Samuel Taylor Coleridge was an English poet, philosopher, literarycritic, and theologian who, along with William Wordsworth, founded the Romantic Movement in England. He is the foremost poet-critic of modern English tradition, renownedfor the influence and scope of his thinking about literature as much as for hisinnovative verse. Active in the wake of the French Revolution as a dissentingpamphleteer, he inspired a brilliant generation of writers and attracted thepatronage of progressive men of the rising middle class. His poems of thisperiod, meditative, speculative, and strangely oracular, put off early readersbut endured the doubts of Wordsworth and Robert Southey to become recognizedclassics of the romantic idiom. Coleridge’sexplanation of metaphysical principles werepopular topics of discourse in academic communities throughout the 19th and20th centuries, and T.S.
Eliot stated that he believed that Coleridge was”perhaps the greatest of English critics, and in a sense the last.” Coleridge’s various and imposing achievement, a cornerstoneof modern English culture, remains an incomparable source of informedreflection on the brave new world whose birth pangs he attended.Coleridge renounced poetic vocation in his thirtieth yearand set out to define and defend the art as a practicing critic. His promotionof Wordsworth’s verse, a landmark of English literary response, proceeded intandem with a general investigation of epistemology and metaphysics.
In addition to hispoetry, Coleridge also wrote persuasive pieces of literary criticismincluding Biographia Literaria, a collection of histhoughts and opinions on literature which he published in 1817. The workdelivered both biographical explanations of the author’s life as well as hisimpressions on literature. Coleridge waspre-eminently responsible for importing the new German critical philosophy. The collection containedan analysis of a broad range of philosophical principles of literature rangingfrom Aristotle to Immanuel Kant and Schelling and appliedthem to the poetry of peers such as William Wordsworth. In the Biographia(after all his endless preliminaries, warnings and preparations) Coleridge’stheory of the Imagination really started with a theory of the act of knowledge,or of consciousness, or, as he called it, ‘the coincidence or coalescence of anOBJECT with a SUBJECT’.
Coleridge insists that Philosophy uses whathe calls the Inner Sense and that therefore it cannot ‘like geometry,appropriate to every construction a corresponding outward intuition’. But where operations and acts of the Inner Senseare concerned matters are not so easy. We are all practiced in thinking oflines —we are not all equally practiced in usingthe Inner Sense:One man’s consciousness extends only to thepleasant or unpleasant sensations caused in him by external impressions; anotherenlarges his inner sense to a consciousness of forms and quantity; a third inaddition to the image is conscious of the conception or notion of the thing; afourth attains to a notion of his notions—he reflects upon his own reflections;and thus we may say without impropriety that the one possesses more or lessinner sense than the other. This more or less betrays already that philosophyin its first principles must have a practical or moral as well as theoreticalor speculative side.As Blake put it, ‘A fool sees not the sametree that a wise man sees’. Coleridge assumes that these successivelevels, as it were, of the action of the Inner Sense are stages that can beattained—with practice—by the right people; that from notions of our notions wecan go on to an Inner Sense of the act of notioning, of the act of choosingamong our notions and framing them, comparing them and so on.
, and he beginshis philosophy with a certain act of contemplation, a realizing intuition whichbrings into existence what he calls ‘the first postulate of philosophy’ aninstrument to be used in his later descriptions.What he is asking us to do is to perform forourselves an act of contemplation, of realizing intuitions, at the same timeand in the same act becoming aware by the Inner Sense of what we are doing. Coleridge states regarding Imagination:The primary Imagination I hold to be theliving Power and prime agent of all human Perception, and as a repetition inthe finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I am.
Thesecondary Imagination I consider as an echo of the former, co-existing with theconscious will, yet still as identical with the primary in the kind of itsoperation… Fancy, on the contrary, has no other counters to play with, butfixities and definites. The Fancy is indeed no other than a mode of memoryemancipated from the order of time and space; …The Primary Imagination is normal perceptionthat produces the usual world of the senses, the world of the motor-buses,beef-steaks, and acquaintances, the framework of things and events within whichwe maintain our everyday existence, the world of the routine satisfaction ofour minimum exigencies. The Secondary Imagination, re-forming this world, givesus not only poetry—in the limited sense in which literary critics concernthemselves with it—but every aspect of the routine world in which it isinvested with other values than these necessary for our bare continuance asloving beings: all objects for which we can feel love, awe, admiration; everyquality beyond the account of physics, chemistry and the physiology ofsense-perception, nutrition, reproduction and locomotion; every awareness forwhich a civilized life is preferred by us to an uncivilized. All thesupernumerary perceptions which support civilized life are the product of theSecondary Imagination; and, though the process by which they are created arebest studied in words—in the highest examples, in poetry—the rest of the fabricof the world of values is of the same origin.
Thus, that there should be aconnection between poetry and ordering of life should not surprise.Against both Primary and SecondaryImagination is set Fancy—which collects and rearranges, without remaking them,units of meaning already constituted by Imagination. In Imagination the mind isgrowing; in Fancy it is merely reassembling products of its past creation,stereotyped as objects and obeying, as such ‘fixities and definites’, the lawsof Hartley’s association.Coleridge’s best-known formulation of thedifference between Imagination and Fancy comes at the end of the first volumeof Biographia.
Although many readershave gathered from them that the distinction is in some way ‘metaphysical’;that the Primary Imagination is a finite repetition of creation; that theSecondary Imagination is an echo of the primary; that it dissolves to recreateor, at least, ‘to idealize and to unify’; and that is vital, as opposed toFancy which ‘has no other counters to play with but fixities and definites’ andis ‘a mode of memory emancipated from the order of space and time’.Coleridge begins in Biographia after theopposition: “Milton had a highly imaginative, Cowley a very fanciful mind,” bycomparing the relation between fancy and imagination to that between deliriumand mania. Under the checks of the senses and reason, ofthe activity of thought and the vivacity of the accumulative memory, the mindin its normal state uses both Fancy and Imagination. Coleridge often insistedthat Fancy and Imagination are not exclusive of or inimical to one another. He says of Wordsworth’s account of them:I am disposed to conjecture, that he hasmistaken the co-presence of fancy and imagination for the operation of thelatter singly. A man may work with two very different tools at the same moment;each has its share in the work, but the work effected by each is very differentIn drawing with Coleridge, a line betweenImagination as a bringing into one—an esemplastic power—and Fancy as anassembling, aggregating power, we must bear in mind the purpose for which wedraw it.
The importance and the persistence of the purpose, and utility of thedistinction, establish the line, and it has no other establishment. “A poem contains the same elements as a prosecomposition,” said Coleridge in beginning his discussion of meter, “thedifference therefore must consist in a different combination of them, inconsequence of a different object being proposed”. He goes on to discussdifferent possible objects, or purposes, and does not here linger to considerwhat these ‘elements’ may be; but our understanding of his theory of meter willdepend upon our view of these elements.Coleridge, in his discussion of the functionsof meter, wavers between two conceptions; sometimes taking metre as a sensorypattern of the songs, sometimes making it the very motion of the meaning. Andthis is part of the explanation of the oddly disjointed condition of hisargument.After noting the superficial mnemonic unitythat verse confers, and ‘the particular pleasure found in anticipating therecurrence of sounds and quantities’—two important subsidiary points—heintroduces a definition of a poem in terms of purpose, truth and pleasure.A poem is that species of composition, whichis opposed to works of science, by proposing for its immediate object pleasure, not truth; and from all other species(having this object in common with it) it is discriminated by proposing toitself such delight from the whole,as is compatible with a distinct gratification from each component part.
Coleridge was fond of this definition. He evidentlyconsidered it as one of the best things he had done. Bu the more patiently weexamine it, the less satisfactory we shall find it.
Not only is there ambiguityin its chief term pleasure (as wellas in the opposed term, truth) butthe final phrase seems to be incorrigibly misleading in spite of its obscurity.The tenor of his description confuses pleasure as the ultimate effect (thesomething nobler) with pleasure as the immediate lure of interest.Coleridge hoped to do something muchambitious—to deduce a necessary connection between metre and poetry. Later,when he says, for example, that whatever is put into metre ‘must be such as tojustify the perpetual and distinct attention to each part, which an exactcorrespondent recurrence of accent and sound are calculated to excite’. Aglance at the foot of the page where he remarks that ‘philosophic critics ofall ages’ deny ‘the praises of a just poem… to an unsustained composition, fromwhich the reader collects rapidly the general result, unattracted by thecomponent parts’ shows us one thing he is doing with it. He is saying that apoem is something to be really read, not skimmed like a newspaper.In a brief conclusion, for Coleridge, Good Sense is the body of poetic genius, Fancyits drapery, Motion its life, and Imagination the soul that is everywhere, andin each; and forms all into one graceful and intelligent whole.
ReferencesHill, John Spencer: The romantic Imagination: a casebook. London. The Macmillan PressLtd, 1983.
Richards, I.A.: Coleridge on imagination. Bloomington.
Indiana University Press,1960.