Coherence in 'Biographia Literaria': God, Self, and Coleridge's "Seminal Principle."

By Wilson, Paul Scott | Philological Quarterly, Fall 1993 | Go to article overview

Coherence in 'Biographia Literaria': God, Self, and Coleridge's "Seminal Principle."


Wilson, Paul Scott, Philological Quarterly


Coleridge's brief discussion of imagination (primary and secondary) and fancy in Chapter 13 of Biographia Literaria has been called, "perhaps the most famous single prose passage in all of English literature, yet ... also one of the most baffling."(1) The publication of the latest edition of Biographia a decade ago did not still the debate. Numerous attempts to interpret what Coleridge called his "immethodical ... miscellany"(2) show evidence of reading his poetic language too literally in his argument against literalism. His "seminal principle" of imagination (which many critics have found absent from his thought) is both a metaphysical distinction concerning God and a linguistic principle concerning language and metaphor. Here it will be argued that imagination is in fact the main focus of Coleridge's philosophical argument (in accordance with his claim at the end of Chapter 6); that Chapter 12, which many critics have discarded, is of particular significance; that the "seminal principle" of the imagination-fancy distinction is present in the "balance or reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities;"(3) that this describes not a literal reconciliation but rather a tensive relationship; and that this principle contributes to the solutions of his three major philosophical dilemmas outlined in Volume 1.

Although assessments of his achievement are varied, Coleridge believed he was writing a comprehensive poetic creed. The central aim of Biogtaphia he defined as follows:

. . . it was Mr. Wordsworth's purpose to consider the influences of fancy and imagination as they are manifested in poetry, and from the different effects to conclude their diversity in kind; while it is my object to investigate the seminal principle, and then from the kind to deduce the degree. 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 the ground, and are visible to the naked eve of our common consciousness. (87-88)

This clear statement of intention in Chapter 4 has not seemed to correspond with what was actually achieved in the chapters which followed. Imagination and fancy are mentioned several times, though never defined, until Chapter 13, where they seem to be entirely unsupported, lacking both the trunk and the roots Coleridge promised. To account for this, some critics have pointed to his personal difficulties; others have seen him making false several starts toward defining imagination; others have turned to trace possible influences on his thought; still others have sought some form of unity,(4) while generally concurring with George Whalley's assessment, "The general impression is that the book is incorrigibly diffuse, fragmentary, and obscure."(5)

If the book is considered in the light of its title, only the first thirteen chapters may be said to trace Coleridge's development. As he traces the history of philosophy he is in effect tracing the course he plied through philosophy. Even at this, only Chapters 1 to 11, inclusive, deal with Coleridge's thoughts prior to the time of writing, and Coleridge continually alternates between his former thoughts and his present ones, without at times indicating which is which. The long and difficult Chapter 12, along with Chapter 13 and most of Volume 2, are statements of Coleridge's ideas at the time of writing. Coleridge seems to have written Biographia on the assumption that his conclusions tell as much about the evolution of his ideas as anything else.

THREE PHILOSOPHICAL PROBLEMS

To appreciate the coherence of Biographia, it is important to recognize initially that in the first volume, Coleridge defines in separate places three specific problems with philosophy that he encountered over the years. The first of his problems concerns Hartley's theory of association and is the focus of Chapters 5 to 7 (together with the earlier chapters, these basically take the reader from Coleridge's childhood to 1803). …

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