Item 6 - Letter from William Whewell

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Letter from William Whewell


  • 31 July 1817 (Creation)

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4 pp.

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What are HJR's movements? WW has 'just got through a new book of your friend Coleridge's, his Biographia Literaria which I suppose you have seen. It contains an account of himself wh. in many places is amusing enough; but it appears to me to be of considerable consequence from the critical parts of it which will I think completely change the state of the question about the "Lake school." For to my great astonishment I find it full of good sense and fair rational criticism; and containing a condemnation of all those parts of Wordsworth [William Wordsworth] both of his theory and of his practice to wh. I should object. Denying his whole theory about poetical diction; and the resemblance of poetry to real life and low life; and blaming almost all those poems wh. he has written upon his theory. Condemning his prosaic style, his peculiarities his mystical and inflated language and wonderments about the most everyday things, his matter-of-factness, his attachment to pedlars, his deification of children; and in short everything or almost everything that other people have made a pretence of laughing at the whole he takes out and laughs at by itself. - Now it may be very true that all this makes but a very small part of the whole but nevertheless it always appeared to me so woven and matted with the rest as to give a tinge to the entire mass - it was in consequence of that, that I never entirely got over the repulsion I felt to Wordsworth - for there were so many passages obviously favourites of the poet where I could not feel any sympathy with him that I could not but doubt whether I had really any sympathy with him where I appeared to have. Even yet I much doubt whether Wordsworth would allow that man to understand his poems who talks of them as Coleridge does. If it be so the whole imaginary fabric of a new school of poetry wh. seemed as if it were to be built up to the skies and to the borders of the universe, far out-topping the town of Babel, turns out to be nothing but a little furbishing and beautification (as the churchwardens call it) of the parish church. Just getting rid of stale epithets and stale personifications and one or two other errors that had crept in and all our poets of reputation will turn out to be good poets. I am glad of it because I had much rather have my objects of admiration increased than diminished'. However as with most systems, the negative part of Coleridge's system is 'true or verisimillimum - as for the positive part we are all abroad again - his poetics I think are false - and as for his metaphysics they are as before - muddy with their own turbulence - I can make nothing of them. But how the man who wrote the critique on Wordsworth could write Christabel I cannot conceive. If I were to judge from this book I should take Coleridge's talent to lie in wit more than in poetry - his similes and metaphors are delightfully lively - he puts me in mind of Pope more than any other writer. Upon the strength of Coleridge's knowledge of Wordsworth's meaning I have sent for Ws poems'.

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