Samuel Taylor Coleridge

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How does Samuel Taylor Coleridge differentiate between fancy and imagination?

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In his 1817 work Biographia Literaria, Samuel Taylor Coleridge distinguished between "fancy" and "imagination." He saw fancy as a logical way of organizing sensory material without really synthesizing it and preferred imagination, which he defined as a spontaneous and original act of creation. Coleridge breaks imagination still further into primary and secondary types. While primary imagination is shared by all, allowing people to unconsciously understand the structure of the world, secondary imagination belongs purely to the poet, who can consciously shape new worlds in addition to the given one.

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In chapter 4 of the Biographia Literaria, Samuel Taylor Coleridge remarks on the distinction between fancy and imagination in the context of his attempts to understand and evaluate the works of Wordsworth:

Repeated meditations led me first to suspect ... 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 one and the same power.

Coleridge begins by referring to Milton as an example of an imaginative mind and Cowley as an instance of a fanciful one. The latter is an accomplished versifier, highly adept in the art of arranging words and thoughts into pleasing patterns. The former, however, is a creative genius, with abilities that are literally divine, since creation ex nihilo is commonly regarded as the prerogative of God.

Coleridge criticizes Wordsworth for confusing the godlike faculty of imagination with mere fancy. He thinks Wordsworth makes this mistake because the two are often present together, but he points out that:

A man may work with two very different tools at the same moment; each has its share in the work, but the work effected by each is distinct and different.

Indeed, it is likely that a great poet will have both fancy and imagination, though only the latter is essential to his greatness.

Coleridge further divides imagination into primary and secondary categories. The primary imagination he identifies as "the living power and prime agent of all human perception," while secondary imagination is an echo of this which is specific to the artist and which "dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to recreate." Fancy, in contrast to both these types of imagination, is simply "a mode of memory emancipated from the order of time and space."

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In formulating his famed distinction between fancy and imagination, Coleridge was challenging the prevailing notion that the mind was a tabula rasa, a kind of blank sheet onto which our everyday experiences wrote themselves and upon which sense impressions were stored. On the contrary, Coleridge argued, our minds possess two very important and distinct faculties, both of which help us to understand the process of artistic creation. For a highly imaginative artist and thinker like Coleridge, this was of great significance.

Fancy is an inferior faculty to imagination. For one thing, there is nothing remotely mysterious about it. It acts mechanically in bringing together various, often dissimilar, components to produce appropriate images. We see this, for example, when a poet uses metaphor or simile. The different images are arranged and combined but not fused. It is a logical faculty, and, for Coleridge, logic is regulative, rather than creative. Logic organizes material, but it does not create.

Imagination, on the other hand, has everything to do with the act of artistic creation. It is spontaneous and wholly original. It takes existing objects of our experience and transforms them into something completely different. It imposes itself upon a world of ceaseless flux, creating order and stability. The faculty of imagination is itself divided into two by Coleridge.

Primary imagination is what we all share. It is the basic faculty that allows us to make sense of our world and give it meaning. The world as we perceive it is not just "out there" waiting to be discovered. It is given to us already prepackaged, as it were, by the operation of the primary imagination. The only reason why the world appears to have any recognizable structure is because it is already been shaped by the imagination by the time it appears to our senses.

The secondary imagination is the faculty of the poet. It is derived from the primary imagination, but it is conscious. The primary imagination supplies the poet with the requisite raw materials, and he then uses his poetic imagination to shape not just the world as given to him, but also to create new ones. 

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Samuel Taylor Coleridge was certainly an authority on imagination. As the poet who created Rime of the Ancient Mariner and "Kubla Khan," he demonstrated an active, imaginative power not often seen.

Coleridge was one of the major Romantic poets. The Romantics emphasized, among other things, the power of the imagination, so it isn't surprising that he theorized about it.

Coleridge considered the human imaginative act to be similar to God's creative act. Man, like God, was capable of harnessing his imagination to create something new. It isn't easy, but it is possible.

Fancy, on the other hand, refers to the basic daily perceptions that we all have to make to get through the day. It doesn't create anything, it doesn't reveal deep philosophical truths; it just accepts sensory information. We need it to function. But we need imagination to truly express ourselves and make our lives beautiful. 

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