Saturday, August 15, 2009

Whine of the Ancient Grad Student Part III: The Long Awaited Conclusion

Incidentally, this post would have happened a lot sooner, but my keyboard at home is acting up again. So... technology. Yay.

Anyway, I finished Coleridge's Biographia Literaria a few days ago now, so it's gotten a little fuzzy in my mind. From what I recall, the content of the book can be divided into four broad categories: literary criticism, philosophy, Coleridge, and commentary on Wordsworth's Lyrical Ballads. These are by no means rigid categories. The commentary on LB is essentially an extension of the literary criticism theories he puts forth, as are the comments Coleridge makes concerning himself. The literary criticism slides into pihlosophy and back again at the drop of a hat as well. But I'll still try to address each of them in turn.

I'll start with philosophy, as it's by far the most complicated. As Coleridge explains, his time in Germany had a great effect on him, and much of his philosophy is bound up with the ideas of the Germans, in particular, Immanuel Kant and the lesser known Friedrich Schelling. It gets very abstract and technical in places, and I'm not entirely sure I understand it even now. One of the key elements Coleridge extracts is an idea he traces back to ancient Greece: the law of associativity. Essentially, this law states every idea we have arises out of some association of either previous ideas or our physical environment. Coleridge explains that there are a few different types of association, including contrast, temporal, and spatial.

There's a lot more to the philosophical side than that, but I'll stop there because associativity is what links the philosophy to the literary criticism. I'm not going to go too far into how literary criticism works in this book, or any of the other books on my comp list, because somehow I don't think my professors will take too kindly to the comp list being summarized and annotated in online form. Suffice to say, the criticism is concerned with three main issues: exactness in terminology, where Coleridge's theory differs from that described in Wordsworth's Preface to LB, and the difference between imagination and fancy. (Associativity comes into play mainly in the last one; if I understand it right, and I'm not saying I do, imagination is the force that generates new associations, whereas fancy organizes and shifts the ones we've already made.)

Part of the literary criticism involves Coleridge's ideas on how literary critics should act, and this dwells heavily on both his own writing and the way critics have dealt with him. This area of Biographia Literaria is the one that really feels like Coleridge is letting his true feelings through. He honestly thinks that he's made a lot of enemies as a result of his literary work in poems and journals, and that he's been misinterpreted as a result. He also realizes the bind he's in--if he says nothing, then everyone gets the wrong idea about him, but the harder he tries to explain his work, the more defensive he seems. The resulting emotion can almost be called desperation, and it comes out in one chapter in particular, when Coleridge tries to defend himself against the accusation that he doesn't work very hard. (To be honest, I kind of held this opinion myself before reading the book. See Part II.) It's a very plaintive chapter, and I couldn't help but feel sorry for someone who was clearly so emotionally invested in his work.

Given his own feelings towards criticism, you'd think he'd be a little more circumspect himself. At least a quarter of the book is devoted to Wordsworth's LB. As I said last time, Wordsworth and Coleridge's friendship and subsequent falling out is famous--it's arguably the most interesting literary alliance in English history, at least, until the incestuous Bloomsbury group hits the scene. I'm not exactly sure where their relationship was at the time this book was published, but it certainly didn't survive long after it. And the fault is definitely not Wordsworth's. Yes, Coleridge ends up praising the book in the strongest manner possible, declaring that Wordsworth has the potential to write the first true philosophical poem (Oh, and I missed that in the literary criticism part. Coleridge thinks the ultimate expression of art would be its unification with philosophy. Remember that. It's kind of important.)--but given that it's still just potential, even that is essentially damning with faint praise. And this praise comes after 50 pages or so of tearing both the Preface and the poems to absolute shreds. Friends don't mercilessly eviserate other friends' books in publication.

What makes the whole thing so interesting to me is that it's very clear that Coleridge believes he's ultimately doing Wordsworth a favour. He did end up praising the poems, after all. And better these criticisms come from a friend than his enemies. Besides, who wouldn't want to know how to write better poetry? Keep in mind that Lyrical Ballads was originally going to be a collaboration between Coleridge and Wordsworth, in which Coleridge would write supernatural-based poems and Wordsworth nature poems, in equal number, but Coleridge failed to deliver more than a handful of poems.

The editor of my edition of Biographia Literaria tries to downplay the attack by going with the theory that the original Preface that Coleridge was attacking was actually written by Coleridge and not Wordsworth to begin with, and so it was Coleridge contesting his earlier ideas rather than Coleridge contesting Wordsworth. This theory doesn't quite work with me though; Coleridge spends at least as much time attacking the poems themeselves as the Preface. And even if we do accept that Coleridge wrote the Preface, he certainly doesn't say so in the Biographia Literaria, which, if he's going to be disagreeing with it so heavily, seems like the polite thing to do, rather than let Wordsworth take all the blame.

So to sum up, I imagine Wordworth's reaction to Biographia Literaria to be something like this:
"What are you doing, man? First, we agree to do this book of poems. Then you can't come through with your share, so you beg me to let you write the Preface for me. Now, seventeen friggin' years later, you decide you didn't like either, and the first I hear about it is in this d---mned book? (That's how they talked back then, in dashes.) Don't give me that "potential to write the first philosophical poem" bull plop. If you didn't like the poems, you know what you could have done, seventeen years ago? Walked next door and told me. But hey, waiting a decade or two then printing your complaints for the world to see... that's a way to go too.

"You know what? I'm done with this, man. I put up with the opium for as long as I could, but this? No. I got my own problems. I've got bills to pay, a family to support, and a sister who really, really doesn't get the concept of personal space. I don't have time to deal with this passive-aggressive-dope fiend nonsense. I'd give voice to my natural sentiment, but saying "raised middle finger" just lacks some of the punch. Smell you later, jerk."

Truly, it was the age of eloquence.

Later Days.

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