A portrait of Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834)

Samuel Taylor Coleridge was one of the greatest poets to ever bless the world with his works. Together with his friend Wordsworth, he was a founder of the Romantic movement in England. He was one of the most famous critics of W. Shakespeare of his time, and he is the main culprit of the phrase “suspension of disbelief” which he coined in one the seminal work Biographia Literaria.

S. T. Coleridge – Literary output

Coleridge wrote poems of mystery. Such poems are Kubla Khan (1797), an exotic and mysterious poem, and Christabel (1797) 1st part and (1800) 2nd part, a poem about a creature half snake, half woman existing between worlds.

Also such poem is The Rime of The Ancient Mariner (1798) published in Lyrical ballads together with Wordsworth. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is a long poem that resembles English and Scottish ballads which contain moral in the story with a purpose to teach. It’s filled with supernatural symbols which heavily reflect Coleridge’s suspense of disbelief.

Biographia Literaria is a prose work, an autobiography in disclosure by which Coleridge, alongside Wordsworth, established himself as one of the greatest literary critics of his time. It is his best work, because it is a description of his exceptional spiritual and literary intellect. It consists his understanding for creating poetry, where he introduced his view on imagination and how it affects the creation process of poetry.

Coleridge’s View on Imagination

Coleridge distinguishes between three types of imagination: primary imagination, secondary imagination, and fancy.

Imagination was the key word in poetry of romanticism. It represented the creative power of God, and the poet is the “creator” who uses this malleable imagination to craft poetry. Or, with other works, without imagination, poetry is impossible. Coleridge’s take on imagination is that there are three parts: primary, secondary and fancy, which are all explained in the work Biographia Literaria.

Coleridge’s Primary Imagination

Primary imagination is the living power and prime agency of all human perception, a repetition in a finite mind of the eternal of creation in the infinite I am.

According to Coleridge, the primary imagination in humans is continuation of God’s self-consciousness; that our minds somehow participate in the creative mind of God. It means that our imagination not only comes from a divine source but is essentially one with the divine mind.

Coleridge’s Secondary Imagination

Secondary imagination is considered as an echo to the primary imagination. Coexisting with the conscious will, yet still identical with the primary imagination in the kind of its agency and differing only in degree and in mode of its operation.

The secondary imagination resolves, dissolves in order to recreate or where this process is rendered impossible at all events it struggles to realize and to unify. The secondary imagination is the vital, active imagination that strives to find the spiritual meaning with things.

The Fancy

The Fancy has no other counters to play with but fixities and divinities. Fancy is indeed no other than a mode of memory emancipated from the order of time and space where it is blended with and modified by that empirical phenomenon of the will, which we express by the word “choice”.

Imagination and fancy are not completely separated from one another. According to Coleridge, imagination must have fancy, in fact the highest intellectual powers can only act through a corresponding energy of the lower.

Coleridge’s Poetic Faith and Good Sense

Poetic faith, or Suspension of Disbelief

As Coleridge put it, its function is to stop our disbelief for a moment, to accept the supernatural and to use it but not as a dominant content and to relate it to human situation adding human interest.

Good sense

Good sense is the body of poetic genies; fancy its drapery motion, its life, and imagination the soul that is everywhere and in union and forms all into one graceful and intelligent whole.

Coleridge’s “Esemplastic Imagination”

In Biographia Literaria, Coleridge explains the term esemplastic “to shape into one“. It is important to note that esemplastic was a word borrowed from the Greek “to shape,” and it referred to the imagination’s ability to shape into one. He felt such a term was necessary as “It would confounded with usual import of the word imagination”.

A photo of T. S. Eliot

T. S. Eliot: The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism

T. S. Eliot, alongside Ezra Pound, is perhaps the most influential poet of the Modernism. The two paved the way for the Imagist movement in poetry that was prominent in the early 20th century. Much like Lawrence, he did not consider Hamlet a success. Eliot said Shakespeare tried to tackle a problem “which proved too much for him”. 

Eliot Considered Hamlet a Failure but Loved Shakespeare’s Other Works

Eliot considered Hamlet a failure. But, he praised the two Roman tragedies Coriolanus and Antony and Cleopatra. Strange, because most of the focus of Shakespearean criticism revolves around his ‘major’ works. 

There are no major or minor works of Shakespeare. All of them are extraordinary pieces of literature. It’s just that some of his works have been exploited more than others. And critics reviewed what was popular, Eliot included.

Eliot Referenced Shakespeare in His Works

Eliot references Shakespeare’s works in his own. For example, we have two references to Shakespeare’s plays in two of Eliot’s greatest poems. One is in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” – a clear reference to Hamlet. The other is in The Waste Land, which contains references to Antony and Cleopatra and Hamlet. To reference someone’s work into your own is the biggest acknowledgment.

T. S. Eliot on Shakespeare’s Borrowing

“Some can absorb knowledge, the more tardy must sweat for it. Shakespeare acquired more essential history from Plutarch than most men could from the whole British Museum” (Eliot, 1920). All Shakespeare’s works, except for The Tempest, are based on previous works. 

It is a historical fact that playwrights borrowed ideas from others. The truth is there was no copyright law in the Elizabethan age. This was the common practice of the Elizabethan playwrights. 

Shakespeare embraced this idea of borrowing. He was so well-read that we can see the influence in his works from almost every major work written up until his time. Starting from Ancient Greece, up to contemporary Elizabethan drama/poetry, he appropriated everything. As Eliot points out, Shakespeare was a living encyclopedia of history. This is a feat that few people of his time achieved.

Shakespeare Used Everyday Language

Playwrights in Elizabethan times often used common elements in their plays. You can see them in English Renaissance drama, not only in the works of Shakespeare. “We think of Shakespeare perhaps as the dramatist who concentrates everything into a sentence, ‘Pray you undo this button,’ or ‘Honest honest lago’; we forget that there is a rhetoric proper to Shakespeare at his best period which is quite free from the genuine Shakespearean vices either of the early period or the late” (Eliot, 1920). 

Shakespeare did include some everyday phrases from Elizabethan times in his works. Playwriting was a craft after all. So, like any craft, it required catering to the customer to make more money. And the customers were both literate and illiterate.

Everyone Understood Shakespeare’s Plays

Shakespeare’s plays catered to everyone. Both the illiterate groundlings (who paid the least to watch the play) and the nobility understood them. The simplest-minded people laughed at what we today think is complex.