Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Samuel Taylor

Chapter XVI [of
XXII]                                                     [To
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Striking points of difference between the Poets of the present age and
those of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries–Wish expressed for the
union of the characteristic merits of both.

Christendom, from its first settlement on feudal rights, has been so
far one great body, however imperfectly organized, that a similar
spirit will be found in each period to have been acting in all its
members. The study of Shakespeare's poems--(I do not include his
dramatic works, eminently as they too deserve that title)--led me to a
more careful examination of the contemporary poets both in England and
in other countries. But my attention was especially fixed on those of
Italy, from the birth to the death of Shakespeare; that being the
country in which the fine arts had been most sedulously, and hitherto
most successfully cultivated. Abstracted from the degrees and
peculiarities of individual genius, the properties common to the good
writers of each period seem to establish one striking point of
difference between the poetry of the fifteenth and sixteenth
centuries, and that of the present age. The remark may perhaps be
extended to the sister art of painting. At least the latter will serve
to illustrate the former. In the present age the poet--(I would wish
to be understood as speaking generally, and without allusion to
individual names)--seems to propose to himself as his main object, and
as that which is the most characteristic of his art, new and striking
images; with incidents that interest the affections or excite the
curiosity. Both his characters and his descriptions he renders, as
much as possible, specific and individual, even to a degree of
portraiture. In his diction and metre, on the other hand, he is
comparatively careless. The measure is either constructed on no
previous system, and acknowledges no justifying principle but that of
the writer's convenience; or else some mechanical movement is adopted,
of which one couplet or stanza is so far an adequate specimen, as that
the occasional differences appear evidently to arise from accident, or
the qualities of the language itself, not from meditation and an
intelligent purpose. And the language from Pope's translation of
Homer, to Darwin's Temple of Nature [62], may, notwithstanding some
illustrious exceptions, be too faithfully characterized, as claiming
to be poetical for no better reason, than that it would be intolerable
in conversation or in prose. Though alas! even our prose writings, nay
even the style of our more set discourses, strive to be in the
fashion, and trick themselves out in the soiled and over-worn finery
of the meretricious muse. It is true that of late a great improvement
in this respect is observable in our most popular writers. But it is
equally true, that this recurrence to plain sense and genuine mother
English is far from being general; and that the composition of our
novels, magazines, public harangues, and the like is commonly as
trivial in thought, and yet enigmatic in expression, as if Echo and
Sphinx had laid their heads together to construct it. Nay, even of
those who have most rescued themselves from this contagion, I should
plead inwardly guilty to the charge of duplicity or cowardice, if I
withheld my conviction, that few have guarded the purity of their
native tongue with that jealous care, which the sublime Dante in his
tract De la volgare Eloquenza, declares to be the first duty of a
poet. For language is the armoury of the human mind; and at once
contains the trophies of its past, and the weapons of its future
conquests. Animadverte, says Hobbes, quam sit ab improprietate
verborum pronum hominihus prolabi in errores circa ipsas res! Sat
[vero], says Sennertus, in hac vitae brevitate et naturae obscuritate,
rerum est, quibus cognoscendis tempus impendatur, ut [confusis et
multivotis] sermonibus intelligendis illud consumere opus non sit.
[Eheu! quantas strages paravere verba nubila, quae tot dicunt ut nihil
dicunt;--nubes potius, e quibus et in rebus politicis et in ecclesia
turbines et tonitrua erumpunt!] Et proinde recte dictum putamus a
Platone in Gorgia: os an ta onomata eidei, eisetai kai ta pragmata: et
ab Epicteto, archae paideuseos hae ton onomaton episkepsis: et
prudentissime Galenus scribit, hae ton onomaton chraesis tarachtheisa
kai taen ton pragmaton epitarattei gnosin.

Egregie vero J. C. Scaliger, in Lib. I. de Plantis: Est primum,
inquit, sapientis officium, bene sentire, ut sibi vivat: proximum,
bene loqui, ut patriae vivat.

Something analogous to the materials and structure of modern poetry I
seem to have noticed--(but here I beg to be understood as speaking
with the utmost diffidence)--in our common landscape painters. Their
foregrounds and intermediate distances are comparatively unattractive:
while the main interest of the landscape is thrown into the
background, where mountains and torrents and castles forbid the eye to
proceed, and nothing tempts it to trace its way back again. But in the
works of the great Italian and Flemish masters, the front and middle
objects of the landscape are the most obvious and determinate, the
interest gradually dies away in the background, and the charm and
peculiar worth of the picture consists, not so much in the specific
objects which it conveys to the understanding in a visual language
formed by the substitution of figures for words, as in the beauty and
harmony of the colours, lines, and expression, with which the objects
are represented. Hence novelty of subject was rather avoided than
sought for. Superior excellence in the manner of treating the same
subjects was the trial and test of the artist's merit.

Not otherwise is it with the more polished poets of the fifteenth and
sixteenth centuries, especially those of Italy. The imagery is almost
always general: sun, moon, flowers, breezes, murmuring streams,
warbling songsters, delicious shades, lovely damsels cruel as fair,
nymphs, naiads, and goddesses, are the materials which are common to
all, and which each shaped and arranged according to his judgment or
fancy, little solicitous to add or to particularize. If we make an
honourable exception in favour of some English poets, the thoughts too
are as little novel as the images; and the fable of their narrative
poems, for the most part drawn from mythology, or sources of equal
notoriety, derive their chief attractions from the manner of treating
them; from impassioned flow, or picturesque arrangement. In opposition
to the present age, and perhaps in as faulty an extreme, they placed
the essence of poetry in the art. The excellence, at which they aimed,
consisted in the exquisite polish of the diction, combined with
perfect simplicity. This their prime object they attained by the
avoidance of every word, which a gentleman would not use in dignified
conversation, and of every word and phrase, which none but a learned
man would use; by the studied position of words and phrases, so that
not only each part should be melodious in itself, but contribute to
the harmony of the whole, each note referring and conducting to the
melody of all the foregoing and following words of the same period or
stanza; and lastly with equal labour, the greater because unbetrayed,
by the variation and various harmonies of their metrical movement.
Their measures, however, were not indebted for their variety to the
introduction of new metres, such as have been attempted of late in the
Alonzo and Imogen, and others borrowed from the German, having in
their very mechanism a specific overpowering tune, to which the
generous reader humours his voice and emphasis, with more indulgence
to the author than attention to the meaning or quantity of the words;
but which, to an ear familiar with the numerous sounds of the Greek
an d Roman poets, has an effect not unlike that of galloping over a
paved road in a German stage-waggon without springs. On the contrary,
the elder bards both of Italy and England produced a far greater as
well as more charming variety by countless modifications, and subtle
balances of sound in the common metres of their country. A lasting and
enviable reputation awaits that man of genius, who should attempt and
realize a union;--who should recall the high finish, the
appropriateness, the facility, the delicate proportion, and above all,
the perfusive and omnipresent grace, which have preserved, as in a
shrine of precious amber, the Sparrow of Catullus, the Swallow, the
Grasshopper, and all the other little loves of Anacreon; and which,
with bright, though diminished glories, revisited the youth and early
manhood of Christian Europe, in the vales of [63] Arno, and the groves
of Isis and of Cam; and who with these should combine the keener
interest, deeper pathos, manlier reflection, and the fresher and more
various imagery, which give a value and a name that will not pass away
to the poets who have done honour to our own times, and to those of
our immediate predecessors.

[Here ends chapter 16.  To read other chapters of
Biographia Literaria, click here.]

* * *

[by Samuel Taylor Coleridge]

[62]  First published in 1803.

[63] These thoughts were suggested to me during the perusal of the
Madrigals of Giovambatista Strozzi published in Florence in May, 1593,
by his sons Lorenzo and Filippo Strozzi, with a dedication to their
paternal uncle, Signor Leone Strozzi, Generale delle battaglie di
Santa Chiesa. As I do not remember to have seen either the poems or
their author mentioned in any English work, or to have found them in
any of the common collections of Italian poetry; and as the little
work is of rare occurrence; I will transcribe a few specimens. I have
seldom met with compositions that possessed, to my feelings, more of
that satisfying entireness, that complete adequateness of the manner
to the matter which so charms us in Anacreon, joined with the
tenderness, and more than the delicacy of Catullus. Trifles as they
are, they were probably elaborated with great care; yet to the perusal
we refer them to a spontaneous energy rather than to voluntary effort.
To a cultivated taste there is a delight in perfection for its own
sake, independently of the material in which it is manifested, that
none but a cultivated taste can understand or appreciate.
After what I have advanced, it would appear presumption to offer a
translation; even if the attempt were not discouraged by the different
genius of the English mind and language, which demands a denser body
of thought as the condition of a high polish, than the Italian. I
cannot but deem it likewise an advantage in the Italian tongue, in
many other respects inferior to our own, that the language of poetry
is more distinct from that of prose than with us. From the earlier
appearance and established primacy of the Tuscan. poets, concurring
with the number of independent states, and the diversity of written
dialects, the Italians have gained a poetic idiom, as the Greeks
before them had obtained from the same causes with greater and more
various discriminations, for example, the Ionic for their heroic
verses; the Attic for their iambic; and the two modes of the Doric for
the lyric or sacerdotal, and the pastoral, the distinctions of which
were doubtless more obvious to the Greeks themselves than they are to
I will venture to add one other observation before I proceed to the
transcription. I am aware that the sentiments which I have avowed
concerning the points of difference between the poetry of the present
age, and that of the period between 1500 and 1650, are the reverse of
the opinion commonly entertained. I was conversing on this subject
with a friend, when the servant, a worthy and sensible woman, coming
in, I placed before her two engravings, the one a pinky-coloured plate
of the day, the other a masterly etching by Salvator Rosa from one of
his own pictures. On pressing her to tell us, which she preferred,
after a little blushing and flutter of feeling, she replied “Why,
that, Sir, to be sure! (pointing to the ware from the Fleet-street
print shops);–it’s so neat and elegant. T’other is such a scratchy
slovenly thing.” An artist, whose writings are scarcely less valuable
than his pictures, and to whose authority more deference will be
willingly paid, than I could even wish should be shown to mine, has
told us, and from his own experience too, that good taste must be
acquired, and like all other good things, is the result of thought and
the submissive study of the best models. If it be asked, “But what
shall I deem such?”–the answer is; presume those to be the best, the
reputation of which has been matured into fame by the consent of ages.
For wisdom always has a final majority, if not by conviction, yet by
acquiescence. In addition to Sir J. Reynolds I may mention Harris of
Salisbury; who in one of his philosophical disquisitions has written
on the means of acquiring a just taste with the precision of
Aristotle, and the elegance of Quinctilian.


Gelido suo ruscel chiaro, e tranquillo
M'insegno Amor di state a mezzo'l giorno;
Ardean le solve, ardean le piagge, e i colli.
Ond' io, ch' al piu gran gielo ardo e sfavillo,
Subito corsi; ma si puro adorno
Girsene il vidi, che turbar no'l volli:
Sol mi specchiava, e'n dolce ombrosa sponda
Mi stava intento al mormorar dell' onda.

Aure dell' angoscioso viver mio
Refrigerio soave,
E dolce si, che piu non mi par grave
Ne'l ardor, ne'l morir, anz' il desio;
Deh voil ghiaccio, e le nubi, e'l tempo rio
Discacciatene omai, che londa chiara,
E l'ombra non men cara
A scherzare, a cantar per suoi boschetti,
E prati festa et allegrezza alletti.

Pacifiche, ma spesso in amorosa
Guerra co'fiori, e l'erba
Alla stagione acerba
Verdi insegne del giglio e della rosa,
Movete, Aure, pian pian; che tregua o posa,
Se non pace, io ritrove;
E so ben dove:--Oh vago, a mansueto
Sguardo, oh labbra d'ambrosia, oh rider, lieto!

Hor come un scoglio stassi,
Hor come un rio se'n fugge,
Ed hor crud' orsa rugge,
Hor canta angelo pio: ma che non fassi!
E che non fammi, O sassi,
O rivi, o belue, o Dii, questa mia vaga
Non so, se ninfa, o magna,
Non so, se donna, o Dea,
Non so, se dolce o rea?

Piangendo mi baciaste,
E ridendo il negaste:
In doglia hebbivi pin,
In festa hebbivi ria:
Nacque gioia di pianti,
Dolor di riso: O amanti
Miseri, habbiate insieme
Ognor paura e speme.

Bel Fior, tu mi rimembri
La rugiadosa guancia del bet viso;
E si vera l'assembri,
Che'n te sovente, come in lei m'affiso:
Et hor del vago riso,
Hor del serene sguardo
Io pur cieco riguardo. Ma qual fugge,
O Rosa, il mattin lieve!
E chi te, come neve,
E'l mio cor teco, e la mia vita strugge!

Anna mia, Anna dolce, oh sempre nuovo
E piu chiaro concento,
Quanta dolcezza sento
In sol Anna dicendo? Io mi pur pruovo,
Ne qui tra noi ritruovo,
Ne tra cieli armonia,
Che del bel nome suo piu dolce sia:
Altro il Cielo, altro Amore,
Altro non suona l'Ecco del mio core.

Hor che'l prato, e la selva si scoiora,
Al tuo serena ombroso
Muovine, alto Riposo,
Deh ch'io riposi una sol notte, un hora:
Han le fere, e git augelli, ognun talora
Ha qualche pace; io quando,
Lasso! non vonne errando,
E non piango, e non grido? e qual pur forte?
Ma poiche, non sent' egli, odine, Morte.

Risi e piansi d'Amor; ne pero mai
Se non in fiamma, o'n onda, o'n vento scrissi
Spesso msrce trovai
Crudel; sempre in me morto, in altri vissi:
Hor da' piu scuri Abissi al ciel m'aizai,
Hor ne pur caddi giuso;
Stance al fin qui son chiuso.