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Wordsworth and Coleridge on Imagination

Kathleen M. Lynch, in her paper Wordsworths Imagination: Three Critical Approaches and The
Prelude, says, "Imagination is an idea that Romantic poets substantially reinterpret. The imagination is
not a simple concept, and it is more than a motif in Romantic poems." In this essay, I intend to discuss
Wordsworth's and Coleridge's idea of Imagination.

Wordsworth deals with imagination in his Preface to the 1815 edition of the Lyrical Ballads. There he
draws a distinction between Fancy and Imagination. Wordsworth says that Imagination, "Is but another
name for absolute power/And clearest insight, amplitude of mind,/And Reason in her most exalted
mood." He goes as far as relegating reason to an inferior position. He considers Imagination to be that
faculty which transforms sense perceptions and makes the poet conscious of human immortality, and his
kinship with the eternal.

Wordsworth purports that the poet is a man who thinks long and deeply, and so he can treat things
which are absent as if they were present. In other words, the poet contemplates in tranquility the
emotions which he has experienced in the past and through imagination can visualize the objects which
gave rise to those emotions initially.

Wordsworth opposes the associationist theories of David Hartley. Hartley and other associationists
believed that the human mind receives impressions from the external world, which are therein
associated together to form images. In this way, the mind merely reflects the external world. But
according to Wordsworth, the mind does not merely reflect passively, it actively creates. The poet does
not only present image of men and nature but he also shapes, modifies and transfigures that image by
the power of his imagination. Thus imagination is creative; it is a shaping or plastic power. The poet is
not a mere mechanical reproducer of outward reality, but a specially gifted individual, who, like God, is a
creator as he adds something to nature and reality.

However, Wordsworths distinction between Fancy and Imagination is not so subtle and penetrating as
that of Coleridge. According to Wordsworth, both Imagination and Fancy, evoke and combine,
aggregate and associate, but the material which they evoke and combine is different, and their purpose
in evoking and combining is different. They differ in their purpose, and in the material on which they
work. The material on which Fancy works is not so susceptible to change or so pliant as the material on
which imagination works. Fancy makes things exact and definite, while Imagination leaves everything
vague and indefinite.

Rene Welleks says in this respect, The only important difference between Wordsworth and Coleridge is
that Wordsworth does not clearly see Coleridges distinction between imagination as a holistic and
fancy as an associative power and does not draw the sharp distinction between transcendentalism and
associationism which Coleridge wanted to establish.
Wordsworth uses language to mediate between his interior world and the world of external reality. He
uses the rhetoric and imagery of the outer, universally known world in order to best express his
thoughts; at the same time, what made them worth expressing were that they were separate from that
same outer, universally known world.

Imagination works upon the raw material of sense impressions to illustrate the working of external
truths. It makes the poet perceive the essential unity of man, God and Nature while the meddling
intellect of the scientist multiplies diversities.

For instance, in Book VI, Cambridge and the Alps, Wordsworth and his companion set out to climb the
Swiss Alps. However, they are twice met with disappointment. First they see Mont Blanc and are
underwhelmed by its appearance. Later, & they are eager to cross the Alps at Simplon Pass, but when
they ask a peasant for directions, he reveals that they have already unwittingly passed the crossing point
they were so looking forward to seeing. Almost immediately after that incident, Wordsworth explains
that he was able to recognize the power of the imagination, the unfathered vapour that changed how
he saw the situation. After he overcomes his disappointment, Wordsworth is capable of seeing the
world differently. In a way, the imagination edits his view of reality through later reflection.

Imagination, for Wordsworth, is a transforming and transfiguring power which presents the usual in an
unusual light. Also, imagination is the minds eye through which the poet sees into the heart of things
as well as into the past, the remote, and the unknown. It is imagination which enables the poet to render
emotional experience, which he has not personally experienced, as if, they were personally felt
emotions. The power of imagination enables the poet to universalize the particular and the personal,
and arrives at universal truths. Henry Crabbe Robinson described the process in the following words,
The poet first conceives the essential nature of his object, and then strips it of all casualties and
accidental individual dress, and in this he is a philosopher; he re-clothes his idea in an individual dress
which expresses the essential quality and has also the spirit and life of a sensual object. And this
transmutes the philosophic into a poetic exhibition.

However, Wordsworth is also aware of the difficulties of using language to express his

imagination. In the 1850 version of The Prelude Wordsworth laments that language cannot fully
incorporate the idea of the imagination, as he struggles to find the words to describe his meaning
"through sad incompetence of human speech. Poststructuralist critics say that as Wordsworth struggls
to find the words to describe his meaning, he saw a parallel in his larger-scale struggle to bring his inner
thoughts to the outside world. He deemed Imagination to be of higher import, denoting operations of
the human mind upon those objects and processes of creation or composition, governed by certain fixed

Next, I will focus upon Coleridge's ideas of Imagination. Samuel Taylor Coleridge's interest on the subject
of imagination could be credited to William Wordsworth, however the latter is interested only in the
impact of imagination on poetry. Whereas Wordsworth considers imagination as an indiscrete entity,
Coleridge, on the other hand, discusses in detail the theory of imagination. He studied the nature of
imagination and also examines its role in creative activity. He further subdivides Imagination as primary
and secondary, and earmarks them for their respective roles, which I'll discuss in detail below. Ina
Lipkowitz, Lecturer in MIT's Literature Department describes Coleridges treatment of the subject as
"characterized by greater depth, penetration and philosophical subtlety" in the chapter "Inspiration and
the Poetic Imagination: Samuel Taylor Coleridge" of her work, Studies in Romanticism.

Coleridge focuses mainly on imagination as the key to poetry. He divides imagination into two
components: primary and secondary imagination. In Biographia Literaria, he writes, "The primary
imagination I hold to be the living power and prime agent of all human perception, and as a repetition in
the finite of the eternal act of creation of the infinite I Am. The secondary I consider as an echo of the
former, coexisting with the conscious will, yet still identical with the primary in the kind of its agency, and
differing only in degree, and in the mode of its operation."

The primary imagination, Coleridge propounds, is universal and possessed by all. The secondary
imagination, on the other hand, is the peculiar and typical trait of the poet. Secondary imagination is
more active and conscious than primary imagination; it requires an effort of the will, volition and
conscious effort; and it makes artistic creation possible. However, it should be noted that secondary
imagination is not entirely extrinsic to primary imaginary. It works upon the raw material which are the
sensations and impressions supplied to it by the primary imagination. The secondary imagination selects
and orders the raw material and re-shapes and re-models it into objects of beauty. Coleridge describes it
as an active agent which "dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to create.

The distinction that Coleridge draws between Imagination and Fancy is more refined than that of
Wordsworth. Fancy, he believes, is not creative. It is a kind of memory concerned with the mechanical
operations of the mind, those which are responsible for the passive accumulation of data and the
storage of such data in the memory. It brings together images into beautiful shapes, and even when
brought together, they continue to retain their separate and individual properties. They receive no
coloring or modification from the mind.

The difference between the two is the same as the difference between a mixture and a compound in
Chemistry. In a mixture, the ingredients are brought together and mechanically put together. Although
they are mixed up, each ingredient in the mixture keeps its own properties. The compound, however,
has properties different from the elements it contains. In a chemical compound, the different ingredients
combine to form something new. The different ingredients no longer exist as separate identities. A
compound is an act of creation; while a mixture is merely a bringing together of a number of separate

Coleridge talks about two passages from Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis to illustrate Fancy, "Full gently
now she takes him by the hand,/A lily prisoned in a goal of snow,/ Or ivory in an alabaster band,/ So
white a friend engirds so white a foe."

This is indeed an aesthetic imagery, but

Coleridge propoundes that in these lines, the images are drawn from memory, and they do not
interpenetrate into one another. He then quotes the following lines from the same poem to illustrate the
power of Imagination:

"Look! How a bright star shooteth from the sky/So glides he in the night from Venus eye."

The fantastical imagery of of a star shooting from Venus's eye is an absolutely new, and strange imagery.
This imagery is created by an autonomous willful act of the mind of the poet that has no analog in the
natural world. It can be said as a manifestation of the synthesizing activity of the secondary imagination.

Coleridge also makes use of secondary imagination in his poem, Kubla Khan:

"In Xanadu did Kubla Khan/A stately pleasure dome decree:/Where Alph, the sacred river, ran, /Through
caverns measureless to man/Down to a sunless sea." The lines represent the creation of a previously
non-existent setting. This segment creates entirely new scenes in the reader's mind. Coleridge also uses
highly imaginative images to create juxtaposition in the poem. He writes, "A sunny pleasure dome with
caves of ice!". The "reconciliation of opposites" manifests itself in lines such as these. The adjective
"sunny" implies warmth, whereas "ice" is cold. Together, they hint at an oxymoronic darker side to the
surfacially idyllic pleasure dome. Considering the bigger picture, Kubla Khan's pleasure dome is a
juxtaposition as well. The leader of the Mongols is not thought of as a kind or benevolent man. This
discordance is an hint of Coleridges imagination in the inherent construction of the poem.

The significance of the Imagination for Coleridge is that it represents the sole faculty within man that is
able to achieve the Romantic ambition of reuniting the subject and the object, the world of the self and
the world of nature. By establishing the creative act as mimicking the "organic principle" or "one"a
divine principle believed to underlie all realitythe romantic theorist seeks to establish a harmonious
relationship between the ideal world of the subject and the real world of the object. For Coleridge, the
most important aspect of the imagination is that it is active to the highest degree. The creative act calls
the whole soul of man into activity. James Volant Baker argues in The Sacred River. Coleridge's Theory of
the Imagination that the creative act "is a godlike-act-of-power and imagination is hence" the divine
potency in man". The creative act by which the poet writes the poem is similar to the creative act by
which God ordered the world out of chaos. It is a unifying power that synthesizes the various faculties of
the soulperception, intellect, will, emotionand fuses the internal with the external, the subjective with
the objective, the human mind with external nature, the spiritual with the physical.