Mr. Wordsworth in his recent collection has, I find, degraded
this prefatory disquisition to the end of his second volume, to
be read or not at the reader's choice”.
Hence, we may say that, Coleridge is frank enough to point
out that some of the views of Wordsworth were wrong in
principle and contradictory, not only in parts of the Preface
but also to the practice of the poet himself in many of his
Q5. How does Coleridge distinguish between
Prose and Poem?
Q6. Does the super addition of metre make the
difference between prose and poem?
Q7. Would then the mere super addition of metre,
with or without rhyme, entitle these to the name
of poems? Explain.
Q8. “A poem contains the same elements as a
prose composition”. Elucidate.
Q9. What according to Coleridge is the nature and
function of poem?
The poem contains the same elements as a prose
composition. But the difference is between the
combination of those elements and objects aimed at in
both the composition.
According to the difference of the object will be the
difference of the combination. If the object of the poet may
simply be to facilitate the memory to recollect (remember)
certain facts, he would make use of certain artificial
arrangement of words with the help of metre.
As a result composition will be a poem, merely because it is
distinguished from composition in prose by metre, or by
rhyme. In this, the lowest sense, one might attribute the
name of a poem to the well-known enumeration of the days
in the several months;
Thirty days hath September,
April, June, and November
Thus, to Coleridge, mere super addition of meter or rhyme
does not make a poem.
He further elucidates his view point by various prose
writings and its immediate purpose and ultimate end.
In scientific and historical composition, the
immediate purpose is to convey the truth (facts). In
the prose works of other kinds (romances and novels),
to give pleasure in the immediate purpose and the
ultimate end may be to give truth. Thus, the
communication of pleasure may be the immediate
object of a work not metrically composed.
Now the question is “Would then the mere super
addition of metre, with or without rhyme, entitle these
to the name of poems?”
To this Coleridge replies that if metre is super added
the other parts of the composition also must
harmonise with it. In order to deserve the name poem
each part of the composition, including metre, rhyme,
diction and theme must harmonise with the
wholeness of the composition.
Metre should not be added to provide merely a
superficial decorative charm. Nothing can
permanently please, which does not contain in
itself the reason why it is so, and not otherwise. If
metre is super added, all other, parts must be
made constant with it. They all must harmonise
with each other.
A poem, therefore, may be defined as, that species of
composition, which is opposed to works of science, by
proposing for its immediate object pleasure, not truth;
and from all other species (having this object in
common with it) it is discriminated by proposing to
itself such delight from the whole, as is compatible
with a distinct gratification from each component
Thus, according to Coleridge, the poem is distinguished form
prose compositions by its immediate object. The immediate
object of prose is to give truth and that of poem is to please.
He again distinguishes those prose compositions (romance
and novels) from poem whose object is similar to poem i.e. to
He calls this poem a legitimate poem and defines it as, “it
must be one, the parts of which mutually support and
explain each other; all in their proportion harmonizing
with, and supporting the purpose and known influences
of metrical arrangement”.
Therefore, the legitimate poem is a composition in which the
rhyme and the metre bear an organic relation to the total
work. While reading this sort of poem “the reader should be
carried forward, not merely or chiefly by the mechanical
impulse of curiosity or by a restless desire to arrive at the final
solution; but by the pleasurable activity of mind excited by the
attractions of the journey itself”.
Here Coleridge asserts the importance of the
impression created by the harmonious whole of the
poem. To him, not one or other part but the entire
effect, the journey of reading poem should be
Thus Coleridge puts an end to the age old controversy
whether the end of poem is instruction or delight. Its
aim is definitely to give pleasure, and further poem has
its own distinctive pleasure, pleasure arising from the
parts, and this pleasure of the parts supports and
increases the pleasure of the whole.
Q10. How does Coleridge differentiate between
Poem and Poetry?
Q11. “Poetry of the highest kind may exist without
metre and even without the contradistinguishing
objects of a poem.” Explain.
Q12. “A poem of any length neither can be, nor
ought to be, all poetry”. Explain.
Q13. The difference between poem and poetry “is a
distinction resulting from the poetic genius itself,
which sustains and modifies the images,
thoughts, and emotions of the poet's own mind”.
In the last section of the chapter 14, Coleridge considers to
distinguish poem from poetry. Coleridge points out that
“poetry of the highest kind may exist without metre and even
without the contradistinguishing objects of a poem”.
He gives example of the writings of Plato, Jeremy Taylor and
Bible. The quality of the prose in this writings is equal to that
of high poetry.
He also asserts that the poem of any length neither can be,
nor ought to be, all poetry. Then the question is what is
poetry? How is it different from poem?
To quote Coleridge: “What is poetry? is so nearly the same
question with, what is a poem? The answer to the one is
involved in the solution of the other. For it is a distinction
resulting from the poetic genius itself, which sustains
and modifies the images, thoughts, and emotions of the
poet's own mind.
Thus the difference between poem and poetry is not given
in clear terms. Even John Shawcross (in Biographia
Literaria with Aesthetical Essays – 1907 Ed.) writes “this
distinction between ‘poetry’ and ‘poem’ is not clear, and
instead of defining poetry he proceeds to describe a poet,
and from the poet he proceeds to enumerate the
characteristics of the imagination”.
This is so because ‘poetry’ for Coleridge is an activity of the
poet’s mind, and a poem is merely one of the forms of its
expression, a verbal expression of that activity, and poetic
activity is basically an activity of the imagination.
As David Daiches(A Critical History of English
Literature) points out, ‘Poetry’ for Coleridge is a wider
category than a ‘poem’; that is, poetry is a kind of activity
which can be engaged in by painters or philosophers or
scientists and is not confined to those who employ
metrical language, or even to those who employ
language of any kind.
Poetry, in this larger sense, brings, ‘the whole soul of
man; into activity, with each faculty playing its proper
part according to its ‘relative worth and dignity’. This
takes place whenever the synthesizing, the integrating,
powers of the secondary imagination are at work,
bringing all aspects of a subject into a complex unity,
then poetry in this larger sense results.
David Daiches further writes in A Critical History of English
Literature, “The employment of the secondary imagination is a
poetic activity, and we can see why Coleridge is let from a
discussion of a poem to a discussion of the poet’s activity when
we realize that for him the poet belongs to the larger company
of those who are distinguished by the activity of their
By virtue of his imagination, which is a synthetic and magical
power, he harmonize and blends together various elements
and thus diffuses a tone and spirit of unity over the whole.
It manifests itself most clearly in the balance or reconciliation
of opposite or discordant qualities – such as (a) of sameness,
with difference, (b) of the general, with the concrete, (c) the
idea, with the image, (d) the individual, with the
representative, (e) the sense of novelty and freshness, with old
and familiar objects, (f) a more than usual state of emotion,
with more than usual order, (g) judgment with enthusiasm.
And while this imagination blends and harmonizes the natural
and the artificial, it subordinates to nature, the manner to the
matter, and our admiration of the poet to our sympathy with
To conclude, we may say In his own words, he
endeavored ‘to establish the principles of writing
rather than to furnish rules about how to pass
judgment on what had been written by others’.
Thus, Coleridge is the first English critic who based his
literary criticism on philosophical principles. While
critics before him had been content to turn a poem
inside out and to discourse on its merits and demerits,
Coleridge busied himself with the basic question of
‘how it came to be there at all’. He was more interested
in the creative process that made it, what it was, then
in the finished product.