Thursday, 12 March 2015

Biographia Literaria

I’m not quite sure when Coleridge’s ‘Biographia Literaria’ was first published, but much that he says in it about writing style could be usefully read by many present-day writers, particularly of poetry. One poet who followed his advice — or perhaps didn’t need to, having worked it out for himself — was the unjustly neglected Basil Bunting, who said that after he had written a poem he would read through it, crossing out at least half its words. Poetry is the quintessence of language. Here is a very short extract from Coleridge’s book; he is talking about one of his school-teachers.

In our own English compositions, (at least for the last three years of
our school education,) he showed no mercy to phrase, metaphor, or image,
unsupported by a sound sense, or where the same sense might have been
conveyed with equal force and dignity in plainer words. Lute,
harp, and lyre, Muse, Muses, and inspirations, Pegasus, Parnassus, and
Hippocrene were all an abomination to him. In fancy I can almost hear
him now, exclaiming "Harp? Harp? Lyre? Pen and ink, boy, you mean! Muse,
boy, Muse? Your nurse's daughter, you mean! Pierian spring? Oh aye!
the cloister-pump, I suppose!" Nay certain introductions, similes,
and examples, were placed by name on a list of interdiction.

For you picture fans, here is one of Samuel Taylor Coleridge himself:

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