Imagination in the Contemporary World and the Legacy of Romantic Literary Thought

Defining and Using Imagination:

A Legacy of Romanticism to the Modern World

Judyth Vary Baker


imagination– Traditionally, the mental capacity for experiencing, constructing or manipulating ‘mental imagery’ (quasi-perceptual experience). Imagination is also regarded as responsible for fantasy, inventiveness, idiosyncrasy, and creative, original and insightful thought in general, and, sometimes, for a much wider range of mental activities dealing with the non-actual, such as supposing, pretending, ‘seeing as’, thinking of possibilities, and even being mistaken.  See representation.

Dictionary of Philosophy of Mind

The definition of Imagination, as seen above, seems to represent elements of concept, as well as existing as a term.  The word is commonly encountered in the literature, descriptions or studies of Romanticism, or the Romantic Literary Movements, that developed and bloomed in the early-to-mid nineteenth century.  The student who is the product of the newer millennia, however, may have a different understanding of “imagination” than that envisioned by the Romantics, just as the word “Romantic” itself may not adequately prepare today’s naive student for the nature of the content of the poetry and literature of the nineteenth century that they might explore, hoping to appropriate Shakespearean or Drydenesque expressions with which to entrance their lovers.

It is important that “imagination” and “Romanticism” be understood as it was by the Romantics. For that reason, I have added the term “satire,” (which I haven’t seen used a great deal in the literature in connection with “imagination” and “Romanticism).in order to better orient and connect the modern student’s thoughts to what was a driving force behind the literary productions of the Romantics.

Although it is seems reasonable to assume that the Romantic definition of “imagination” seems to have evolved as a result of long thought based on then-modern ideas and ideals of the nineteenth century, and the influence of prior great lights who had pondered and labored to formulate their own definition, it seems that the great eighteenth century ideals that were expressed at that time were based upon the same philosophical definitions for “imagination” that –later— were looked upon by our young Romantics as fodder to foment literary rebellion, even though:

“(While) The common thesis of eighteenth-century optimists was…The proposition that this is the best of possible worlds;….(which) gave rise to the belief that the adherents of this doctrine….(were) insensible to all the pain and frustration and conflict which are manifest through the entire range of sentient life… far from asserting the unreality of evils, the philosophical optimist in the eighteenth century was chiefly occupied in demonstrating their necessity (Lovejoy 319).”

Lovejoy adds that “the logical exigencies of the optimistic argument involved…ideas pregnant with important consequences for both ethics and aesthetics, since they were to be among the most distinctive elements in what perhaps best deserves to be named ‘Romanticism’ (319).”

The definition of Imagination, in fact, as it was slowly formulated, explored, and finally used by many Romantics, probably needs to be studied along with the contextual consideration of satire, and of the ideals behind the rebellious writings of the Romantics, in order to see how the ideas of the eighteenth century concerning Imagination were refined, and then redefined, perhaps to help buttress those philosophical arguments which they created to substantiate and legitimize their rebellion, which was, broadly speaking, arrayed against eighteenth century sentimentalism and superficiality.  The general result of this rebellion was a “Romantic” idealism which fascinated not only their generation, but those to come.  I think we have inherited from the Romantics our present notions of Imagination, which continue to have an impact upon the definition of imagination with which the layman and the psychologist must deal today.

I have been reading a little of Coleridge and Hazlitt, and was struck by some of Hazlitt’s love letters, which for me epitomize the ‘romantic’ in “Romanticism” while alerting me to the elements of both imagination and satire which he employed so well in Liber Amoris.   Marilyn Butler, who analyzes the way the Romantics often presented thinly-masked, biting and satiric autobiographic self-images in her essay “Satire and the Images of Self in the Romantic Period: the Long Tradition of Hazlitt’s Liber Amoris,” commented that

“ age’s self-image may not be as distinct as posterity’s view of it.  The so-called Romanticists did not know at the time that they were supposed to do without satire…it is easy to exaggerate the break with the recent literary past, or with that portion of it we now designate Augustinian.  Byron’s well-known tribute to Pope may have been controversial; Scott’s even better-advertised tribute to Dryden was less so…(210).”

In the matter of Coleridge, his well-known revisions chart the changes and fluidity in Romantic evolution of ideas, ideals, imagination. Says Stillinger, who gives us a whole book of Coleridge’s revisions:

“If Coleridge had written each of his poems once and once only, there would be no problem. As it is, we think that he did, and hence arise many oversimplifications and errors in our approach to his poetry. Chiefly these are the idea that for each of the poems there is but a single definitive text; the idea that the single definitive text of each poem must necessarily be a late one (in practical terms because there is none other in sight, in theoretical terms because such has been the tendency of generalizations about textual authority for most of the present century); and then the conclusion from these that Coleridge produced his late texts early in his poetic career. (9-10).”

I have chosen these two quotations to illustrate two tendencies which we have, as human beings who happen to read: one, to identify a movement in literature as well-defined by its proponents and adherents during its existence, particularly at the hey-day or height of the manifestation of its existence, to those who follow (and who always have such remarkable hindsight), and secondly, that we tend to believe that the products of such a movement were created, for the most part, as if sculpted from stone.  But, as Stillinger makes clear, “In the theoretical framework of my study, (Coleridge) produced a new definitive version, the “final” text that he intended to stand at the moment, every time he revised a text (10).”

And why did Coleridge revise his work?

Many poets do so: I revise my own work because I change, and what I’ve written no longer weighs or feels or says quite what I meant, or I no longer wish it to say what I once wished it to say, or, perhaps, I have gained a greater sensitivity or ability to communicate what could not be said well at the prior instance (sometimes revisions weaken original work, though!).

Of perhaps all our Romantics, Coleridge has left for us the most sophisticated analysis of what he was about in the matter of writing, editing, criticism and the composition of poetry.

And, happily for us, he submerges himself into a long discussion – one might call it almost a tirade, in its exhaustive energy and vehemence – about imagination. Coleridge does not hesitate to take us on a philosophical and theological journey of great complexity in his attempt to fully explore the topic of imagination.

From a letter dated June 23, 1834:

“You may conceive the difference in kind between the Fancy and the Imagination                      in this way, that if the check of the senses and the reason were withdrawn, the first would become delirium, and the last mania.  The Fancy brings together images which have no connexion natural or moral, but are yoked together by the poet by means of some accidental coincidence….(while) (t)he Imagination modifies images, and gives unity to variety; it sees all things in one, il peu nell’ uno. There is the epic imagination, the perfection of which is in Milton; and the dramatic, of which Shakespeare is the absolute master (http: Imagination in Coleridge 3).”

Coleridge’s theorizing may be clear to some: to my mind, he’s abstruse and convoluted in his thinking, and a variety of interpretations of what he meant about Imagination exists. What seems to be clear is that for Coleridge there are two sorts of Imagination, a primary and a secondary kind.  Even so, this distinction between ‘pure imagination’ and ‘secondary imagination’ is apparently not clear enough to allow all other critics to agree with the analysis offered by Robert Penn Warren, according to notes from the source quoted directly above, as displayed in Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, where Penn Warren argues that “The Ancient Mariner is a poem of ‘pure imagination” in the sense that its subject is the poetic, or Secondary, Imagination itself.

Whalley (1946-7) believes that: “whether consciously or unconsciously” the albatross is “the symbol of Coleridge’s creative imagination.”  House (1953) opposes the rigidity of Penn Warren’s symbolic analysis and argues that the poem is “part of the exploration…part of the experience which led Coleridge into his later theoretic statements (as of the theory of Imagination) rather than a symbolic adumbration of the theoretic statements themselves”  (84, 113).

It might be useful, then, to take a glance at Imagination’s root definitions, as those distant but great philosophers,  Plato and Aristotle, thought of it.  After all, the Romantics seemed to have looked at the classic definitions, too.  Basically, the Dictionary of Philosophy of Mind gives us a handy distillation of the definition of imagination as proposed by that philosopher of philosophers,

“Aristotle…(who) tells us that “imagination [phantasia] is (apart from any metaphorical sense of the word) the process by which we say an image [phantasma] is presented to us” (De Anima. 428a 1-4).  It has been questioned in recent times whether the Greek words phantasia and phantasm are really equivalent to “imagination” and'(mental) image” as heard in contemporary usage.  However, there can be little doubt that, until very recent times, theoretical discussion of phantasia, its Latin translation imaginatio, and their etymological descendants, continued to be rooted in the concepts introduced by Aristotle and the problems arising from his rather elliptical explanation of them” (http:1).

And for a long time, it might be argued,  people really didn’t stray very far from this earliest known standardized definition for Imagination:

Very arguably this is true of all Western philosophical schools: Stoics, Epicureans               and Neoplatonists quite as much as avowed Aristoteleans; Muslims as much as              Christians; and, come to that, Empiricists quite as much as Rationalists” (http:1).

While “the connection between imagination and perception is the more fundamental,” it should also be pointed out that it is also ‘postulated’ that a difference exists between common sense [sensus communis] and phantasia, either of which can generate phantasmata,

“but when their immediate cause is an object directly before us the tendency is to refer to them as percepts, and to the process as perception; when memory of previously observed things is the source, reference will more likely be to memory and imagination. Thus imagination came to be particularly associated with thinking about things that are not actually currently present to the sense: things that are not really there” (2).

Though this is an oversimplified overview, it does roughly correspond to the situation as I have investigated it, and it only took a few lines of reading time to tell it to you.

Today, the ideas behind the words ‘fantasy’ and ‘imagination’ are likely to evoke these sorts of thoughts:

“…we sometimes find modern writers making a distinction between “memory                    imagery” and “imagination imagery”, or even restricting the use of “imagination”                  (and, a fortiori, “imaginary”) to thoughts about things that have never (or never                     yet) been actually experienced….(f)or some reason, words…such as “fantasy”,                  “fancy”, or “phantasm”, seem to…connote unreality even more strongly than                         “imagination” and its cognates…” (2).

And then we have Descartes, who links everything scientifically to flesh, brain and matter, the rational mind connected, it seems, to the body via the “Cartesian imagination/sensus communis” at the “pineal surface,” “the lynchpin that holds together the two metaphysical worlds of Cartesianism.  As it had done for Aristotle, the imagination/sensus communis mediated between the bodily senses, and the {now incorporeal) rational mind” (3).

When the Romantics came along, the ideas of Philostratus (among others) were given fresh life as

“discussion concerning imagination shifted away from cognitive theory and                       epistemology, and towards its role in original, creative thinking, especially in the                arts” (3). In other words, imagination was given value, along with passion, and                       even Coleridge [despite all his attempts to formalize his definitions along                               philosophic lines] “relied heavily on Kant and post-Kantian German idealism (and                      Plotinus….)…(with) results (from a philosophical perspective) fragmentary and                 largely incoherent” (4).

This brings us to the twentieth century, and Sartre (who seems to have respected the idea of imagination), stands against an array of “analytical philosophers (who)….seem to doubt whether the imagination even exists.  Gilbert Ryle declared, in The Concept of Mind, that “There is no special Faculty of Imagination, occupying itself single-mindedly in fancied viewings and hearings” 91949), and this soon became the widely accepted viewpoint” (4).

The fundamental concept of internal imagery and functioning imagination as a real process of mind has received some support from “cognitive psychologists such as….Paivio…Shepard, and….Kosslyn” as it has become once more ‘respectable as a topic for experimental psychological investigation” (4).  But that doesn’t mean that “imagination” has regained status as anything more than “a representationally dependent auxiliary to other, more fundamental forms of mental representation, and current theories of image formation hardly aspire to the central place in cognitive theory once occupied by the imagination’ (5).

This is actually quite a fall from an almost pre-eminent position of consideration in the cognitive/creative processes as envisioned by Coleridge and others in the Romantic movement, even when the difficulties that Hume brought to its definition divided opinions: “According to Hume ‘Tis an established maxim in metaphysics, That…nothing we imagine is absolutely impossible (Treatise, I,ii,2)” (5).  Without wading through examples that can prove to us how we can imagine some impossible things, and that the converse of Hume’s observation can lead to prickly non sequiturs, there is some physiological evidence available now that visual imagery and imagination are neurologically generated and can, in the future, no doubt be controlled:

“Neurological patients who have lost the retinotopically mapped regions in one cerebral hemisphere, leaving them blind in the corresponding half of their visual field, show certain impaired imaginary abilities in the blinded hemifield… However, other patients suffering from cortical blindness due to damage in these areas seem to have relatively normal imagery. Furthermore, some patients with localized damage in the retinotopically mapped areas experience vivid, well-formed “visual hallucinations” (i.e. imagery that is outside of conscious control–they do not typically mistake it for reality) precisely in the affected (blind or “blindsighted”) parts of their visual fields.  This suggests that these brain areas cannot be essential for visual imagery” (http: Are Theories of Imagery…..6).

The above quotation may offer the reader a glimpse of the mechanistic and rigid way in which ideas and definitions of “imagination” and “imagery” are currently being approached by leading investigators of imagery and imaginative phenomena  in the late twentieth cenury (the above quote refers to some of the results of recent investigations of Kosslyn, et al (1992-1997).  There is not much room for any living, breathing corpus of an evolving definition for imagination here.  It has already been decided that everything that emanates from that lump of complex tissue and fluids known as the ‘brain’ is limited by its physiological characteristics, parameters, and functions.

It is rather like analyzing Kubla Khan as the mere product of the influence of opium–as if there will ever be another Kubla Khan!

So worrying about the “definition” of imagination/Imagination just might be a waste of time for the poet, the writer, the artist.  I have sometimes wondered if James Joyce’s outpourings in Ulysses was a response elicited not only by his knowledge of so many languages —as if they struck a freight train crashing against his skull—but also as the result of mercury treatments he is theorized to have taken in an attempt to cure the syphilis that claimed his eye and the sanity of his daughter (not, you won’t find more than a few papers on that subject— it’s research I’ve done, myself, from medical evidence I discovered in the 1970’s about Joyce, his wife and children, so far as I am aware).

In fact, if  “Romanticism” indeed appropriated “Imagination” as a living definition –though that’s surely a simplified viewpoint–a definition that rested on a full understanding of the past, and which was being stressed and challenged by the skeptical attitudes of those whose reliance on science alone would render blossoms, imagination, and baby monkeys alike as only topics to analyze—then it was possibly the last stand attempt of creative human minds to secure a place of respect for what the mind could produce, for which the world might not have a place, nor understand, nor be ready.

It is the very liveliness of Imagination as the Romantics attempted to define it– aware of its past meanings–of how Milton and Blake and the ancient philosophers gave Imagination a place of respect in the dynamics of human thought— along with vibrant arguments over past and present agreements about what Imagination really stood for (and which it might no longer, for similar reasons today, stand for), that tends to attract me. It behooves us to see if we agree that ‘imagination” as we think it is today resembles at all the Romantic’s notion about it, or not.

To be able to give a name to that factor that affects your creative thought as does the concept of “imagination’ should not slay it or render it lifeless: imagination remains with the human race, recognized or not, so long as people dare to think for themselves. I like what Wordsworth calls “the imaginative will” because of the empowerment this term gives to the will that is adorned, amidst its potential for reasonableness, by the focused intellect.  Margaret Sherwood says that Wordsworth, “searching for the single intellectual formula that would solve the complex problem of existence…(was) reduced by….dogmatic fatalism to depression that was well-night despair:

“The crisis of that strong disease, the soul’s last and lowest ebb….was a                              questioning as to the reality of the existence of the human will, of the power of                        choice, and of the adequacy of the reason to give grounds for choice….the story of              Wordsworth’s recovery, as recorded in prelude, is one of the great chapters in                human biography.  In reaction from temporary submission to (the) doctrine…that                man (is) the driven victim of external forces…the young poet (became)                                …conscious…of creative power within…(and) (h)is faith in “the imaginative will,”  as a creative power, capable of vivifying the human soul at the pure sources of being, he ever after expressed in his poetry and…life” (182-183).

The power of his understanding of the relationship between the creative powers that Wordsworth felt flowing through him – imagination, and his will to turn this creative force into a creation by choice – by the exertion of his own will, has motivational value for the writer and the poet that transcends any technical, scientific definitions of “imagery” and “imagination” that have been produced from exploring traumatized and bisected monkey (or human) brains.

Imagination was recognized in various, past cultures as possessing its own particular dimensions, which now will be refined through Wordsworth, who redefines imagination as a choice which may acted upon by the will.

Today’s students, largely exposed to scientific method and scientific jargon, have not   experienced the making of a major definition in the matter of creativity: it is almost a fearful thing to call oneself “creative.”  To admit having a big imagination is to invite speculation as to one’s ultimate mental stability: there are already correlations that exist between creativity and manic depression, creativity and insanity. Unfortunately, the fact that a person in danger of insanity, or who is mentally unstable, might resort to a creative stratagem in order to survive or to improve one’s grasp, by the will, of reality, through the act of creation, does not seem to be understood in that light, and I suggest that this is an unfortunate oversight.

As for the rest of us, the use of imagination as a tool to explore realistic outcomes after making a certain choice provides a basis for understanding the utilitarian advantages of such a function.  The viability of imagination as a source of attaining logical order in our lives, having explored, via the imagination, the likely and unlikely consequences of certain choices,  is generally ignored.  And of course, that same range of choice, developed as a result of contemplating imagined outcomes and scenarios, allows the artist, the writer, the poet, the logician and the scientist to make better creative choices in their respective fields.

Imagination, even today, might be understood, then, under Wordsworth’s interpretation as a device or resource— a potential means, one might say– to obtain or to take advantage of a strategy with which to cope with events or ideas potentially unendurable, or, to produce new ones, relative to, or irrelevant to, one’s surroundings, milieu, and environment, with the understanding that to exert Imagination is to utilize a key element in the successful adaptation, or expression, of the human being.

The Wordsworthian definition of Imagination empowers.  It is a passport to new and unimagined events, to possible worlds otherwise unable to be entered without permission from some higher authority, whether deity or dictator.   I suggest that the Romantic approach to Imagination allows the mind a degree of freedom for radical exploration which modern definitions might eventually deny to us (if we do not wish to be regarded as somehow overly creative, and, therefore, possibly mentally unstable, etc.).

In all such considerations, the element of satire should not be ignored.  Imagination, alone, in any realization as a movement by Romantic writers/poets worthy of adoption in our own philosophy, must not exclude the consideration of the role of satire in its implementation.  Satire can mask or disguise the creative product, allowing it to be a sugar-coating for what otherwise might be a difficult pill for a contemporary world – glutted on scientific thought –  to swallow.  So that we might get a better grasp of what “imagination” might have meant to Romantics, rather than what it now means to us, looking back at them, we need to consider that the role of satire has been somewhat overlooked, I think, as an influence in the works of the Romantics.

I consider their satirical asides and creations as a rational response to the social pressures which keep so many writers and artists pathetically poor.  Just as farmers are at the bottom of the heap, supplying food to all the world, and nevertheless  receiving less than anyone else for what they sell  (as that food is processed and becomes more expensive per consumable unit, which the farmer must  purchase back, keeping him poorer), so, too, artists, poets, and writers produce thoughts and ideas which others eventually adapt and enjoy, while the benefits of their labors, which employ Imagination, rarely return to them in the form of monetary rewards or respect.

Romantic Imagination was a dynamic concept that helped spur the fearless production of works which may have originated as responses to yet earlier works: the whole chain was almost a living structure, both dynamic and active, composed of a socially interacting set of creative people, who generally produced their works with vigor until they died.  As the Romantics died, their creative outlook, their definition of Imagination, died with them.   Their concept of Imagination yet struggled for expression, here and there: I see impressionistic painting, stream of consciousness writing, and other marvelous instances of the Romantic legacy still asserting itself in the works of the last great believers in imagination.

It is important to understand that explosions of creativity typically are associated with new things, or new ways of looking at things. It is imagination both stimulates and that is stimulated in this way, and it is the definition of imagination that was central to Coleridge’s almost desperate search for understanding the relevance of creativity in the grid-locked universe described by scientific method.  Coleridge’s attempt to define Imagination reaches an apex in Chapter Thirteen of the Biographica Literaria, a statement so famous I won’t repeat it here, but of which Thomas McFarland says

“Not only is there no preparation for the threefold distinction of Chapter Thirteen in Coleridge’s previous writings, there is none even in the Biographica…in Chapter Thirteen…in an astonishing volte face, he writes himself a letter in which…(he) proceeds simply to dump upon (the reader) the threefold distinction…”(210).

Indeed, the spontaneous assertion of a threefold property to Imagination may have had its real roots in Blake’s opinions, according to McFarland: “To cast off Bacon, Locke & Newton from Albions covering, to take off his filthy garments, & clothe him with Imagination…” (215)

And yet Coleridge wanted to reconcile mysticism and Imagination, systematically if possible, with “the dictates of common sense with the conclusions of scientific Reasoning.”  For Coleridge

“…shared the respect of his age for science and scientific theories, the confidence that human experience could be explained as physical nature could be explained, that there were laws of human nature as well as laws of motion….What he required was a means of reconciling the experience of the oasis [i.e. of visionary insight] with acceptable conceptions of physical and psychological reality” (216).

Not an ignoble venture.

Coleridge was aware that there is an element of passivity in the idea that Imagination is merely a by-product of a physical brain undergoing some permutations which cannot at present (but eventually might always) be controlled.  McFarland shows how Coleridge tried to attack some of the difficulties that arise in relying only upon scientific concepts of imagination.   When Coleridge understands not only Kant, but the objections of the philosopher Tetens, he begins to breathe more easily. An excerpt of Tetens’ thought will reveal what Coleridge was learning:

“‘Dichkraft can create no elements, no fundamental materials, can make only nothing out of nothing, and to that extent is no creative power. It can only separate, dissolve, join together, blend; but precisely thereby it can produce new images, which from the standpoint of our faculty of differentiation are discrete representations.’

There is accordingly a Selbstthatigheit— a spontaneous activity–in the “receptivity of the psyche” …a perceiving, reproducing and co-adunating power” (222).


Coleridge, noted McFarland, as especially found in Chapter Eight of his Biographica Literaria, embraced ideas such as these expressed by Tetens (even more, McFarlane asserts rather convincingly,  than those of Kant),  which gave him the intellectual relief he sought from the Newtonian outlook which had so depressed him:

“Newton was a mere materialist – Mind in his system is always passive – a lazy                  Looker-on an external World.  If the mind be not passive, if it indeed be made in                     God’s Image, & that too in the sublimed sense— the Image of the Creator— there               is ground for suspicion, that any system built on the passiveness of the mind  must               be false, as a system” (222).

While I cannot embrace Coleridge’s precise religious interpretations, nor, for that matter, the twofold or threefold vision of Imagination, with which we could occupy the timber of a whole tree made into paper, McFarlane makes another interesting argument that “the lineage of the secondary imagination extends not only backwards beyond Kant to Teens, but also beyond Teens to Leibniz, and finally beyond Leibniz to Plato.”

And that makes all the difference: Coleridge contemplates this unbroken succession of thought (as I think we, too, might profit from doing), and thus,

“With antecedents of this kind,….Coleridge’s threefold theory of imagination                     actually bears less on poetry than it does on those things that always mattered                     most to him— as they did to Leibniz and to Kant— that is, “the freedom of the will, the immortality of the soul, and the existence of God” (224-226).

With the advent of the computer, we entered a new frontier: we did not know how to explore it all – its functions and potential were not defined for us in advance. Of itself, the computer offered the human mind endless variations using Imagination.  Once more, marvelous, creative things can happen, because we aren’t fettered by a totally mechanistic interpretation of everything that we do. It is a new creative frontier, waiting to be expanded and developed.

It will be tamed faster than any frontier behind it, as we speed up everything we process through that same medium – science – that now rules most of the domain of our minds with its interpretations of what is sane, what is not, what is real, what is not, and – no doubt soon to come – will dare dicate to us what we might be allowed to create, and what we will dare not.  As evidenced in police states, satire, wit and humor can unlock thought-prisons.  Satire, in particular, provides the creative imagination its last foot-hold on the mountain of which reason is King. In this King-of-the-Mountain scenario, satire cannot win, cannot wrest away any lasting laurels for Imagination. But it can challenge the King with a dissident voice.

.   Says critic Marilyn Butler: “With the passing of time, critics seem to have become less rather than more aware of the satirical and intellectual strain in Romantic writing…” (191).  That is because satire’s shafts strike most deeply into contemporary targets, some now so remote to our imaginations (dare I use the word?) that we no longer see the original target, if even the direction of the arrows.

That  richness of potential for creativity (that a term such as “imagination” might have had on the minds of those sophisticates and idealists who thought of themselves as exemplars and pioneering rebels embracing Romanticism) as a holistic and all-pervading philosophy with a utilitarian function – dealing with a world in which man found himself suddenly aware that he might be in charge of his universe, that he might be standing alone, and alone responsible for the events of the world in which he lived,  unsure whether or not his actions were be ordained by God(s) or imposed upon him by happenstance and instinct — this freedom may be denied us in our modern day.  But not satire.  Satire breaks through, sharp and sincere.

Morality and new meaning, when a human being could imagine good and evil as choices that might be made without interference from a higher moral power –  these will not be topics of debate in a future where everything will be explained by DNA and environment.  Nature was once man’s teacher, and the forces of his own nature his dictator, with the whole wide world opening before him, ready to explore and conquer.  What was imagined could become real. What seemed to be real did not have to be substantiated by the senses.  Today, using imagination – not mere formulae for success – in a world where scientists declare what we should or should not think, is the hallmark of an intellectual rebel.

Our challenge, today, is to preserve “Imagination” from any definition at all.

With this in mind, look once more, please, at the “definition” which was absorbed so rapidly by you, the reader, at the beginning of this article:


imagination– Traditionally, the mental capacity for experiencing, constructing or manipulating ‘mental imagery’ (quasi-perceptual experience). Imagination is also regarded as responsible for fantasy, inventiveness, idiosyncrasy, and creative, original and insightful thought in general, and, sometimes, for a much wider range of mental activities dealing with the non-actual, such as supposing, pretending, ‘seeing as’, thinking of possibilities, and even being mistaken.  See representation.

Dictionary of Philosophy of Mind

Note the last part of this definition: ‘the mental capacity for’ ‘even being mistaken.’ To have the liberty to err, to be mistaken, to possess the ability to think about “the thing which is not,” as those all-logical Houyhnhnms of Jonathan Swift’s satirical imagination could not imagine – the right to be wrong that rests at the center of “Imagination” – this is a right and option we should guard as our unspeakably valuable creative heritage and treasured legacy from the Romantic tradition.








Thanks to Dr. Joseph Riehl (University of Louisiana at Lafayette) who suggested that I expand this essay.




Works Cited

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. S.T. Coleridge Notebooks. Kathleen Coburn and Merton Christianson, eds. 4 vols. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1990.

_______________________. Biographica Literaria. Chapts. 1-22. 1815. Etext available

at Project Gutenberg; for relevant extracts, see Imagination in Coleridge (below).

Butler, Marilyn. “Satire and the Images of self in the Romantic Period: the Long Tradition of Hazlitt’s Liber Amoris.” English Satire and the Satiric Tradition.  Ed. Claude Rawson.

Padstow, Great Britain: Basil Blackwell, 1984.  Pp. 209-225.

Dictionary of Philosophy of Mind, Voice of the Shuttle e-link.


acquired 9/22/2003

Edwards, S. T. “Master Concepts in Literary Study: The Moral Imagination”

<>   Pp. 1-5.

acquired 8/30/2000

Hobbes, Thomas. The Leviathan.

<> pp. 6-22

acquired 5/20/2004

“Imagination in Coleridge.” E-textual Extracts from University of Ottawa transcripts of The Letters of S.T. Coleridge. <> Pp 2-6.

acquired 7/28/99


Lovejoy, Arthur O. “Optimism and Romanticism.” Eighteenth Century English Literature: Modern Essays in Criticism.  Ed. James L. Clifford. New York: oxford UP, 1959. Pp. 319-343.

McFarland, Thomas. “Theory of Secondary Imagination.” New Perspectives on Coleridge and Wordsworth. Ed. Geoffrey Hartman.  New York & London: Columbia UP, 1972. Pp. 194-246.

Sherwood, Margaret.  “Wordsworth: The Imaginative Will.” Undercurrents of Influence in English Romantic Poetry. New York: AMS Press, 1934, 1971.

Stllinger, Jack.  Coleridge and Textual Instability: The Multiple Versions of the Major Poems.

New York & Oxford: Oxford UP, 1994.  Pp. 1-140.

Thomas, Nigel J. T.  “Are Theories of Imagery Theories of Imagination?  An Active Perception

Approach to Conscious Mental Contact.” In press: Cognitive Science

<http://web,> pp. 1-40

acquired 9/22/99


Some Additional Readings:

Babbitt, Irving.  “The Problem of the Imagination.” On Being Creative and Other Essays, New York: Houghton Mifflin & Co., 1932.

Baker, J. V. The Sacred River: Coleridge’s Theory of the Imagination.  Baton Rouge;

LA State UP, 1957. (This is not me!)

Baars, B. J. “When Are Images Conscious? The Curious Disconnection between Imagery and Consciousness in the Scientific Literature.”  Consciousness and Cognition, 5, 1996.  Pp. 261-264.

Tyler, T. L. “Elements of Plato in Coleridge’s Theory of the Imagination.” Essay for

Professors McGaughey and Dalsant, Dept. Of English, Humboldt University.


acquired 9/30/2003


Judyth Vary Baker is an American writer, poet and artist who lives in Europe. She is dedicated to publishing poetry, fiction, non-fiction, and scholarly and literary articles online for not only students and scholars, but also for those generally denied access to literary and scientific journals on the Internet because they are not attending university classes or are not permanently situated in ivory towers.

Filed Under: Rigid Tools


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