Samuel Taylor Coleridge as a Romantic Literary Critic

About S.T. Coleridge

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, famously called the Sage of Highgate, was born in 1772. He was a close friend of another Romantic poet William Wordsworth. Together, they co-authored Lyrical Ballads. Coleridge contributed only four poems to this work but they proved his artistic genius. S.T. Coleridge belonged to the group of Older Romantic Poets.

Coleridge was also addicted to opium, an addiction that severely affected his writing career. Like Wordsworth, Coleridge was also primarily a poet and not a critic. But his poetic theory can be traced from the ideas given in his 1817 work titled Biographia Literaria.

Coleridge was influenced by thoughts of German philosophers especially Kant.

Biographia Literaria

Coleridge is best known for his Biographia Literaria, or Biographical Sketches of My Literary Life and Opinions that was published in 1817. Besides being autobiographical in nature, this work also set forth the poet’s literary theory. Since Coleridge composed most of his work under the influence of opium, it is loosely structured and contains much philosophising. Besides refuting some of the literary opinions of Wordsworth as put forth in his Preface, Coleridge gave many new ideas of literary importance.

Coleridge’s Romantic Ideas

Like a true romantic, Coleridge sought inspiration from Nature. But he believed that Nature can only inspire poetry in a poet. For it to be effective, this inspiration needs the imagination that is supplied by the poet’s mind. So it was not nature alone but how the poet chose to portray it using his imagination that made poetry worthy. Thus, Coleridge was of the opinion that outward world can only inspire poetry but to shape it well, the poet needs to seek help of his own imaginative faculties. This idea of Coleridge is echoed in “Dejection: An Ode” as

I may not hope from outward forms to win
The passion and the life, whose fountains are within.

S.T. Coleridge

Coleridge’s romanticism is best observed in his stress on the faculty of Imagination. Coleridge elaborately distinguished Imagination from Fancy. He believed that Imagination was the living power and prime agent of all human perception. Coleridge’s obsession with imagination is observable in many of his poems. Bothered by the loss of imagination, the speaker of “Dejection: An Ode” laments the loss of his ‘genial spirits’ as he says, “I see, not feel”. 

In keeping with the Romanticist emphasis on pleasure, Coleridge put forward his idea of the willing suspension of disbelief. He believed that for the reader to seek pleasure from a work of literature, the reader should be able to suspend his disbelief temporarily for the sake of artistic pleasure.

Thus, in order for poetry to have its desired effect on the reader, the readers should be willing to overlook or neglect consideration of the rational or logical aspects for the sake of ‘poetic faith’. This prioritisation of emotion and feeling over reason and logic was central to the Romantic movement. 

Coleridge was of the opinion that the ability to perceive nature and beauty are central in the understanding of art. He believed that no work of art can have an existence until perceived actively by the human mind. This idea found an expression in the poet’s famous lines,

O Lady! We receive but what we give, 
And in our life alone does Nature live.

S.T. Coleridge

In further stressing on the role of the mind to actively create and perceive things, Coleridge proposed the idea of esemplastic. By esemplastic, he meant the unifying power of imagination. For him, it is the primary imagination that holds the ability to perceive. The secondary imagination merely works as an agent to organise what has been perceived by the primary imagination into a unified whole. Also, imagination is different from Fancy because imagination is active and Fancy is passive. While imagination is a creative faculty, Fancy is merely a repository. 

Coleridge’s Conception of Nature

Coleridge’s love of nature was also in accordance with every romantic poet’s fondness for Nature. While Keats admired Nature for its beauty and Wordsworth praised it for the memory it evoked in the observer, Coleridge considered nature to be full of mysteries. Nature is fused with the supernatural in his poetry.

For him, elements of Nature were manifestations of some deeper truths. Thus, the albatross wasn’t only a bird but a symbol of guilt. Similarly, Coleridge believed that the nightingale’s song was not dull as he remarked in “The Nightingale: A Conversation Poem” that, “In nature there is nothing melancholy”.

His “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” reveals the unmerciful face of nature. His depiction of Nature is thereby different from that by other Romantic poets. His famous lines, “Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink” shows Nature in crisis despite such seeming abundance. 

Coleridge’s Romanticism Summed Up

Thus, Coleridge saw Nature not merely as a source of beautiful landscapes and melodious birds, but also full of risks and dangers. He nonetheless sought inspiration from Nature for his poetry. Imagination and the ability to actively perceive the world was central to his ideas of romanticism. He advocated a willing suspension of disbelief for the sake of pleasure, which was also the key concern for the Romantics.