The Biographia Literaria as Conversation Poem:

The Poetry of Coleridge’s Prose


J. Robert Barth, S.J.


(Coleridge Bulletin, New Series 16, Winter 2000, pp 1-5)




The philosopher Dorothy Emmet wrote eloquently of Coleridge some years ago: “[Coleridge’s] moral faith was in the unity of our will with the divine power.  His imaginative faith was in the continuity of our own creative powers with the unconscious processes of growth in nature.  His metaphysics was an attempt to hold these two faiths together, not so much by clear abstract argument as by claims to insight in experiences where the inner and outer worlds met in symbolizing vision” (“Coleridge and Philosophy,” p. 220).[1]

       What I am going to suggest is that this “symbolizing vision,” the experience of a meeting of “the inner and outer worlds,” is expressed not only in Coleridge’s poetry but even in what is often thought to be the most speculative of his prose.  I want to argue, broadly and quite tentatively, that very often Coleridge’s philosophical prose is much less speculation about his experience—whether of poetry or nature or God or life itself—than an expression of the experience itself, and that it is often almost as much poetry as it is prose.

There are many ways of approaching the Biographia Literaria, of course.  The road perhaps most often taken leads to the conclusion that it is a rag-bag masterpiece of jewels and trash, thrown together without form and without dynamic movement, which we revere for its moments of brilliance.  Others have seen it as essentially a unified work, built upon the dialectic of Coleridge’s intellectual life; Catherine Miles Wallace’s fine study The Design of Biographia Literaria, for example, comes at once to mind. 

However, I suggest still another approach to the Biographia which may reveal yet more of its secret. This view, like that of Wallace and others, begins with the assumption that it is a coherent work.  First of all, the two volumes of the Biographia are parallel attempts to answer the questions, “What was wrong with the poetry of the 18th century?” and “How do we proceed with poetry today?”  Early in each volume Coleridge turns to the poetry of the ages past, to judge it severely: in Chapter I, in his “Comparison between the Poets before and since Mr. Pope,” and in Chapter XVI, in his “Striking points of difference between the Poets of the present age and those of the 15th and 16th centuries” (BL I 5; II 29).  It is the first which leads him directly to the burden of the first volume, the history of his own development toward the realization of the unity of the human faculties; the second to the central issue of the second volume, the reason for the superiority of Wordsworth’s genius. 

However, there may be an even deeper kind of unity in the Biographia




Literaria—the kind of unity I can most nearly describe by analogy with the “Conversation Poems.”  The thought arose in the course of pondering one particular passage of the Biographia, the well known passage in volume II on “the poet, described in ideal perfection” (II 15-16).  It seemed significant that it really was a description, not a definition—that neither poetry nor the poet could really be defined.  But then, as I read and re-read the passage—with its dynamic words like soul, diffuse, activity, harmonize—and phrases like “blends, and (as it were) fuses, each into each, by that synthetic and magical power, to which we have exclusively appropriated the name of imagination”—it occurred to me that this was more than a description of the experience of the poet, that it was, with its balancing of qualities—will and understanding, idea and image, freshness and familiarity, emotion and order, judgement and enthusiasm, art and nature—almost an evocation of the poetic process itself.  It was almost itself a poem.  This in turn suggested that the whole Biographia itself—though in many ways not “poetic”—might share in some of the characteristics of Coleridge’s poetry.

The nearest analogy for this view of the Biographia as a whole may be the Conversation Poem.  We all know the familiar paradigm. The typical Coleridgean Conversation Poem begins with the poet’s self, at a moment in time.  He soon begins to move outward, beyond himself to the world around him.  He encounters that world and finds it in some deep way at one with himself; he finds that there is “one Life within us and abroad.”  This discovery is typically conveyed in a series of organic images of life and energy: the lime-tree bower, the heath, the hill-top edge, the roaring dell, the waterfall, the long lank weeds that “nod and drip beneath the dripping edge of the blue clay-stone,” the sun and the clouds and the blue ocean.  He returns to himself, but now enlarged in experience and in sympathy, often now able to bless the world or someone he loves, and so find peace.  The poem as a whole is, then, the record of an imaginative process.

 The Biographia Literaria shares in something of the same movement.  It begins with the self, as the poet sees his earliest years, under the tutelage of the devoted Mr. Bowyer and the inspiration of the excellent Mr. Bowles.  It soon begins to range more widely, with the broadening of experience, to other poets and other teachers.  Instead of the heath, the waterfall and the golden sunset, his teachers are Aristotle, Hartley, Spinoza and Leibniz, Kant and Fichte and Schelling.  However, the locus of the experience is essentially the same: the mind and imagination of the philosopher-poet.  The lesson is the same as well: “the one Life within us and abroad.”  Occasionally even the mediating images are the same—organic images of life and growth.  “My natural faculties were allowed to expand,” he says, “ and my natural tendencies to develope themselves: my fancy, and the love of nature, and the sense of beauty in forms and sounds” (I 17).  About Wordsworth’s 1815 Preface he says: “My friend has drawn a masterly sketch of the branches with their poetic fruitage.  I wish to add the trunk, and even the roots as far as they lift themselves above ground, and are visible to the naked eye of our common




consciousness” (I 88).  And of the “philosophic imagination” he writes: “They and they only can acquire the philosophic imagination, the sacred power of self-intuition, who within themselves can interpret and understand the symbol, that the wings of the air-sylph are forming within the skin of the caterpillar; those only, who feel in their own spirits the same instinct, which impels the chrysalis of the horned fly to leave room in its involucrum for antennae yet to come.  They know and feel, that the potential works in them, even as the actual works on them!” (I 241-242).  Or again, of Wordsworth’s “Immortality Ode”:  it “was intended for such readers only as had been accustomed to watch the flux and reflux of their inmost nature, to venture at times into the twilight realms of consciousness, and to feel a deep interest in modes of inmost being, to which they know that the attributes of time and space are inapplicable and alien, but which yet can not be conveyed, save in symbols of time and space” (II 147).

However, I do not mean to make too much of specific uses of organic imagery in the Biographia.  What is more important is that an organic symbol is implicit throughout, only occasionally becoming explicit in a word or phrase about fusing or growth or process.  The development of this “literary life” is very much like the development of a Conversation Poem: it records a process of growth, and in the unfolding of the process we may ourselves be drawn into the experience.  This is so because we ourselves remain—for all the wandering—within the field of force of a strong mind, which has power to draw us back to itself.  The organic symbol implicit throughout is that of a single life, the life of the poet’s mind, which is ultimately one with the vast intellectual world through which, by fits and starts, we move with him.  It is “the one Life within us and abroad”–the same foundation as that of his properly poetic vision.

Like a typical Conversation Poem, too, the “return” of the Biographia Literaria is finally a blessing.  It is of course the blessing of his better—il miglior fabbro—Wordsworth, whose “fame belongs to another age” (II 158).  And through this blessing he finds, at least for the moment, a kind of peace.  “Were the collection of poems published with these biographical sketches, important enough, (which I am not vain enough to believe) to deserve such a distinction: EVEN AS I HAVE DONE, SO WOULD I BE DONE UNTO” (II 159).  And in the end he “presents himself to the Reader” as he was “in the first dawn” of his literary life:


When Hope grew round me, like the climbing vine,

And fruits and foliage not my own seem’d mine!


So ends the Biographia Literaria before the addition of “Satyrane’s Leters.”  But even if one were to include this additional strange “going out,” there is again the return—the final blessing a doxology to God, with the poet’s hope of preserving his Soul “steady and collected in its pure Act of inward Adoration to the great I AM, and to the filial WORD that re-affirmeth it from




Eternity to Eternity, whose choral Echo is the Universe” (II 247-248).

What can we conclude from all this?  Perhaps just that there may be a somewhat new way of reading an old book.  Perhaps that—for all the vagaries of this eternally exasperating work—it holds us, as does one of Coleridge’s Conversation Poems, within the mind of the poet, while he reaches out to draw into himself the life around him.  Perhaps it suggests that the ultimate unity of the Biographia may be not so much structural (though I have suggested that there is in fact an often neglected structural unity) or thematic (though this too is surely part of its unity), as psychological. Perhaps it suggests that the deepest unity of the Biographia Literaria is what Coleridge himself intended it to be, the story of one life—the one Life within him and abroad.

And perhaps too this view should send us back to Coleridge’s other prose with a new eye—to the Statesman’s Manual, Aids to Reflection, the Treatise on Method—not allowing ourselves to be so bemused by his speculation that we forget the poetry of his prose.  For he is often doing what he does in the Biographia: not merely speculating about an experience—though speculate he does, God knows!—but leading us into the experience of growth itself, “not so much,” as Dorothy Emmet says, “by clear abstract argument as by claims to insight in experiences where the inner and outer worlds meet in symbolizing vision.”

Clearly, this view of the Biographia is only one possible model, perhaps one of many.  It remains only one way of reading a very complex work.  It may be that the model of the Romantic epic would be at least equally enlightening, for it would also take into account the massive character of the work.  The Biographia Literaria is, after all, Coleridge’s Prelude.  And yet isn’t The Prelude —that record of “the growth of a poet’s mind”—itself a massive Conversation Poem?  Isn’t there necessarily, because of the Romantic centrality of the self—the shift of emphasis from external epic action to the inner life—necessarily a coming together of lyric with epic, of the intimacy of the Conversation Poem with the sweep and range of the epic vision?  That may be matter for yet another reading of Coleridge’s exasperating and beguiling “Literary Life.”

[1] Dorothy Emmet, “Coleridge and Philosophy,” in S.T. Coleridge, ed. R.L. Brett (1972), pp. 195-220