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If, in his famous commentary in Biographia Literaria on Wordsworth's natural theory of poetic diction, Coleridge queries what his erstwhile collaborator meant by 'the language of real life'(1) in 'Preface to the Lyrical Ballads', subsequent criticism has failed to agree on what either meant in this controversy.(2) A possible source for Coleridge's argument, a discussion of language 'use' in The Philosophy of Rhetoric (1776) by George Campbell, one of the New Rhetoricians associated with the Philosophical Society of Aberdeen, may at least help to clarify Coleridge's position in this debate.
In chapter XVII of Biographia Literaria, Coleridge outlines Wordsworth's argument that the proper source of poetic diction is the language spoken in 'low and rustic life' (II, 42). Not only does Coleridge deny the validity of this proposition but he denies that it even applies to Wordsworth's own poetry, for
the distinct knowledge of an uneducated rustic would furnish a very scanty vocabulary. The few things, and modes of action, requisite …