Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Readings — Biographia Literaria

Biographia Literaria
by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

I’d read parts of the Biographia in a class on English Romanticism, so I was used to thinking about it as a text of literary criticism. Which it is, but in a roundabout way. The heart of the book seems to lie with philosophy, specifically Coleridge’s take on contemporary German philosophy. The question of plagiarism has swirled about this part of his writing for almost two centuries; I don’t have an opinion on that one way or the other, not knowing enough about the originals, but it does seem to me that the style and approach of the work shift substantially when Coleridge enters into a relatively technical exposition of these ideas.

That said, in general the book is a strange mishmash of things — philosophy, criticism, biography, anecdote, republished letters from years before — so a shift in style here or there is not uncharacteristic. In fact, there’s at least one part of the book which Coleridge claimed he chose not to publish, but which may in fact never have been written. It’s all very peculiar, but not, I found, peculiar enough to be consistently interesting.

I’d say further that when reading the Biographia, there’s a curiously orthodox sense to much of it, especially the philosophy, which seems to rest uneasily with the Christian belief Coleridge felt was important. I don’t mean that Coleridge was Blake’s Milton, in chains when writing of heaven; but to me there’s an almost domestic, traditional tone in his writing when he discuss his religious views, something that’s notably absent not only in the most vivid parts of this book, but in all of his greatest poetry. Coleridge at his best was one of the pre-eminent poets of the strange, and at its best this book touches that strangeness. Just not very often.

As I understand it, the book was patched together for the sake of having something to publish, and reads like it. That doesn’t mean it’s terrible, nor does it make it not worth reading; Coleridge is certainly enough of a writer, and enough of a thinker, that it at least repays the reader’s time and then some. But it does have, to me, the feel of a missed opportunity, of something less than it could have been. Which, I suppose, is something that many people feel about Coleridge in general — that his genius never quite found its fullest expression.

No comments: