Samuel Taylor Coleridge


Chapter XVII [of
XXII]                                                     [To
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Examination of the tenets peculiar to Mr. Wordsworth–Rustic life
(above all, low and rustic life) especially unfavourable to the
formation of a human diction–The best parts of language the product
of philosophers, not of clowns or shepherds–Poetry essentially ideal
and generic–The language of Milton as much the language of real life,
yea, incomparably more so than that of the cottager.

As far then as Mr. Wordsworth in his preface contended, and most ably
contended, for a reformation in our poetic diction, as far as he has
evinced the truth of passion, and the dramatic propriety of those
figures and metaphors in the original poets, which, stripped of their
justifying reasons, and converted into mere artifices of connection or
ornament, constitute the characteristic falsity in the poetic style of
the moderns; and as far as he has, with equal acuteness and clearness,
pointed out the process by which this change was effected, and the
resemblances between that state into which the reader's mind is thrown
by the pleasurable confusion of thought from an unaccustomed train of
words and images; and that state which is induced by the natural
language of impassioned feeling; he undertook a useful task, and
deserves all praise, both for the attempt and for the execution. The
provocations to this remonstrance in behalf of truth and nature were
still of perpetual recurrence before and after the publication of this
preface. I cannot likewise but add, that the comparison of such poems
of merit, as have been given to the public within the last ten or
twelve years, with the majority of those produced previously to the
appearance of that preface, leave no doubt on my mind, that Mr.
Wordsworth is fully justified in believing his efforts to have been by
no means ineffectual. Not only in the verses of those who have
professed their admiration of his genius, but even of those who have
distinguished themselves by hostility to his theory, and depreciation
of his writings, are the impressions of his principles plainly
visible. It is possible, that with these principles others may have
been blended, which are not equally evident; and some which are
unsteady and subvertible from the narrowness or imperfection of their
basis. But it is more than possible, that these errors of defect or
exaggeration, by kindling and feeding the controversy, may have
conduced not only to the wider propagation of the accompanying truths,
but that, by their frequent presentation to the mind in an excited
state, they may have won for them a more permanent and practical
result. A man will borrow a part from his opponent the more easily, if
he feels himself justified in continuing to reject a part. While there
remain important points in which he can still feel himself in the
right, in which he still finds firm footing for continued resistance,
he will gradually adopt those opinions, which were the least remote
from his own convictions, as not less congruous with his own theory
than with that which he reprobates. In like manner with a kind of
instinctive prudence, he will abandon by little and little his weakest
posts, till at length he seems to forget that they had ever belonged
to him, or affects to consider them at most as accidental and "petty
annexments," the removal of which leaves the citadel unhurt and

My own differences from certain supposed parts of Mr. Wordsworth's
theory ground themselves on the assumption, that his words had been
rightly interpreted, as purporting that the proper diction for poetry
in general consists altogether in a language taken, with due
exceptions, from the mouths of men in real life, a language which
actually constitutes the natural conversation of men under the
influence of natural feelings. My objection is, first, that in any
sense this rule is applicable only to certain classes of poetry;
secondly, that even to these classes it is not applicable, except in
such a sense, as hath never by any one (as far as I know or have
read,) been denied or doubted; and lastly, that as far as, and in that
degree in which it is practicable, it is yet as a rule useless, if not
injurious, and therefore either need not, or ought not to be
practised. The poet informs his reader, that he had generally chosen
low and rustic life; but not as low and rustic, or in order to repeat
that pleasure of doubtful moral effect, which persons of elevated rank
and of superior refinement oftentimes derive from a happy imitation of
the rude unpolished manners and discourse of their inferiors. For the
pleasure so derived may be traced to three exciting causes. The first
is the naturalness, in fact, of the things represented. The second is
the apparent naturalness of the representation, as raised and
qualified by an imperceptible infusion of the author's own knowledge
and talent, which infusion does, indeed, constitute it an imitation as
distinguished from a mere copy. The third cause may be found in the
reader's conscious feeling of his superiority awakened by the contrast
presented to him; even as for the same purpose the kings and great
barons of yore retained, sometimes actual clowns and fools, but more
frequently shrewd and witty fellows in that character. These, however,
were not Mr. Wordsworth's objects. He chose low and rustic life,
"because in that condition the essential passions of the heart find a
better soil, in which they can attain their maturity, are less under
restraint, and speak a plainer and more emphatic language; because in
that condition of life our elementary feelings coexist in a state of
greater simplicity, and consequently may be more accurately
contemplated, and more forcibly communicated; because the manners of
rural life germinate from those elementary feelings; and from the
necessary character of rural occupations are more easily comprehended,
and are more durable; and lastly, because in that condition the
passions of men are incorporated with the beautiful and permanent
forms of nature."

Now it is clear to me, that in the most interesting of the poems, in
which the author is more or less dramatic, as THE BROTHERS, MICHAEL,
RUTH, THE MAD MOTHER, and others, the persons introduced are by no
means taken from low or rustic life in the common acceptation of those
words! and it is not less clear, that the sentiments and language, as
far as they can be conceived to have been really transferred from the
minds and conversation of such persons, are attributable to causes and
circumstances not necessarily connected with "their occupations and
abode." The thoughts, feelings, language, and manners of the shepherd-
farmers in the vales of Cumberland and Westmoreland, as far as they
are actually adopted in those poems, may be accounted for from causes,
which will and do produce the same results in every state of life,
whether in town or country. As the two principal I rank that
independence, which raises a man above servitude, or daily toil for
the profit of others, yet not above the necessity of industry and a
frugal simplicity of domestic life; and the accompanying unambitious,
but solid and religious, education, which has rendered few books
familiar, but the Bible, and the Liturgy or Hymn book. To this latter
cause, indeed, which is so far accidental, that it is the blessing of
particular countries and a particular age, not the product of
particular places or employments, the poet owes the show of
probability, that his personages might really feel, think, and talk
with any tolerable resemblance to his representation. It is an
excellent remark of Dr. Henry More's, that "a man of confined
education, but of good parts, by constant reading of the Bible will
naturally form a more winning and commanding rhetoric than those that
are learned: the intermixture of tongues and of artificial phrases
debasing their style."

It is, moreover, to be considered that to the formation of healthy
feelings, and a reflecting mind, negations involve impediments not
less formidabl e than sophistication and vicious intermixture. I am
convinced, that for the human soul to prosper in rustic life a certain
vantage-ground is prerequisite. It is not every man that is likely to
be improved by a country life or by country labours. Education, or
original sensibility, or both, must pre-exist, if the changes, forms,
and incidents of nature are to prove a sufficient stimulant. And where
these are not sufficient, the mind contracts and hardens by want of
stimulants: and the man becomes selfish, sensual, gross, and hard-
hearted. Let the management of the Poor Laws in Liverpool, Manchester,
or Bristol be compared with the ordinary dispensation of the poor
rates in agricultural villages, where the farmers are the overseers
and guardians of the poor. If my own experience have not been
particularly unfortunate, as well as that of the many respectable
country clergymen with whom I have conversed on the subject, the
result would engender more than scepticism concerning the desirable
influences of low and rustic life in and for itself. Whatever may be
concluded on the other side, from the stronger local attachments and
enterprising spirit of the Swiss, and other mountaineers, applies to a
particular mode of pastoral life, under forms of property that permit
and beget manners truly republican, not to rustic life in general, or
to the absence of artificial cultivation. On the contrary the
mountaineers, whose manners have been so often eulogized, are in
general better educated and greater readers than men of equal rank
elsewhere. But where this is not the case, as among the peasantry of
North Wales, the ancient mountains, with all their terrors and all
their glories, are pictures to the blind, and music to the deaf.

I should not have entered so much into detail upon this passage, but
here seems to be the point, to which all the lines of difference
converge as to their source and centre;--I mean, as far as, and in
whatever respect, my poetic creed does differ from the doctrines
promulgated in this preface. I adopt with full faith, the principle of
Aristotle, that poetry, as poetry, is essentially ideal, that it
avoids and excludes all accident; that its apparent individualities of
rank, character, or occupation must be representative of a class; and
that the persons of poetry must be clothed with generic attributes,
with the common attributes of the class: not with such as one gifted
individual might possibly possess, but such as from his situation it
is most probable before-hand that he would possess. If my premises are
right and my deductions legitimate, it follows that there can be no
poetic medium between the swains of Theocritus and those of an
imaginary golden age.

The characters of the vicar and the shepherd-mariner in the poem of
THE BROTHERS, and that of the shepherd of Green-head Ghyll in the
MICHAEL, have all the verisimilitude and representative quality, that
the purposes of poetry can require. They are persons of a known and
abiding class, and their manners and sentiments the natural product of
circumstances common to the class. Take Michael for instance:

An old man stout of heart, and strong of limb.
His bodily frame had been from youth to age
Of an unusual strength: his mind was keen,
Intense, and frugal, apt for all affairs,
And in his shepherd's calling he was prompt
And watchful more than ordinary men.
Hence he had learned the meaning of all winds,
Of blasts of every tone; and oftentimes
When others heeded not, He heard the South
Make subterraneous music, like the noise
Of bagpipers on distant Highland hills.
The Shepherd, at such warning, of his flock
Bethought him, and he to himself would say,
`The winds are now devising work for me!'
And truly, at all times, the storm, that drives
The traveller to a shelter, summoned him
Up to the mountains: he had been alone
Amid the heart of many thousand mists,
That came to him and left him on the heights.
So lived he, until his eightieth year was past.
And grossly that man errs, who should suppose
That the green valleys, and the streams and rocks,
Were things indifferent to the Shepherd's thoughts.
Fields, where with cheerful spirits he had breathed
The common air; the hills, which he so oft
Had climbed with vigorous steps; which had impressed
So many incidents upon his mind
Of hardship, skill or courage, joy or fear;
Which, like a book, preserved the memory
Of the dumb animals, whom he had saved,
Had fed or sheltered, linking to such acts,
So grateful in themselves, the certainty
Of honourable gain; these fields, these hills
Which were his living Being, even more
Than his own blood--what could they less? had laid
Strong hold on his affections, were to him
A pleasurable feeling of blind love,
The pleasure which there is in life itself.

On the other hand, in the poems which are pitched in a lower key, as
the HARRY GILL, and THE IDIOT BOY, the feelings are those of human
nature in general; though the poet has judiciously laid the scene in
the country, in order to place himself in the vicinity of interesting
images, without the necessity of ascribing a sentimental perception of
their beauty to the persons of his drama. In THE IDIOT BOY, indeed,
the mother's character is not so much the real and native product of a
"situation where the essential passions of the heart find a better
soil, in which they can attain their maturity and speak a plainer and
more emphatic language," as it is an impersonation of an instinct
abandoned by judgment. Hence the two following charges seem to me not
wholly groundless: at least, they are the only plausible objections,
which I have heard to that fine poem. The one is, that the author has
not, in the poem itself, taken sufficient care to preclude from the
reader's fancy the disgusting images of ordinary morbid idiocy, which
yet it was by no means his intention to represent. He was even by the
"burr, burr, burr," uncounteracted by any preceding description of the
boy's beauty, assisted in recalling them. The other is, that the
idiocy of the boy is so evenly balanced by the folly of the mother, as
to present to the general reader rather a laughable burlesque on the
blindness of anile dotage, than an analytic display of maternal
affection in its ordinary workings.

In THE THORN, the poet himself acknowledges in a note the necessity of
an introductory poem, in which he should have portrayed the character
of the person from whom the words of the poem are supposed to proceed:
a superstitious man moderately imaginative, of slow faculties and deep
feelings, "a captain of a small trading vessel, for example, who,
being past the middle age of life, had retired upon an annuity, or
small independent income, to some village or country town of which he
was not a native, or in which he had not been accustomed to live. Such
men having nothing to do become credulous and talkative from
indolence." But in a poem, still more in a lyric poem--and the Nurse
in ROMEO AND JULIET alone prevents me from extending the remark even
to dramatic poetry, if indeed even the Nurse can be deemed altogether
a case in point--it is not possible to imitate truly a dull and
garrulous discourser, without repeating the effects of dullness and
garrulity. However this may be, I dare assert, that the parts--(and
these form the far larger portion of the whole)--which might as well
or still better have proceeded from the poet's own imagination, and
have been spoken in his own character, are those which have given, and
which will continue to give, universal delight; and that the passages
exclusively appropriate to the supposed narrator, such as the last
couplet of the third stanza [64]; the seven last lines of the tenth
[65]; and the five following stanzas, with the exception of the four
admirable lines at the commencement of the fourteenth, are felt by
many unprejudiced and unsophisticated hearts, as sudden and unpleasant
sinkings from the height to which the poet had previously lifted them,
and to which he again re-elevates both himself and his reader.

If then I am compelled to doubt the theory, by which the choice of
characters was to be directed, not only a priori, from grounds of
reason, but both from the few instances in which the poet himself need
be supposed to have been governed by it, and from the comparative
inferiority of those instances; still more must I hesitate in my
assent to the sentence which immediately follows the former citation;
and which I can neither admit as particular fact, nor as general rule.
"The language, too, of these men has been adopted (purified indeed
from what appear to be its real defects, from all lasting and rational
causes of dislike or disgust) because such men hourly communicate with
the best objects from which the best part of language is originally
derived; and because, from their rank in society and the sameness and
narrow circle of their intercourse, being less under the action of
social vanity, they convey their feelings and notions in simple and
unelaborated expressions." To this I reply; that a rustic's language,
purified from all provincialism and grossness, and so far
reconstructed as to be made consistent with the rules of grammar--
(which are in essence no other than the laws of universal logic,
applied to psychological materials)--will not differ from the language
of any other man of common sense, however learned or refined he may
be, except as far as the notions, which the rustic has to convey, are
fewer and more indiscriminate. This will become still clearer, if we
add the consideration--(equally important though less obvious)--that
the rustic, from the more imperfect development of his faculties, and
from the lower state of their cultivation, aims almost solely to
convey insulated facts, either those of his scanty experience or his
traditional belief; while the educated man chiefly seeks to discover
and express those connections of things, or those relative bearings of
fact to fact, from which some more or less general law is deducible.
For facts are valuable to a wise man, chiefly as they lead to the
discovery of the indwelling law, which is the true being of things,
the sole solution of their modes of existence, and in the knowledge of
which consists our dignity and our power.

As little can I agree with the assertion, that from the objects with
which the rustic hourly communicates the best part of language is
formed. For first, if to communicate with an object implies such an
acquaintance with it, as renders it capable of being discriminately
reflected on, the distinct knowledge of an uneducated rustic would
furnish a very scanty vocabulary. The few things and modes of action
requisite for his bodily conveniences would alone be individualized;
while all the rest of nature would be expressed by a small number of
confused general terms. Secondly, I deny that the words and
combinations of words derived from the objects, with which the rustic
is familiar, whether with distinct or confused knowledge, can be
justly said to form the best part of language. It is more than
probable, that many classes of the brute creation possess
discriminating sounds, by which they can convey to each other notices
of such objects as concern their food, shelter, or safety. Yet we
hesitate to call the aggregate of such sounds a language, otherwise
than metaphorically. The best part of human language, properly so
called, is derived from reflection on the acts of the mind itself. It
is formed by a voluntary appropriation of fixed symbols to internal
acts, to processes and results of imagination, the greater part of
which have no place in the consciousness of uneducated man; though in
civilized society, by imitation and passive remembrance of what they
hear from their religious instructors and other superiors, the most
uneducated share in the harvest which they neither sowed, nor reaped.
If the history of the phrases in hourly currency among our peasants
were traced, a person not previously aware of the fact would be
surprised at finding so large a number, which three or four centuries
ago were the exclusive property of the universities and the schools;
and, at the commencement of the Reformation, had been transferred from
the school to the pulpit, and thus gradually passed into common life.
The extreme difficulty, and often the impossibility, of finding words
for the simplest moral and intellectual processes of the languages of
uncivilized tribes has proved perhaps the weightiest obstacle to the
progress of our most zealous and adroit missionaries. Yet these tribes
are surrounded by the same nature as our peasants are; but in still
more impressive forms; and they are, moreover, obliged to
particularize many more of them. When, therefore, Mr. Wordsworth adds,
"accordingly, such a language"--(meaning, as before, the language of
rustic life purified from provincialism)--"arising out of repeated
experience and regular feelings, is a more permanent, and a far more
philosophical language, than that which is frequently substituted for
it by Poets, who think that they are conferring honour upon themselves
and their art in proportion as they indulge in arbitrary and
capricious habits of expression;" it may be answered, that the
language, which he has in view, can be attributed to rustics with no
greater right, than the style of Hooker or Bacon to Tom Brown or Sir
Roger L'Estrange. Doubtless, if what is peculiar to each were omitted
in each, the result must needs be the same. Further, that the poet,
who uses an illogical diction, or a style fitted to excite only the
low and changeable pleasure of wonder by means of groundless novelty,
substitutes a language of folly and vanity, not for that of the
rustic, but for that of good sense and natural feeling.

Here let me be permitted to remind the reader, that the positions,
which I controvert, are contained in the sentences--"a selection of
the real language of men;"--"the language of these men" (that is, men
in low and rustic life) "has been adopted; I have proposed to myself
to imitate, and, as far as is possible, to adopt the very language of

"Between the language of prose and that of metrical composition, there
neither is, nor can be, any essential difference:" it is against these
exclusively that my opposition is directed.

I object, in the very first instance, to an equivocation in the use of
the word "real." Every man's language varies, according to the extent
of his knowledge, the activity of his faculties, and the depth or
quickness of his feelings. Every man's language has, first, its
individualities; secondly, the common properties of the class to which
he belongs; and thirdly, words and phrases of universal use. The
language of Hooker, Bacon, Bishop Taylor, and Burke differs from the
common language of the learned class only by the superior number and
novelty of the thoughts and relations which they had to convey. The
language of Algernon Sidney differs not at all fr om that, which every
well-educated gentleman would wish to write, and (with due allowances
for the undeliberateness, and less connected train, of thinking
natural and proper to conversation) such as he would wish to talk.
Neither one nor the other differ half as much from the general
language of cultivated society, as the language of Mr. Wordsworth's
homeliest composition differs from that of a common peasant. For
"real" therefore, we must substitute ordinary, or lingua communis. And
this, we have proved, is no more to be found in the phraseology of low
and rustic life than in that of any other class. Omit the
peculiarities of each and the result of course must be common to all.
And assuredly the omissions and changes to be made in the language of
rustics, before it could be transferred to any species of poem, except
the drama or other professed imitation, are at least as numerous and
weighty, as would be required in adapting to the same purpose the
ordinary language of tradesmen and manufacturers. Not to mention, that
the language so highly extolled by Mr. Wordsworth varies in every
county, nay in every village, according to the accidental character of
the clergyman, the existence or non-existence of schools; or even,
perhaps, as the exciteman, publican, and barber happen to be, or not
to be, zealous politicians, and readers of the weekly newspaper pro
bono publico. Anterior to cultivation the lingua communis of every
country, as Dante has well observed, exists every where in parts, and
no where as a whole.

Neither is the case rendered at all more tenable by the addition of
the words, "in a state of excitement." For the nature of a man's
words, where he is strongly affected by joy, grief, or anger, must
necessarily depend on the number and quality of the general truths,
conceptions and images, and of the words expressing them, with which
his mind had been previously stored. For the property of passion is
not to create; but to set in increased activity. At least, whatever
new connections of thoughts or images, or --(which is equally, if not
more than equally, the appropriate effect of strong excitement)--
whatever generalizations of truth or experience the heat of passion
may produce; yet the terms of their conveyance must have pre-existed
in his former conversations, and are only collected and crowded
together by the unusual stimulation. It is indeed very possible to
adopt in a poem the unmeaning repetitions, habitual phrases, and other
blank counters, which an unfurnished or confused understanding
interposes at short intervals, in order to keep hold of his subject,
which is still slipping from him, and to give him time for
recollection; or, in mere aid of vacancy, as in the scanty companies
of a country stage the same player pops backwards and forwards, in
order to prevent the appearance of empty spaces, in the procession of
Macbeth, or Henry VIII. But what assistance to the poet, or ornament
to the poem, these can supply, I am at a loss to conjecture. Nothing
assuredly can differ either in origin or in mode more widely from the
apparent tautologies of intense and turbulent feeling, in which the
passion is greater and of longer endurance than to be exhausted or
satisfied by a single representation of the image or incident exciting
it. Such repetitions I admit to be a beauty of the highest kind; as
illustrated by Mr. Wordsworth himself from the song of Deborah. At her
feet he bowed, he fell, he lay down: at her feet he bowed, he fell:
where he bowed, there he fell down dead. Judges v. 27.

[Here ends chapter 17.  To read other chapters of
Biographia Literaria, click here.]

* * *

[by Samuel Taylor Coleridge]


      "I've measured it from side to side;
'Tis three feet long, and two feet wide."