English Literature » Notes » S. T. Coleridge: Function of Poetry

S. T. Coleridge: Function of Poetry

Coleridge poses numerous 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 poem.

He begins by emphasizing the difference between prose and poetry. A poem contains the same elements as a prose composition.Both use words. Then, the difference between poem and a prose composition cannot lie in the medium, for each employs words. It must, therefore, “consists in a different combination of them, in consequence of a different object being proposed.” A poem combines words differently, because it is seeking to do something different.

All it may be seeking to do may be to facilitate memory. You may take a piece of prose and cast it into rhymed and metrical form in order to remember it better.

Rhymed tags of that kind, with their frequent, “sounds and quantities”, yield a particular pleasure too, though not of a very high order. If one wants to give the name of poem to a composition of this kind, there is no reason why one should not. As Coleridge says:

But we should note that, though such rhyming tags have the charm of metre and rhyme, metre and rhyme have been ‘superadded’; they do not arise from the nature of the content, but have been imposed on it in order to make it more easily memorized.

The “Superficial form”, the externalities, provides no profound logical reason for distinguishing between different ways of handling language.

A difference of object and contents supplies an additional ground of distinction.

The philosopher will seek to differentiate between two ways of handling language by asking what each seeks to achieve and how that aim determines its nature. “The immediate purpose may be the communication of truth or the communication of pleasure. The communication of truth might in turn yield a deep pleasure, but, Coleridge insists, one must distinguish between the ultimate and the immediate end.” Similarly, if the immediate aim be the communication of pleasure, truth may nevertheless be the ultimate end, and while in an ideal society nothing that was not truth could yield pleasure, in society as it always existed, a literary work might communicate pleasure has always existed, a literary work might communicate pleasure without having any concern with “truth, either moral or intellectual”.

The proper kinds of distinction between different kinds of writing can thus be most logically discussed in terms of the difference in the immediate aim, or function, of each.

The immediate aim of poetry is to give pleasure.

But, “The communication of pleasure may be the immediate object of a work not metrically composed” – in novels, for example. Do we make these into poems simply by superadding metre with or without rhyme? To which Coleridge replies by emphasizing a very important principle: you cannot derive true and permanent pleasure out of any feature or a work which does not arise naturally from the total nature of that work. “To ‘superadd’ metre is to provide merely a superficial decorative charm.” “Nothing can permanently please, which does not contain in itself the reason why it is so, and not otherwise. If metre be superadded, all other parts must be made consonant with it.” Rhyme and metre involve, “an exact correspondent recurrence of accent and sound” which in turn “are calculated to excite” a “perpetual and distinct attention to each part.”

A poem, therefore, must be an organic unity in the sense that, while we note and appreciate each part, to which the regular recurrence of accent and sound draw attention, our pleasure in the whole develops cumulatively out of such appreciation, which is at the same time pleasurable in itself and conductive to an awareness of the total pattern of the complete poem.

Thus a poem differs from a work of scientific prose in having as its immediate object pleasure and not truth, and it differs from other kinds of writing which have pleasure and not truth as their immediate object by the fact that in a poem the pleasure we take from the whole work in compatible with, and even led up to by the pleasure we take in each competent part.

Therefore, a legitimate poem is a composition, in which the rhyme and the metre bear an organic relation to the total work; in it, “parts mutually support and explain each other, all in their proportion harmonizing with, and supporting the purpose and known influences of, metrical arrangement.”

Thus Coleridge puts an end for good to the age old controversy whether the end of poetry is instruction or delight or both. Its aim is definitely to give pleasure, and further poetry has its own distinctive pleasure, pleasure arising from the parts, and this pleasure of the parts supports and increases the pleasure of the whole.

Not only that, Coleridge also distinguishes a ‘Poem’ from ‘Poetry’. According to Shawcross:

This distinction between ‘poetry’ and ‘poem’ is not very clear, and instead of defining poetry he proceeds to describe a poet, and from the poet he proceeds to enumerate the characteristics of the Imagination.

This is so because ‘poetry’ for Coleridge is an activity of the ‘poet’s’ mind, and a ‘poem’ is merely one of the forms of its expression, a verbal expression of that activity, and poetic activity is basically an activity of the imagination. As David Daiches points out:

’Poetry’ for Coleridge is a wider category than that of ‘poem’; that is, poetry is a kind of activity which can be engaged in by painters or philosophers or scientists and is not confined to those who employ metrical language, or even to those who employ language of any kind. Poetry, in this large sense, brings, ‘the whole soul of man’, into activity, with each faculty playing its proper part according to its ‘relative worth and dignity’.

This takes place whenever the ‘secondary imagination’ comes into operation. Whenever the synthesizing, the integrating, powers of the secondary imagination are at work, bringing all aspects of a subject into a complex unity, then poetry in this larger sense results.

The employment of the secondary imagination is, a poetic activity, and we can see why Coleridge is led from a discussion of a poem to a discussion of the poet’s activity when we realize that for him the poet belongs to the larger company of those who are distinguished by the activity of their imagination.

A poem is always the work of a poet, of a man employing the secondary imagination and so achieving the harmony of meaning, the reconciliation of opposites, and so on, which Coleridge so stresses; but a poem is also a specific work of art produced by a special handling of language.

The harmony and reconciliation resulting from the special kind of creative awareness achieved by the exercise of the imagination, cannot operate over an extended composition; one could not sustain that blending and balance, that reconciliation, “of sameness, with difference; of the general, with the concrete; the idea, with the image; the individual, with the representative; the sense of novelty and freshens, with old and familiar objects”, and so on, for an indefinite period. A long poem, therefore, would not be all poetry. Indeed, Coleridge goes to the extent of saying that there is no such thing as a long poem. Rhyme and metre are appropriate to a poem considered in the larger sense of poetry, because they are means of achieving harmonization, reconciliation of opposites, and so forth, which, as we have seen, are objects of poetry in its widest imaginative meaning.

In a legitimate poem, i.e. in a poem which is poetry in the true sense of the word, there is perfect unity of form and content. The notion of such organic unity runs through all Coleridge’s pronouncements of poetry. Rhyme and Metre, are not pleasure superadded for,

Nothing can permanently please, which does not contain in itself the reason why it is so, and not otherwise.

Nothing that is, “superadded”, merely stuck on for ornament or decoration, can really please in a poem; every one of its characteristics must grow out of its whole nature and be an integral part of it. Rhyme and metre are integral to the poem, an essential part of it, because the pleasure of poetry is a special kind of pleasure, pleasure which results both from the parts and the whole, and the pleasure arising from the parts augments the pleasure of the whole. Thyme and metre are essential parts for by their, “recurrence of accent and sound”, they invite attention to the pleasure of each separate part, and thus add to the pleasure of the whole.

When, therefore, metre is thus in consonance with the language and content of the poem, it excites a ‘perpetual and distinct attention to each part’, ‘by the quick reciprocations of curiosity still gratified and still re-excited’, and carries the reader forward to the end ‘by the pleasurable’ activity of the mind excited by the attractions of the journey itself. There is no stopping for him on the way, attracted by the parts; nor any hastening forward to the end, unattracted by the parts. It is one unbroken pleasure trip from the parts to the whole.

Thus Coleridge’s contribution to the theory of poetry is significant. First, he puts an end for good to the age old controversy between instruction and delight being the end of poetry, and establishes that pleasure is the end of the poetry, and that poetry has its own distinctive pleasure. Secondly, he explodes the neo-classical view of poetry as imitation, and shows that it is an activity of the imagination which in turn is a shaping and unifying power, which dissolves, dissipates and creates. Thirdly, he shows that in its very nature poetry must differ from prose. He controverts Wordsworth’s view that ‘rhyme and metre’ are merely superadded, shows that they are an organic part of a poem in the real sense of the word.

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