330a. (Samuel Taylor Coleridge)

In the prior post, written around a year ago, I took up the chapter of Biographia Literaria in which Coleridge lays out, at most sustained length, the nature of both poetry and criticism, though the latter is implied by what he says about the former:

A poem contains the same elements as a prose composition; the difference therefore must consist in a different combination of them, in consequence of a different object being composed. According to the difference of the object will be the difference of the combination. It is possible, that the object may be merely to facilitate the recollection of any given facts or observations by artificial arrangement; and the composition will be a poem, merely because it is distinguished from prose by metre, or by rhyme, or by both conjointly. In this, the lowest sense, a man might attribute the name of a poem to the well-known enumeration of the days in the several months: “Thirty days hath September | April, June, and November” etc, and others of the same class and purpose. And as a particular pleasure is found in anticipating the recurrence of sounds and quantities, all compositions that have this charm super-added, whatever be their contents, may be entitled poems.

So much for the superficial form. A difference of object and contents supplies an additional ground of distinction. The immediate purpose may be the communication of truths; either of truth absolute and demonstrable, as in works of science; or of facts experienced and recorded, as in history. Pleasure, and that of the highest and most permanent kind, may result from the attainment of the end; but it is not itself the immediate end. In other works the communication of pleasure may be the immediate purpose; and though truth, either moral or intellectual, ought to be the ultimate end, yet this will distinguish the character of the author, not the class to which the work belongs…

But the communication of pleasure may be the immediate object of a work not metrically composed; and that object may have been in a high degree attained, as in novels and romances. Would then the mere superaddition of metre, without rhyme, entitle these to the name of poems? The answer is, that nothing can permanently pleasure, which does not contain in itself the reason why it is so and not otherwise. If metre be superadded, all other parts must be made consonant with it. They must be such, as to justify the perpetual and distinct attention to each part, which an exact correspondent recurrence of accent and sound are calculated to excite….

The philosophic critics of all ages coincide with the ultimate judgment of all countries, in equally denying the praises of a just poem, on the one hand, to a series of striking lines or distiches, each of which, absorbing the whole attention of the reader to itself, becomes disjoined from its context, and forms a separate whole, instead of a harmonizing part; and on the other hand, to an unsustained composition, from which the reader collects rapidly the general result unattracted by the component parts. The reader should be carried forward, not merely or chiefly by the mechanical impulse of curiosity, or by a restless desire to arrive at the final solution; but by the pleasurable activity of mind excited by the attractions of the journey itself. Like the motion of a serpent, which the Egyptians made the emblem of intellectual power; or like the path of sound through the air;–at every step he pauses and half recedes; and from the retrogressive movement collects the force which carries him onward.

The word that gave me trouble was “pleasure,” even though Coleridge says that truth is an ultimate criterion too. But if literature was characterized by “pleasure,” then the puritan in me recoiled at the point of reading it carefully and critically (and academically, vocationally), and the skeptic in me asked how the experience of pleasure could be distinguished from that of mere “liking” one thing and not another.  But liking is where we need to start. Coleridge is right. In the earlier chapters of the Biographia, arguing against Hartley and the materialist dissolution of “will” and “imagination,” Coleridge affirms what is essentially the inherent first-person nature of philosophy; philosophy cannot reflect on what it is to know by way of a side-long view on knowledge and knowing. In this chapter, he does the same for art. Criticism cannot offer a purely formal, side-long view of poetry but must begin with the first-person experience of pleasure. But Coleridge also does enunciate here what have become principles identified with the most staunchly critical new formalists: the thought that the design of the work should be one way, and not otherwise; that it’s design must contain the conditions of the judgment in the judgment itself. But to say only this much—not that it is wrong, but it is not sufficient—is to ignore the “experience” of reading and knowing a work of literature (or art): it is to attempt to suppress or evade the first-person nature of the critical encounter with art. I put “experience” in quotation marks because the word can have so many flavors and tints and I mean to at least register its peculiarity, to suggest a meaning that is found most clearly in Kierkegaard: a temporality that is limned by the blanks of memory and the uncertainty of the future, that places us, at each moment of the present, in anticipation or expectation as well as fulfillment, surprise, or dissatisfaction at what has come before; it suggests the lived reality of the attention, the latter being a word that is a crux of the Biographia, in which Coleridge is keen to distinguish between the attention suitable to poetry and that suitable to metaphysics or other forms of thought. That difference of attention is related to the “experience” of poetry and the experience of life alike, which are inseparable from the prospect of fulfillment, satisfaction, gratification—and pleasure. But with this difference: as Coleridge says, we turn to poetry or art with the understanding that it establishes its own expectations, or establishes grounds of our anticipation, with the promise that it will offer some fulfillment of them, as it becomes itself as a whole: it offers the prospect of pleasure in the prospect of all the parts fulfilling the promise of all of the others, or not fulfilling them, or surprising us with how they are fulfilled. In Coleridge’s description, an ideal poem, at every moment, both establishes and fulfills expectations, and fulfills more than we realized we had any right to expect, so that we impelled to return and read again, looking for more patterns of anticipation and gratification. Every point of such a work is both the beginning and end of a circle (a snake biting its own tail).

In articulating this principle, Coleridge both offers a satisfying elucidation of what other critics have said, and also offers a surprising shift in our perspective, and he might stand at the head of a tradition of 19th century poetry, as Wordsworth stands at the head of a tradition of 19th and 20th century poetry—the common ground beneath them being a sense of time. Wordsworth’s poems embody the experience of time, its casting forward and backwards simultaneously, its setting out prospects for action and life even as it unsettles their possibility, as no other poet in English. Inherent to his sense of time is a sense of how the experience time itself a vehicle for, and also sustained by, the heart’s hopes and sorrows, its anticipation and unexpected bursts of joy. Coleridge, though, places pleasure itself in new light: in the greatest of his poetry, it is fulfillment itself that remains perpetually on the horizon, detached from any object, prospective in a number. This is even the case of the most mysterious of his poems, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” where the mariner’s utterance is a fulfillment of a need that we cannot fathom. Reading Coleridge, the prospect of pleasure is the pleasure of the poetry. This is developed in Keats, where the surface of pleasure, the feel of feel itself, is the poem’s subject. But it is there also in Tennyson and Browning, and even Christina Rossetti. All poetry lives by expectation, satisfaction, and surprise; but not all poetry lives with a keen awareness of the feel of a pleasure yet to come, a pleasure promised but not realized, with the possibility of gratification setting the expectations for what the poem will fulfill—we expect not a scene of gratification, but a scene of heightened anticipation of fulfillment, or a ripened fulfillment of anticipation itself. That is why, in Coleridge, the fragmentary bears special weight—and why, in Browning, the value of completion that is incomplete (or incompletion that is complete) becomes the occasion of much poetry. From this perspective, Coleridge’s essential poem are “Dejection: An Ode” and “Kubla Khan,” with the essential criticism of the former provided by Donald Davie, who is insists on its improvisatory technique, fleeting in the history of English poetry, before being eclipsed by Byron’s improvisatory ironies in Don Juan (which Davie dismisses too readily).


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