Coleridge - Organic Wholeness of a Poem

P - 370 
DATE - 21 Dec 2023

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Coleridge - Organic Wholeness of a Poem 

I(caps)n chapter XIV of Biographia Literaria, Coleridge offers a celebrated definition of a poem. He poses a number of questions regarding the nature and function of poetry and then answers them. He also examines the ways in which poetry differs from other kinds of artistic activity and the role and significance of metre as an essential and significant part of a legitimate poem.

Coleridge begins by emphasizing the difference between prose and poetry. He states that “a poem contains the same elements as a prose composition”. For each, they employ the same medium i.e. words. The difference remains only in the combination of the elements, in consequence of a different object. If the object of a poem is merely to facilitate memory, all it has to do is to put words in the metrical form with or without rhyme, as in the following verses on the number of days in the months:

"Thirty days hath September,

April, June and November" 

The immediate purpose of this kind of composition is to keep in mind the numbers of days in the months. If we put it into a prose composition, the word order would be:

September, April, June and November have thirty days. In that case, it might be difficult to keep in mind the number of days. Thus, because of the different purposes, the combination of words would be different. And as a particular pleasure is found in anticipating the recurrence of sounds and quantities, all compositions that have this charm super-added (Coleridge is ironically using Wordsworth’s term), whatever be their contents, may be called poems.

Coleridge differs from Wordsworth in the concept of the metre

Coleridge counter argues Wordsworth’s statement that, “metre is a super added charm”. Coleridge very confidently states that anything that is written in metre might be called a poem though not a legitimate one.

The object of prose composition is to convey truth whereas the purpose of poetic composition is to convey pleasure. Coleridge insists on the distinction between the immediate end and the ultimate end. The immediate purpose of a scientific work is to convey truth and while communicating truth it may communicate pleasure but that is an incidental by-product. Similarly, if the immediate end of poetry is the communication of pleasure, truth may be the ultimate end.

But, the communication of pleasure may be the immediate object of a work not metrically composed – in novels, romances for example. The question is, do we make these into poems simply by super adding metre with or without rhyme? Coleridge’s answer is that nothing can permanently please which does not contain in itself the reason why it is so, and not otherwise. The part must contain pleasure but permanent pleasure comes from the totality of the thing. Thus, metre if it is super added, must be demanded by the content. Each component part must justify itself on its own why it is written in metre. To be clear enough, metre should suit the language and content of the poem, and not be a mere super added for ornament’s sake or to facilitate memory.

Metre is thus in consonance with the language and content of the poem. It excites a perpetual and distinct attention to each part and carries the reader forward to the end by the pleasurable activity of the mind excited by the attractions of the journey itself. The concept of organic unity demands the interdependence of parts on the whole. That is why a novel or any other prose work which also has pleasure as its immediate object, rendered into metrical form, would not be called a poem. Coleridge thus puts forward the organic, as opposed than a mechanical theory of poetry. A legitimate poem is thus a composition in which the rhyme and the metre bear an organic relation to the total work; in it, the parts mutually support and explain each other, all in their proportion, harmonizing with and supporting the purpose and known influence of metrical arrangement. The pleasure that derives from the parts must be consonant with the pleasure derived from the whole.

Coleridge also distinguishes 'poem' from ‘poetry’

A prose work which is highly poetic in nature may be called poetry, not a poem. Poetry of the highest kind may exist without metre and even without the contradistinguishing objects of a poem. Coleridge argues that a poem of any length neither can be nor ought to be poetry. Poetry is almost the same as a poet. The poet, described in ideal perfection, brings the whole soul of man into activity. The poetic genius i.e. the one with the modifying power of the secondary imagination must have the ability to organise and reconcile dissimilies or discordant qualities: sameness with difference, general with the concrete, individual with the representative etc.

Coleridge thus provides a clear discussion of the definition and function of a poem. And makes a distinction between a poem and poetry. He concludes his discussion with a conceit in which good sense is the body of poetic genius, fancy the drapery, motion the life and imagination the soul that is everywhere and in each.


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