Samuel Taylor Coleridge intended Biographia Literaria to be a short preface to a collection of his poems, Sibylline Leaves (1817). However, it quickly expanded into a two-volume autobiography, mixing memoir, philosophy, religion and literary theory, and was heavily influenced by German criticism, the evaluation and interpretation of literature. Coleridge himself described Biographia Literaria as an ‘immethodical miscellany’ of ‘life and opinions’. In 1906, the poet Arthur Symons called the work ‘the greatest book of criticism in English, and one of the most annoying books in any language’.
Poetic theory in Biographia Literaria
Biographia Literaria includes some of the most important English writing on poetic theory. Some of it is a response to ideas of poetry advanced by his close friend and collaborator William Wordsworth, first in the 1800 preface to their joint publication Lyrical Ballads and then in the preface to Wordsworth’s Collected Poems (1815). Referring to the latter, Coleridge says he wants in Biographia Literaria to make clear ‘on what points I coincide with the opinions in that preface, and in what points I altogether differ’.
Imagination and the suspension of disbelief
In one of the most famous passages in Biographia Literaria, Coleridge offers a theory of creativity (pp. 95-96). He divides imagination into primary and secondary. Primary imagination is common to all humans: it enables us to perceive and make sense of the world. It is a creative function and thereby repeats the divine act of creation. The secondary imagination enables individuals to transcend the primary imagination – not merely to perceive connections but to make them. It is the creative impulse that enables poetry and other art.
Biographia Literaria contains the first instance of the phrase ‘suspension of disbelief’. Writing about his contributions to the Lyrical Ballads, which includes The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Coleridge says that although his characters were ‘supernatural, or at least romantic’, he tried to give them a ‘human interest and a semblance of disbelief’ that would prompt readers to the ‘willing suspension of disbelief… which constitutes poetic faith’.