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In "Biographia Literaria", Coleridge comments that the difference between ‘Fancy’ and ‘Imagination’ is the same as the difference between a mechanical mixture and a chemical mixture

Hausarbeit 2019 7 Seiten

Didaktik - Englisch - Literatur, Werke


In Biographia Literaria, Coleridge comments that the difference between ‘Fancy’ and ‘Imagination’ is the same as the difference between a mechanical mixture and a chemical mixture. Elaborate.

“The theory of imagination”, as Masao Okamoto observes, “which was coming to have a very important role in the literary criticism in England, came to maturity towards the end of the eighteenth century, and was consummated in the criticism of S.T. Coleridge.” Under the influence of his father, John Coleridge who was well-versed in Greek, Latin and Hebrew, Samuel read many books from his childhood and in his early teens he was called by Lamb, a “logician, metaphysician, Bard!” According to Lamb, Coleridge was heard reading such books as Iamblicus and Plotinus out loud in the corridor of Christ Hospital.

In his “Essays on the Principles of General Criticism”, written in 1814, we find two long quotations from Plotinus’ Enneads for the explanation of Beauty, one of which he also quoted in Biographia Literaria. J.V. Baker, author of The Sacred River, says that Plotinus’ theory of knowledge especially contributed much to the formation of Coleridge’s theory of imagination. I.A. Richards, too quoting Enneads V.viii,1, said that it is certainly one of the origins of Coleridge’s imagination theory (Okamoto,13).Coleridge also read Shakespeare and Milton as well as the Greek tragic poets, as lessons, which built up his literary spirit and taste, together with Bowle’s Sonnets, Ossian’s Poems, Darwin’s Botanic Garden, Percy’s Reliques and Akenside’s Pleasures of Imagination, all of which contributed to bring him to the Romantic awakening. Coleridge denounced the empiricist assumption that the mind was a tabula rasa on which external experience and sense impressions were imprinted, stored, recalled and combined through a process of association. He divided the “mind” into two distinct faculties of “Imagination” and “Fancy”:

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. (Gutenberg, Coleridge, XIII)

Coleridge divided the concept of imagination into primary and secondary. By primary imagination, he refers to our basic mental capacity to see and organize stimuli from the world around us.

Though Coleridge seems not to have been aware of the analysis of the imaginative or associative power made by Germans like Hissman in his early history of associationism and Johann Georg Sulzer in his Allgemeine Theorie der schomen Kunste (1771-4; 1792-9), he was familiar with all others like Locke, Berkley, Addison and Bacon and others. They were interrelated, almost tangled, in their common sources, and influences. Coleridge considers the primary imagination as the power behind what Coleridge elsewhere calls “the mystery of perception”. It is “the living Power and prime agent of all human Perception”. Its synthetic power operates through the most direct contact of the mind and the nature. From a series of sense images not necessarily visual the primary imagination forms an intelligible view of the world. It is the primary imagination that creates or repeats “in the finite mind” what we do associate, the objects and process of nature, which themselves are products of “the eternal act of creation in the infinite I Am”. The poetic or secondary imagination becomes the fullest exercise of the self and of its inner powers. It is “free will, our only absolute self”, that controls and directs the creative activity of the art.

"Fancy," in Coleridge's eyes was employed for tasks that were "passive" and "mechanical", the accumulation of fact and documentation of what is seen. Fancy, Coleridge argued, was "too often the adulterator and counterfeiter of memory."The Imagination on the other hand was "vital" and transformative, "a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation." For Coleridge, it was the Imagination that was responsible for acts that were truly creative and inventive and, in turn, that identified true instances of fine or noble art:

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. (Gutenberg, Coleridge, XIII).

Fancy is what today is known as taste or at best aesthetics: the arrangement of form and colour in pleasing proportions.

The difference between imagination and fancy, according to Coleridge, is one of kind rather than degree. During the seventeenth century, the terms ‘imagination’ and ‘fancy’ had almost been used in a synonymous sense. The eighteenth century accorded a superior sense first to on term and then to the other, but finally, by the end of the century imagination came to be firmly established as the superior term. It was Wordsworth’s reading of a poem in manuscript that aroused Coleridge’s interest in the problem of imagination and fancy. The poem had a deep impact upon him. Pondering over the reasons for this, he concludes that “fancy and imagination were two distinct and widely different faculties instead of being, according to the general belief, either two names, with one meaning, or at furthest, the lower and higher degree of our and the same power”. As illustration, he asserts that “Milton had a highly imaginative, Cowley a very fanciful mind.”

Imagination and fancy, however, differs in kind. Fancy is not a creative power at all. It only combines what is perceives into beautiful shapes, but like the imagination it does not fuse and unify. The difference between the two is the same as the difference between a mechanical mixture and a chemical compound. In a mechanical mixture a number of ingredients are brought together. They are mixed up, but they do not lose their individual properties. In a chemical compound, the different ingredients combine to form something new. The different ingredients no longer exist as separate identities. They lose their respective properties and fuse together to create something new and entirely different. A compound is an act of creation; while a mixture is merely a bringing together of a number of separate elements.

Thus imagination creates new shapes and forms of beauty by fusing and unifying the different impressions it receive from the external world. Fancy is not creative. It is a kind of memory; it randomly brings together images, and even when brought together, they continue to retain their separate and individual properties. They receive no coloring or modification from the mind. It is merely mechanical juxtaposition and not a chemical fusion. Coleridge explains the point by quoting two passages from Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis. The following lines from this poem serve to illustrate Fancy:

Full gently now she takes him by the hand. A lily prisoned in a goal of snow Or ivory in an alabaster band So white a friend engirds so white a foe. (Gutenberg, Coleridge, XIII).



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University of North Bengal – University of North Bengal
biographia literaria coleridge




Titel: In "Biographia Literaria", Coleridge comments that the difference between ‘Fancy’ and ‘Imagination’ is the same as the difference between a mechanical mixture and a chemical mixture