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 own 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 important statements that Coleridge found unacceptable. First, Wordsworth asserts that the proper diction of poetry consists in the language or the real conversation of men under the influence of natural feelings. So he chose humble and rustic life, Coleridge points out that this statement is imperfect as all his characters are not chosen 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 identical feelings either in urban life or in 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. In this connection, he refers to Aristotle’s conception of poetry as essentially ideal, that 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. He points out that the experience of the rustic is very limited; the facts at his disposal are society; so he cannot think logically. He is unable to connect with facts and express himself logically, as an educated man can. Therefore, the language of the rustic 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 rustic life is narrow and the rustic is actually acquitted with only a few things of life. Therefore, the words and the combinations of words derived from the very few objects with which the rustic are familiar, cannot be considered to form the best part of human language which is the reflections of mind basically. Poetry is formed by the use of 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 from repeated words, listening to the Bible and to the sermons.
Giving 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 the use of the word ‘real’. Wordsworth maintains that the language of poetry is the selection of the real language of men. Coleridge argues that everyone’s language varies according to the extent of his knowledge, the activities of his faculties and the depth and quickness of his feelings. Everyman’s language has its individual 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 greatly 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, but it cannot create a noble and richer vocabulary. Moreover, a common 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 very difficult for a poet to make such a language fit for poetry.
Coleridge also disagrees with Wordsworth regarding the statement that if there is an essential difference between the language of prose and metrical composition”. Coleridge asserts that there is and there ought to be an essential difference between the languages of prose and poetry. Coleridge argues that the language of written prose obviously differs from that of common conversation, in the same way, reading differs from talking. Even though some words are common to prose and poetry, they are differently arranged in the two compositions, making the language of the two essentially different. This difference arises from the fact that the poetry use meter and meter requires a different arrangement of words. Coleridge has already pointed out that meter is not 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 and while making an assessment of Wordsworth’s views, Coleridge offers his own views on the language of poetry in general.