In Biographia Literaria, Samuel Coleridge provides some criticism which he elaborates through William Wordsworth’s work, claiming that though Wordsworth is a genius, his philosophical principles on poetic language are misguided. When Wordsworth published the second edition of Lyrical Ballads, he included a preface in which he outlines his philosophical views on the language of poetry as mimicking the “the language of real [sic] life” (479). This preface, according to Coleridge, was unjustly followed by a series of harsh criticism that identified his poetry as “silly” and “childish” (479). In defense of Wordsworth against the critics, Coleridge claims that Wordsworth popularity increased, not amongst the lower classes, but specifically amongst the educated. By highlighting the fact that Wordsworth attracts a sophisticated reading audience, Coleridge also makes the point that his writing is for educated classes. Though Wordsworth claims to be writing in ordinary language, his poetry can only be appreciated by an intellectual class with the “strongest sensibility and meditative minds” (479). Another reason Coleridge provides criticism of Wordsworth’s poetry is to identify and make public his own poetic creed, which he desires to distinguish from Wordsworth as Wordsworth often mentions his name in his preface. In order to evade negative criticism, perhaps Coleridge finds he must clarify his position on views that initiate a heated invective against Wordsworth.
Some of the reasons Coleridge finds rustic language unsatisfactory in writing poetry includes the limitedness in vocabulary. A poet has to have a stock of words at her disposal, and if she were limited to rustic language, she might find herself portraying experience in a “small number of confused general terms” (484). In offering his criticism on poetic diction, Coleridge’s ideas oppose Wordsword’s completely as he claims that poetry cannot be expressed by rustic language nor can the “uneducated man” possess a poetic sensibility: “It [poetry] is formed by a voluntary appropriation of fixed symbols to internal acts, to processes and results of imagination, the greater part of which have no place in the consciousness of the educated man” (484). What Coleridge is emphasizing, moreover, is that poetry is learned – individuals do not have an innate capacity to understand and write poetry but must acquire a sophisticated language and education in order to do so. A good point Coleridge makes about rustic language is that it differs from person to person – various regions have different dialects and people’s language is also affected by where they work and the extent of their schooling. Coleridge takes rustic language to mean a “lingua communis” or common language, which he believes does not exist.
Coleridge also pays homage to Shakespeare in Biographia Literaria, and in doing so, he might have a sense of the fact that Shakespeare also incorporated the language of common people; however, he does so in a manner that mirrors society. Characters of noble class speak poetry while those of common class speak in prose. The rustic has inspired Wordsworth poetic experience but as an educated British intellectual, his poetic language remains faithful to his exposure and upbringing. Many of Coleridge’s points are valid but he might possess too strong of an opinion on the uneducated classes’ lack of poetic sensibility.