Isn’t it Romantic

The Spirit is Hurled Forward
According to Coleridge in his Biographia Literaria, there is a significant difference between “imagination” and “fancy” and that difference is not one of degree. Fancy is not a more elementary or pedestrian version of imagination, though current usage might deem it so. Instead, Coleridge posits imagination as “the Soul that is everywhere” and fancy as mere adornment. A true poet, one that employs poetic genius, will demonstrate imagination, whereas a poet writing compositions that can be deemed “poems” merely through formal criteria may demonstrate fancy. To make such large claims requires additional explication of the two terms, and Coleridge attempts to provide definitions in chapter 13. A rough summary of the definitions can offer this: imagination possesses agency to change, to create and to synthesize; fancy is merely associative memory taken out of its generative context and manipulated to provoke a thought or feeling or an additional association in the reader..

In this sense, I continue to associate the fancy with the form and craft of a poem, especially tropes and symbols, but also elements like meter and rhyme. It is through fancy that an evocative image is created, that the aural qualities of a poem conjure or contribute to a poem’s tone. Imagination and its role is more difficult to articulate, hence its association with genius rather than craft. It is alchemic, actually modifying the raw materials that the poet has to work with – i.e. memory, data, sensation – into something new. Hence, the evocative image that the imaginative poet employs is not one ressusitated from memory, but one that has be created anew and that represents a transformation of the disparate parts of experience into a unified and (in the Kantian sense) sublime whole.

Personally, I do believe that this distinction can be made, and that’s possibly because I’ve already interpreted Coleridge’s distinction into one I find feasible – the generative vs. the associative, the alchemic vs. the algebraic. To call the imagination alchemic, however, points to the problematic in Coleridges definition of (and my acceptance of his definition of) the imagination, as the alchemic implies the magical, the supernatural. So while I agree that the truly imaginative transforms, creates and synthesizes, neither Coleridge nor I can articulate how.

However, it appears that imagination is the crucial element that distinguishes a mere poem from that that is a product of genius. Like Kant’s beautiful, Coleridge’s poem resides in the realm of form. Coleridge accedes that a poem can be defined on mere formal qualities (meter and rhyme), but he also brings in the concept of pleasure and how it is achieved by attaining the end, but how in poetry, pleasure is the main purpose of the poem, similar to Kant’s finality of form without end (which is the beautiful).

Correlations to Kant don’t end with Kant’s definition of the beautiful. What may be considered a layover from enlightenment thinking, Coleridge (unlike Wordsworth) perceives the poem as consisting of many parts and that the poem becomes a poem when all the parts are synthesized into a whole (similarly to how imagination must create anew and create a whole). Those parts can’t just be mashed up together within a poem’s structure, but must “harmonize” with each other and “mutually explain and support each other.” This synthesis parallels the totality or the completion of the object of which the Kantian imagination can’t conceive, and it is the act of the mind attempting to conceive of the poetic whole that Coleridge compares to the retrogressive movement of a serpent: a recoiling back only to spring forward, just like Kant’s recoil of imagination which is supplanted by a springing forward of reason. “Praecipitandus est liber spirtus, says Petronius” offers Coleridge. The free spirit (the spirit that is unencumbered by a priori concepts and desires Kant might suggest) is hurled on.

Because Language Itself is Poetry
For Coleridge, the poet’s immediate purpose is to communicate truth, but his transcendental purpose is to communicate pleasure. If the end goal is indeed to communicate truth, and the poem is the medium through which to accomplish the end, and pleasure is what is achieved when we attain the end goal, and pleasure is what is most important here, then the medium must be an instrument of pleasure. What exemplifies pleasure is the transformation/synthesis achieved through imagination, and consequently the poet is responsible for the synthesis of his reader, and not just any ordinary synthesis, but a synthesis that “orders” the reader’s faculties according to the worth of those faculties. The poet, then, “brings the whole soul of the man into activity.”

Shelley, similarly, in his “In Defense of Poetry,” asserts that poet have an innate sense of absolute “order.” The order I believe he is referring to is the ordering of the cosmos that began with chaos and the division of the earth from the air and the air from the sea and the sea from the earth and continues with the rhythms and pulses of life. The poet’s sense is innate because while he may not be able to articulate what that order (and beauty) is, he knows when language imitates or captures or compliments that order. He knows because the experience of that intersection causes pleasure and it is purpose to communicate the pleasure of that order (which becomes the basis for all knowledge and represents eternal truths) to his readers. Shelley takes this one step further to demonstrate that because poetry has a direct impact on society, that the role of the poet is a civic one, a sort of legislator of cultural and social achievement.

And whereas Coleridge cites imagination as the primary source and tool of the genius poet with which to fulfill his role, it appears that Shelley’s concept of imagination seems to be that of the creator of language, and language itself is the primary source and tool of the genius poet. Language has a primary relationship with thought. There is no barrier between conception and expression in words (as opposed to music, paints, and sculpture) because language is a product of the generative faculty of the mind (imagination) to reflect the contemplative faculty of the mind, which is thought. Consequently, Shelley believes that “language itself is poetry” because, like the poet, language seeks to align itself with the eternal order, to replicate (as oppose to catalogue and understand) that order and to trace “the good which exists in the relation, subsisting, first between existence and perception, and secondly between perception and expression.”

As a result of this importance of language and its role to replicate the eternal order (which is characterized by relationships, i.e. those of existence and perception, then perception and expression), metaphors play a vital role in poetry. Metaphors are associative and map relationships between things, between and thing and an emotion, between emotions, between emotions and conceptions, between concepts, between concepts and things, etc. Metaphors map the complexity of the eternal order by demonstrating the interconnectedness of everything. Or as Shelley says it, metaphor “marks the unapprehended relations of things and perpetuates their apprehensions.” These connections become part of our linguistic representation of the eternal order, are touchstones to readers’ understanding of the eternal order that the poet is trying to communicate. Considering that language, in its formation is associative and metaphorical (i.e. the “word” table is associated with the “object” table and soon becomes “table” in both a real and unreal sense (it is a table conceptually but we can’t eat off of it), it is easy to make the jump with Shelley in understanding language as poetry.

The Chameleon Poet
If language is poetry because it it has a direct relationship with the eternal order, then poets are poets because they also have a close relationship with the eternal order. Poets have, what Shelley calls, “a predominance of this faculty of approximation to the beautiful” which is “the relation between this highest pleasure [i.e.a glimpse of the order] and its cause.” Poets are highly sensitive to the beauty and the pleasure of the eternal order, which in itself is good and right. Keats also emphasizes the poet’s sensitivity, stating “that with a great poet, the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.” Yet Keats goes a bit further than Shelley in proposing that the poet is a chameleon without a “self,” and without “identity.” He has no “unchangeable attribute” that would make it possible to attribute his words to opinion or bias. In other words, if a poet has identity or “self,” then his words could be construed as personal as opposed to universal, of the times as opposed to eternal.

As it is, the poet is also amoral in the sense that without identity, the poet has no desires or opinions or, in Kantian terms, a priori concepts which would limit his imagination or delight in all things. The chamelion poet is not shocked or turned off by portrayals of the dark underbelly of humanity. While the poet has the strength and the knowledge to discern between good and evil, it is not the poet’s job to privilege good over evil. Shelley also makes this distinction. While the poet’s tool is the imagination (which in itself determines what is morally good), a poet would “do ill to embody his own conceptions of right and wrong, which are usually those of his place and time.” Shelley designates the interpretation of good and evil as an inferior task to the creation of poetry, which is the creation of the cause of good and evil, i.e. the (re)creation of the eternal order.


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