Appearance and Reality

There is a passage in Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria which I cannot at the moment, until I have written this down, get out of my mind. In it, Coleridge distinguishes between Imagination and Fancy as they have a bearing on the writing of poetry. Imagination is the name for the quality in a man which he inherits from the ‘infinite I AM’. And in God’s hands, so to speak, it is that which eternally creates the world.

Creation, that is to say, at every moment, sustains the world in being by imagining it, or imaging it forward. This is how Coleridge understood creation. That it is neither physical, nor purely mental, and that it proceeds from the mind of the creator in the form of solid and timely shapes and events.

He explains this along the way in brief, and goes on to point out that when we experience and live life, we are sharing that power with God, in order to experience it. This explains, among other things, why everyone has a different experience of life. We have the freedom to decide what happens in it, and how we see it, because it springs all of it from our primordial and inescapable faculty of imagination. God provides the greater vision, and we see parts of it, or refuse to see parts of it, by control of what he calls ‘imagination’. Our experience of life is our inescapable destiny of living it from inside our own Godlike creative faculty. This he calls ‘primary imagination’. Through defects of intelligence or of a developed sense of time and space, some people may have a world and life which is much smaller than that of others; some may have a very intense experience of a constricted area of God’s world. This faculty continues to operate during sleep, in the form of dreams – which could be thought of as our imagination creating a world completely inside the world which God created. This primary imagination is largely beyond our control.

There is a second order imagination also. Unlike the primary, which is basically foisted upon us, and which we cannot easily escape, because it is like a precondition of being alive at all, the secondary imagination is derivative. I conceive of it as follows: it is possible to escape the life we have been given, and to ‘imagine’ and create a totally new world. For example, we can form and put together a world of our own in times of reverie or despair, or hope. A child imagines he is a space soldier, and envisages it complete, though small. Or, maybe the mind creates a whole world in which we seem to live during a night-time dream, during sleep. This is the activity of the secondary imagination, I do not know whether primary or secondary. As another example, and perhaps what Coleridge has in mind exactly, consider a person who decides to simply leave the world, and create a world for himself, where he is loved by a lost beloved, or where his children are with him when he has actually lost them; under such intense emotional pressure, a person is capable of finding the means of creating scenes and impressions which remedy this loss.

Where such imagination creeps into the ‘normal’ experience will be an unhealthy symptom of mental collapse. But all human experience has this quality of avoidance of actual cold facts. We always have some imaginative recreation of the world and life in the form of memories, and where the mind stretches out to the future in the form of hopes.

And because imagination is the foundation of reality under all conditions, our pretention to know anything certainly about the world is ungrounded.

The poet, Coleridge says, uses his secondary imagination to create a complete and previously non-existing world view, to create a work of art. Fancy, by contrast, is what makes a piece of writing not poetry but merely versification. Fancy is a more superficial mental activity of joining things which already exist into pleasing shapes and patterns; it takes things which are near at hand, or remembered from the mind, and plays with them to make entertaining statements and ideas.

Coleridge lays out this account of poetry, and of imagination, as follows, in Chapter XIII :

‘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 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 agency, and differing only in degree, and in the mode of its operation. It dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to recreate; or where this process is rendered impossible, yet still at all events it struggles to idealise and to unify. It is essentially vital, even as all objects (as objects) are essentially fixed and dead.

‘Fancy, on the other hand, has no other counters to play with, but fixities and definites. The fancy is indeed no other than the mode of memory emancipated from the order of time and space; while it is blended with, and modified by 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.’

What most strikes me is that Coleridge, a dedicated student of German Idealism, sets out in English for one of the few times that I am aware of, the Kantian and later Hegelian notion of the derivation of reality from the Transcendental Apperception; and that this is the character of creation or reality as a whole. For me, this root of all existence and all time and space has its seat in the individual mind; and that God also creates me and the world with the same faculty, means:

1. That we share God’s mind

2. That creation is an eternally performed activity

3. That the seat of all existence is the living individual human being

Kant, who first expressed these ideas first, did so because there is no other way of resolving the contradictions of the division between the subjective consciousness on the one hand, and the material world on the other.

Laying out here in writing Coleridge’s account of reality and imagination serves to allow me to clarify my own position on these things.


That ends, pretty much, the serious content of this little essay. I have only to make some desultory remarks about the importance of this passage from Coleridge, and my own thinking about ‘imagination’, as a set of personal reflections. And I am too shameless to keep them to myself.

I am not interested very much in Coleridge’s distinction between Fancy and Imagination. A couple of decades ago when reading Blake and Yeats with the enthusiasm of a child, I was so. And Coleridge’s quotation has not been taken directly from the Biographia, either. I read it many years ago and not recently. Rather, I happened to find in my library Eliot’s 1932 lectures on 'The Use of Poetry'. This book has a great significance for me because I remember very distinctly what was happening to me when I read it first. I had just turned eighteen years old. In that collection of lectures, Eliot examines the 300 year history of English criticism.

I had read his poetry with distaste at that age, because I considered poetry to be a traditional thing, and that all contemporary poets were likely to be of the same calibre as contemporary visual artists (i.e., without any value). But his cautious writing about Wordsworth, Dryden, Keats and Shelley gave to his poetry a background which proved to me that in our age (and he was writing just 60 years ago, as I then stood toward him) one could assume an educated public. He seemed to prove, in his own mind at least, that there is a public in England and America which reads poetry, and that he was trying to keep that public alive. That was what I needed to hear.

At the time I was sceptical if the world in which I was growing up was worth living in. The 1990s lacked any kind of hope for an adolescent. Wrexham and environs, and every other town on the planet, seemed to me to be a set of ugly modernist prison-like buildings, joined up with dirty motorways, where hopelessly unambitious people lived out their post-Everything existence, focused mainly on getting to work on time. Physically I was fragile; and morally and mentally so, too; I suffered an embarrassing loneliness and weakness.

You would rightly want to meet my parents, and my first girlfriend in order to see the major elements of my life in 1990s Britain; but these were not the actual problem in itself. The strange way in which I saw the world at that time, and saw these people says a great deal about how the Imagination can make a heaven of hell or a hell of heaven. Every life has its own entire existence all to itself, keeping out of account the deus ex machina of the one Person who truly shares our existence with us at all times.

Finding out that poetry could be written in a world like this was deeply comforting to me; and Eliot’s book was the sign of it.

As a side note, on the pre-existence of my ideas about reality as something which can simply collapse and disappear, and that it depends on the active will of either myself or a creator, that notion has always been deeply embedded in my soul. But that is for another time.

Design Jason Powell, 2020.

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