[Editor’s note: Below is the first part of Prof. Thomas F. Bertonneau’s essay on Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s theory of the imagination. The argument of part two — which will be published next week — is dependent on that of part one, since the two constitute a complete essay. There are, however, insightful and thought-provoking comments throughout, perhaps particularly so since imagination seems so often to be lacking in the contemporary era.]
Part I: Coleridge’s Theory of the Imagination.
Poetry is, of itself, often a theory of poetry. Consider Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “Kubla Khan or: A Vision in a Dream” (1816). In the opening lines, Coleridge plays with the etymological definition of poetry as making. The Khan decrees that the pleasure-dome should rise whereupon his servants presumably conjure it forth:
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.
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round;
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.
The concluding, third stanza of “Kubla Khan” offers richer material yet for a speculative reconstruction of Coleridge’s ideas of poetry and the poet. The lyric subject of the poem begins to speak in the first person, recounting how once he in vision overheard entrancing song (the “damsel with a dulcimer… singing of Mount Abora”); and how, just now, in the lyric present, he would like to reproduce such sung tones. That is to say, he wishes upon himself the role of poet or bard without, however, being able to rise to it. What stifles his ambition? If the event occurred, he prophesies –
To such a deep delight ’twould win me,
That with music loud and long,
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.
The phrase “music loud and long” suggests the practice of a Homer, a Vergil, or a Milton, or even, one might daresay, a Wordsworth. An epic poem equals a grand architecture of stone, “that dome in air,” in sublime achievement. The same phrase also implies longevity of reputation, literary immortality, and greatness. The effort of making requires nourishment, of course, hence the references to “honey-dew” and “the milk of Paradise” in the two final lines of the broken-off poem. “Honey-dew” and “the milk of paradise” belong, however, to no ordinary menu. The names bring to mind heavenly inspiration and primordiality, but by far the most startling image of the stanza is the sacrificial circle. The poet as prophet is unwelcome among the people, who fear and demonize him as a monster of “flashing eyes” and “floating hair.” Coleridge feels no requirement to explicate the inevitable consequence of the consensus to “weave a circle round him thrice” in a mood of “holy dread.” Yet even in his immolation, the poet-prophet gives form, provoking the ritual circle of the primitive cult that assaults him. It would hardly be implausible to say that the ritual circle is the foundation of the “dome in air.” It is the primordial form to which the later, architectural form hearkens back commemoratively.
A brief review of Coleridge’s overt theory of poetry in his quirky masterpiece Biographia Literaria (1817), Chapter II, will affirm the foregoing tentative reading of “Kubla Khan.” Addressing the question of the “supposed irritability of men of Genius,” Coleridge opines it customary that “readers in general take part against the author, in favor of the critic.” The public, Coleridge asserts, shows its “readiness [to] apply to all poets the old sarcasm of Horace upon the scribblers of his time,” namely, “Genius irritabile vatum.” The public is irritable; Genius is the agent of its irritation. Again: “A debility and dimness of imaginative power… render[s] the mind liable to superstition and fanaticism.” It follows in Coleridge’s argument that “Genius,” invariably capitalized, although creative and necessary, nevertheless in the moment of its apparition keenly troubles the generality of men; perhaps for shedding light on responsibility or indicting laziness, Genius arouses men’s resentment, and forms an object for their spontaneous revilement.
In the Biographia, Chapter IV, Coleridge takes Wordsworth’s reception as an example. The publication in 1798 of the Lyrical Ballads aroused the widespread clamorous fervor of those who “had been all their lives admiring without judgment, and were now about to censure without reason.” The intensity of the agitation and its persistence together testify to Coleridge of Wordsworth’s power as poet. Hostility, writes Coleridge, sees in Wordsworth’s authorship a “bare and bald counterfeit of poetry,” which reposes “below criticism,” but which “engrosses criticism.” The poet conveys to his audience, will-they or nill-they, “the depth and height of the ideal world around forms, incidents, and situations, of which, for the common view, custom had bedimmed the lustre, had dried up the sparkle and the dew drops.” The calumnies against the poet attest the poet’s stature even as they express a lowly spite in respect of it. The matutinal “dew drops” recall the “honey-dew,” the divine food, of “Kubla Khan.” Poetry, in light of Coleridge’s just-quoted remark, might be said to renew the original nourishment of humanity’s latterly malnourished spirit. Of course, it is sometimes the wont of sickness to reject nourishment and so to persevere in its own steadily weakening condition.
Revelation lapses into the writ of dead letters, just as inspiration decays into forgetfulness. This is how humanity’s Fall, in Coleridge’s view, regularly, if not perpetually, renews itself. The poetic faculty opposes, sometimes successfully and sometimes not, the habitual slide of nations into spiritual sloth. In his poem “To William Wordsworth,” Coleridge writes:
The truly great
Have all one age, and from one visible space
Shed influence! They, both in power and act,
Are permanent, and Time is not with them,
Save as it worketh for them, they in it.
Nor less a sacred Roll, than those of old,
And to be placed, as they, with gradual fame
Among the archives of mankind, thy work
Makes audible a linkéd lay of Truth,
Of Truth profound a sweet continuous lay,
Not learnt, but native, her own natural notes!
Coleridge uses another word for the poetic faculty, Imagination, which he distinguishes from mere fancy, on the one hand, and reason on the other. In the Biographia, Coleridge begins his discussion by the simple expedient of deploying the two derivative adjectives: “Milton had a highly imaginative, Cowley a very fanciful mind.” Fancy works by association on objects and ideas already in general circulation; it finds novel arrangements in the existing congeries of things; it catalogues and anatomizes. Fancy proceeds from the external world, through the senses, into the mind. That is to say, it is determined from without, and its material is the mental representation of objects. Fancy operates in time; it is ever recalling things, tracing out their cause-effect relations, and noting the patterns of phenomena.
In the Biographia, Chapter XIII, Coleridge gives his definition of Imagination, qualifying it first by the codicil that Imagination comes under two aspects, the Primary and the Secondary, the latter differing from the former in degree. “The primary IMAGINATION,” Coleridge writes, “I hold to be the living Power and prime Agent of all human Perception and as a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM.” Imagination “dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to re-create; or where this process is rendered impossible, yet still at all events it struggles to idealize and unify.” To Imagination Coleridge ascribes the adjective “vital, even as all objects (as objects) are essentially fixed and dead.” In the Biographia, Chapter XV, Coleridge enlarges his definition: Imagination is implicated in the “nature of poetry.” For Coleridge the question, “what is poetry,” is identical with the question, “what is a poet?” The poet “brings the whole soul of man into activity, with the subordination of the faculties to each other, according to their worth and dignity.” The poet “diffuses a tone and spirit of unity, that blends, and (as it were) fuses, each into each, by that synthetic and magical power, to which we have exclusively appropriated the name of imagination.”
Where Fancy has to do only with items in, or parts of, the realm of what is already created, Imagination has to do with vitalization, revivification, creativity, and wholes rather than with parts. In a world that is always-already devitalized, passive, and mechanistic, the poet, through the faculty of Imagination, calls things back to life, instructs men in dignity, and endows them with the renewal of their living power.
Of Coleridge’s definition of imagination and his theory of the poet and poetry, Owen Barfield has observed in his History in English Words (1925) that it owes something to Shakespeare, to whom Coleridge devoted much scholarly work. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare writes how “Imagination bodies forth / The forms of things unknown.” Barfield calls attention to the “mystical conception which the word [imagination] embodies in these lines,” which “is not found again until the Romantic Movement has begun.” In Coleridge, who gathered the notion from its practice in Wordsworth’s poems, Imagination becomes “the mysterious faculty of superimposing on Nature a magical colour or mood created in the observer by the fictions of genius or the myths of bygone ages, expanding until it includes the contemplation of Nature impassioned by any effluence arising from within – it may be emotion or it may be the individual memory.” The Romantic Imagination, in Barfield’s reading of Coleridge, requires that “deep must call unto deep.” Coleridge, according to Barfield, grasped Imagination “as creative in the full religious sense of the word.”
M. H. Abrams, in his study of “Coleridge, Baudelaire, and Modernist Poetics” (collected in The Correspondent Breeze, 1984) finds in Coleridge’s essay “On Poesy or Art” (1818) a helpful adjunct to the somewhat disjoint discussions of Genius and Imagination in the Biographia. Abrams points out how, in the essay, “Coleridge is not claiming… that the artist reproduces spiritual forms which he discerns behind the symbolic surface of nature.” But rather, Coleridge, on Abrams’ authority, asserts that “art… is the result of an evolving process of imagination which accords with the generative process going on within vital nature itself.” Barfield had pointed out that for Coleridge Imagination is “organic.” What Abrams calls the “evolving process” is synonymous with Barfield’s adjective. To exercise Imagination is to participate in the larger ongoing Act of Creation that produced and sustains the cosmos, including humanity. In another essay (also collected in The Correspondent Breeze), this time on Coleridge’s poem “The Eolian Harp” (1795), Abrams links the poet’s theory of poetry to his theory of nature. Abrams writes: “Coleridge’s aim was not to replace experimental science by speculative science, but instead to develop a counter-metaphysic to the metaphysical foundations of modern science; his philosophy of nature, in short, was not science, nor anti-science, but metascience.”
The present discussion began by invoking Coleridge’s “theory of poetry,” as suggested by the metaphors of his poem “Kubla Khan.” “Theory” is a good word that has fallen into abuse and requires, as one might say, imaginative revitalization. Contemporary academic language is full of “theories,” every single one of which consists in a hostile repudiation of the past, including that element of the historically recent past which goes by the name of the Romantic Movement; contemporary “theories” all uniformly validate themselves as “scientific.” “Theory” has its etymon in the Greek noun theoreia and in the related verb theasthein, which incidentally also participate in the concept of theater. Etymologically, theory names the intense, unprejudiced contemplation of phenomena that necessarily precedes describing and understanding them. In a modern context, one might better refer to Coleridge’s discovery of Imagination and to his discovery of the nature of poetry. Coleridge insists that he is addressing realities and that poetry addresses realities – and beyond them the highest Reality.
Thomas F. Bertonneau earned a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the University of Califonia at Los Angeles in 1990. He has taught at a variety of institutions, and has been a member of the English Faculty at SUNY Oswego since 2001. He is the author of three books and numerous articles on literature, art, music, religion, anthropology, film, and politics. He is a frequent contributor to Anthropoetics, the ISI quarterlies, and others.