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Narrative theory has devoted much of its energy to the problem of how stories are told, but relatively less to what one might suppose would be the equally important question of where the ideas for stories come from. In a sense this is understandable, for critics have been generally prepared to agree that the issue of narrative technique is theoretical, whereas it has seemed equally evident that the question of narrative beginnings is historical. Narrative theory, in such a view, would have little to say about the genesis of narrative ideas, and what it could say would necessarily have to be rather general. Furthermore, the critical community has accepted the notion that theories of narrative technique can be tested on the basis of evidence to be found in the narratives themselves, but it has not appeared clear that the same might be true of narrative ideas. Since the New Critical revolution, then, when the "poem itself became the exclusive object of critical scrutiny, narrative theory has tended to shy away from attempts to examine the narrative imagination.

Before the New Critics, however, some of the most celebrated research in literary studies pursued just such a goal. John Livingston Lowes, in [End Page 509] his famous book on Coleridge, The Road to Xanadu, set out to chart what he called "the ways of the imagination," that is, the method by which a writer turns the stuff of his experience into ideas for fiction. Lowes's book has indeed become a classic, and even today it must seem to many the very model for any attempt to investigate where writers get their ideas. Its paradigmatic status is in part the result of Lowes's steady concern with the way in which Coleridge established what classical rhetoricians called res, a body of material. Many critics believe, quite understandably, that poetic invention is necessarily a function of the individual writer's personality, education, and working habits, in short, so context-bound as to be different for every writer and possibly every text. To study the body of material out of which a particular work grew, as Lowes did with "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," must seem to many just about the best one can hope to achieve.

It is interesting to recall that Lowes himself thought he had achieved more. He considered The Road to Xanadu to be a book of general theoretical interest and not a study of Coleridge: "Coleridge as Coleridge, be it said at once, is of secondary moment to our purpose; it is the significant process, not the man, which constitutes our theme" (4-5). All the delving into the minutiae of Coleridge's notebooks, his diaries, and his library had as its goal not a portrait of the uniqueness of Coleridge's vision but rather "the procedure of the creative faculty itself" (5). The road to Xanadu, Lowes insisted, was not a lonely path taken by a single man; it was "the road of the human spirit, and the imagination voyaging through chaos and reducing it to clarity and order is the symbol of all the quests which lend glory to our dust" (396). The point of Lowes's great accumulation of facts was indeed to demonstrate that imagination always operates by taking such aggregations of fact and "transmuting" them by more or less familiar processes of recollection and association into something new: "intensified and sublimated and controlled though they be, the ways of the creative faculty are the universal ways of that streaming yet consciously directed something which we know (or think we know) as life" (394).

In the terms of classical rhetoric, Lowes argues that res is always the crucial determining element in the inventive process. Chaucer, Dante, Newton, and Darwin all worked in just the same way, Lowes alleges: a long, slow process of gathering material; a flash of insight brought about by some chance suggestion; then another long, slow process of turning insight into actuality. The road to Xanadu is not different from the road to Canterbury or to Paradise.

Though the grand outline might always be the same, however, one has...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-658X
Print ISSN
0026-7724
Pages
pp. 509-522
Launched on MUSE
2009-01-01
Open Access
No
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