Wordsworth and Coleridge:
Emotion, Imagination and Complexity


The 19th century was heralded by a major shift in the conception and emphasis of literary art and, specifically, poetry. During the 18th century the catchphrase of literature and art was reason. Logic and rationality took precedence in any form of written expression. Ideas of validity and aesthetic beauty were centered around concepts such as the collective "we" and the eradication of passion in human behavior. In 1798 all of those ideas about literature were challenged by the publication of Lyrical Ballads, which featured the poetry of William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Wordsworth and Coleridge both had strong, and sometimes conflicting, opinions about what constituted well-written poetry. Their ideas were centered around the origins of poetry in the poet and the role of poetry in the world, and these theoretical concepts led to the creation of poetry that is sufficiently complex to support a wide variety of critical readings in a modern context.

Wordsworth wrote a preface to Lyrical Ballads in which he puts forth his ideas about poetry. His conception of poetry hinges on three major premises. Wordsworth asserts that poetry is the language of the common man:

To this knowledge which all men carry about with them, and to these sympathies in which without any other discipline than that of our daily life we are fitted to take delight, the poet principally directs his attention. (149)

Poetry should be understandable to anybody living in the world. Wordsworth eschews the use of lofty, poetic diction, which in his mind is not related to the language of real life. He sees poetry as acting like Nature, which touches all living things and inspires and delights them. Wordsworth calls for poetry to be written in the language of the "common man," and the subjects of the poems should also be accessible to all individuals regardless of class or position. Wordsworth also makes the points that "poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility" (151). These two points form the basis for Wordsworth's explanation of the process of writing poetry. First, some experience triggers a transcendent moment, an instance of the sublime. The senses are overwhelmed by this experience; the "spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings" leaves an individual incapable of articulating the true nature and beauty of the event. It is only when this emotion is "recollected in tranquility" that the poet can assemble words to do the instance justice. It is necessary for the poet to have a certain personal distance from the event or experience being described that he can compose a poem that conveys to the reader the same experience of sublimity. With this distance the poet can reconstruct the "spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings" the experience caused within himself.

Wordsworth's critical ideas are manifested in his writing. He uses the language and subjects of the common man to convey his ideas. As he writes in "The Tables Turned," "One impulse from a vernal wood / May teach you more of man, / Of moral evil and of good, / than all the sages can" (136). These lines show that Wordsworth places little stock in the benefit of education or institutionalized wisdom. He implies that any person with exposure to Nature can learn the secrets of the world, regardless of social or economic considerations. In "I wandered lonely as a cloud," Wordsworth uses the sonnet form to express his ideas about poetry being the spontaneous overflow of emotion recollected in tranquility:

For oft when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils. (187)

This stanza comes after Wordsworth has described experiencing in the natural world the wonderment that the night creates. In the poem he meditates on the stars and the light bouncing off waves on the water. He is unable to truly comprehend the beauty and importance of the experience until he is resting afterward, and he is able to reconstruct the event in his mind. This remembrance brings him a wave of emotion, and it is out of this second flood of feeling that the poem is born. In Wordsworth's poetry, these ebbs of emotion are spurred on by his interaction with Nature. In "Tintern Abbey" he writes that "Nature never did betray / the heart that loved her" (139). Indeed, Wordsworth is continually inspired and led into transcendent moments by his experiences in Nature. These experiences bring to his mind a wide variety of contemplations and considerations that can only be expressed, as he writes in "Expostulation and Reply," in "a wise passiveness" (135).

While Wordsworth's critical ideas obviously worked for his poetry, Coleridge differed in his take on the art. Coleridge did not agree that poetry is the language of the common man. He thought that lowering diction and content simply made it so that the poet had a smaller vocabulary of both words and concepts to draw from. Coleridge focused mainly on imagination as the key to poetry. He divided imagination into two main components: primary and secondary imagination. In Biographia Literaria, one of his significant theoretical works, he writes:

The primary imagination I hold to be the living power and prime agent of all human perception, and as a repetition in the finite of the eternal act of creation of the infinite I AM. The secondary I consider as an echo of the former, coexisting with the conscious will, yet still identical with the primary in the kind of its agency, and differing only in degree, and in the mode of its operation. (387)

It is the imagination involved in the poetry that produces a higher quality verse. The primary imagination is a spontaneous creation of new ideas, and they are expressed perfectly. The secondary imagination is mitigated by the conscious act of imagination; therefore, it is hindered by not only imperfect creation, but also by imperfect expression. To further subdivide the act of imagination, Coleridge introduces his concept of fancy. Fancy is the lowest form of imagination because it "has no other counters to play with but fixities and definites" (387). With fancy there is no creation involved; it is simply a reconfiguration of existing ideas. Rather than composing a completely original concept or description, the fanciful poet simply reorders concepts, putting them in a new and, possibly, fresh relationship to each other. Coleridge also writes that poetry "reveals itself in the balance or reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities" (391). Through juxtaposition ideas, concepts, and descriptions are made clear. The more imaginative the juxtaposition is, the more exciting the poem becomes.

As with Wordsworth, Coleridge also combines his theoretical ideas in his poetry. He abandons Wordsworth's notion of poetry for the common man, and uses lofty language, poetic diction, and subject matter that is specialized. While he still holds a reverence for Nature inherent to romantic literature, his poems are not exclusively based around the natural. He makes use of primary imagination in his work, because it is the kind of imagination he values most, and avoids secondary imagination or fancy as much as possible. "Kubla Kahn" illustrates his use of primary imagination:

In Xanadu did Kubla Kahn
A stately pleasure dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea. (347)

The poem is the manifestation of a drug-induced vision. The lines have come to Coleridge unbidden, and represents the creation of a previously nonexistent setting. He creates these instances throughout the poem. Especially notable is the vision he describes in the last stanza, "A damsel with a dulcimer / In a vision I once saw: / It was an Abyssinian maid, / And on her dulcimer she played" (348). Both of these segments create entirely new scenes in the reader's mind. Coleridge also uses highly imaginative images to create juxtaposition in the poem. He writes, "A sunny pleasure dome with caves of ice!" (348), and uses this image twice in the poem. The "reconciliation of opposites" manifests itself in lines such as these. The adjective "sunny" implies warmth, while "ice" is cold. Together they hint at a darker side to the surfacially idyllic pleasure dome. The simple fact that it is Kubla Kahn's pleasure dome is a juxtaposition as well. The leader of the Mongols is not colloquially thought of as a kind or benevolent man. This discordance, too, hints at the underlying darkness of the poem, thereby exposing a truth that all is not perfect in neither the pleasure dome nor Coleridge's hallucination.

Coleridge and Wordsworth valued artful poetry. Although they had some different theoretical opinions, both of them succeeded at making poetry that is complex and dense enough to withstand two centuries of analysis, and modern critical practice has not yet fully distilled the potential meaning to be found in their work. It is easy to see how their work places them firmly in the realm of the Romantics, but it is quite difficult to come up with a single form of modern criticism that can fully deal with these two poets. Mimetic forms of criticism, including contemporary Platonists and Aristotelians, could offer observations about how the poetry of Wordsworth seeks to imitate Nature and the effects of Nature on the individual. He works to reconstruct an experience for the reader. Likewise, these same critics could say that Coleridge's imitation of human beings in poems like "Christabel" and "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" teaches us something about human nature and behavior. Unfortunately, purely mimetic criticism would miss much of the rhetorical devices and aesthetic qualities embedded in the work. Pragmatic forms of criticism, which focus on the rhetorical purpose of the author, could offer insight as to how the poetry of Coleridge and Wordsworth seek to instruct the reader, and could also elucidate the rhetorical structure of their works. Both of the poets seek to reinforce the individual, the glory and value of Nature, and induce revelations in their readers. Also, as with all of the Romantics, Coleridge and Wordsworth are constantly seeking the sublime. This period follows the rediscovery of Longinus' ideas about the sublime, which describe how rhetorical structure is used to gain the same feeling of transcendence as Nature promotes. The work of Coleridge and Wordsworth is also rhetorically constructed to express their critical theories, which a pragmatic reading of the text would pick up. The expressive forms of criticism could offer valuable insights into the poems of Coleridge and Wordsworth by focusing on the texts as products of the poets. Certainly forms of psychoanalytical criticism would have much to say about Wordsworth's constant overflow of emotion and Coleridge's chemically altered imagination. Objective critics like the New Critics and formalists could shed light on the synergy created by the interaction of the various parts of Coleridge and Wordsworth's poems. In Biographia Literaria, Coleridge wrote that a poem must be a cohesive unit, with every part working together to build into a whole (390). Both poets pay close attention to form and diction in their work, and create poems that are independent units of thought. Especially the work of Wordsworth seems to precipitate Marxist criticism, which could provide insight about the elements of class in his poems, and could also discuss the connection between form and content in the poetry. Postmodern critics would especially enjoy looking at the fierce individuality of Coleridge and Wordsworth, who each create their own micronarrative of the world while rejecting the metanarratives of their time.

The complexity of Wordsworth and Coleridge's theoretical ideas leads to the complexity of their poetry. It is impossible to name one form of criticism that could sum them up entirely, because ultimately they are working with a large number of weighty concepts. This is why their poetry is still read and analyzed. Since Aristotle claimed in his Poetics that the complexity of a work is directly proportional to the greatness of the work, we have sought out literature that withstands multiple intense readings. Because we can look at the poems of Coleridge and Wordsworth in a large variety of ways, we are constantly finding new meaning, which gives the poetry a re-readability not found in lesser work. Re-readability is the hallmark of good literature and of the sublime. Coleridge and Wordsworth knew this, and they wrote toward that goal.



Works Consulted


Abrams, M.H. A Glossary of Literary Terms. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1993.

Aristotle. "Poetics." Trans. S. H. Butcher. Critical Theory Since Plato. Ed. Hazard Adams. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich College Publishers, 1992. 50-66.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. "Christabel." The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. M. H. Abrams. Vol. 2. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. 349-364.

---. "From Biographia Literaria." The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. M. H. Abrams. Vol. 2. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. 378-395.

---. "Kubla Kahn: Or, A Vision in a Dream. A Fragment." The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. M. H. Abrams. Vol. 2. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. 346-349.

---. "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner." The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. M. H. Abrams. Vol. 2. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. 330-346.

Longinus. "On the Sublime." Trans. W. R. Roberts. Critical Theory Since Plato. Ed. Hazard Adams. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich College Publishers, 1992. 76-98.

Wordsworth, William. "Expostulation and Reply." The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. M. H. Abrams. Vol. 2. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. 134-135.

---. "I wandered lonely as a cloud." The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. M. H. Abrams. Vol. 2. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. 186-187.

---. "Lines…Tintern Abbey." The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. M. H. Abrams. Vol. 2. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. 136-140.

---. "From Preface to Lyrical Ballads." The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. M. H. Abrams. Vol. 2. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. 141-152.





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