Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4983
At the time when English poetry, following the lead of John Dryden, was moving into a century of neoclassicism, Edward Taylor was writing verse in the Metaphysical mode of Donne, characterized by complex syntax, striking conceits, and intimate direct address: Most of Taylor’s poems are addressed to God. In addition...
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- Critical Essays
At the time when English poetry, following the lead of John Dryden, was moving into a century of neoclassicism, Edward Taylor was writing verse in the Metaphysical mode of Donne, characterized by complex syntax, striking conceits, and intimate direct address: Most of Taylor’s poems are addressed to God. In addition to his Metaphysical style, of primary interest to today’s readers of Taylor’s poetry are his propensity to employ the meditative technique, his practice of coordinating private poetic meditation with public sermon, his perhaps unexpected but nevertheless felicitous use of classical allusions, and his attention to the function of the fancy or the imagination in the poetic process.
“Huswifery,” perhaps Taylor’s most famous poem, also displays one of his most eloquent conceits. As did most Puritans of his time, Taylor often found evidence of God’s providence in the quotidian. In “Huswifery,” he discovers God’s purpose for the poet’s public ministry in his wife’s spinning wheel, perdurable symbol of America’s pioneer struggle. The poem begins with this arresting plea, “Make me, O Lord, Thy spinning wheel complete.” The poet then develops this conceit in a logical fashion, first according to ingenious analogies drawn between the various components of the spinning wheel and second by focusing on the machine’s product, clothing. That which holds the fibers of wool to be spun, the distaff, becomes “Thy holy word”; the flyers that twist the fibers into thread (or yarn) represent the poet’s religious emotions; and the spool that collects the thread embodies his soul. Extending the spinning wheel conceit a bit further, the poet next asserts that the loom on which the threads are woven into cloth serves, like a minister of God’s message, as the instrument for delivering his message to those in need (his congregation). The clothes prepared in this fashion should then become the minister’s apparel, displaying God’s “shine” and revealing that he is “clothed in holy robes for glory.”
Another poem that employs conceits with equal success is Taylor’s “Meditation 39” (first series). This longer poem develops two conceits: sin as poison, and Jesus of Nazareth as “the sinner’s advocate” or defense attorney before God. The inspiration for this meditation is I John 2:1 “If any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” Taylor opens the poem with the exclamation: “My sin! My sin, My God, these cursed dregs,/ Green, yellow, blue streaked poison.” These “Bubs [pustules] hatched in nature’s nest on serpents’ eggs” act in his soul like poisons in his stomach and “set his soul acramp.” He alone cannot conquer then, “cannot them destroy.” Alone and unassisted without God’s help, these “Black imps . . . snap, bite, drag to bring/ And pitch me headlong hell’s dread whirlpool in.” By delaying the preposition “in” until the end of the line, Taylor startles his readers, thereby focusing attention on his wretched predicament as sinner. To be sure, Taylor’s intention, since he wrote these poems as private meditations with God, in preparation for the administration of the Eucharist, was not to appeal to an audience schooled in the Metaphysical style. Such recognition does not, however, lessen the certainty that his intention is most definitely to appeal to an even more critical audience, his God, whose attention he does indeed want to capture and hold.
At this most critical point in his acknowledgment of his fallen state, the poet catches a glimpse of “a twinkling ray of hope,” Christ as advocate; for him, then, “a door is ope.” With this introduction of an advocate, Taylor begins to build his legal conceit. The sight of the advocate first engenders a promise of release from his pain. Temporary joy is replaced by a renewed sense of guilt, however, as he realizes that all his advocate has to work with is “the state/ The case is in.” That is, if the case his advocate pleads before God, the final judge, is short of merit, then judgment may still go against him. As Taylor puts it, if the case is bad: “it’s bad in plaint.” He continues by observing, “My papers do contain no pleas that do/ Secure me from, but knock me down to, woe.” Again the poet wrenches the syntax, but again for the same reason. Despite the “ray of hope,” he fears that the gravity of his “Black imps” may yet doom him to hellfire. As before, his purpose is to focus on his apparently hopeless condition. His reason then begins to instruct him. Even though the biblical text causes him to recall his past sins while also promising him a defense attorney before God, he concludes, without benefit of understanding, “I have no plea mine advocate to give.” He is forced to cry out, “What now?” His reason teaches him that his advocate is unique; as God’s only Son, he has sacrificed his human body to provide the believing and worthy sinner the gift of redemption. These “dear bought arguments” are “good pleas” indeed. Following this grasp of his reason that informs him that the “ray of hope” is constant and true, the poet asks “What shall I do, my Lord?” How can he act or conduct his life so “that I/ May have Thee plead my case?” He exercises his will and decides to “fee” or pay his lawyer “With faith, repentence, and obediently” give the efforts of his ministry to fighting against the commission of “satanic sins” among his parishioners. This unique agreement between lawyer and client obliges the lawyer “My sin [to] make Thine,” while at the same time it emboldens the client, the poet, “Thy pleas [to] make mine hereby.”
The agreement is struck, then; “Thou wilt me save; I will thee celebrate.” Taylor intends, however, not merely to celebrate his advocate through his works “’gainst satanic sins,” but he desires intensely that “my rough feet shall Thy smooth praises sing.” This intense desire to please God in return for God’s love freely given, the eros-agape motif, pervades Taylor’s meditative poetry. The ababcc rhyme scheme, which Taylor adopts for all his meditations, serves a purpose beyond that ordinarily expected; the final words of each line are “I,” “advocate” (the noun), “hereby,” “celebrate,” “within,” and “Sing.” With slight rearrangement, these words make this fitting statement: I hereby celebrate [my] advocate within song. Thus, Taylor accomplishes his end both directly and implicitly. In doing so, he well fulfills John Calvin’s dictum in The Institutes of the Christian Religion (1536) that “We recommend the voice and singing as a support of speech [in the worship service], where accompanying love [that is] pure of spirit.”
The process that governs this poem’s construction is that of the meditation, an intellectual exercise codified by Saint Ignatius of Loyola in his Ejercicios espirituales (1548; The Spiritual Exercises, 1736) and passed on to Taylor probably through the widely circulated and immensely popular (among Puritans) The Saints’ Everlasting Rest (1650), written by one of the seventeenth century’s foremost Puritan authorities on meditation, Richard Baxter. While this mental process or guide to philosophical contemplation was implicitly understood from pre-Christian days, Saint Ignatius’s The Spiritual Exercises did much to make commonplace this process, which uses the mental faculties of memory, understanding, and will. As the poem itself illustrates, the memory of the one engaged in meditation is jogged or aroused, usually by some biblical text; the understanding or reason of the meditator then grapples with the significance of this memory recalled in conjunction with the biblical text; and, finally, the meditator’s grasp of the significance of text and memory lead him to pledge to serve God with the new understanding he has acquired. The biblical text, “If any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous,” causes the poet to remember his own poisonous sins, and to recall his redeemer, but also to fear that his sins may weigh too heavily against him in the balance of God’s justice. His understanding then reassures him that Christ, having bought his sins in his human sacrifice, is a formidable advocate in his behalf and that the strength of his belief will give his advocate all the “surety” he will need. The knowledge of God’s gift of his only Son so overwhelms the poet or meditator that he pledges to serve him in both deeds and poetry.
Taylor adopts this basic mode of construction in many of his meditations, as a brief examination of “Meditation 8” (first series) affirms. This poem derives its inspiration from another biblical text, John 6:51, part of which is “I am the living bread which came down from heaven.” This text moves the poet to conjure up a vision in which he is looking up toward heaven, trying to discover how man can ever have“pecked the fruit forbad” and consequently have “lost . . . the golden days” and fallen into “celestial famine sore.” What is man to do now? How can he regain paradise? His reason informs him that, alone and without God’s help, this earth “cannot yield thee/ here the smallest crumb” of that living bread. According to the poem, the only way out of this barren mortality is by way of “The purest wheat in heaven, His dear—dear Son.” The fallen sinner must “eat thy fill of this, thy God’s white loaf.” If a person exercises his will and chooses to eat this “soul bread,” then “thou shalt never die.” Once again Scripture provokes memory, which in turn stimulates the understanding, which finally brings about a resolve of the will.
“Meditation 56” and “Sermon 14”
One can easily see how this meditative process accords well with preparation and resolve to administer God’s word with as much intensity and expression as a sincere and gifted pastor can muster. Investigation among those sermons with which scholars are able to align specific meditative poems proves rewarding indeed. All the fourteen sermons of the Christographia, for example, correspond exactly to the “Meditations” (second series), 42 through 56. The examination of but one such pair, sermon and poem, serves the present purpose. Both “Meditation 56” and the fourteenth sermon of the Christographia collection are based on the same biblical text, John 15:24: “Had I not done amongst them the works, that none other man hath done, they had not had Sin.” This final sermon of the series marks the culmination of Taylor’s analysis of the “blessed Theanthropie,” his explanation for the person of God’s divine Son. In this concluding homily, the minister attempts to establish that no works of men or of nature (since God is the author of both) surpass the works of God or his Son; God, therefore, commands the devotion of his believers.
The sermon opens with the observation that the white blossom of the clove tree, when “turned to be green, . . . yields the pleasentest [sic] Smell in the World.” The minister uses this clove blossom imagery as a structural device by means of which, when he returns to it at the sermon’s conclusion, he unifies his text, for the flower that exudes the most pleasant odor predicts the closing corollary that the works of Christ are “the Sweetest Roses, and brightest flowers of his own Excellency.” This flower imagery does not, however, play a significant structural role in the poem. The poet delays this sensuous appeal to smell until the thirteenth line. Preceding the poem’s “White-green’d blossoms” are evocations of other senses, including the sight of his “Damask Web of Velvet Verse” that the poet offers in humility to God, and the taste of “Fruits so sweete that grow/ On the trees of righteousness.” This explication of the senses follows rather closely Loyola’s recommendation given in some of his Spiritual Exercises; Taylor, therefore, here conforms, whether consciously or not, to Loyola’s famous codification of the meditative process. The purpose of the sermon, however, is clearly not meditation but utilitarian and effective communication of the doctrine, which the minister articulates as follows: “That Christ’s works were so excellent, that never any did the like thereto.”
Throughout both sermon and poem, the author expands upon the Tree of Life metaphor, which appears first in Genesis. In the popular The Figures or Types of the Old Testament (1683), a copy of which Taylor owned and annotated, Samuel Mather, whose nephew was one of Taylor’s classmates at Harvard, explains that “the Tree of Life in Paradise was a Type of Christ.” This Old Testament Tree of Life, which was located in the center of Eden, “shadows forth” or prefigures Christ in the New Testament. When Adam and Eve were cast out of Paradise, they were denied the gift of God’s grace available to them from the eating of the fruit of this tree; according to Christian understanding of the Adamic myth, it then became necessary for Christ to come into the world of humans in order to restore this “fruit” of God’s grace; that is, to redeem fallen humanity. Understandably, Taylor often refers to this myth in his poems and sermons, but he does so with particular intensity in this sermon and this poem. The minister tells his parishioners that “his [Christ’s] Works are his rich Ornaments,” while the poet extolls Christ as “a Tree of Perfect nature trim” whose branches “doe out/ shine the sun.”
This “Tree of Perfect nature” produces, in the poem, fruits of this perfection which Taylor identifies as God’s gift of grace. The minister is also, of course, much interested in the question of grace, but he does not regale his congregation with conceits spun about the Tree of Life; rather, with attention to practicality, he emphasizes “Christ’s works mediatoriall” [sic] which translate “the Soule from a State of Sin, and a Sinfull life, into a State of holiness.” Underscoring this distinction between the poem’s richness of imagery and the sermon’s concentration on the delivery of practical doctrine are their respective descriptions of Christ. While the sermon calls Christ “the brightness of his Fathers Glory,” the poem more extravagantly describes him as one whose “fruits adorne/ Thyselfe, and Works, more shining than the morn” and as one whose “Flowers more sweet than spice/ Bende down to us.”
The sweet flowers of Christ’s works, says the minister, far exceed “Kingly Performances.” Kings and rulers of the temporal world “ofttimes build their Palaces in oppression.” The minister does not expand his case to include the naming of specific illustrations. The poet, however, provides rich examples of worldly power. Indeed, he names Psammetichos’s huge labyrinth, supposed to have been built by Daedalus; the Roman emperor Titus (40-81 c.e.) and his Colosseum; Nero’s Golden Palace; and other symbols of temporal power. Whereas the poet heaps up specific cases of earthly artifice and thereby poignantly contrasts God’s works and humanity’s most ambitious constructions, the minister, more simply concerned with the transience of earthy mortality, explains how humankind’s buildings, no matter how magnificent, “are but of Clayy natures.”
The minister is also disposed to contrast the egalitarian nature of the laws of God, which apply to all people equally, with the laws of kings that “are like Copwebs that catch little flies, but are Snapt in pieces by the greater.” This web imagery occurs in the poem, but in a quite different context. As noted above, the poet sees his verse as “A Damask Web of Velvet,” hardly as an ensnaring “copweb.” It is possible, however, that the labyrinthine image of Psammetichos’s maze conjured up in the mind of the minister the image of human laws seen as oppressive “copwebs.” It should be observed, nevertheless, that at this point as at others, poems and sermon are not always in exact agreement.
The conclusion of Taylor’s sermon is the more interesting precisely because it does not appear to agree fully with the poem. In the poem, Taylor prays that his God will “Adorn my Life well with thy works” and will “make faire/ My Person with apparrell thou prepar’st,” for, if he is so clothed, his “Boughs,” extending the Tree of Life conceit to himself, “shall loaded bee with fruits that spring/ Up from thy Works.” Such a prayer reveals the preparation of a sincere minister about to deliver God’s word to his flock. The minister, however, appears to rebuke the poet for his extravagance. In the sermon’s conclusion, the minister declares that all the most excellent works of humankind in this world “are but dull drudgeries and lifeless painted cloaths compared to Christs.” Of especial significance at this crucial point in the sermon’s concluding lines, however, is the comparison that Taylor draws between humankind’s works and those of God.
He cites the example of the famous Alexandrian painter, Apelles, who rebuked one of his students for overlaying a painting of Venus with gold; Apelles told the student that he had not created a beautiful representation, but simply a rich one. Taylor the poet has done precisely the same thing in his poem; he has decorated God’s word with elaborate images and drawn out conceits, but he has expressed the hope that God will adorn him in a similar fashion. The minister determinedly concludes that human works are “of no worth.” “Ours are Worth nothing,” the minister says “without he puts . . . the Worthiness of his on them.” To be sure, the poet is as devoted to God as the minister is, and has carefully sought God’s assistance in the construction of his poem. Nevertheless, the minister, who has written a much less “adorned” sermon, appears to admonish the poet, as well as his congregation, not to forget that the “clothes” he would wear both in the poem and in the sermon are worn with God’s benevolence. What appears to be reticence on the part of the poet here was full-blown trepidation at an earlier point in Taylor’s poetic career. The twenty-first meditation of the first series (1686) displays this fear in unmistakable candor: “Yet I feare/ To say a Syllable [as poet] lest at thy day [Judgment Day]/ I be presented for my Tattling here.”
In his introduction to his edition of Christographia, Grabo concludes, as others have, that Taylor’s “sermons seem to explicate the poems.” This observation is no less true of “Meditation 56” and “Sermon 14.” More appears to be at work, however, in this pair. The medium of the poem, with its possibilities for elaborate tropes and figures, together with the poem’s condition of privacy, allows Taylor to pursue his personal devotion to God with virtually limitless zeal; indeed, knowing that his heavenly audience, God, will hardly misconstrue his motives but that his earthly audience, the members of his congregation, very well may, Taylor the poet can, his earlier trepidation notwithstanding, express himself with more candor and fervor than Taylor the minister can. As a result, his meditations are always richer and more passionate than his often somber and always sober sermons. Two other factors that characterize his poetry corroborate this assumption: his use of classical allusions and the manner in which he describes the function of the imagination in the poetic process.
Use of classical allusions
As is the case of the Apelles allusion, Taylor uses classical allusions in his sermons as exempla or as instructional illustrations for the benefit of his parishioners. In his poems, his application of them is quite predictably more figurative. Wholly unexpected, however, is the fact that Taylor applies references to classical paganism in contexts that are usually positive or favorable. For example, in the long series of thirty-five poems, “Gods Determinations,” the poet seems to revel in drawing implied allusions to Greek mythology when describing God’s creation of the world in the first poem of the sequence. The poet asks, “Who blew the Bellows of his Furnace Vast?”—doubtless a reference to Hephaestus, Greek god of the hearth and metalworking. Surely Atlas stands beneath the line “Where stand the Pillars upon which it stands?”
This engaging use of classical references usually gives way to a more serious and often more complex application. In the seventy-ninth meditation of the second series, for example, Taylor, contrary to the expected and even prescribed convention, extends the practice of typology to classical mythology. The poet’s practice here is of particular significance since it points toward the nineteenth century emphasis on symbolism to be found in the works of such American writers as Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne. The text for this meditation is Canticles 2:16; “My beloved is mine and I am his.” Since the Puritans (and many others) interpreted this entire book, which contains some of the most sensuous and sensual poetry in the Bible, as an allegory of humankind’s relation to God, one might conclude that the subject of this poem must be the analogy between sexual love (eros) and God’s unconditional, unselfish love for humankind (agape).
With that expectation, one may find the first four lines of the poem somewhat puzzling: “Had I Promethius’ filching Ferula [fennel]/ Filld with its sacred theft the stoln Fire:/ To animate my Fancy lodg’d in clay,/ Pandora’s Box would peps [pelt] the theft with ire.” Knowledge of the Greek myth of Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods and gave it to humanity, helps to explain what is happening in these lines. Prometheus was seen by the ancients as a truly heroic champion of humankind, as Aeschylus’s tragedy Prometheus desmts (date unknown; Prometheus Bound, 1777) illustrates. As a consequence of Prometheus’s defiance, however, Zeus sent Pandora, whom he forced to bring to humans the infamous box of woes and tribulations. Zeus forbade Pandora to open the box, but knowing her to be inveterately curious, he also knew that her opening of the box would merely be a matter of time. Now the typology may be made clear. Taylor has obviously rejected the Prometheus myth as insufficient to animate his “Fancy lodg’d in clay”; that is, to set his imagination into motion so that he can compose a meditation appropriate to his devotion to God. The stanza’s final lines, however, do suggest to him the source suitable for the kind and degree of inspiration he requires: “But if thy Love, My Lord, shall animate/ My Clay with holy fire, ’twill flame in State.”
The Prometheus myth fails to give him the necessary inspiration, not because it is pagan but because, in Taylor’s conception here, it is typological of the Adamic myth (of humanity’s fall from grace). Prometheus, like Satan, defies Zeus, or God, and Pandora, a type of Eve, manifests the unfortunate trait of curiosity that causes her to disobey Zeus, just as Eve’s curiosity prompts her to disobey God and to yield to Satan’s temptation to eat of the Tree of Knowledge (of good and evil). Although Taylor’s complex typology here is aesthetically pleasing, it is surprising, since Mather had cautioned against such a practice. In The Figures or Types of the Old Testament, which, it will be recalled, the poet owned and annotated, Mather unequivocably states, “It is not safe to make any thing a type meerly upon our own fansies and imaginations; it is Gods Perogative to make Types.” Here Taylor clearly exceeds the limitations that his Puritan compatriots would impose on him. Perhaps Taylor recognized this quality in his poetry and such recognition led to his request that his poems not be published.
At any rate, as the investigation of the Prometheus myth suggests, the drawing out of typologies that are not God’s is not the only practice for which Taylor could have received censure had his poems appeared in print. As Taylor’s lines and Mather’s dictum suggest, the poet is here “guilty” of indulging himself with the making of inventions of his own imagination. Whereas his attitude toward the use of classical allusions is unguarded, particularly in his poetry—he simply uses such references when he feels moved by the demands of the verse to do so, often creating rich and satisfying lines—such is not the case with his management of the imagination. Toward this essentially aesthetic idea, Taylor sometimes appears to be ambivalent. Certainly Mather’s injunction against its use offers a partial explanation of Taylor’s ambivalence. Earlier in the seventeenth century, William Perkins, renowned patriarch of English Puritanism, wrote A Treatise of Mans Imaginations (1607) in which he calls the imagination a “corrupt fountaine.” He arrives at this conclusion from Genesis 8:21, “the imaginacion of mans heart is evil even from his youth” (from the Geneva Bible). In one of his Christographia sermons, Taylor himself espouses a similar position when he admonishes his congregation not to be deluded by “Fictitious imaginations” which “indeed are the Efficacy of Errors.”
Regarding his attitude toward the imagination, Taylor the poet contradicts Taylor the minister. Unlike the minister who refers to the imagination only twice in his published sermons (both times in a negative context), the poet cites “fancy,” “Phansy,” or some other form of this word (as verb or adjective) forty-six times in his published poetry. He never uses the synonym “imagination” in his poetry, probably preferring the disyllabic “fancy” to the pentasyllabic synonym for purposes of rhythm. When he cites “fancy” and its various spellings and forms, he does so in a manner that establishes a readily discernible pattern. When the word occurs at the beginning of a poem, always in a meditation, it is invariably used within the positive context of serving the poet as a necessary tool for setting poesies into motion. When “fancy” appears somewhere internally within a poem, however, as it does twice in the perhaps publicly recited “Gods Determinations,” the concept usually identifies the imperfect human attempt to construe points of Puritan theology; these imperfect attempts to interpret theological or doctrinal matters without dependence on the truly regenerate heart (informed by the gift of God’s grace) always conclude incorrectly.
In the “Second Ranke Accused,” from the “Gods Determinations” series, for example, the poet-minister threatens that those captured by God’s justice, the so-called regenerate, may not be regenerate if their hearts are not filled with the “sweet perfume” of God’s grace; if such is not the case, “Your Faith’s a Phancy,” and therefore untrue. In those poems that begin with the concept of the fancy, however, the poet applies it to the initiation of his meditative process. It is Taylor’s recognition of the necessary role of the imagination in the writing of exalted verse (in his case, his most impassioned “talks” with God) that most interests today’s readers. Of great significance, then, is the fact that the poet identifies the essential role of the imagination in the “Prologue” to the “Preparatory Meditations.” Here he describes himself as but a “Crumb of Dust which is design’d/ To make my Pen unto thy Praise alone.” Immediately following this exercise in self-deprecation, however, he writes: “And my dull Phancy I would gladly grinde/ Unto an Edge of Zion Precious Stone.” At one point in the second series meditations, the poet asks God’s angels to “Make me a pen thereof that best will write./ Lende me your fancy, and Angellick skill/ To treate this theme, more rich than Rubies bright.” Another of the same series opens with this enthusiastic line: “I fain would have a rich, fine Phansy ripe.” Finally, the discussion of the Prometheus typology that begins the seventy-ninth meditation of this series establishes that, although the subject of the entire poem is the eros-agape theme, the poem’s first problem is to discover the difference between human myths, which served ancient poets such as Vergil, Catullus, and Ovid for poetic inspiration, and God’s Word, which, finally, can alone animate the poetic process of this believer’s “Fancy lodg’d in clay.”
There can be little doubt, then, that, despite injunctions against the allegedly “evil” fruits of this mental faculty, Taylor the private poet found it a necessary tool for colloquies with his God. A possible explanation for this contradiction between private poet and public minister (who was also author of “Gods Determinations”) may be offered by observing that Loyola had prescribed, in his Spiritual Exercises, the use of the imagination as requisite to begin the process of meditation. The exercitant must place himself in the proper frame of mind for meditation by picturing to himself events in the life of Christ or biblical history or occurrences in his own life that prompt him to recognize the need for spiritual colloquy. Later in his own century, Baxter appears somewhat to mollify Perkins’s attitude toward this mental faculty when he advises, in The Saints’ Everlasting Rest, that the person engaged in meditation should focus his mental attention on the joys of heaven by getting “the liveliest Picture of them in thy minde that thou canst.” At the same time, nevertheless, it should be observed that, in A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections (1746), Jonathan Edwards, some seventeen years after Taylor’s death, summarily condemns this faculty as that means by which the devil produces evil thoughts in the soul; as the Great Awakener puts it, “it must be only by the imagination that Satan has access to the soul, to tempt and delude it.”
Taylor’s consistent acknowledgment of the power of the imagination should make him appealing to contemporary students of American literature. At a time when attitudes toward the imagination were, for the most part, hostile (recall Alexander Pope’s line from An Essay on Man, 1733-1734, “Imagination plies her dang’rous art,” II, 143), Taylor identified the concept as a paramount significance to poesies, anticipating Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s analysis of imagination in Biographia Literaria (1817).