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& Coleridge: Poetic Process and Poetic Genius Authors from different periods of time have theorized about poetry and literature. Concepts that have proved useful for such themes are Imagination, Wit and Fancy. However as the ideas about literature and poetry change, so does the meaning and use of these concepts. This is particularly evident in the critical works of John Dryden that deal with the poetic process and in several chapters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria that deal with the poetic genius.
For Dryden, Imagination is the main faculty involved in the poetic process, for Coleridge it is a fundamental part of the poetic genius. Imagination refers ever since the 14th century to the “faculty of the mind which forms and manipulates images,”1 but the concept evolved and broadened enough so that in the XVIII century Hume on one side and Kant on the other were exploring it in terms of Art. That introduced the term creative imagination or creative thought that focused on the imagination of artists.
The aesthetic problem of the Eighteen century focused on judgment and taste. What makes a man admire something? What makes that object beautiful? These were the fundamental questions of the time, as we can see in the works Addison wrote on the faculty of taste. But, Dryden was interested in the creative
Online Etymology Dictionary
Dryden & Coleridge… Page 2 of 6 process as well as in the result. He was interested in how a poet came to write a poem, but also in the appreciation of such poem. He used the term Wit to refer to the results of the process; the process itself occurred inside a Poet’s mind and involved the faculty of imagination and the faculty of judgment. The metaphor of the Spaniel that searches for ideas in the memory, illustrates the way he thought the process worked: “a nimble spaniel, beats over and ranges through the field of memory, till it springs the quarry it hunted after”2. For him ideas and images are “a confused mass of thoughts, tumbling over one another in the dark” which the poet gains access to through the faculty of imagination.
Involved in the development of a poem, there are some specific stages, related with particular talents of the poet. All of them are dependent from imagination, and in some cases of judgment. The first one is Invention, in this stage the poet finds the thought he wants to represent, Dryden never mentions inspiration of any kind. The second is fancy, this word is used both as a capacity of the mind, and as the stage in which the thought is molded “as the judgment represents it proper to the subject”. The third is elocution, and it is the “election of words” to properly present the thought. So, Dryden says, “the quickness of the imagination is seen in the invention, the fertility in the fancy and the accuracy in the expression”.
Wit is then, the result of the successful “poetic process”. A work of wit should show quickness, fertility and accuracy. It should be “some lively and apt description, dressed in such colours of speech, that it sets before your eyes the absent object as perfectly and more delightfully that nature.” Dryden tends to
Prefix to Annus Mirabilis,1666
Dryden & Coleridge… Page 3 of 6 set distinction between a poet that achieves “true wit” and one that fails to do so. He places particular emphasis in a poet that tries too hard, and can end up polishing a work too much not finding the right expression; a poet that uses convoluted language, when in his opinion “wit is best conveyed in the most easy language”; and finally, for him a poet may arrive to a particular expression of “true wit” by mere chance, but from his talent it will depend whether he realizes or not.
In the Nineteen century, the debate on the creative process was not exhausted. Samuel Taylor Coleridge discusses in Biographia Literaria what poetry is, what a poet is. Poetry in the words of Coleridge “is a distinction resulting from the poetic genius itself, which sustains and modifies the images, thoughts and emotions of the poets own mind.” He introduces the concept of poetic genius, which shows some similarities with what Dryden calls imagination, and presents the familiar scene of a poet’s mind: A place full of images and thoughts, Coleridge adds emotions to the scene.
In fact emotion plays a very important role in Coleridge’s critical theory, and this is a major point of contrast to his and Dryden’s works on the creative process. Coleridge admired in Wordsworth “the union of deep feeling and profound thought, the fine balance of truth in observing with the imaginative faculty in modifying the objects observed”. We can perceive some similarity with Dryden’s imagination; Coleridge is concerned with the imaginative faculty that allows the poet to modify previous thoughts, but places an emphasis in the source of such thoughts. The expressions “truth in observing”, and “the object observed” may
Dryden & Coleridge… Page 4 of 6 imply an experience of visual representation, but also of emotion, if we use Hume’s affirmation that thought and emotion both play a role in a poet’s imagination3.
In his definition of a poem, Coleridge parts from the more common characteristics of meter, rhyme and rhythm, and focuses on the pleasure it produces. Coleridge esteems the merit of a poem according to the faculty or source which produces the corresponding pleasure. The highest esteem for him is the poetry that produces “a continuous undercurrent of feeling” instead of “separate excitement” that a more perfectly crafted poem would produce. Coleridge stated that the work of “Mr. Pope and his followers”
seemed to him
not proper “poetic thoughts” but “thoughts translated into the language of poetry”, very clever, but not “poetic”.
The poetry that gives us pleasure by a continuous undercurrent of feeling is the product of an imaginative mind. The power of imagination “reveals itself in the balance of reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities”, the power of imagination is therefore one that fuses the many elements, and spreads a “tone and spirit of unity.”5 Coleridge highlights the coherence and unity of Milton’s poetry, who he considers an imaginative poet, by saying that one cannot move or replace one word without changing this undercurrent of feeling, and say something worst than what the poet actually says.
“In book two of the Treatise [of Human Nature], Hume has introduced a new dimension to the function of imagination… it would be inadequate to describe imagination merely as that which produces images or representation of objects; one must add that these representations will almost always be accompanied by emotions.” Imagination, Mary Warnock, p.41. 4 Chapter I. Biographia Literaria excerpt. 5 Chapter XIV. Biographia Literaria excerpt
Dryden & Coleridge… Page 5 of 6
And so, we can point out to some differences as well as some correspondences among the view of Dryden and Coleridge. They both present imagination as a faculty that modifies previous thoughts, ideas or impressions into poetry. Thus the importance they give to imagination in the creative process is paramount. Yet the concept of imagination in itself is somewhat different, Dryden places emphasis in the components parts of imagination invention, fancy and elocution to produce a work of “true wit”, while Coleridge represents it as a faculty that provides unity and fusion to opposed and discordant elements. As a result the kind of poetry they praise is not the same. For Dryden, a well crafted work of “true wit” is the result poets must aim for: quickness, fertility, and accuracy of imagination. On the opposite Coleridge places in higher esteem that poetry for him the true poetry which provokes pleasure of a better kind. Coleridge acknowledges the role of emotion in the whole process, a role that Dryden does not address. The works of each of them help to understand poetry and critical appreciation of their respective age. And the progress of the debate on the imaginative faculties of the mind, as well as the creative process can be seen in their critical work.
Dryden & Coleridge… Page 6 of 6 WORKS CITED • Coleridge, Samuel T. “Biographia Literaria: From Chapter I & IV” The Oxford Anthology of English Literature: Volume II. Eds. Frank Kermode, John Hollanders. New York: Oxford University Press. 1973. 638-650 • Dryden, John. “The poetic process [Wit & Fancy]” The Oxford Anthology of English Literature: Volume I. Eds. Frank Kermode, John Hollanders. New York: Oxford University Press. 1973. 1660-1664. • Warnock, Mary. Imagination. Berkeley: University of California Press. 1976. 41.