Of all the concepts associated with English Romantic poetry, romance has the least to do with it. In fact, this revolutionary literary movement largely abandoned romantic love as the principal poetic preoccupation and instead put a spotlight on nature, imagination, intuition, and the sublime. 

The poetry of this era is meditative, metaphysical, and subjective, focused on an individual’s inner world and subjective experiences. As such, it has changed the course of English poetic history, inspiring artists, writers, and musicians to this day. The verses of the Big Six influenced creative masterminds such as Jim Morrison whose lyrics often recall the poetry of William Blake. Even the very name of The Doors is rooted in a quote from Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell:

“If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite.”

Another notable contemporary reference to the works of the English Romantics is Iron Maiden’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, a genuine interpretation of the namesake poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge – the protagonist of this article and our personal favorite.

This sickly, melancholic, and incredibly prolific poet is considered a founder of the English Romantic Movement, together with his life-long friend and collaborator, William Wordsworth. Coleridge’s legacy, however, extends beyond poetry. His literary criticism and philosophical works helped establish the ideas of German idealism in the English-speaking world, while also leaving a permanent mark on the English language.

Coleridge’s Pivotal Role in the Development of the Oxford English Dictionary

Together with other notable intellectuals of his era, Coleridge helped push the boundaries of 18th-century English art, humanities, and science. His interest in German philosophy and the history of language made him a perfect candidate to introduce new ideas, concepts, and words to contemporary thought. His linguistic merit may not be as well-known as his poetic and philosophical work, but it doesn’t mean it isn’t as groundbreaking.  

Oxford University Press lists Coleridge as the 55th most frequently quoted source in the Oxford English Dictionary and the 35th major contributor in terms of providing “first evidence of the word”. He is considered to have introduced 619 entries into the English language, ranging from philosophical concepts to everyday words and theoretical phrases.

Among the most widely used today are:

  1. Bisexual
  2. Dream world
  3. Dynamic
  4. Factual
  5. Psychoanalytical
  6. Psychosomatic
  7. Soulmate

In his essay titled “Living Words”: Samuel Taylor Coleridge and the Genesis of the OED, James C. McKusick credits Coleridge for the very concept of what is to become one of the most widely used English dictionaries:

“Coleridge’s seminal remarks on the history of language provided an ideological foundation for the rebirth of philology in England. Coleridge played a crucial role in the origin of the OED, since he first imagined the possibility of such a dictionary and fostered the intellectual and social conditions necessary for its production.”

Willing Suspension of Disbelief

Another popular phrase coined by Coleridge refers to the need to disregard logic and critical thinking when reading speculative fiction. The phrase “willing suspension of disbelief” suggests that the skillfully built fantastic worlds would make readers willingly embrace the extraordinary, impossible, and surreal. In his autobiography titled Biographia Literaria. he sees this as the essence of “poetic faith”, and uses this concept to support his own habit of infusing poetry with fantastic elements.

Although this very concept dates back to ancient theatres, it was Coleridge who made it a significant part of literary theory. Moreover, in 2003 he even inspired a neuroscientist Norman Holland to provide a scientific explanation of how our brains perceive the works of fiction. In simple terms, Holland concludes:

“Action is the key. When we are reading a story or watching a movie, we know that we cannot or will not act to change what is occurring, a phenomenon philosopher Immanuel Kant called disinterestedness. Yet because we are not going to act, the brain economizes. We turn off the neural processes that tell us we might need to do something about what we are seeing. The prefrontal cortex does not try to assess the reality of what we are seeing, nor does it trigger motor impulses. That is why when we are sitting in a theater, we do not jump out of our seats to save the blond starlet even though we know she is about to get chopped up by a chainsaw-wielding fiend.”

Foundational Ideas for Coleridge’s Imagination

Those familiar with Coleridge’s imaginative universe know that his work was at least partly fuelled by his opium addiction. However, this could never be the real source of his (or anyone else’s) imagination. The real creative influence on Coleridge was German idealist philosophy, spearheaded by Kant and Schelling. Kant’s focus on the notion of imagination was particularly seminal for the development of Coleridge’s own approach to poetry and philosophical thinking.

Based on Kant’s work on cognitive versus creative or aesthetic Imagination, Coleridge developed the idea of primary and secondary Imagination, where the former is essentially ruled, while the latter is not. As opposed to his German philosophical predecessor, however, Coleridge is not focused on the cognitive process of Imagination, but on its function. He considers it a “living power” to create and recreate the world, making a distinction between Imagination and Fancy, where the “former is a creative, unifying, truth-seeking power. The latter is merely a constructive, elaborative one. Though both are set in operation by the “conscious will” (as part of the cognitive process primary Imagination is not), the products of Imagination are involuntary, while those of Fancy are the result of “choice.”” (Hume, 490).

Conclusions

Although Coleridge’s ideas on Imagination haven’t made a notable impact in philosophy, they’re certainly a distinctive aspect of his poetic work. By celebrating humans’ ability to imagine and create, Coleridge has forever changed the way we read and perceive poetry, ensuring that his evocative, even phantasmagoric verses remain a lesson and an inspiration for generations of artists.

Similarly, his contemplations on the English language and his distinctive use of it helped his peers understand a number of emerging and complex concepts, becoming a foundation of a modern thought. Together with his poetry, his linguistic work is a lasting legacy of his brilliantly vivid mind.  

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