Biographia Literaria Summary

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Biographia Literaria

  • Plot overview and analysis written by an experienced literary critic.
  • Full study guide for this title currently under development.
  • To be notified when we launch a full study guide, please contact us.

Biographia Literaria Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics. This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of Biographia Literaria by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Biographica Literaria is an autobiographical novel by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, published in 1817. Framed as a nonlinear, meditative discourse, it originated as an intended preface to a volume of poetry, obliquely defining Coleridge’s self-conception as a poetic subject. The book addresses thematic elements of poetry such as suspense, as well as elements of the poet himself, including a decomposition of the meaning of creativity informed by his knowledge about both past and early 19th-century philosophical thought. Because of the insight it provides into the mind of a great poet in the early years of what scholars define as the modern literary era, Biographica Literaria is now a seminal work in critical theory.

Coleridge begins the work with a meditation on his formative years of schooling, particularly his secondary schooling under James Boyer at a grammar school called Christ’s Hospital. This time formed the basis for his poem “Frost at Midnight,” which reflects on his time in a formal educational environment that he believes squelched his creative spirit. Coleridge poses a philosophical argument against structured learning environments, noting that real creativity and freedom always rests on the bars of the school windows, meaning on the margins of the existing epistemological structures that define one’s immediate context and the contemporary world. He also restates the predominant themes of the early English Romantic movement, positioning the entity of Nature as the child’s teacher who functions in a symmetric relationship with the human spirit, recursively defining the questions a subject may ask as they correspond. He also vindicates the innate freedom of the spirit, arguing that children should be allowed to roam rather than cloistered in buildings.

Coleridge moves on from his introduction to his critical theory of language to a reflection on the evolution of his philosophical doctrine. He states that he initially adhered to the associational psychology of David Hartley, which holds that new ideas emerge from associations inherent in combinations of older ideas. Coleridge criticizes and then rejects this belief, asserting that the mind is not a mechanical receptacle for ideas that are already out in the world. Rather, the mind is an active agent in the perception of reality. Because reality emerges out of a discourse with Nature, Coleridge comes close to a Cartesian conclusion that reality is, in some sense, constructed.

Coleridge then delivers remarks on how he defines imagination, which he restates as “emplastic power.” Emplastic power is the means through which the human soul is able to perceive the universe in its raw form, a spiritual unity. He distinguishes the universe’s spiritual unity as the only ultimate “object” to be perceived, asserting that any other objects can be categorized as “fancy,” or the products of the other associative functions of the human mind.

Coleridge transitions to a meditation on William Wordsworth’s poetry. He argues against the contemporary perception that the “right” way to read Wordsworth is to distance oneself from his language, parsing his syntax objectively without overcommitting to any one interpretation. Rather, he asserts, Wordsworth’s insistence that his poetry constituted a “common language” for everyday people to understand is not true. Wordsworth’s poetry is equally as artificial as any other poet’s words because they necessarily originate in conscious thought; not the stream of consciousness, unreflective speech he purported to use while writing. Despite the errors Coleridge identifies in contemporary interpretations of Wordsworth, he vindicates the poet as the finest of their time. He credits his excellence to his ability to transmute seemingly ordinary natural imagery into the extraordinary and supernatural. Coleridge goes on to define his own poetic pursuit as a kind of inversion of Wordsworth’s: to render the supernatural credible and real using natural language.

Coleridge concludes his reflection of the ideal state and role of poetry by thoroughly rejecting Wordsworth’s principle that the language with which poetry is constructed should be taken from the utterances of men in real life. He holds instead that there is never any essential distinction between the natural and unconscious utterances of prose and the highly concentrated metrical composition of poetry. All language contains in itself an inherent meter and potential rhyme schemes. He critiques a few excerpts of Wordsworth’s poems, pointing out where certain uses of language are too ordinary and could be substituted with more compelling, metrical expressions.

Biographia Literaria is Coleridge’s effort to break away from the past in certain key rationalizations driven by insights about language and creativity. Focusing first on his own education, and abstracting it to a philosophical theory of education as something that should be reconceived without its damaging opposition to creativity, he utilizes empirical evidence from his own history to dislodge his audience from the past. His concluding definition of his own creative spirit as natural and unpredictable, and therefore something that positions itself in opposition to predominant poetic methodologies that fixate on the extant vocabularies of the public, similarly urges readers to rethink what damaging unconscious relationships they might be maintaining with tradition.