Imagination. The faculty of producing images of that which is not
present. There is no man not an idiot who is quite devoid of this, and
none who does not frequently exercise the power. But we seldom speak of
imagination as characteristic of any man, except where it exists and
acts in an unusual degree, and where it gives power more than ordinary
to present to other minds the images which it creates.
We connect both the exercise and the aim of this faculty mainly with
poetry, with the fine arts in general, and with works of fiction. But
its uses are not limited to these. A defect of imagination is a calamity
not merely as depriving a man of the pleasure to be derived and
rendering him unsusceptible of the valuable influences to be gained from
them, not as producing an unsympathetic character, but because it
impedes much mental effort with which people do not ordinarily associate
the faculty. A little consideration will show that imagination is
needful for the historian as well as the poet. He too has occasion to
throw himself into that which is not present, and to enable his readers
to do the same.
Even in science I suspect that imagination is
required in order to catch and detain the anticipations whereby
great results have dawned on the mind of the votary. To turn to
morals, selfishness will be found to deaden the imagination even
in those who possess naturally a large share of the faculty, and
who still exercise it abundantly in matters of mere taste. But
they cannot throw themselves into the situation, or enter into
the feelings, of others.
In the sphere with which we habitually connect the word, that of poetry
and aesthetics, a distinction has of late been recognised and insisted
on between imagination and fancy. (See
Fancy.) By our older writers, as
I observed under that head, the words were for the most part used
synonymously. So in the celebrated passage in the "Midsummer Night's
Dream" Theseus employs the one word (1) and Hippolita the other, obviously
meaning the same thing.
Milton as we have already seen means imagination by fancy (see
and in addition to the passage already quoted I may refer to his
"Sweetest Shakespear, Fancy's child."
Still, the distinction between them has been much insisted on of late.
Etymologically considered, the word fancy is no doubt as well adapted to
denote the higher as the lower faculty, but as imagination could not be
employed to designate the latter, it has now claimed the office of
denoting the other, and excluded fancy from that honour.
Leaving, however, the question of names, it is
beyond dispute that there are two faculties between which there exists a
great distinction. One is the power of associating and combining things
which are quite dissociated in ordinary minds, and thus shedding clear
and lively illustration on the matters with which it deals. The other
instead of combining unites, gathers into a whole, gives that whole form
and aspect, and is well spoken of by Coleridge as
"The shaping spirit of Imagination."
It is obvious that this creative power is something distinct from the
mere ingenuity of combining with which it has been often confounded, and
being so is entitled to have a different name.
These two faculties, however, though distinct, are not unallied, and the
exercise of the higher does not preclude the use of the lower as a
subordinate instrument. In this respect the case corresponds with that
of the reason and the understanding. The most imaginative poet may have
to use a lively fancy, as the most genial humorist may possess a ready
wit. Usually, however, a marked development of the imagination will
throw into the background the exercise of fancy, which will not show
itself prominently either in the great poet, or the great humorist,
though there may be happy analogies in the works of the one which are
tinged with a beauty making them poetical, and sparkling point in
the felicities of the other, which have enough of the ludicrous to bring
them within the sphere of humour.
Similes and metaphors are natural exercises both of fancy and
imagination. But the similes and metaphors produced by the one will be
mainly analogies, those produced by the other will be imagery. Thus
"The soul's dark cottage, battered and decayed,
Lets in new lights
through chinks that time has made,"
gives us a very happy analogy between the light that is admitted by a
decaying wall and the increased illumination of a mind over which the
body through growing decrepitude is losing its ascendency. But it.
cannot rank much higher than as an exercise of the fancy. It presents no
picture, creates no image. So, too, Campbell's well-known
"Tis the sunset of life gives me mystical lore,
And coming events cast
their shadows before,"
is perhaps more fanciful than imaginative, though there is a touch of
the latter quality in the second line, and though there is a beauty both
of thought and expression which certainly brings the whole within the
sphere of poetry. On the other hand,
"The dews of the evening most carefully shun
Those tears of the sky for
the loss of the sun,"
is merely fanciful, and not in the least poetical. It is a conceit, and
fancy by itself dwells in the region of conceits. I have said that it is
not poetical, and the word poetical when etymologically viewed
illustrates the whole question. But compare these with the similes of
the Prophets, of Homer, of Dante, and we at once feel that we are dealing with
different matter, with the exercises of different faculties, and the
production of different results. Still more does the impotence of the
fancy appear when leaving metaphors and similes we come to the grand
creations of imaginative power, the vivid presentation of scenes,
delineation of actions, and exhibitions of character.
To sum up. Wit is the exercise of fancy, humour of imagination.
Sculpture and painting must be imaginative to be good for anything.
Poetry too must be imaginative, but in the universality both of its
range and its materials may give subordinate employment to the fancy as
The distinction between fancy and imagination is handled by Wordsworth(2)
and by Coleridge.(3)
(1) How curiously this passage has been misunderstood! I have seen it
quoted thus, "the imagination all compact," compact being obviously
supposed to agree with imagination, and to describe a particular kind or
mode of the faculty characteristic of "the lunatic, the lover, and the
poet," whereas it is plainly they who
"Are of imagination all compact,"
i e. compacted.
(3) Biographia Literaria, pp. 65 et seq., ed. 1847.