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Patricia Mavis Jenkins COLERIDGE AND THE PERILS OF THE UNBRIDLED IMAGINATION Usually when scholars have discussed Coleridge's concept of the imagination, they have focused upon Biographia Literaria, with particular attention directed toward his definitions of the primary imagination and the secondary imagination—definitions which they generally identify respectively with perceptual and poetic processes. Also, they have carefully examined the contrast which Coleridge draws in the Biographia between the organic powers of the imagination and the mechanically reproductive powers of fancy.1 Combing through volumes of Coleridge's publications, notes, and correspondence, these scholars have found here and there other statements about the imagination which can be related to these passages in Chapter xiii of Biographia. The most frequently cited statements include the distinction between fancy and imagination, which Coleridge first drew in a letter in 1802, and his elaboration of this distinction in a subsequent letter in 1804.2 Also of central interest is a notebook entry, written around 1813, in which Coleridge uses the term "Eisenoplasy" (coined from a Greek term meaning "to shape into one") to designate the imagination, "this prime & loftiest Faculty," as it is distinguished from "Fantasy, or the Mirrorment."3 Such phrases as the following suggest Coleridge's high regard for the imagination: "The living Power and prime Agent of all human Perception"; "It dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to recreate"; "It is essentially vital, even as all objects (as objects) are essentially fixed and dead" (BL 1:202); "Imagination, or the modifying, and co-adunating Faculty" (CL 2:866); "a dim Analogue of Creation, not all that we can believe but all that we can conceive of creation" (CL 2:1034). In such passages as these Coleridge seems to embrace without reservation this splendid power which "co-adunates," transforms , recreates, unifies, and radiates with life. If Coleridge's conceptof the imaginationwere sufficiently represented by the statements just cited from the Biographia, the letters and 192 Patricia Mavis Jenkins193 notebooks, then it would be reasonable to infer that for Coleridge the imagination is indeed a beneficent and marvelous power. A rather different, more complex conceptof the imagination is reflected, however, in recent Coleridge scholarship, which is more attuned to the darker overtones in Coleridge's writing and is broader in its scope. Paul Magnuson, for example, in Coleridge's Nightmare Poetry (Charlottesville: Univ. of Virginia Press, 1974) is perceptively attentive to Coleridge's misgivings about the insufficiently controlled imagination. To view adequately this crucial concept of imagination in Coleridge's literary theory, it is necessary to place in bold relief and to examine carefully Coleridge's admonitions about the potential hazards of imaginative thought. In carrying this task further within a short article, I have included not only those passages on dreams and delusions which Magnuson has handled so effectively but also an important body of material from The Friend and Omniana. In addition, I have labored to set apart from the context of the Biographia the perspectives in which these key statements emerge. An occasional statement associating negative qualities with the imagination appears in Coleridge's early letters and notebooks. In 1798 when Coleridge was still far from asserting, as he did in the Biographia, that imagination underlies all perceptual and cognitive processes (BL 1:202), he rather fretfully alluded to the possibility that imagination "counterfeits" all of our recollections. Coleridge was trying at this time to dispel a rumor prompted by an imprudent remark he had made. Commenting upon the unreliability of memory, Coleridge concluded that "people in general are not sufficiently aware how often the imagination creeps in and counterfeits the memory—perhaps to a certain degree it does always blend with our supposed recollections" (CL 1:237). Even when Coleridge attributes such extensive functions to the imagination in Biographia Literaria, he clearly recognizes the need for imagination to be harnessed. Thus in the famous passage that lists the balancing or reconciling feats of the "magical power" that generates poetry, he explicitly states the need for the poetic imagination to be "put in action by the will and understanding, and retained under their irremissive, though gentle and unnoticed controul" (BL 2:12). Years before he wrote the Biographia, Coleridge observed that...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 192-200
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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