Samuel Taylor
Coleridge

Biographia
Literaria
by
Samuel
Taylor
Coleridge

Chapter XIX [of
XXII]                                                     [To
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click here.]



Continuation–Concerning the real object which, it is probable, Mr.
Wordsworth
had before him in his critical preface–Elucidation and
application of this.

It might appear from some passages in the former part of Mr.
Wordsworth's preface, that he meant to confine his theory of style,
and the necessity of a close accordance with the actual language of
men, to those particular subjects from low and rustic life, which by
way of experiment he had purposed to naturalize as a new species in
our English poetry. But from the train of argument that follows; from
the reference to Milton; and from the spirit of his critique on Gray's
sonnet; those sentences appear to have been rather courtesies of
modesty, than actual limitations of his system. Yet so groundless does
this system appear on a close examination; and so strange and
overwhelming [70] in its consequences, that I cannot, and I do not,
believe that the poet did ever himself adopt it in the unqualified
sense, in which his expressions have been understood by others, and
which, indeed, according to all the common laws of interpretation they
seem to bear. What then did he mean? I apprehend, that in the clear
perception, not unaccompanied with disgust or contempt, of the gaudy
affectations of a style which passed current with too many for poetic
diction, (though in truth it had as little pretensions to poetry, as
to logic or common sense,) he narrowed his view for the time; and
feeling a justifiable preference for the language of nature and of
good sense, even in its humblest and least ornamented forms, he
suffered himself to express, in terms at once too large and too
exclusive, his predilection for a style the most remote possible from
the false and showy splendour which he wished to explode. It is
possible, that this predilection, at first merely comparative,
deviated for a time into direct partiality. But the real object which
he had in view, was, I doubt not, a species of excellence which had
been long before most happily characterized by the judicious and
amiable Garve, whose works are so justly beloved and esteemed by the
Germans, in his remarks on Gellert, from which the following is
literally translated. "The talent, that is required in order to make,
excellent verses, is perhaps greater than the philosopher is ready to
admit, or would find it in his power to acquire: the talent to seek
only the apt expression of the thought, and yet to find at the same
time with it the rhyme and the metre. Gellert possessed this happy
gift, if ever any one of our poets possessed it; and nothing perhaps
contributed more to the great and universal impression which his
fables made on their first publication, or conduces more to their
continued popularity. It was a strange and curious phaenomenon, and
such as in Germany had been previously unheard of, to read verses in
which everything was expressed just as one would wish to talk, and yet
all dignified, attractive, and interesting; and all at the same time
perfectly correct as to the measure of the syllables and the rhyme. It
is certain, that poetry when it has attained this excellence makes a
far greater impression than prose. So much so indeed, that even the
gratification which the very rhymes afford, becomes then no longer a
contemptible or trifling gratification." [71]

However novel this phaenomenon may have been in Germany at the time of
Gellert, it is by no means new, nor yet of recent existence in our
language. Spite of the licentiousness with which Spenser occasionally
compels the orthography of his words into a subservience to his
rhymes, the whole FAIRY QUEEN is an almost continued instance of this
beauty. Waller's song GO, LOVELY ROSE, is doubtless familiar to most
of my readers; but if I had happened to have had by me the Poems of
Cotton, more but far less deservedly celebrated as the author of the
VIRGIL TRAVESTIED, I should have indulged myself, and I think have
gratified many, who are not acquainted with his serious works, by
selecting some admirable specimens of this style. There are not a few
poems in that volume, replete with every excellence of thought, image,
and passion, which we expect or desire in the poetry of the milder
muse; and yet so worded, that the reader sees no one reason either in
the selection or the order of the words, why he might not have said
the very same in an appropriate conversation, and cannot conceive how
indeed he could have expressed such thoughts otherwise without loss or
injury to his meaning.

But in truth our language is, and from the first dawn of poetry ever
has been, particularly rich in compositions distinguished by this
excellence. The final e, which is now mute, in Chaucer's age was
either sounded or dropt indifferently. We ourselves still use either
"beloved" or "belov'd" according as the rhyme, or measure, or the
purpose of more or less solemnity may require. Let the reader then
only adopt the pronunciation of the poet and of the court, at which he
lived, both with respect to the final e and to the accentuation of the
last syllable; I would then venture to ask, what even in the
colloquial language of elegant and unaffected women, (who are the
peculiar mistresses of "pure English and undefiled,") what could we
hear more natural, or seemingly more unstudied, than the following
stanzas from Chaucer's TROILUS AND CRESEIDE.

"And after this forth to the gate he wente,
Ther as Creseide out rode a ful gode pass,
And up and doun there made he many' a wente,
And to himselfe ful oft he said, Alas!
Fro hennis rode my blisse and my solas
As woulde blisful God now for his joie,
I might her sene agen come in to Troie!
And to the yondir hil I gan her Bide,
Alas! and there I toke of her my leve
And yond I saw her to her fathir ride;
For sorow of whiche mine hert shall to-cleve;
And hithir home I came whan it was eve,
And here I dwel, out-cast from ally joie,
And steal, til I maie sene her efte in Troie.
"And of himselfe imaginid he ofte
To ben defaitid, pale and woxin lesse
Than he was wonte, and that men saidin softe,
What may it be? who can the sothe gesse,
Why Troilus hath al this hevinesse?
And al this n' as but his melancolie,
That he had of himselfe suche fantasie.
Anothir time imaginin he would
That every wight, that past him by the wey,
Had of him routhe, and that thei saien should,
I am right sory, Troilus wol dey!
And thus he drove a daie yet forth or twey,
As ye have herde: suche life gan he to lede
As he that stode betwixin hope and drede:
For which him likid in his songis shewe
Th' encheson of his wo as he best might,
And made a songe of words but a fewe,
Somwhat his woful herte for to light,
And whan he was from every mann'is sight
With softe voice he of his lady dere,
That absent was, gan sing as ye may here:

* * * * * *

This song, when he thus songin had, ful Bone
He fil agen into his sighis olde
And every night, as was his wonte to done;
He stode the bright moone to beholde
And all his sorowe to the moone he tolde,
And said: I wis, whan thou art hornid newe,
I shall be glad, if al the world be trewe!"

Another exquisite master of this species of style, where the scholar
and the poet supplies the material, but the perfect well-bred
gentleman the expressions and the arrangement, is George Herbert. As
from the nature of the subject, and the too frequent quaintness of the
thoughts, his TEMPLE; or SACRED POEMS AND PRIVAT E EJACULATIONS are
Comparatively but little known, I shall extract two poems. The first
is a sonnet, equally admirable for the weight, number, and expression
of the thoughts, and for the simple dignity of the language. Unless,
indeed, a fastidious taste should object to the latter half of the
sixth line. The second is a poem of greater length, which I have
chosen not only for the present purpose, but likewise as a striking
example and illustration of an assertion hazarded in a former page of
these sketches namely, that the characteristic fault of our elder
poets is the reverse of that, which distinguishes too many of our more
recent versifiers; the one conveying the most fantastic thoughts in
the most correct and natural language; the other in the most fantastic
language conveying the most trivial thoughts. The latter is a riddle
of words; the former an enigma of thoughts. The one reminds me of an
odd passage in Drayton's IDEAS

As other men, so I myself do muse,
Why in this sort I wrest invention so;
And why these giddy metaphors I use,
Leaving the path the greater part do go;
I will resolve you: I am lunatic! [72]

The other recalls a still odder passage in THE SYNAGOGUE: or THE
SHADOW OF THE TEMPLE, a connected series of poems in imitation of
Herbert's TEMPLE, and, in some editions, annexed to it.

O how my mind
Is gravell'd!
Not a thought,
That I can find,
But's ravell'd
All to nought!
Short ends of threds,
And narrow shreds
Of lists,
Knots, snarled ruffs,
Loose broken tufts
Of twists,
Are my torn meditations ragged clothing,
Which, wound and woven, shape a suit for nothing:
One while I think, and then I am in pain
To think how to unthink that thought again.

Immediately after these burlesque passages I cannot proceed to the
extracts promised, without changing the ludicrous tone of feeling by
the interposition of the three following stanzas of Herbert's.


VIRTUE.

Sweet day, so cool, so calm, so bright,
The bridal of the earth and sky,
The dew shall weep thy fall to-night;
For thou must die.

Sweet rose, whose hue angry and brave
Bids the rash gazer wipe his eye
Thy root is ever in its grave,
And thou must die.

Sweet spring, full of sweet days and roses,
A box, where sweets compacted lie
My music shews, ye have your closes,
And all must die.


THE BOSOM SIN:
A SONNET BY GEORGE HERBERT.

Lord, with what care hast thou begirt us round,
Parents first season us; then schoolmasters
Deliver us to laws; they send us bound
To rules of reason, holy messengers,
Pulpits and Sundays, sorrow dogging sin,
Afflictions sorted, anguish of all sizes,
Fine nets and stratagems to catch us in,
Bibles laid open, millions of surprises;
Blessings beforehand, ties of gratefulness,
The sound of Glory ringing in our ears
Without, our shame; within, our consciences;
Angels and grace, eternal hopes and fears.
Yet all these fences and their whole array
One cunning bosom-sin blows quite away.


LOVE UNKNOWN.

Dear friend, sit down, the tale is long and sad
And in my faintings, I presume, your love
Will more comply than help. A Lord I had,
And have, of whom some grounds, which may improve,
I hold for two lives, and both lives in me.
To him I brought a dish of fruit one day,
And in the middle placed my heart. But he
(I sigh to say)
Look'd on a servant, who did know his eye,
Better than you know me, or (which is one)
Than I myself. The servant instantly,
Quitting the fruit, seiz'd on my heart alone,
And threw it in a font, wherein did fall
A stream of blood, which issued from the side
Of a great rock: I well remember all,
And have good cause: there it was dipt and dyed,
And wash'd, and wrung: the very wringing yet
Enforceth tears. "Your heart was foul, I fear."
Indeed 'tis true. I did and do commit
Many a fault, more than my lease will bear;
Yet still ask'd pardon, and was not denied.
But you shall hear. After my heart was well,
And clean and fair, as I one eventide
(I sigh to tell)
Walk'd by myself abroad, I saw a large
And spacious furnace flaming, and thereon
A boiling caldron, round about whose verge
Was in great letters set AFFLICTION.
The greatness shew'd the owner. So I went
To fetch a sacrifice out of my fold,
Thinking with that, which I did thus present,
To warm his love, which, I did fear, grew cold.
But as my heart did tender it, the man
Who was to take it from me, slipt his hand,
And threw my heart into the scalding pan;
My heart that brought it (do you understand?)
The offerer's heart. "Your heart was hard, I fear."
Indeed 'tis true. I found a callous matter
Began to spread and to expatiate there:
But with a richer drug than scalding water
I bath'd it often, ev'n with holy blood,
Which at a board, while many drank bare wine,
A friend did steal into my cup for good,
Ev'n taken inwardly, and most divine
To supple hardnesses. But at the length
Out of the caldron getting, soon I fled
Unto my house, where to repair the strength
Which I had lost, I hasted to my bed:
But when I thought to sleep out all these faults,
(I sigh to speak)
I found that some had stuff'd the bed with thoughts,
I would say thorns. Dear, could my heart not break,
When with my pleasures ev'n my rest was gone?
Full well I understood who had been there:
For I had given the key to none but one:
It must be he. "Your heart was dull, I fear."
Indeed a slack and sleepy state of mind
Did oft possess me; so that when I pray'd,
Though my lips went, my heart did stay behind.
But all my scores were by another paid,
Who took my guilt upon him. "Truly, Friend,
"For aught I hear, your Master shews to you
"More favour than you wot of. Mark the end.
"The font did only what was old renew
"The caldron suppled what was grown too hard:
"The thorns did quicken what was grown too dull:
"All did but strive to mend what you had marr'd.
"Wherefore be cheer'd, and praise him to the full
"Each day, each hour, each moment of the week
"Who fain would have you be new, tender quick."

[Here ends chapter 19.  To read other chapters of
Biographia Literaria, click here.]

* * *


FOOTNOTES 
[by Samuel Taylor Coleridge]

[70] 
I had in my mind the striking but untranslatable epithet, which
the celebrated Mendelssohn applied to the great founder of the
Critical Philosophy “Der alleszermalmende KANT,” that is, the all-
becrushing, or rather the all-to-nothing-crushing Kant. In the
facility and force of compound epithets, the German from the number of
its cases and inflections approaches to the Greek, that language so
“Bless’d in the happy marriage of sweet words.”
It is in the woful harshness of its sounds alone that the German need
shrink from the comparison.

[71] Sammlung einiger Abhandlungen von Christian Garve.

[72] Sonnet IX.