Notes on Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Biographia Literaria

from CHAPTER 13
On the imagination, or esemplastic power

1) The Imagination then I consider either as primary, or secondary. 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 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 agency, and differing only in degree, and in the mode of its operation. It 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 to unify. It is essentially vital, even as all objects (as objects) are essentially fixed and dead.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge divides imagination into two parts: the primary and secondary imagination. As the "living Power and prime Agent," the primary imagination is attributed a divine quality, namely the creation of the self, the "I Am." However, because it is not subject to human will, the poet has no control over the primary imagination. It is the intrinsic quality of the poet that makes him or her a Creator; harking back to Wordsworth, the primary imagination can be likened to poetic genius. The secondary imagination is an echo of the primary. It is like the former in every way except that it is restricted in some capacity. It co-exists with the conscious will, but because of this, the secondary imagination does not have the unlimited power to create. It struggles to attain the ideal but can never reach it. Still the primary governs the secondary, and imagination gives rise to our ideas of perfection. In this way, Coleridge and Shelley share the belief that inimitable forms of creation can only exist in the mind. As soon as the poet decides to write down his or her poem, for example, the work is inevitably diminished.

2) 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; while it is blended with, and modified by that empirical phenomenon of the will, which we express by the word CHOICE. But equally with the ordinary memory the Fancy must receive all its materials ready made from the law of association.

Coleridge also adds Fancy in his description of the Imagination. According to his philosophy, Fancy is even lower than the secondary imagination, which is already of the earthly realm. Fancy is the source of our baser desires. It is not a creative faculty but a repository for lust.

3) from CHAPTER 14
...the two cardinal points of poetry, the power of exciting the sympathy of the reader by faithful adherence to the truth of nature, and the power of giving the interest of novelty by the modifying colours of imagination. The sudden charm which accidents of light and shade, which moon-light or sun-set diffused over a known and familiar landscape, appeared to represent the practicability of combining both.

Truth seems to be one of the preoccupations of the Romantic poets. In this sense, the truth of nature will always remain superior to poetry, which is an artifice. However, imagination is that aspect of poetry that provides another way of looking at nature so that what is ordinary and familiar can be seen anew.

4) What is poetry? is so nearly the same question with what is a poet? that the answer to the one is involved in the solution of the other. For it is a distinction resulting from the poetic genius itself, which sustains and modifies the images, thoughts and emotions of the poet's own mind. The poet, described in ideal perfection, brings the whole soul of man into activity, with the subordination of its faculties to each other according to their relative worth and dignity. He diffuses a tone and spirit of unity that blends and (as it were) fuses by that synthetic and magical power…the imagination. This power, first put in action by the will and understanding...reveals itself in the balance or reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities: of sameness, with difference; of the general, with the concrete; the idea, with the image; the individual, with the old and familiar objects; a more than usual state of emotion with more than usual order; judgement ever awake and steady self-possession, with enthusiasm and feeling profound or vehement; and while it blends and harmonizes the natural and the artificial, still subordinates art to nature; the manner to the matter; and our admiration of the poet to our sympathy with the poetry.

The soul is the imagination. Coleridge's assertion that the imagination is both synthetic and magical only reaffirms what is already known about him. His works, especially in the Lyrical Ballads, deal with the supernatural in so far as they express real emotions regardless of whether one believes in the phenomena. Similar to William Blake's philosophy, this power of the imagination is revealed in oppositions.

5) "Doubtless," as Sir John Davies observes of the soul (and his words may with slight alteration be applied, and even more appropriately to the poetic IMAGINATION.)

Doubtless this could not be, but that she turns
Bodies to spirit by sublimation strange,
As fire converts to fire the things it burns,
As we our food into our nature change.

From their gross matter she abstracts their forms,
And draws a kind of quintessence from things;
Which to her proper nature she transforms
To bear them light on her celestial wings.

Thus does she, when from individual states
She doth abstract the universal kinds;
Which then re-clothed in divers names and fates
Steal access through our senses to our minds.

The soul is equated to the poetic imagination in this poem. Ascribing the poem to the latter, the first stanza deals with how imagination gives life to the body. It transforms a mere body to a spirit. Percy Shelley in his A Defence of Poetry later echoes the idea that the spirit is superior to the body. What the imagination consumes it makes a part of itself, "as fire converts to fire the things it burns," and as the food we eat become part of us. The second stanza discusses how the imagination takes material from the earthly realm and idealizes them so that they can transform into "proper nature," which goes back to Coleridge's idea of " the truth of nature" and the purpose of poetry. Finally, the third stanza is also a return to another of the cardinal points of poetry, which is to let imagination offer us new and interesting ways of looking at something we are already familiar with. Sensual pleasures are transformed into cerebral ones.

6) from CHAPTER 17
The best part of human language, properly so called, is derived from reflection on the acts of the mind itself. It is formed by a voluntary appropriation of fixed symbols to internal acts, to processes and results of imagination, the greater part of which have no place in the consciousness of uneducated man...

This begins Coleridge's objection to Wordsworth's use of the term "real language o f men." According to Coleridge, such a generalization cannot exist, for men are individuals by nature. Furthermore, he is attributing acts of the imagination to educated men, or in this case, those who possess poetic genius. What is apparent is that the language of poetry undoubtedly comes from the imagination. The way the poet perceives the world and, to use Wordsworth's term, translates it for everyone else is an act of the imagination.