Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria - 19th Century - 500 AP English Language Questions to know by test day

500 AP English Language Questions to know by test day

CHAPTER 9. 19th Century


Passage 9a: Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria


My own conclusions on the nature of poetry, in the strictest use of the word, have been in part anticipated in some of the remarks on the Fancy and Imagination in the early part of this work. What is poetry?—is so nearly the same question with, what is a poet?—that 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.

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. He diffuses a tone and spirit of unity, that blends, and (as it were) fuses, each into each, by that synthetic and magical power, to which I would exclusively appropriate the name of Imagination. This power, first put in action by the will and understanding, and retained under their irremissive, though gentle and unnoticed, control, laxis effertur habenis, reveals “itself in the balance or reconcilement of opposite or discordant” qualities: of sameness, with difference; of the general with the concrete; the idea with the image; the individual with the representative; the sense of novelty and freshness with old and familiar objects; a more than usual state of emotion with more than usual order; judgment ever awake and steady self-possession with enthusiasm and feeling profound or vehement; and while it blends and harmonizes the natural and the artificial, still subordinates art to nature; the manner to the matter; and our admiration of the poet to our sympathy with the poetry. Doubtless, as Sir John Davies observes of the soul—(and his words may with slight alteration be applied, and even more appropriately, to the poetic Imagination)—


Doubtless this could not be, but that she turns

Bodies to spirit by sublimation strange,

As fire converts to fire the things it burns,

As we our food into our nature change.


From their gross matter she abstracts their forms,

And draws a kind of quintessence from things;

Which to her proper nature she transforms

To bear them light on her celestial wings.


Thus does she, when from individual states

She doth abstract the universal kinds;

Which then re-clothed in divers names and fates

Steal access through the senses to our minds.


Finally, Good Sense is the Body of poetic genius, Fancy its Drapery, Motion its Life, and Imagination the Soul that is everywhere, and in each; and forms all into one graceful and intelligent whole.