330. (Samuel Taylor Coleridge)

Though he does so only indirectly, Coleridge raises the question of whether literature can be considered a form of knowledge? The relevant passage, in the fourteenth chapter of Biographia Literaria, opposes the end of poem to the end of science:

The final definition then, so deduced, may be thus worded. A poem is that species of composition, which is opposed to works of science, by proposing for its immediate object pleasure, not truth; and from all other species—(having this object in common with it)—it is discriminated by proposing to itself such delight from the whole, as is compatible with a distinct gratification from each component part.

The question of knowledge comes if we decide that knowledge is a matter of the truth, as opposed to something else, and that pleasure is a matter of non-cognitive feeling. But Coleridge also points us away from either when he accounts for pleasure by reason:

Nothing can permanently please, which does not contain in itself the reason why it is so, and not otherwise.

The door to knowledge is opened if we consider that the justification or validity for any part of a poem, in its own rights and in relation to the whole, depends upon a judgment that the word and its relation and part is suited to the subject, circumstance, and occasion of the poem; and that in turn implies a judgment about subject, circumstance, and occasion. The point I am making owes something to Nelson Goodman, whose Languages of Art, whatever the post-Quine baggage it carries, is persuasive that rightness matters for art and science alike.

It might seem as if Coleridge was merely circuitous in introducing pleasure into the discussion: his experience would have told him that poems bring pleasure, and he would not have wanted to ignore the common experience that led Johnson to proclaim that it is for literature to help us better “enjoy and endure life.” But he might have, so this thought goes, have distinguished poetry from science more directly by suggesting that poetry, to draw on F.H. Bradley’s later phrase, gets within the judgment the condition of the judgment, whereas science does not.

That he does not suggests that Coleridge had a second argument he felt he needed to make, even if is, in the structure of the chapter, subordinate. The second argument concerns the relation of pleasure to reason: something that contains in itself the reason why it is so and not otherwise is a judgment that contains within itself grounds for its own validity; it is a judgment that is right by its own lights. And such a judgment, one that is right by its own lights, might called an expression of knowledge: a person knows something when in their judgment that something is-so-and-so, they know it to be so-and-so. In the case of literature, knowledge is not of the world per se, nor of the medium of expression; it is knowledge of what fits a particular representation of the world, or of what is apt for a particular situation (as it is represented by or conceived for that knower). It is knowledge of what the world demands or is due, and of what the medium demands and is due; it is a knowledge of norms and a knowledge of the circumstances and worlds that give rise to them, and to which they give rise.

Coleridge is making an argument about pleasure itself: that, when permanent, it is a matter of knowledge, where knowledge itself is a matter of judgment, where judgment involves affirming the rightness of one alternative rather than others. Coleridge has divorced permanent pleasure from the impermanence of bodily sensation, and he has attached it to the universality of reason as it is manifested in situated experience.

Bringing pleasure, a work of literature judges what a right representation of the world might be, of what a right utterance in response to a world thus-represented might be, even where such a right representation acknowledges the impossibility of rightness.

Such knowledge is necessarily limited; but whether it is fallibly limited is another matter; sometimes we ask that an author know something more or something other than they do; we might disagree over what an author knows; and we might wonder whether we can make claims for an author at all, or whether instead we ought not to imagine the text itself knowing. Coleridge, of course, never worries about the last point; the application of his principles is upon the poetry of his friend, Wordsworth.

It’s hard to dismiss entirely the notion that Coleridge was, for all of his originality, still beholden to eighteenth-century principles of poetic decorum, and so objects to Wordsworth’s claim that he wants to write in the language of rustic peasants on grounds when writing on subjects of greater dignity than the low style could afford. But Coleridge’s argument goes much deeper than that, and his invocation of imagination is an invocation of a power of knowledge:

By what rule that does not leave the reader at the poet’s mercy, and the poet at his own, is the latter to distinguish between the language suitable to suppressed, and the language, which is characteristic of indulged, anger? Or between that of rage and that of jealousy? Is it obtained by wandering about in search of angry or jealous people in uncultivated society, in order to copy their words? Or not far rather by the power of imagination proceeding upon the all in each of human nature? By meditation, rather than by observation? And by the latter in consequence only of the former? As eyes, for which the former has pre-determined their field of vision, and to which, as to its organ, it communicates a microscopic power? There is not, I firmly believe, a man now living, who has, from his own inward experience, a clearer intuition, than Mr. Wordsworth himself, that the last mentioned are the true sources of genial discrimination. Through the same process and by the same creative agency will the poet distinguish the degree and kind of the excitement produced by the very act of poetic composition. As intuitively will he know, what differences of style it at once inspires and justifies; what intermixture of conscious volition is natural to that state; and in what instances such figures and colours of speech degenerate into mere creatures of an arbitrary purpose, cold technical artifices of ornament or connection. For, even as truth is its own light and evidence, discovering at once itself and falsehood, so is it the prerogative of poetic genius to distinguish by parental instinct its proper offspring from the changelings, which the gnomes of vanity or the fairies of fashion may have laid in its cradle or called by its names. Could a rule be given from without, poetry would cease to be poetry, and sink into a mechanical art. It would be morphosis, not poiaesis. The rules of the Imagination are themselves the very powers of growth and production.

Coleridge’s organic notion of poetry is a claim on behalf of what it means for poets to know: they can know because they can imagine, and just as intruding circumstance may prevent direct observations from constituting knowledge, so the imagination may err in knowing.

At several points in the Biographia, Coleridge enumerates distinct faculties of the mind. I find the enumeration somewhat muddled, in so far as there is some overlap, and an unclear relationship, between them. But the great hero among Coleridge’s faculties is the Imagination, and it is evident from his famous attempt at distinguishing it from Fancy, that Imagination is a primary power of self-consciousness, the power that underlies perception and the art of poetry as he describes it in Wordsworth’s poetry. It is itself the power to know:

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. The secondary Imagination I consider as an echo of the former, co-existing with the conscious will, yet still as identical with the primary in the kind of its agency, and differing only in degree, and in the mode of its operation. It dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to recreate: or where this process is rendered impossible, yet still at all events it struggles to idealize and to unify. It is essentially vital, even as all objects (as objects) are essentially fixed and dead.

FANCY, on the contrary, has no other counters to play with, but fixities and definites. The fancy is indeed no other than a mode of memory emancipated from the order of time and space; while it is blended with, and modified by that empirical phaenomenon of the will, which we express by the word Choice. But equally with the ordinary memory the Fancy must receive all its materials ready made from the law of association.

Coleridge denigrates Fancy with the word “Choice,” but it is the faculty of judgment—the reason that one word is chosen rather than another—that is implicit in his discussion of poetry, which he here aligns with imagination. The crucial difference seems to be in the materials themselves: the Fancy is derivative in its productions and powers: it knows the association of one thing and another thing; it knows by cliché, by the memory of what has been read; it knows connotations that can be combined. It depends upon knowledge, but it only knows knowledge at a remove; there is a place for such derivative knowledge, but it is difficult not to feel that Coleridge grants it damnation, figuring it as a seeming rather than a being, a sophistry rather than philosophy, knowing how to make a world appear from language, but not knowing the world.

The imagination, on the other hand, is the power of self-conscious knowing, the “I am,” that is implicit within, and reverberates across, all judgments about what is, both in sensory perception and in the secondary imagination that is left shadowy in the passage. In his criticism of Wordsworth, Coleridge faulted his friend for believing that direct observation of rustics and direct application of rustic language constituted knowledge suitable to poetry. In his defense of the imagination against fancy, he does not denigrate perception itself. It is not, then, Wordsworth’s observation that is at fault. Instead, it is his judgment; Coleridge thinks that Wordsworth’s claim to authenticity is a false knowledge, that Wordsworth does not know the subject of the poetry, and that he wrong to believe such observation will believe, or serve, the requisite knowledge. Wordsworth falls from the poetry of imagination when he falls from knowledge.

1 Comment

  1. “Poetry *thinks* by giving the actual experience– the *make believe*– of thought; it does not convert thought into poetry, except at the expense of both. ~R. P. Blackmur

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