Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Biographia Literaria” contains his influential theory of poetry, which he developed in response to the poetry of his time. Coleridge’s theory is rooted in his understanding of the imagination, which he believed was the source of all creative activity. He argued that the imagination had two primary modes: the primary imagination, which allowed individuals to perceive the world around them, and the secondary imagination, which allowed individuals to transform and combine these perceptions into new forms.
According to Coleridge, poetry was the highest expression of the secondary imagination, and its purpose was to reveal the deeper truths and connections that underlie the world of appearances. He wrote: “The function of poetry is to convey not actual knowledge, but rather the quality of knowledge; or, in other words, to awaken in the mind those powers of intuition which recognize the revelations of truth.”
Coleridge believed that the best poetry was characterized by a sense of organic unity, where each element of the poem was connected to every other element in a meaningful way. He argued that a poem should not be a random collection of images or ideas, but should instead be a “living whole” that conveyed a deeper truth about the world. He wrote: “The imagination then, I consider either as primary or secondary. The primary imagination I hold to be the living power and prime agent of all human perception, and as a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM.”
To achieve this sense of organic unity, Coleridge believed that a poet needed to have a deep understanding of the natural world and of human psychology. He argued that a poet should be able to see the underlying connections between seemingly disparate phenomena, and that they should be able to capture the inner life of their characters in a way that felt true and authentic. He wrote: “The poet, described in ideal perfection, brings the whole soul of man into activity, with the subordination of its faculties to each other according to their relative worth and dignity.”
Coleridge also believed that a poet needed to have a deep understanding of language and its potential for musicality and rhythm. He argued that the best poetry was characterized by a sense of “organic form,” where the words and sounds of the poem were united in a way that conveyed the deeper meaning of the work. He wrote: “The most unfailing herald, companion, and follower of the awakening of a great people to their own true interests and national dignity, has been poetry.”
Overall, Coleridge’s theory of poetry emphasized the importance of the imagination, unity, and authenticity in creating great works of literature. His ideas have had a profound impact on subsequent generations of writers and thinkers, and his influence can be seen in the work of many of the great poets of the 19th and 20th centuries.