Coleridge. Does anybody really know what Imagination is?
The great Greek philosopher, Aristotle, ruined poetry for the ages when he said, “Metaphor is the Soul of Poetry.”
Many in Aristotle’s wake have come to believe that poetry is metaphor. The deluded are legion who say, for instance, ‘Science tells us what things are, but poetry tells us what things are like. What things are like is closer to the truth than what things are, because we cannot know what they are.
Accordingly, they say, since Aristotle, the poets (who are metaphorical) have progressed on all levels, while the scientists (who are factual) have gone backwards.
The fact that scientists get all the credit for the way we live our lives today, and poets get none, is due to bad p.r. This misunderstanding is about to change, however. Think-tanks are thinking of ways, even as we speak.
The English Romantic and critic Samuel Taylor Coleridge made things even worse when he uttered his famous:
The fancy combines, but the imagination creates.
Coleridge never quite explained how imagination created, but the rise of science must have been fanciful, for chemists, botanists, astronomers, and physicists were combining for all they were worth, and changing the world as they were doing so.
Combining A and B is a lot more interesting than saying A is like B. So much worse for the poets, then, that the scientists understood this–and the poets did not.
True, the fancy will combine in ways that produce inferior works: a unicorn, for instance, combines horse and horn to create something new; but we all know this combination is not really creation. In fact, it’s silly. It’s fanciful. The unicorn is nothing more than a horse with a horn.
What is the imagination, then?
No one—not even Coleridge—has been able to say. You can take my word for it, or you can spend several years studying the Biographia Literaria. OK, I see you’re willing to take my word for it.
Poets always do better when they copy the scientists, instead of striking out on their own. The poet who is ashamed of poetry is usually the one who finds a way to make something scientific of it, and rescue poetry for the sake of knowledge. We owe a great debt to these timid, shamed, sensitive souls, not for their science, nor their poetry, but for the way they make poetry slightly more respectable.
John Crowe Ransom, poet, New Critic, Modernist, father of the modern academic writing program era, (along with Paul Engle and Allen Tate,) published an essay in 1938 in which this Southern conservative gentleman came to terms with the new poetry. He called it “pure poetry,” and in this essay (“Poets Without Laurels”) Ransom sounds like a chemist, a scientist making a discovery:
There is yet no general recognition of the possibility that an aesthetic effect may exist by itself, independent of morality or any other useful set of ideas. But the modern poet is intensely concerned with this possibility, and he has disclaimed social responsibility in order to secure this pure aesthetic effect. He cares nothing, professionally, about morals, or God, or native land. He has performed a work of dissociation and purified his art.
The traditional poets, according to Ransom, combined morals and charm; they made “virtue delicious.” He quotes “Sea Surface Full of Clouds” by Wallace Stevens to demonstrate the new order. The modern poets, like Stevens, (and the rest of Ransom’s friends,) do not give a hoot for virtue in poetry. Now Ransom, the chemist, holds forth:
The union of beauty with goodness and truth has been common enough to be regarded as natural. It is the dissociation which is unnatural and painful. …But when we talk about simple and compound experiences, we are evidently employing a chemical mode of speech to represent something we cannot make out. …I shall make a tentative argument from the analogy of chemistry. Lemonade is only a mechanical mixture, not very interesting to chemists. …Table salt, however is a true chemical compound; a molecule of it is NaCl. Understanding this, you do not claim to know the taste either of sodium or of chlorine when you say you are acquainted with the taste of salt.
…NaCl is found in the state of nature, where it is much commoner than either of its constituents. But suppose the chemists decided to have nothing to do with NaCl because of its compoundness, and undertook to extract from it the pure Na and Cl to serve on the table. …Poets are now under the influence of a perfectly arbitrary theory which I have called Puritanism. They pursue A, an aesthetic element…and will not permit the presence near it of M, the moral element, because that will produce the lemonade MA, and they do not approve of lemonade. …Is the old-fashioned poetry a mechanical mixture like lemonade or a chemical compound like table salt?
Lemonade is the result of fancy; NaCl is nature’s imagination.
The best critics are chemists.
Here is Randall Jarrell from his 1942 essay, “The End of the Line,” in which he argues modernism is merely an extentsion of romanticism, and that the vector of violent experimentalism called modernism has been exhausted:
“Romanticism holds in solution contradictory tendencies which, isolated and exaggerated in modernism, look startlingly opposed both to each other and to the earlier stages of romanticism.”
Jarrell names 13 complex qualities modernism and romanticism share, and metaphor isn’t one of them. To the new, modern chemists of poetry, metaphor is a quaint anachronism.
Of course, critics like Ransom and Jarrell are only following in the footsteps of the master, the godfather of the New Critics, T.S. Eliot. We quote from “Tradition and the Individual Talent (1920):
“Honest criticism and sensitive appreciation is directed not upon the poet but upon the poetry.”
With this statement begins the New Criticism and its science. To continue from “Tradition and the Individual Talent:”
“He must be quite aware of the obvious fact that art never improves, but that the material of art is never quite the same.”
When Eliot asks the poet to comprehend the “obvious fact” of the “material of art,” he is speaking of “material” as a scientist would. Again, from “Tradition:”
It is in this depersonalization that art may be said to approach the condition of science. I shall, therefore, invite you to consider, as a suggestive analogy, the action which takes place when a bit of finely filiated platinum is introduced into a chamber containing oxygen and sulphur dioxide. …When the two gases previously mentioned are mixed in the presence of a filament of platinum, they form sulphurous acid. This combination takes place only if the platinum is present; nevertheless the newly formed acid contains no trace of platinum and the platinum itself is apparently unaffected..The mind of the poet is the shred of platinum.
All that chemical “mixing” and “combining!” And look at the famous poem which appeared shortly afterwards:
April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.
The shred of platinum is like the forgetful snow: if it caused a reaction, it doesn’t recall. The platinum remains unaffected; Eliot’s mind prefers stasis; the breeding and mixing of April is painful to the mind of the poet. But leaving such analysis aside, Ransom and Eliot both agree that imagination combines profoundly; the fancy, less so. Metaphor is merely the default, background, mixing process. Metaphor is often pursued by a lower order of poets: the rain is like my tears, the city snowfall is like a white cathedral, etc. Combining can also be used by the fancy, as in our example above of the unicorn. We could say the imagination is concerned with: A plus B combines to produce C, not: A is like B. And it’s true that combination is more vital than metaphor. But whether a poet is fanciful or imaginative depends on the poet’s skill and the effect intended; it depends on how and what is combined.
Just as Ransom had a master, so Eliot had one. Eliot’s master was also an American with a European character, and one who wrote famous essays and famous poems. Eliot emerged as a major talent during this post-WW I period in London when he wrote reviews, or essays that were reviews, penetratingly on: Shakespeare, Dante, Ben Johnson, and Swinburne.
We quote now from the writer who perfected the essay-review in the previous century; this is from his 1845 review of Thomas Hood’s Prose and Verse:
‘Fancy,’ says the author of Aids to Reflection (who aided Reflection to much better purpose in his Genevieve—‘Fancy combines—Imagination creates.’ This was intended, and has been received, as a distinction; but it is a distinction without a difference—without even a difference of degree. The Fancy as nearly creates as the imagination, and neither at all. Novel conceptions are merely unusual combinations. The mind of man can imagine nothing which does not exist:—if it could, it would create not only ideally, but substantially… It may be said—‘We imagine a griffin, yet a griffin does not exist.’ Not the griffin, certainly, but its component parts. It is no more than a collation of known limbs—features—qualities. Thus with all which claims to be new—which appears to be a creation of the intellect:—it is a re-soluble into the old. …What we feel to be fancy, will be found still fanciful, whatever be the theme which engages it. No subject exalts it into the imagination. When Moore is termed a fanciful poet, the epithet is precisely applied; he is. He is fanciful in ‘Lalla Rookh,’ and had he written ‘Inferno,’ there he would have been fanciful still: for not only is he essentially fanciful, but he has no ability to be any thing more, unless at rare intervals…
The fact seems to be that Imagination, Fancy, Fantasy, and Humor, have in common the elements, Combination, and Novelty. The Imagination is the artist of the four. From novel arrangements of old forms which present themselves to it, it selects only such as are harmonious…The pure imagination chooses, from either beauty or deformity, only the most combinable things hitherto uncombined…
And here, from the Thomas Hood review, is the chemistry:
…as often analogously happens in physical chemistry, so not unfrequently does it occur in this chemistry of the intellect, that the admixture of two elements will result in a something that shall have nothing of the quality of one of them—or even nothing of the qualities of either. The range of Imagination is therefore, unlimited. Its materials extend throughout the Universe.
So is Coleridge’s formula undone. And, in another review, this one of Hawthorne, Aristotle’s wisdom is overthrown:
In defense of allegory, (however, or for whatever object, employed,) there is scarcely one respectable word to be said. Its best appeals are made to the fancy—that is to say, to our sense of adaptation, not of matters proper, but of matters improper for the purpose, of the real with the unreal; having never more of intelligible connection than has something with nothing, never half so much of effective affinity as has the substance for the shadow.
—Edgar Poe, from an 1847 review of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Twice Told Tales