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Poet, Poems and the art of Poetry in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria

2017-04-13刘可++李旸

校园英语·上旬 2017年3期
关键词:简史文论北京大学出版社

刘可++李旸

【Abstract】Samuel Taylor Coleridge s contribution to the cannon of literature lies not only in his imagination-galore poems like The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Kubla Khan, but more in his pivotal prose work about literary theories and principles of criticism---the Biographia Literaria. In this canonical work, he expounds a profound and unprecedented theory about the definition of poetry, the paramount faculty for any poet--- imagination, and the unity of the part and the whole.

【Key words】Biographia Literaria; Samuel Taylor Coleridge; Unity

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the representative and key figure of the 19th century Romantic Movement in Great Britain, has contributed a lot to elevate and enshrine poetry as a higher form of literature. His theory about the definition of poetry is profound and more or less become the legitimate definition whose influence can be seen in many later critics, like I. A. Richards and T. S. Eliot.

Any man of letters is cursed by Plato and has to stand out and justify themselves. S. T. Coleridge justifies himself by claiming that “the heart should have fed upon the truth, as insects on a leaf, till it be tinged with the color, and show its food in every… minutest fiber”. Rather than admitting that poetry are “thrice removed from truth”, Coleridge argues that poetry deals with a much wider spectrum than nature. For “images, however beautiful, though faithfully copied from nature, and as accurately represented in words, do not of themselves characterize the poet. They become proofs of original genius only as far as they are modified by a predominant passion; or by associated thoughts or images awakened by that passion”, the underlying meaning here is the magic power of the poet to weave such a delicate net of ingenuity, in which the nature is represented, the truth exposed by a symbol chosen and the unity between form and content perfected by the sophistication of craftsmanship of the poet.

There is no gainsaying that Coleridge is a man given to form and external beauty. He is influenced by Aristotle and aligns himself with Horace to advocate for the “sweet and useful” part of poetry. Aristotle claimed that “probable impossibilities are to be preferred to improbable possibilities” and “a convincing impossibility is preferable to an unconvincing possibility”. For Coleridge, it all becomes one and only dictum—imagination. Apart from being pleasurable for its combination of meter and rhyme, an excellent poem knows how to create a milieu in which the readers attention will be riveted solely on it because it is something that readers never know of. He speaks of the “two cardinal point of poetry, the power of exciting the sympathy of the reader by a faithful adherence to the truth of nature, and the power of giving the interest of novelty by the modifying colors of imagination”. This notion has been adopted and revised by later poets such as Bertlot Brecht and Viktor Shklovsky. The “estrangement effect” coined by Brecht revolves around “stripping the event of its self-evident, familiar, obvious quality and creating a sense of astonishment and curiosity about them”. In his “Art as Technique”, Shklovsky claimed the need to make “over-familiar” things unfamiliar. He defines art as “a way of experiencing the artfulness of an object; the object is not important”. Perhaps what Coleridge wants to convey is this, that the world we are living in is far from satisfactory; sometimes it is dark and gloomy, poems, however, act as a soothing panacea to cure, to revitalize, to make up for what is lost in reality.

Apart from the entertaining and imaginary aspects of poetry, Samuel Taylor Coleridge is also meticulous about the unity between the part and the whole. The component parts of a poem must “mutually support and explain each other, all in their proportion harmonizing with, and supporting the purpose and known influences of metrical arrangement”. And Coleridge further cites two examples which breaks the rules and render the poem either outstanding in one or two lines and absorbs “the whole attention” or “an unsustained composition”, from which only the motif is achieved at the expense of the component parts. Both inadequacies are caused by a lack of unity between the part and the whole. The inner harmony and reconcilement can only be made through painstaking and constant efforts to hold the readers attention and willing of suspension of disbelief. The reader will not hastily rush to the conclusion but indulge themselves on the journey, where they are willing to “pauses and half recedes, and from the retrogressive movement collects the force which again carries him onward”. Thus is the perspective of Coleridge on the art of poetry and the conclusion seems not so conclusive with regard to the indeterminacy and otherworldliness of transcendental unity. Coleridge continues to define the poet as he who “brings the whole soul of man into activity, with the subordination of its faculties to each other according to their relative worth and dignity”. To do so the poet would have to muster the almighty imagination, which “reveals itself in the balance or reconcilement of opposite or discordant qualities: of sameness with difference; of general with the concrete; …the sense of novelty and freshness with old and familiar objects; a more than usual state of emotion with more than usual order; judgment ever awake and steady self-possession with enthusiasm and feeling profound or vehement;…and our admiration of the poet to our sympathy with the poetry”.

The significance of reconciliation between such binary opposites has fascinated generation of writers and critics. By bringing these opposite and discordant qualities under yoke, the poet could create a world of perfect balance and harmony that never exist in reality and perhaps never will whatsoever. This ambitious task of the poets can be testified in the literary works of many other poets. John Keats has realized this never-ending discordance among humanity and he becomes an adamant advocate of the “negative capability”, which reveals the impossibility of ever reaching certitude or harmony. Keats believes that poets should be able to stay in, be comfortable with uncertainties, ambiguities. Ambiguity, defined by modern literary critics, is a source of poetic richness rather than a fault of imprecision. Also noteworthy is the fact that although this reconciliation seems next to impossible, Coleridge nevertheless urges young poets to do so and his homely definitions of prose and poetry prove that this literary practitioner regards the art of poetry as the essential element of humanity and the task of poet no less than “the unacknowledged legislators of the world”. By pronouncing the poet part and particle of the poetry, Coleridge once again proclaims his assertion that poets, with their power of imagination, sensitivity to all things beautiful, great willingness to put the best words in their best order, have the knack to change the world, in their own peculiar, poetic way.

References:

[1]Bressler,Charles.Literary Criticism:An Introduction to Theory and Practice.Beijing:Higher Education Press,2004.

[2]Coleridge,S.T.Biographia Literaria.Princeton.Princeton University Press,1985.

[3]Leitch.B.Vincent,The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism.Ed.Vincent B.Leitch.London:WW Norton&Company Incorporated,2001.

[4]劉象愚.外国文论简史[M].北京:北京大学出版社,2005.

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