Samuel Taylor Coleridge was an English poet, philosopher, literary
critic, and theologian who, along with William Wordsworth, founded the Romantic Movement in England. He is the foremost poet-critic of modern English tradition, renowned
for the influence and scope of his thinking about literature as much as for his
innovative verse. Active in the wake of the French Revolution as a dissenting
pamphleteer, he inspired a brilliant generation of writers and attracted the
patronage of progressive men of the rising middle class. His poems of this
period, meditative, speculative, and strangely oracular, put off early readers
but endured the doubts of Wordsworth and Robert Southey to become recognized
classics of the romantic idiom.
explanation of metaphysical principles were
popular topics of discourse in academic communities throughout the 19th and
20th 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 cornerstone
of modern English culture, remains an incomparable source of informed
reflection on the brave new world whose birth pangs he attended.
Coleridge renounced poetic vocation in his thirtieth year
and set out to define and defend the art as a practicing critic. In addition to his
poetry, Coleridge also wrote persuasive pieces of literary criticism
including Biographia Literaria, a collection of his
thoughts and opinions on literature which he published in 1817. The work
delivered both biographical explanations of the author’s life as well as his
impressions on literature. Coleridge was
pre-eminently responsible for importing the new German critical philosophy. The collection
contained an analysis of a broad range of philosophical principles of
literature ranging from Aristotle to Immanuel Kant and Schelling and applied
them to the poetry of peers such as William Wordsworth.
In the Biographia
(after all his endless preliminaries, warnings and preparations) Coleridge’s
theory of the Imagination started with a theory of the act of consciousness, or
of knowledge, or, as he called it, ‘the coincidence or coalescence of an OBJECT
with a SUBJECT’.
Coleridge asserts that Philosophy uses what
he calls the Inner Sense and that therefore it cannot ‘like geometry,
appropriate to every construction a corresponding outward intuition’.
But where acts and operations of the Inner Sense
are concerned matters are not so easy. We are not all equally experienced in
using the Inner Sense:
One man’s consciousness extends only to the
pleasant or unpleasant sensations caused in him by external impressions; another
enlarges his inner sense to a consciousness of forms and quantity; a third in
addition to the image is conscious of the conception or notion of the thing; a
fourth 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 less
inner sense than the other. This more or less betrays already that philosophy
in its first principles must have a practical or moral as well as theoretical
or speculative side.
As Blake put it, ‘A fool sees not the same
tree that a wise man sees’.
Coleridge assumes that these successive
levels, as it were, of the action of the Inner Sense are stages that can be achieved—with
practice—by the right people; that from notions of our notions we can go on to
an Inner Sense of the act of notioning, of the act of choosing among our
notions and framing them, comparing them and so on., and he begins his
philosophy with a certain act of examination, a realizing intuition which
brings into existence what he calls ‘the first postulate of philosophy’ an tool
to be used in his later accounts.
What he is asking us to do is to perform for
ourselves an act of contemplation, of realizing intuitions, at the same time
and 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 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. The
secondary Imagination I consider as an echo of the former, co-existing with the
conscious will, yet still as identical with the primary in the kind of its
operation… Fancy, on the contrary, has no other counters to play with, but
fixities and definites. The Fancy is indeed no other than a mode of memory
emancipated from the order of time and space; …
The Primary Imagination is normal perception
that produces the common world of the senses, the world of the beef-steaks, motor-buses,
and acquaintances, the framework of events and things within which we maintain
our everyday existence, the world of the routine fulfilment of our necessities.
The Secondary Imagination, re-forming this world, gives us not only poetry—in
the limited sense in which literary critics concern themselves with it—but
every aspect of the routine world in which it is invested with other values
than these necessary for our bare continuance as loving beings: all objects for
which we can feel love, awe, admiration; every quality beyond the account of
physics, chemistry and the physiology of sense-perception, nutrition,
reproduction and locomotion; every awareness for which a civilized life is
preferred by us to an uncivilized. All the supernumerary perceptions which
support civilized life are the product of the Secondary Imagination; and,
though the process by which they are created are best studied in words—in the
highest examples, in poetry—the rest of the fabric of the world of values is of
the same origin. Thus, that there should be a connection between ordering of
life and poetry should not surprise.
Against Primary Imagination and Secondary
Imagination is set Fancy—which collects and rearranges, without remaking them,
units of meaning already established by Imagination. In Imagination the mind is
growing; in Fancy it is merely reassembling products of its past creation,
stereotyped as objects and obeying, as such ‘fixities and definites’, the laws
of Hartley’s association.
Coleridge’s best-known formulation of the
difference between Imagination and Fancy comes at the end of the first volume
of Biographia. Many readers have
gathered from them that the distinction is in some way ‘metaphysical’; that the
Primary Imagination is a finite repetition of creation; that the Secondary
Imagination, an echo of the primary; that it dissolves to recreate or, at
least, ‘to idealize and to unify’; and that is vital, as opposed to Fancy which
‘has no other counters to play with but fixities and definites’ and is ‘a mode
of memory emancipated from the order of space and time’.
Coleridge begins in Biographia after the
opposition: “Milton had a highly imaginative, Cowley a very fanciful mind,” by
comparing the relation between fancy and imagination to that between delirium
Under the checks of the senses and reason, of
the activity of thought and the exuberance of the accumulative memory, the mind
in its normal state uses both Fancy and Imagination. Coleridge insisted that
Fancy and Imagination are not exclusive of or unwelcoming to one another.
He says of Wordsworth’s account of them:
I am disposed to conjecture, that he has
mistaken the co-presence of fancy and imagination for the operation of the
latter 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 different
In drawing with Coleridge, a line between
Imagination as a bringing into one—an esemplastic power—and Fancy as an amassing,
aggregating power, we must bear in mind the purpose for which we draw it. The
importance and the persistence of the purpose, and utility of the distinction,
establish the line, and it has no other establishment.
“A poem contains the same elements as a prose
composition,” said Coleridge in beginning his discussion of meter, “the
difference therefore must consist in a different combination of them, in
consequence of a different object being proposed”. He goes on to discuss
different possible objects, or purposes, and does not here linger to consider
what these ‘elements’ may be; but our understanding of his theory of meter will
depend upon our view of these elements.
Coleridge, in his discussion of the functions
of meter, wavers between two conceptions; sometimes taking metre as a sensory
pattern of the songs, sometimes making it the very motion of the meaning. And
this is part of the explanation of the oddly incoherent condition of his
After noting the superficial mnemonic unity
that verse confers, and ‘the particular pleasure found in anticipating the
recurrence of sounds and quantities’—two important subsidiary points—he
introduces a definition of a poem in terms of purpose, truth and pleasure.
A poem is that species of composition, which
is 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 to
itself such delight from the whole,
as is compatible with a distinct gratification from each component part.
Coleridge was fond of this definition. He
considered it as one of the best things he had done. But the more patiently we
examine it, the less satisfactory we shall find it. Not only is there ambiguity
in its chief term pleasure (as well
as in the opposed term, truth) but
the final phrase seems to be irredeemably misleading in spite of its obscurity.
The tenor of his description confuses pleasure as the ultimate outcome (the
something nobler) with pleasure as the immediate lure of interest.
Coleridge hoped to do something much
ambitious—to deduce a necessary connection between metre and poetry. Later, for
example, when he says, that whatever is put into metre ‘must be such as to
justify the perpetual and distinct attention to each part, which an exact
correspondent recurrence of accent and sound are calculated to excite’. A
glance at the foot of the page where he remarks that ‘philosophic critics of
all ages’ deny ‘the praises of a just poem… to an unsustained composition, from
which the reader collects rapidly the general result, unattracted by the
component parts’ shows us one thing he is doing with it. He is saying that a
poem 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, Fancy
its drapery, Motion its life, and Imagination the soul that is everywhere, and
in each; and forms all into one graceful and intelligent whole.