Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Biographia
Literaria
by
Samuel
Taylor
Coleridge

Chapter XVIII [of
XXII]                                                     [To
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Language of metrical composition, why and wherein essentially
different from that of prose–Origin and elements of metre–Its
necessary consequences, and the conditions thereby imposed on the
metrical writer in the choice of his diction.

I conclude, therefore, that the attempt is impracticable; and that,
were it not impracticable, it would still be useless. For the very
power of making the selection implies the previous possession of the
language selected. Or where can the poet have lived? And by what rules
could he direct his choice, which would not have enabled him to select
and arrange his words by the light of his own judgment? We do not
adopt the language of a class by the mere adoption of such words
exclusively, as that class would use, or at least understand; but
likewise by following the order, in which the words of such men are
wont to succeed each other. Now this order, in the intercourse of
uneducated men, is distinguished from the diction of their superiors
in knowledge and power, by the greater disjunction and separation in
the component parts of that, whatever it be, which they wish to
communicate. There is a want of that prospectiveness of mind, that
surview, which enables a man to foresee the whole of what he is to
convey, appertaining to any one point; and by this means so to
subordinate and arrange the different parts according to their
relative importance, as to convey it at once, and as an organized
whole.

Now I will take the first stanza, on which I have chanced to open, in
the Lyrical Ballads. It is one the most simple and the least peculiar
in its language.

"In distant countries have I been,
And yet I have not often seen
A healthy man, a man full grown,
Weep in the public roads, alone.
But such a one, on English ground,
And in the broad highway, I met;
Along the broad highway he came,
His cheeks with tears were wet
Sturdy he seemed, though he was sad;
And in his arms a lamb he had."

The words here are doubtless such as are current in all ranks of life;
and of course not less so in the hamlet and cottage than in the shop,
manufactory, college, or palace. But is this the order, in which the
rustic would have placed the words? I am grievously deceived, if the
following less compact mode of commencing the same tale be not a far
more faithful copy. "I have been in a many parts, far and near, and I
don't know that I ever saw before a man crying by himself in the
public road; a grown man I mean, that was neither sick nor hurt,"
etc., etc. But when I turn to the following stanza in The Thorn:

"At all times of the day and night
This wretched woman thither goes;
And she is known to every star,
And every wind that blows
And there, beside the Thorn, she sits,
When the blue day-light's in the skies,
And when the whirlwind's on the hill,
Or frosty air is keen and still,
And to herself she cries,
Oh misery! Oh misery!
Oh woe is me! Oh misery!"

and compare this with the language of ordinary men; or with that which
I can conceive at all likely to proceed, in real life, from such a
narrator, as is supposed in the note to the poem; compare it either in
the succession of the images or of the sentences; I am reminded of the
sublime prayer and hymn of praise, which Milton, in opposition to an
established liturgy, presents as a fair specimen of common extemporary
devotion, and such as we might expect to hear from every self-inspired
minister of a conventicle! And I reflect with delight, how little a
mere theory, though of his own workmanship, interferes with the
processes of genuine imagination in a man of true poetic genius, who
possesses, as Mr. Wordsworth, if ever man did, most assuredly does
possess,

"The Vision and the Faculty divine."

One point then alone remains, but that the most important; its
examination having been, indeed, my chief inducement for the preceding
inquisition. "There neither is nor can be any essential difference
between the language of prose and metrical composition." Such is Mr.
Wordsworth's assertion. Now prose itself, at least in all
argumentative and consecutive works, differs, and ought to differ,
from the language of conversation; even as [66] reading ought to
differ from talking. Unless therefore the difference denied be that of
the mere words, as materials common to all styles of writing, and not
of the style itself in the universally admitted sense of the term, it
might be naturally presumed that there must exist a still greater
between the ordonnance of poetic composition and that of prose, than
is expected to distinguish prose from ordinary conversation.

There are not, indeed, examples wanting in the history of literature,
of apparent paradoxes that have summoned the public wonder as new and
startling truths, but which, on examination, have shrunk into tame and
harmless truisms; as the eyes of a cat, seen in the dark, have been
mistaken for flames of fire. But Mr. Wordsworth is among the last men,
to whom a delusion of this kind would be attributed by anyone, who had
enjoyed the slightest opportunity of understanding his mind and
character. Where an objection has been anticipated by such an author
as natural, his answer to it must needs be interpreted in some sense
which either is, or has been, or is capable of being controverted. My
object then must be to discover some other meaning for the term
"essential difference" in this place, exclusive of the indistinction
and community of the words themselves. For whether there ought to
exist a class of words in the English, in any degree resembling the
poetic dialect of the Greek and Italian, is a question of very
subordinate importance. The number of such words would be small
indeed, in our language; and even in the Italian and Greek, they
consist not so much of different words, as of slight differences in
the forms of declining and conjugating the same words; forms,
doubtless, which having been, at some period more or less remote, the
common grammatic flexions of some tribe or province, had been
accidentally appropriated to poetry by the general admiration of
certain master intellects, the first established lights of
inspiration, to whom that dialect happened to be native.

Essence, in its primary signification, means the principle of
individuation, the inmost principle of the possibility of any thing,
as that particular thing. It is equivalent to the idea of a thing,
whenever we use the word, idea, with philosophic precision. Existence,
on the other hand, is distinguished from essence, by the
superinduction of reality. Thus we speak of the essence, and essential
properties of a circle; but we do not therefore assert, that any
thing, which really exists, is mathematically circular. Thus too,
without any tautology we contend for the existence of the Supreme
Being; that is, for a reality correspondent to the idea. There is,
next, a secondary use of the word essence, in which it signifies the
point or ground of contra-distinction between two modifications of the
same substance or subject. Thus we should be allowed to say, that the
style of architecture of Westminster Abbey is essentially different
from that of St. Paul, even though both had been built with blocks cut
into the same form, and from the same quarry. Only in this latter
sense of the term must it have been denied by Mr. Wordsworth (for in
this sense alone is it affirmed by the general opinion) that the
language of poetry (that is the formal construction, or architecture,
of the words and phrases) is essentially different from that of prose.
Now the burden of the proof lies with the oppugner, not with the
supporters of the common belief. Mr. Wordswo rth, in consequence,
assigns as the proof of his position, "that not only the language of a
large portion of every good poem, even of the most elevated character,
must necessarily, except with reference to the metre, in no respect
differ from that of good prose, but likewise that some of the most
interesting parts of the best poems will be found to be strictly the
language of prose, when prose is well written. The truth of this
assertion might be demonstrated by innumerable passages from almost
all the poetical writings, even of Milton himself." He then quotes
Gray's sonnet--

"In vain to me the smiling mornings shine,
And reddening Phoebus lifts his golden fire;
The birds in vain their amorous descant join,
Or cheerful fields resume their green attire.
These ears, alas! for other notes repine;
_A different object do these eyes require;
My lonely anguish melts no heart but mine;
And in my breast the imperfect joys expire._
Yet morning smiles the busy race to cheer,
And new-born pleasure brings to happier men;
The fields to all their wonted tribute bear;
To warm their little loves the birds complain:
_I fruitless mourn to him that cannot hear,
And weep the more, because I weep in vain."_

and adds the following remark:--"It will easily be perceived, that the
only part of this Sonnet which is of any value, is the lines printed
in italics; it is equally obvious, that, except in the rhyme, and in
the use of the single word `fruitless' for fruitlessly, which is so
far a defect, the language of these lines does in no respect differ
from that of prose."

An idealist defending his system by the fact, that when asleep we
often believe ourselves awake, was well answered by his plain
neighbour, "Ah, but when awake do we ever believe ourselves asleep?"
Things identical must be convertible. The preceding passage seems to
rest on a similar sophism. For the question is not, whether there may
not occur in prose an order of words, which would be equally proper in
a poem; nor whether there are not beautiful lines and sentences of
frequent occurrence in good poems, which would be equally becoming as
well as beautiful in good prose; for neither the one nor the other has
ever been either denied or doubted by any one. The true question must
be, whether there are not modes of expression, a construction, and an
order of sentences, which are in their fit and natural place in a
serious prose composition, but would be disproportionate and
heterogeneous in metrical poetry; and, vice versa, whether in the
language of a serious poem there may not be an arrangement both of
words and sentences, and a use and selection of (what are called)
figures of speech, both as to their kind, their frequency, and their
occasions, which on a subject of equal weight would be vicious and
alien in correct and manly prose. I contend, that in both cases this
unfitness of each for the place of the other frequently will and ought
to exist.

And first from the origin of metre. This I would trace to the balance
in the mind effected by that spontaneous effort which strives to hold
in check the workings of passion. It might be easily explained
likewise in what manner this salutary antagonism is assisted by the
very state, which it counteracts; and how this balance of antagonists
became organized into metre (in the usual acceptation of that term),
by a supervening act of the will and judgment, consciously and for the
foreseen purpose of pleasure. Assuming these principles, as the data
of our argument, we deduce from them two legitimate conditions, which
the critic is entitled to expect in every metrical work. First, that,
as the elements of metre owe their existence to a state of increased
excitement, so the metre itself should be accompanied by the natural
language of excitement. Secondly, that as these elements are formed
into metre artificially, by a voluntary act, with the design and for
the purpose of blending delight with emotion, so the traces of present
volition should throughout the metrical language be proportionately
discernible. Now these two conditions must be reconciled and co-
present. There must be not only a partnership, but a union; an
interpenetration of passion and of will, of spontaneous impulse and of
voluntary purpose. Again, this union can be manifested only in a
frequency of forms and figures of speech, (originally the offspring of
passion, but now the adopted children of power), greater than would be
desired or endured, where the emotion is not voluntarily encouraged
and kept up for the sake of that pleasure, which such emotion, so
tempered and mastered by the will, is found capable of communicating.
It not only dictates, but of itself tends to produce a more frequent
employment of picturesque and vivifying language, than would be
natural in any other case, in which there did not exist, as there does
in the present, a previous and well understood, though tacit, compact
between the poet and his reader, that the latter is entitled to
expect, and the former bound to supply this species and degree of
pleasurable excitement. We may in some measure apply to this union the
answer of Polixenes, in the Winter's Tale, to Perdita's neglect of the
streaked gilliflowers, because she had heard it said,

"There is an art, which, in their piedness, shares
With great creating nature.
POL. Say there be;
Yet nature is made better by no mean,
But nature makes that mean; so, o'er that art,
Which, you say, adds to nature, is an art,
That nature makes. You see, sweet maid, we marry
A gentler scion to the wildest stock;
And make conceive a bark of baser kind
By bud of nobler race. This is an art,
Which does mend nature,--change it rather; but
The art itself is nature."

Secondly, I argue from the effects of metre. As far as metre acts in
and for itself, it tends to increase the vivacity and susceptibility
both of the general feelings and of the attention. This effect it
produces by the continued excitement of surprise, and by the quick
reciprocations of curiosity still gratified and still re-excited,
which are too slight indeed to be at any one moment objects of
distinct consciousness, yet become considerable in their aggregate
influence. As a medicated atmosphere, or as wine during animated
conversation, they act powerfully, though themselves unnoticed. Where,
therefore, correspondent food and appropriate matter are not provided
for the attention and feelings thus roused there must needs be a
disappointment felt; like that of leaping in the dark from the last
step of a stair-case, when we had prepared our muscles for a leap of
three or four.

The discussion on the powers of metre in the preface is highly
ingenious and touches at all points on truth. But I cannot find any
statement of its powers considered abstractly and separately. On the
contrary Mr. Wordsworth seems always to estimate metre by the powers,
which it exerts during, (and, as I think, in consequence of), its
combination with other elements of poetry. Thus the previous
difficulty is left unanswered, what the elements are, with which it
must be combined, in order to produce its own effects to any
pleasurable purpose. Double and tri-syllable rhymes, indeed, form a
lower species of wit, and, attended to exclusively for their own sake,
may become a source of momentary amusement; as in poor Smart's distich
to the Welsh Squire who had promised him a hare :

"Tell me, thou son of great Cadwallader!
Hast sent the hare? or hast thou swallow'd her?"

But for any poetic purposes, metre resembles, (if the aptness of the
simile may excuse its meanness), yeast, worthless or disagreeable by
itself, but giving vivacity and spirit to the liquor with which it is
proportionally combined.

The reference to THE CHILDREN IN THE WOOD by no means satisfies my
judgment. We all willingly throw ourselves back for awhile into the
feelings of our childhood. This ballad, therefore, we read under such
recollections of our own childish feelings, as would equally endear to
us poems, which Mr. Wordsworth himself would regard as faulty in the
opposite extreme of gaudy and technical ornament. Before the invention
of printing, and in a still greater degree, before the introduction of
writing, metre, especially alliterative metre, (whether alliterative
at the beginning of the words, as in PIERCE PLOUMAN, or at the end, as
in rhymes) possessed an independent value as assisting the
recollection, and consequently the preservation, of any series of
truths or incidents. But I am not convinced by the collation of facts,
that THE CHILDREN IN THE WOOD owes either its preservation, or its
popularity, to its metrical form. Mr. Marshal's repository affords a
number of tales in prose inferior in pathos and general merit, some of
as old a date, and many as widely popular. TOM HICKATHRIFT, JACK THE
GIANT-KILLER, GOODY TWO-SHOES, and LITTLE RED RIDING-HOOD are
formidable rivals. And that they have continued in prose, cannot be
fairly explained by the assumption, that the comparative meanness of
their thoughts and images precluded even the humblest forms of metre.
The scene of GOODY TWO-SHOES in the church is perfectly susceptible of
metrical narration; and, among the thaumata thaumastotata even of the
present age, I do not recollect a more astonishing image than that of
the "whole rookery, that flew out of the giant's beard," scared by the
tremendous voice, with which this monster answered the challenge of
the heroic TOM HICKATHRIFT!

If from these we turn to compositions universally, and independently
of all early associations, beloved and admired; would the MARIA, THE
MONK, or THE POOR MAN'S ASS of Sterne, be read with more delight, or
have a better chance of immortality, had they without any change in
the diction been composed in rhyme, than in their present state? If I
am not grossly mistaken, the general reply would be in the negative.
Nay, I will confess, that, in Mr. Wordsworth's own volumes, the
ANECDOTE FOR FATHERS, SIMON LEE, ALICE FELL, BEGGARS, and THE SAILOR'S
MOTHER, notwithstanding the beauties which are to be found in each of
them where the poet interposes the music of his own thoughts, would
have been more delightful to me in prose, told and managed, as by Mr.
Wordsworth they would have been, in a moral essay or pedestrian tour.

Metre in itself is simply a stimulant of the attention, and therefore
excites the question: Why is the attention to be thus stimulated? Now
the question cannot be answered by the pleasure of the metre itself;
for this we have shown to be conditional, and dependent on the
appropriateness of the thoughts and expressions, to which the metrical
form is superadded. Neither can I conceive any other answer that can
be rationally given, short of this: I write in metre, because I am
about to use a language different from that of prose. Besides, where
the language is not such, how interesting soever the reflections are,
that are capable of being drawn by a philosophic mind from the
thoughts or incidents of the poem, the metre itself must often become
feeble. Take the last three stanzas of THE SAILOR'S MOTHER, for
instance. If I could for a moment abstract from the effect produced on
the author's feelings, as a man, by the incident at the time of its
real occurrence, I would dare appeal to his own judgment, whether in
the metre itself he found a sufficient reason for their being written
metrically?

And, thus continuing, she said,
"I had a Son, who many a day
Sailed on the seas; but he is dead;
In Denmark he was cast away;
And I have travelled far as Hull to see
What clothes he might have left, or other property.

The Bird and Cage they both were his
'Twas my Son's Bird; and neat and trim
He kept it: many voyages
This Singing-bird hath gone with him;
When last he sailed he left the Bird behind;
As it might be, perhaps, from bodings of his mind.

He to a Fellow-lodger's care
Had left it, to be watched and fed,
Till he came back again; and there
I found it when my Son was dead;
And now, God help me for my little wit!
I trail it with me, Sir! he took so much delight in it."

If disproportioning the emphasis we read these stanzas so as to make
the rhymes perceptible, even tri-syllable rhymes could scarcely
produce an equal sense of oddity and strangeness, as we feel here in
finding rhymes at all in sentences so exclusively colloquial. I would
further ask whether, but for that visionary state, into which the
figure of the woman and the susceptibility of his own genius had
placed the poet's imagination,--(a state, which spreads its influence
and colouring over all, that co-exists with the exciting cause, and in
which

"The simplest, and the most familiar things
Gain a strange power of spreading awe around them,") [67]

I would ask the poet whether he would not have felt an abrupt downfall
in these verses from the preceding stanza?

"The ancient spirit is not dead;
Old times, thought I, are breathing there;
Proud was I that my country bred
Such strength, a dignity so fair:
She begged an alms, like one in poor estate;
I looked at her again, nor did my pride abate."

It must not be omitted, and is besides worthy of notice, that those
stanzas furnish the only fair instance that I have been able to
discover in all Mr. Wordsworth's writings, of an actual adoption, or
true imitation, of the real and very language of low and rustic life,
freed from provincialisms.

Thirdly, I deduce the position from all the causes elsewhere assigned,
which render metre the proper form of poetry, and poetry imperfect and
defective without metre. Metre, therefore, having been connected with
poetry most often and by a peculiar fitness, whatever else is combined
with metre must, though it be not itself essentially poetic, have
nevertheless some property in common with poetry, as an intermedium of
affinity, a sort, (if I may dare borrow a well-known phrase from
technical chemistry), of mordaunt between it and the super-added
metre. Now poetry, Mr. Wordsworth truly affirms, does always imply
passion: which word must be here understood in its most general sense,
as an excited state of the feelings and faculties. And as every
passion has its proper pulse, so will it likewise have its
characteristic modes of expression. But where there exists that degree
of genius and talent which entitles a writer to aim at the honours of
a poet, the very act of poetic composition itself is, and is allowed
to imply and to produce, an unusual state of excitement, which of
course justifies and demands a correspondent difference of language,
as truly, though not perhaps in as marked a degree, as the excitement
of love, fear, rage, or jealousy. The vividness of the descriptions or
declamations in Donne or Dryden, is as much and as often derived from
the force and fervour of the describer, as from the reflections, forms
or incidents, which constitute their subject and materials. The wheels
take fire from the mere rapidity of their motion. To what extent, and
under what modifications, this may be admitted to act, I shall attempt
to define in an after remark on Mr. Wordsworth's reply to this
objection, or rather on his objection to this reply, as already
anticipated in his preface.

Fourthly, and as intimately connected with this, if not the same
argument in a more general form, I adduce the high spiritual instinct
of the human being impelling us to seek unity by harmonious
adjustment, and thus establishing the principle that all the parts of
an organized whole must be assimilated to the more important and
essential parts. This and the preceding arguments may be strengthened
by the reflection, that the composition of a poem is among the
imitative arts; and that imitation, as opposed to copying, consists
either in the interfusion of the same throughout the radically
different, or of the different throughout a base radically the same.

Lastly, I appeal to the practice of the best poets, of all countries
and in all ages, as authorizing the opinion, (deduced from all the
foregoing,) that in every import of the word essential, which would
not here involve a mere truism, there may be, is, and ought to be an
essential difference between the language of prose and of metrical
composition.

In Mr. Wordsworth's criticism of Gray's Sonnet, the reader's sympathy
with his praise or blame of the different parts is taken for granted
rather perhaps too easily. He has not, at least, attempted to win or
compel it by argumentative analysis. In my conception at least, the
lines rejected as of no value do, with the exception of the two first,
differ as much and as little from the language of common life, as
those which he has printed in italics as possessing genuine
excellence. Of the five lines thus honourably distinguished, two of
them differ from prose even more widely, than the lines which either
precede or follow, in the position of the words.

"A different object do these eyes require;
My lonely anguish melts no heart but mine;
And in my breast the imperfect joys expire."

But were it otherwise, what would this prove, but a truth, of which no
man ever doubted?--videlicet, that there are sentences, which would be
equally in their place both in verse and prose. Assuredly it does not
prove the point, which alone requires proof; namely, that there are
not passages, which would suit the one and not suit the other. The
first line of this sonnet is distinguished from the ordinary language
of men by the epithet to morning. For we will set aside, at present,
the consideration, that the particular word "smiling" is hackneyed,
and, as it involves a sort of personification, not quite congruous
with the common and material attribute of "shining." And, doubtless,
this adjunction of epithets for the purpose of additional description,
where no particular attention is demanded for the quality of the
thing, would be noticed as giving a poetic cast to a man's
conversation. Should the sportsman exclaim, "Come boys! the rosy
morning calls you up:" he will be supposed to have some song in his
head. But no one suspects this, when he says, "A wet morning shall not
confine us to our beds." This then is either a defect in poetry, or it
is not. Whoever should decide in the affirmative, I would request him
to re-peruse any one poem, of any confessedly great poet from Homer to
Milton, or from Aeschylus to Shakespeare; and to strike out, (in
thought I mean), every instance of this kind. If the number of these
fancied erasures did not startle him; or if he continued to deem the
work improved by their total omission; he must advance reasons of no
ordinary strength and evidence, reasons grounded in the essence of
human nature. Otherwise, I should not hesitate to consider him as a
man not so much proof against all authority, as dead to it.

The second line,

"And reddening Phoebus lifts his golden fire;--"

has indeed almost as many faults as words. But then it is a bad line,
not because the language is distinct from that of prose; but because
it conveys incongruous images; because it confounds the cause and the
effect; the real thing with the personified representative of the
thing; in short, because it differs from the language of good sense!
That the "Phoebus "is hackneyed, and a school-boy image, is an
accidental fault, dependent on the age in which the author wrote, and
not deduced from the nature of the thing. That it is part of an
exploded mythology, is an objection more deeply grounded. Yet when the
torch of ancient learning was re-kindled, so cheering were its beams,
that our eldest poets, cut off by Christianity from all accredited
machinery, and deprived of all acknowledged guardians and symbols of
the great objects of nature, were naturally induced to adopt, as a
poetic language, those fabulous personages, those forms of the
[68]supernatural in nature, which had given them such dear delight in
the poems of their great masters. Nay, even at this day what scholar
of genial taste will not so far sympathize with them, as to read with
pleasure in Petrarch, Chaucer, or Spenser, what he would perhaps
condemn as puerile in a modern poet?

I remember no poet, whose writings would safelier stand the test of
Mr. Wordsworth's theory, than Spenser. Yet will Mr. Wordsworth say,
that the style of the following stanza is either undistinguished from
prose, and the language of ordinary life? Or that it is vicious, and
that the stanzas are blots in THE FAERY QUEEN?

"By this the northern wagoner had set
His sevenfold teme behind the stedfast starre,
That was in ocean waves yet never wet,
But firme is fixt and sendeth light from farre
To all that in the wild deep wandering arre
And chearfull chaunticlere with his note shrill
Had warned once that Phoebus' fiery carre
In hast was climbing up the easterne hill,
Full envious that night so long his roome did fill."

"At last the golden orientall gate
Of greatest heaven gan to open fayre,
And Phoebus fresh, as brydegrome to his mate,
Came dauncing forth, shaking his deawie hayre,
And hurl'd his glist'ring beams through gloomy ayre:
Which when the wakeful elfe perceived, streightway
He started up, and did him selfe prepayre
In sun-bright armes and battailous array;
For with that pagan proud he combat will that day."

On the contrary to how many passages, both in hymn books and in blank
verse poems, could I, (were it not invidious), direct the reader's
attention, the style of which is most unpoetic, because, and only
because, it is the style of prose? He will not suppose me capable of
having in my mind such verses, as

"I put my hat upon my head
And walk'd into the Strand;
And there I met another man,
Whose hat was in his hand."

To such specimens it would indeed be a fair and full reply, that these
lines are not bad, because they are unpoetic; but because they are
empty of all sense and feeling; and that it were an idle attempt to
prove that "an ape is not a Newton, when it is self-evident that he is
not a man." But the sense shall be good and weighty, the language
correct and dignified, the subject interesting and treated with
feeling; and yet the style shall, notwithstanding all these merits, be
justly b lamable as prosaic, and solely because the words and the order
of the words would find their appropriate place in prose, but are not
suitable to metrical composition. The CIVIL WARS of Daniel is an
instructive, and even interesting work; but take the following
stanzas, (and from the hundred instances which abound I might probably
have selected others far more striking):

"And to the end we may with better ease
Discern the true discourse, vouchsafe to shew
What were the times foregoing near to these,
That these we may with better profit know.
Tell how the world fell into this disease;
And how so great distemperature did grow;
So shall we see with what degrees it came;
How things at full do soon wax out of frame."

"Ten kings had from the Norman Conqu'ror reign'd
With intermix'd and variable fate,
When England to her greatest height attain'd
Of power, dominion, glory, wealth, and state;
After it had with much ado sustain'd
The violence of princes, with debate
For titles and the often mutinies
Of nobles for their ancient liberties."

"For first, the Norman, conqu'ring all by might,
By might was forc'd to keep what he had got;
Mixing our customs and the form of right
With foreign constitutions, he had brought;
Mast'ring the mighty, humbling the poorer wight,
By all severest means that could be wrought;
And, making the succession doubtful, rent
His new-got state, and left it turbulent."

Will it be contended on the one side, that these lines are mean and
senseless? Or on the other, that they are not prosaic, and for that
reason unpoetic? This poet's well-merited epithet is that of the
"well-languaged Daniel;" but likewise, and by the consent of his
contemporaries no less than of all succeeding critics, "the prosaic
Daniel." Yet those, who thus designate this wise and amiable writer
from the frequent incorrespondency of his diction to his metre in the
majority of his compositions, not only deem them valuable and
interesting on other accounts; but willingly admit, that there are to
be found throughout his poems, and especially in his EPISTLES and in
his HYMEN'S TRIUMPH, many and exquisite specimens of that style which,
as the neutral ground of prose and verse, is common to both. A fine
and almost faultless extract, eminent as for other beauties, so for
its perfection in this species of diction, may be seen in Lamb's
DRAMATIC SPECIMENS, a work of various interest from the nature of the
selections themselves, (all from the plays of Shakespeare's
contemporaries),--and deriving a high additional value from the notes,
which are full of just and original criticism, expressed with all the
freshness of originality.

Among the possible effects of practical adherence to a theory, that
aims to identify the style of prose and verse,--(if it does not indeed
claim for the latter a yet nearer resemblance to the average style of
men in the viva voce intercourse of real life)--we might anticipate
the following as not the least likely to occur. It will happen, as I
have indeed before observed, that the metre itself, the sole
acknowledged difference, will occasionally become metre to the eye
only. The existence of prosaisms, and that they detract from the merit
of a poem, must at length be conceded, when a number of successive
lines can be rendered, even to the most delicate ear, unrecognizable
as verse, or as having even been intended for verse, by simply
transcribing them as prose; when if the poem be in blank verse, this
can be effected without any alteration, or at most by merely restoring
one or two words to their proper places, from which they have been
transplanted [69] for no assignable cause or reason but that of the
author's convenience; but if it be in rhyme, by the mere exchange of
the final word of each line for some other of the same meaning,
equally appropriate, dignified and euphonic.

The answer or objection in the preface to the anticipated remark "that
metre paves the way to other distinctions," is contained in the
following words. "The distinction of rhyme and metre is regular and
uniform, and not, like that produced by (what is usually called)
poetic diction, arbitrary, and subject to infinite caprices, upon
which no calculation whatever can be made. In the one case the reader
is utterly at the mercy of the poet respecting what imagery or diction
he may choose to connect with the passion." But is this a poet, of
whom a poet is speaking? No surely! rather of a fool or madman: or at
best of a vain or ignorant phantast! And might not brains so wild and
so deficient make just the same havoc with rhymes and metres, as they
are supposed to effect with modes and figures of speech? How is the
reader at the mercy of such men? If he continue to read their
nonsense, is it not his own fault? The ultimate end of criticism is
much more to establish the principles of writing, than to furnish
rules how to pass judgment on what has been written by others; if
indeed it were possible that the two could be separated. But if it be
asked, by what principles the poet is to regulate his own style, if he
do not adhere closely to the sort and order of words which he hears in
the market, wake, high-road, or plough-field? I reply; by principles,
the ignorance or neglect of which would convict him of being no poet,
but a silly or presumptuous usurper of the name. By the principles of
grammar, logic, psychology. In one word by such a knowledge of the
facts, material and spiritual, that most appertain to his art, as, if
it have been governed and applied by good sense, and rendered
instinctive by habit, becomes the representative and reward of our
past conscious reasonings, insights, and conclusions, and acquires the
name of Taste. By what rule that does not leave the reader at the
poet's mercy, and the poet at his own, is the latter to distinguish
between the language suitable to suppressed, and the language, which
is characteristic of indulged, anger? Or between that of rage and that
of jealousy? Is it obtained by wandering about in search of angry or
jealous people in uncultivated society, in order to copy their words?
Or not far rather by the power of imagination proceeding upon the all
in each of human nature? By meditation, rather than by observation?
And by the latter in consequence only of the former? As eyes, for
which the former has pre-determined their field of vision, and to
which, as to its organ, it communicates a microscopic power? There is
not, I firmly believe, a man now living, who has, from his own inward
experience, a clearer intuition, than Mr. Wordsworth himself, that the
last mentioned are the true sources of genial discrimination. Through
the same process and by the same creative agency will the poet
distinguish the degree and kind of the excitement produced by the very
act of poetic composition. As intuitively will he know, what
differences of style it at once inspires and justifies; what
intermixture of conscious volition is natural to that state; and in
what instances such figures and colours of speech degenerate into mere
creatures of an arbitrary purpose, cold technical artifices of
ornament or connection. For, even as truth is its own light and
evidence, discovering at once itself and falsehood, so is it the
prerogative of poetic genius to distinguish by parental instinct its
proper offspring from the changelings, which the gnomes of vanity or
the fairies of fashion may have laid in its cradle or c alled by its
names. Could a rule be given from without, poetry would cease to be
poetry, and sink into a mechanical art. It would be morphosis, not
poiaesis. The rules of the Imagination are themselves the very powers
of growth and production. The words to which they are reducible,
present only the outlines and external appearance of the fruit. A
deceptive counterfeit of the superficial form and colours may be
elaborated; but the marble peach feels cold and heavy, and children
only put it to their mouths. We find no difficulty in admitting as
excellent, and the legitimate language of poetic fervour self-
impassioned, Donne's apostrophe to the Sun in the second stanza of his
PROGRESS OF THE SOUL.

"Thee, eye of heaven! this great Soul envies not;
By thy male force is all, we have, begot.
In the first East thou now beginn'st to shine,
Suck'st early balm and island spices there,
And wilt anon in thy loose-rein'd career
At Tagus, Po, Seine, Thames, and Danow dine,
And see at night this western world of mine:
Yet hast thou not more nations seen than she,
Who before thee one day began to be,
And, thy frail light being quench'd, shall long, long outlive
thee."

Or the next stanza but one:

"Great Destiny, the commissary of God,
That hast mark'd out a path and period
For every thing! Who, where we offspring took,
Our ways and ends see'st at one instant: thou
Knot of all causes! Thou, whose changeless brow
Ne'er smiles nor frowns! O! vouchsafe thou to look,
And shew my story in thy eternal book," etc.

As little difficulty do we find in excluding from the honours of
unaffected warmth and elevation the madness prepense of pseudopoesy,
or the startling hysteric of weakness over-exerting itself, which
bursts on the unprepared reader in sundry odes and apostrophes to
abstract terms. Such are the Odes to jealousy, to Hope, to Oblivion,
and the like, in Dodsley's collection and the magazines of that day,
which seldom fail to remind me of an Oxford copy of verses on the two
SUTTONS, commencing with

"Inoculation, heavenly maid! descend!"

It is not to be denied that men of undoubted talents, and even poets
of true, though not of first-rate, genius, have from a mistaken theory
deluded both themselves and others in the opposite extreme. I once
read to a company of sensible and well-educated women the introductory
period of Cowley's preface to his "Pindaric Odes," written in
imitation of the style and manner of the odes of Pindar. "If," (says
Cowley), "a man should undertake to translate Pindar, word for word,
it would be thought that one madman had translated another as may
appear, when he, that understands not the original, reads the verbal
traduction of him into Latin prose, than which nothing seems more
raving." I then proceeded with his own free version of the second
Olympic, composed for the charitable purpose of rationalizing the
Theban Eagle.

"Queen of all harmonious things,
Dancing words and speaking strings,
What god, what hero, wilt thou sing?
What happy man to equal glories bring?
Begin, begin thy noble choice,
And let the hills around reflect the image of thy voice.
Pisa does to Jove belong,
Jove and Pisa claim thy song.
The fair first-fruits of war, th' Olympic games,
Alcides, offer'd up to Jove;
Alcides, too, thy strings may move,
But, oh! what man to join with these can worthy prove?
Join Theron boldly to their sacred names;
Theron the next honour claims;
Theron to no man gives place,
Is first in Pisa's and in Virtue's race;
Theron there, and he alone,
Ev'n his own swift forefathers has outgone."

One of the company exclaimed, with the full assent of the rest, that
if the original were madder than this, it must be incurably mad. I
then translated the ode from the Greek, and as nearly as possible,
word for word; and the impression was, that in the general movement of
the periods, in the form of the connections and transitions, and in
the sober majesty of lofty sense, it appeared to them to approach more
nearly, than any other poetry they had heard, to the style of our
Bible, in the prophetic books. The first strophe will suffice as a
specimen:

"Ye harp-controlling hymns! (or) ye hymns the sovereigns of harps!
What God? what Hero?
What Man shall we celebrate?
Truly Pisa indeed is of Jove,
But the Olympiad (or the Olympic games) did Hercules establish,
The first-fruits of the spoils of war.
But Theron for the four-horsed car,
That bore victory to him,
It behoves us now to voice aloud:
The Just, the Hospitable,
The Bulwark of Agrigentum,
Of renowned fathers
The Flower, even him
Who preserves his native city erect and safe."

But are such rhetorical caprices condemnable only for their deviation
from the language of real life? and are they by no other means to be
precluded, but by the rejection of all distinctions between prose and
verse, save that of metre? Surely good sense, and a moderate insight
into the constitution of the human mind, would be amply sufficient to
prove, that such language and such combinations are the native product
neither of the fancy nor of the imagination; that their operation
consists in the excitement of surprise by the juxta-position and
apparent reconciliation of widely different or incompatible things. As
when, for instance, the hills are made to reflect the image of a
voice. Surely, no unusual taste is requisite to see clearly, that this
compulsory juxtaposition is not produced by the presentation of
impressive or delightful forms to the inward vision, nor by any
sympathy with the modifying powers with which the genius of the poet
had united and inspirited all the objects of his thought; that it is
therefore a species of wit, a pure work of the will, and implies a
leisure and self-possession both of thought and of feeling,
incompatible with the steady fervour of a mind possessed and filled
with the grandeur of its subject. To sum up the whole in one sentence.
When a poem, or a part of a poem, shall be adduced, which is evidently
vicious in the figures and centexture of its style, yet for the
condemnation of which no reason can be assigned, except that it
differs from the style in which men actually converse, then, and not
till then, can I hold this theory to be either plausible, or
practicable, or capable of furnishing either rule, guidance, or
precaution, that might not, more easily and more safely, as well as
more naturally, have been deduced in the author's own mind from
considerations of grammar, logic, and the truth and nature of things,
confirmed by the authority of works, whose fame is not of one country
nor of one age.

[Here ends chapter 18.  To read other chapters of
Biographia Literaria, click here.]

* * *


FOOTNOTES 
[by Samuel Taylor Coleridge]

[66]  It is no less an error in teachers, than a torment to the poor
children, to enforce the necessity of reading as they would talk. In
order to cure them of singing as it is called, that is, of too great a
difference, the child is made to repeat the words with his eyes from
off the book; and then, indeed, his tones resemble talking, as far as
his fears, tears and trembling will permit. But as soon as the eye is
again directed to the printed page, the spell begins anew; for an
instinctive sense tells the child’s feelings, that to utter its own
momentary thoughts, and to recite the written thoughts of another, as
of another, and a far wiser than himself, are two widely different
things; and as the two acts are accompanied with widely different
feelings, so must they justify different modes of enunciation. Joseph
Lancaster, among his other sophistications of the excellent Dr. Bell’s
invaluable system, cures this fault of singing, by hanging fetters and
chains on the child, to the music of which one of his school-fellows,
who walks before, dolefully chants out the child’s last speech and
confession, birth, parentage, and education. And this soul-benumbing
ignominy, this unholy and heart-hardening burlesque on the last
fearful infliction of outraged law, in pronouncing the sentence to
which the stern and familiarized judge not seldom bursts into tears,
has been extolled as a happy and ingenious method of remedying–what?
and how?–why, one extreme in order to introduce another, scarce less
distant from good sense, and certainly likely to have worse moral
effects, by enforcing a semblance of petulant ease and self-
sufficiency, in repression and possible after-perversion of the
natural feelings. I have to beg Dr. Bell’s pardon for this connection
of the two names, but he knows that contrast is no less powerful a
cause of association than likeness.

[67] Altered from the description of Night-Mair in the REMORSE.
“Oh Heaven! ’twas frightful! Now ran down and stared at
By hideous shapes that cannot be remembered;
Now seeing nothing and imagining nothing;
But only being afraid–stifled with fear!
While every goodly or familiar form
Had a strange power of spreading terror round me!”
N.B.–Though Shakespeare has, for his own all justifying purposes,
introduced the Night-Mare with her own foals, yet Mair means a Sister,
or perhaps a Hag.

[68] But still more by the mechanical system of philosophy which has
needlessly infected our theological opinions, and teaching us to
consider the world in its relation to god, as of a building to its
mason, leaves the idea of omnipresence a mere abstract notion in the
stateroom of our reason.

[69] As the ingenious gentleman under the influence of the Tragic Muse
contrived to dislocate, “I wish you a good morning, Sir! Thank you,
Sir, and I wish you the same,” into two blank-verse heroics:–
To you a morning good, good Sir! I wish.
You, Sir! I thank: to you the same wish I.
In those parts of Mr. Wordsworth’s works which I have thoroughly
studied, I find fewer instances in which this would be practicable
than I have met to many poems, where an approximation of prose has
been sedulously and on system guarded against. Indeed excepting the
stanzas already quoted from THE SAILOR’S MOTHER, I can recollect but
one instance: that is to say, a short passage of four or five lines in
THE BROTHERS, that model of English pastoral, which I never yet read
with unclouded eye.–“James, pointing to its summit, over which they
had all purposed to return together, informed them that he would wait
for them there. They parted, and his comrades passed that way some two
hours after, but they did not find him at the appointed place, _a
circumstance of which they took no heed:_ but one of them, going by
chance into the house, which at this time was James’s house, learnt
_there,_ that nobody had seen him all that day.” The only change which
has been made is in the position of the little word there in two
instances, the position in the original being clearly such as is not
adopted in ordinary conversation. The other words printed in italics
were so marked because, though good and genuine English, they are not
the phraseology of common conversation either in the word put in
apposition, or in the connection by the genitive pronoun. Men in
general would have said, “but that was a circumstance they paid no
attention to, or took no notice of;” and the language is, on the
theory of the preface, justified only by the narrator’s being the
Vicar. Yet if any ear could suspect, that these sentences were ever
printed as metre, on those very words alone could the suspicion have
been grounded.