Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Biographia
Literaria
by Samuel Taylor
Coleridge

Chapter XV [of
XXII]                                                     [To
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The specific symptoms of poetic power elucidated in a critical
analysis of Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis and Lucrece
.

In the application of these principles to purposes of practical
criticism, as employed in the appraisement of works more or less
imperfect, I have endeavoured to discover what the qualities in a poem
are, which may be deemed promises and specific symptoms of poetic
power, as distinguished from general talent determined to poetic
composition by accidental motives, by an act of the will, rather than
by the inspiration of a genial and productive nature. In this
investigation, I could not, I thought, do better, than keep before me
the earliest work of the greatest genius, that perhaps human nature
has yet produced, our myriad-minded [61] Shakespeare. I mean the VENUS
AND ADONIS, and the LUCRECE; works which give at once strong promises
of the strength, and yet obvious proofs of the immaturity, of his
genius. From these I abstracted the following marks, as
characteristics of original poetic genius in general.

1. In the VENUS AND ADONIS, the first and most obvious excellence is
the perfect sweetness of the versification; its adaptation to the
subject; and the power displayed in varying the march of the words
without passing into a loftier and more majestic rhythm than was
demanded by the thoughts, or permitted by the propriety of preserving
a sense of melody predominant. The delight in richness and sweetness
of sound, even to a faulty excess, if it be evidently original, and
not the result of an easily imitable mechanism, I regard as a highly
favourable promise in the compositions of a young man. The man that
hath not music in his soul can indeed never be a genuine poet.
Imagery,--(even taken from nature, much more when transplanted from
books, as travels, voyages, and works of natural history),--affecting
incidents, just thoughts, interesting personal or domestic feelings,
and with these the art of their combination or intertexture in the
form of a poem,--may all by incessant effort be acquired as a trade,
by a man of talent and much reading, who, as I once before observed,
has mistaken an intense desire of poetic reputation for a natural
poetic genius; the love of the arbitrary end for a possession of the
peculiar means. But the sense of musical delight, with the power of
producing it, is a gift of imagination; and this together with the
power of reducing multitude into unity of effect, and modifying a
series of thoughts by some one predominant thought or feeling, may be
cultivated and improved, but can never be learned. It is in these that
"poeta nascitur non fit."

2. A second promise of genius is the choice of subjects very remote
from the private interests and circumstances of the writer himself. At
least I have found, that where the subject is taken immediately from
the author's personal sensations and experiences, the excellence of a
particular poem is but an equivocal mark, and often a fallacious
pledge, of genuine poetic power. We may perhaps remember the tale of
the statuary, who had acquired considerable reputation for the legs of
his goddesses, though the rest of the statue accorded but
indifferently with ideal beauty; till his wife, elated by her
husband's praises, modestly acknowledged that she had been his
constant model. In the VENUS AND ADONIS this proof of poetic power
exists even to excess. It is throughout as if a superior spirit more
intuitive, more intimately conscious, even than the characters
themselves, not only of every outward look and act, but of the flux
and reflux of the mind in all its subtlest thoughts and feelings, were
placing the whole before our view; himself meanwhile unparticipating
in the passions, and actuated only by that pleasurable excitement,
which had resulted from the energetic fervour of his own spirit in so
vividly exhibiting what it had so accurately and profoundly
contemplated. I think, I should have conjectured from these poems,
that even then the great instinct, which impelled the poet to the
drama, was secretly working in him, prompting him--by a series and
never broken chain of imagery, always vivid and, because unbroken,
often minute; by the highest effort of the picturesque in words, of
which words are capable, higher perhaps than was ever realized by any
other poet, even Dante not excepted; to provide a substitute for that
visual language, that constant intervention and running comment by
tone, look and gesture, which in his dramatic works he was entitled to
expect from the players. His Venus and Adonis seem at once the
characters themselves, and the whole representation of those
characters by the most consummate actors. You seem to be told nothing,
but to see and hear everything. Hence it is, from the perpetual
activity of attention required on the part of the reader; from the
rapid flow, the quick change, and the playful nature of the thoughts
and images; and above all from the alienation, and, if I may hazard
such an expression, the utter aloofness of the poet's own feelings,
from those of which he is at once the painter and the analyst; that
though the very subject cannot but detract from the pleasure of a
delicate mind, yet never was poem less dangerous on a moral account.
Instead of doing as Ariosto, and as, still more offensively, Wieland
has done, instead of degrading and deforming passion into appetite,
the trials of love into the struggles of concupiscence; Shakespeare
has here represented the animal impulse itself, so as to preclude all
sympathy with it, by dissipating the reader's notice among the
thousand outward images, and now beautiful, now fanciful
circumstances, which form its dresses and its scenery; or by diverting
our attention from the main subject by those frequent witty or
profound reflections, which the poet's ever active mind has deduced
from, or connected with, the imagery and the incidents. The reader is
forced into too much action to sympathize with the merely passive of
our nature. As little can a mind thus roused and awakened be brooded
on by mean and indistinct emotion, as the low, lazy mist can creep
upon the surface of a lake, while a strong gale is driving it onward
in waves and billows.

3. It has been before observed that images, however beautiful, though
faithfully copied from nature, and as accurately represented in words,
do not of themselves characterize the poet. They become proofs of
original genius only as far as they are modified by a predominant
passion; or by associated thoughts or images awakened by that passion;
or when they have the effect of reducing multitude to unity, or
succession to an instant; or lastly, when a human and intellectual
life is transferred to them from the poet's own spirit,

Which shoots its being through earth, sea, and air.

In the two following lines for instance, there is nothing
objectionable, nothing which would preclude them from forming, in
their proper place, part of a descriptive poem:

Behold yon row of pines, that shorn and bow'd
Bend from the sea-blast, seen at twilight eve.

But with a small alteration of rhythm, the same words would be equally
in their place in a book of topography, or in a descriptive tour. The
same image will rise into semblance of poetry if thus conveyed:

Yon row of bleak and visionary pines,
By twilight glimpse discerned, mark! how they flee
From the fierce sea-blast, all their tresses wild
Streaming before them.

I have given this as an illustration, by no means as an instance, of
that particular excellence which I had in view, and in which
Shakespeare even in his earliest, as in his latest, works surpasses
all other poets. It is by this, that he still gives a dignity and a
passion to the objects which he presents. Unaided by any previous
excitement, they burst upon us at once in life and in power,--

"Full many a glorious morning have I seen
Flatter the mountain tops with sovereign eye." [Shakespeare's Sonnet 33rd]

"Not mine own fears, nor the prophetic soul
Of the wide world dreaming on things to come--

* * * * * *
* * * * * *

The mortal moon hath her eclipse endured,
And the sad augurs mock their own presage;
Incertainties now crown themselves assur'd,
And Peace proclaims olives of endless age.
Now with the drops of this most balmy time
My love looks fresh, and Death to me subscribes,
Since spite of him, I'll live in this poor rhyme,
While he insults o'er dull and speechless tribes.
And thou in this shalt find thy monument,
When tyrants' crests, and tombs of brass are spent." [Sonnet 107]

As of higher worth, so doubtless still more characteristic of poetic
genius does the imagery become, when it moulds and colours itself to
the circumstances, passion, or character, present and foremost in the
mind. For unrivalled instances of this excellence, the reader's own
memory will refer him to the LEAR, OTHELLO, in short to which not of
the "great, ever living, dead man's" dramatic works? Inopem em copia
fecit. How true it is to nature, he has himself finely expressed in
the instance of love in his 98th Sonnet.

From you have I been absent in the spring,
When proud-pied April drest in all its trim,
Hath put a spirit of youth in every thing;
That heavy Saturn laugh'd and leap'd with him.
Yet nor the lays of birds, nor the sweet smell
Of different flowers in odour and in hue,
Could make me any summer's story tell,
Or from their proud lap pluck them, where they grew
Nor did I wonder at the lilies white,
Nor praise the deep vermilion in the rose;
They were, tho' sweet, but figures of delight,
Drawn after you, you pattern of all those.
Yet seem'd it winter still, and, you away,
As with your shadow, I with these did play!"

Scarcely less sure, or if a less valuable, not less indispensable mark

Gonimon men poiaetou------
------hostis rhaema gennaion lakoi,

will the imagery supply, when, with more than the power of the
painter, the poet gives us the liveliest image of succession with the
feeling of simultaneousness:--

With this, he breaketh from the sweet embrace
Of those fair arms, which bound him to her breast,
And homeward through the dark laund runs apace;--

* * * * * *

Look! how a bright star shooteth from the sky,
So glides he in the night from Venus' eye.

4. The last character I shall mention, which would prove indeed but
little, except as taken conjointly with the former;--yet without which
the former could scarce exist in a high degree, and (even if this were
possible) would give promises only of transitory flashes and a
meteoric power;--is depth, and energy of thought. No man was ever yet
a great poet, without being at the same time a profound philosopher.
For poetry is the blossom and the fragrancy of all human knowledge,
human thoughts, human passions, emotions, language. In Shakespeare's
poems the creative power and the intellectual energy wrestle as in a
war embrace. Each in its excess of strength seems to threaten the
extinction of the other. At length in the drama they were reconciled,
and fought each with its shield before the breast of the other. Or
like two rapid streams, that, at their first meeting within narrow and
rocky banks, mutually strive to repel each other and intermix
reluctantly and in tumult; but soon finding a wider channel and more
yielding shores blend, and dilate, and flow on in one current and with
one voice. The VENUS AND ADONIS did not perhaps allow the display of
the deeper passions. But the story of Lucretia seems to favour and
even demand their intensest workings. And yet we find in Shakespeare's
management of the tale neither pathos, nor any other dramatic quality.
There is the same minute and faithful imagery as in the former poem,
in the same vivid colours, inspirited by the same impetuous vigour of
thought, and diverging and contracting with the same activity of the
assimilative and of the modifying faculties; and with a yet larger
display, a yet wider range of knowledge and reflection; and lastly,
with the same perfect dominion, often domination, over the whole world
of language. What then shall we say? even this; that Shakespeare, no
mere child of nature; no automaton of genius; no passive vehicle of
inspiration, possessed by the spirit, not possessing it; first studied
patiently, meditated deeply, understood minutely, till knowledge,
become habitual and intuitive, wedded itself to his habitual feelings,
and at length gave birth to that stupendous power, by which he stands
alone, with no equal or second in his own class; to that power which
seated him on one of the two glory-smitten summits of the poetic
mountain, with Milton as his compeer not rival. While the former darts
himself forth, and passes into all the forms of human character and
passion, the one Proteus of the fire and the flood; the other attracts
all forms and things to himself, into the unity of his own ideal. All
things and modes of action shape themselves anew in the being of
Milton; while Shakespeare becomes all things, yet for ever remaining
himself. O what great men hast thou not produced, England, my
country!--Truly indeed--

We must be free or die, who speak the tongue,
Which Shakespeare spake; the faith and morals hold,
Which Milton held. In everything we are sprung
Of earth's first blood, have titles manifold. [Wordsworth]

[Here ends chapter 15.  To read other chapters of
Biographia Literaria, click here.]

* * *


FOOTNOTES 
[by Samuel Taylor Coleridge]

[61]  ‘Anaer morionous, a phrase which I have borrowed from a Greek
monk, who applies it to a Patriarch of Constantinople. I might have
said, that I have reclaimed, rather than borrowed, it: for it seems to
belong to Shakespeare, de jure singulari, et ex privilegio naturae.