Samuel Taylor Coleridge Questions for English 256 Intro to Theory, Chapman University, Fall 2012



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Assigned: Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Biographia Literaria (584-91).

From Biographia Literaria

Part 1, Chapter 1

1. On 584, how does Coleridge compare the relative faults and merits of poets before his time (he seems to be referring to Metaphysical poets such as John Donne) and of his contemporaries or near contemporaries?

2. On 584, what does Coleridge write concerning any poem whose words can be rearranged? What is wrong with such a poem? What method of composition does his observation suggest?

Part 1, Chapter 4

3. On 584-85, how does Coleridge begin to differentiate "fancy" and "imagination" in this chapter? Look up online the etymological hints he provides – the Greek word phantasia (φαντασία) and the Latin imagination. What do they appear to mean? What does Coleridge's enlistment of Wordsworth and Milton as imaginative poets add to you understanding of the term "imagination"?

4. On 584-85, what is "the only way to imitate without loss of originality" (585)? Why? Against what doctrine of poetic creation is Coleridge writing here? How do you yourself conceptualize "originality"? When do you consider a work of art original or not original? How important is that to you?

Part 1, Chapter 13

5. On 585-86, Coleridge offers his famous definition of the imagination, which faculty or power he further differentiates into a primary and secondary mode. What is the primary mode – why does Coleridge resort to the Scriptures to define it, and what does this mode of imagination do? What is the secondary imagination – what does it do, and how is it related to the primary imagination? (Hint: the primary mode has to do with basic self-consciousness, and the secondary with poetic creativity -- now spin out the definitions, starting with my simple statements and using some of Coleridge's language along with your explanation of them.

6. On 586, Coleridge also concerns himself briefly with a capacity he calls "the fancy." What sort of operations does this faculty perform? Why is it of less interest to Coleridge than the power of imagination?

Part 2, Chapter 14

7. On 586-87, what respective tasks does Coleridge say he and Wordsworth set themselves in agreeing to collaborate on the poems that became Lyrical Ballads? What common goal does Coleridge suggest the two poets are trying to achieve in that work?

8. On 588-91, preparing the ground for a later differentiation of his own poetic theory from that of Wordsworth, Coleridge offers to explain what he means by "a poem" and "poetry." On 589, what "final definition" does Coleridge set forth concerning the first item: "a poem"? What are the key distinguishing qualities of a poem as opposed to ordinary prose or scientific treatises? How might Coleridge's definition be described as involving an organic conception of the structure of literary works? (Look up the word "organic" if you're not certain of its precise meaning aside from common usages such as "I sometimes buy organic food.")

9. On 589-90, how does Coleridge elaborate on his definition of what a poem is? What is the relationship of parts to parts in a "legitimate poem"? How does a genuinely satisfactory poem engage the reader's attention with respect to its parts, and with respect to the whole? Why is the mind's progression in reading a poem best described as resembling "the motion of a serpent"? By inference, what should a reader's mind not be doing when that reader is engaged with a poem?

10. On 590-91, Coleridge turns his attention to explaining what poets are and what they do. What spiritual and perceptual benefits flow to readers when they enjoy the imaginative efforts of excellent poets? What transformative effect does poetry -- the product of a poet's imagination – have upon a reader's mind and spirit? Consider also Coleridge's claim that imagination "reveals itself in the balance or reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities" (590): how does the list that follows this phrase help to explain what the imagination works with, and what it accomplishes?

11. On 590, since we know that Coleridge believes Wordsworth to be possessed of poetic imagination in the highest degree, how does that author's poetry achieve "the balance or reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities"? And how might it be said that Wordsworth's poetry "blends and harmonizes the natural and the artificial" without exalting art over nature? Give an example or two of such accomplishments or qualities from Wordsworth's poems that you have read.

12. On 591, how does the quotation from the Elizabethan author John Davies' poem Nosce Teipsum reinforce the claims Coleridge has been making in favor of the dignity and vitality of imagination?

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B., ed. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 2nd ed. New York: Norton, 2010. ISBN 978-0-393-93292-8.