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“There Was a Split,” Quoth He: Equality and Unity in Biographia Literaria

“There Was a Split,” Quoth He: Equality and Unity in Biographia Literaria

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Published by sethreid42
December 2012
December 2012

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Published by: sethreid42 on Jun 22, 2013
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Seth Reid 1
“There Was a Split,” Quoth He: Equality and Unity in
 Biographia Literaria
Either explicitly or implicitly, both Coleridge and Wordsworth‟s prose attempts at
outlining their standards for good literature often reveal just as much about their standards for good government.
Reading Wordsworth‟s and Coleridge‟s seminal works of literary criticism,
the preface to the second edition of 
 Lyrical Ballads
 Biographia Literaria
respectively, asdiscourses on the politics of the time has helped fashion an image of Coleridge as a conservativethinker, as he uses several of the latter chapters of the
to distance himself from
Wordsworth‟s stated purpose of using “humble and rustic life” as a subject to speak a “plainer and more emphatic language” (
 Lyrical Ballads
, 48). This apparent backpedaling from
Coleridge‟s earlier support
Wordsworth‟s project of extending literature to lower classes has
allowed critics like Michael Tomko to question the
literary philosophy as areactionary attempt
to relieve Coleridge‟s “
anxiety over his own past and politics
” (
Politics,Performance, and Coleridge's "Suspension of Disbelief," 1). However, this approach ignores
Coleridge‟s concern
 Biographia Literaria
Wordsworth‟s estimation of “the language
real life,”
which points out the divisive wedge that Wordsworth drives between the feelings of the rural class specifically and
“the feelings of human nature in general” (
 Biographia Literaria
Building on Coleridge‟s history of using literature to promote unity among social classes, Iintend to support a more egalitarian reading of Coleridge‟s approach to literature. Specifically, Iwill argue that Coleridge‟s split with Wordsworth represents h
is radical view of the inherentworth of every social class in finding the basis of truth in literature and philosophy.
In order to understand Coleridge‟s split from Wordsworth, we must understand the ways
in which the preface to
 Lyrical Ballads
presents a political ideology through its discussion of 
Wordsworth‟s purpose
in the collection of poetry. Indeed, Wordsworth makes this connection
Seth Reid 2 between the goals of literature and the goals of politics early in the preface. Wordsworth explainsthat his
 preface is not a “systematic defense” of his literary theory because such a task wouldrequire “
 pointing out, in what manner language and the human mind act and re-act on eachother 
retracing the revolutions, not of literature alone, but likewise o
society itself” (47).
Such a task, he claims, would take a length of paper unsuited to a preface, but even in thisdismissal of justifying his purpose, the proximity of literary taste to revolution reveals
Wordsworth‟s belief that “language and the human mind” are inextricably linked to theformation of “society itself.”
And this is not, according to Wordsworth, a simple relationship between l
iterature and society: because they “act and react on each other,” the form of each is
always dependent on the other. Here Wordsworth gives consequence to his literary theory, whichhe goes on to explicate, by saying that it is necessarily the same as his theory of the way societyought to look.
By looking at the preface as Wordsworth‟s
 political tract, we gain a new understanding of his assessment of the role of lower, rural classes in poetry and of the grounds on which Coleridgemight oppose this assessment. Considering that Wordsworth views the structure of literature asvitally affecting the structure of society, his literary proposal is telling of his political ideals.
Wordsworth explains that “t
he principal object
” of his collection is to use
“language really used by men” and that he favors “l
ow and rustic life
” as a subject because
in that condition, theessential passions of the heart find a better soil in which
they can attain their maturity…
and,consequently, may be more accurately contemplated,
and more forcibly communicated…” (48).
 Not only does Wordsworth bring the lower classes to the foreground of his literary experiment,he also implies that due to their station in society, they are a superior literary subject to any other 
classification of person. Additionally, by referring to their language as the kind “really used by
Seth Reid 3men
Wordsworth includes this class as an exemplary part of society as a whole. In doing this,Wordsworth extends political importance to the lower classes by extending them literaryimportance. This attempt at a more democratic society through poetry focused on a
disenfranchised class exemplifies Wordsworth‟s earlier connection between politics and
literature, and it reveals his radical stance towards the rigidly class-based politics of his time.
Because this passage so neatly confesses Wordsworth‟s radical views, Coleridge‟s
opposition to the same passage in chapter XVII of 
 Biographia Literaria
tends to paint him in aconservative light. In fact his disapproval of the wide diffusion of literary criticism seems to be
an exact opposite to Wordsworth‟s inclusive approach to poetry
. Coleridge explains that when
Wordsworth‟s theory is adopted by the public,
“it i
s possible, that with [
] principles others may have been blended, which are not equally evident; and others which are
unsteady or subvertible from the narrowness or imperfection of their basis” (334).
In thiscriticism, Coleridge does not attac
k Wordsworth‟s theory itself, but his focus is on the negative
effect on literary theory as a whole that he believes results from including the public in the
academic reading of literature. If we take Coleridge‟s literary concerns to be reflective of 
 political concerns, as they are in Wordsworth, then this objection can be read as a conservativeColeridge warning against the masses and their ability to dilute a school of thought that is better inhabited by a more exclusive class of thinker.Indeed, Michael Tomko takes on this conservative reading of Coleridge and uses it to
suggest that any practical application of Coleridge‟s literary theory in
 Biographia Literaria
stunted by this clear political agenda. By way of example, Tomko points to the play “Bertram,”
which Coleridge reviewed upon its release and comments on in chapter XXIII. Tomko argues
that Coleridge‟s comments, despite attempting to establish an object
ive literary approach to

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