Coleridge’s concept of Imagination | Imagination and Fancy | Biographia Literaria |

Samuel Taylor Coleridge was an English Poet and literary Critic who wrote many famous poems in his lifetime such as “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, “Ode to Dejection”, “Kubla Khan” etc. As we know, S.T Coleridge was a famous poet of the romantic period and because romantics stressed more on the imagination, so he conceptualized it.

In 1817 Coleridge published his philosophical and critical autobiographical work “Biographia Literaria” in which Coleridge expounds his personal concept of imagination and fancy in detail. It is a very important work in English literary criticism that included an investigation of a wide extent of theoretical ideas of philosophers such as Kant, Aristotle, Schilling and so on . In this philosophical work Coleridge expounds his concepts of primary and secondary imagination, the difference between imagination and fancy etc. 

Coleridge’s concepts of Primary imagination:

S.T Coleridge specifies primary imagination as “living power and prime agent of all human perception”. (S.T Coleridge, “Biographia Literaria”). By this, he meant all humans possess primary imagination as an essential requirement to perception.  According to Coleridge, primary imagination is a prerequisite to understanding our external world. Primary imagination connects our mind and nature and it repeats this connection eternally. For example, if someone is talking or when we listen to some music, then with which we understand those things or that music is the primary imagination. Primary imagination is the process by which our mind recognizes and explains events and incidents precisely as they are or seem to be. Coleridge says that this imagination is spontaneous and we do not have to put any effort and that is also why Coleridge called this imagination “the necessary imagination”. It is mostly the unintentional way of seeing and grasping knowledge and reality from the environment and universe. We make interconnections and relationships between many different things that we see in our world.

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Coleridge’s concept of Secondary Imagination:

Coleridge employs the term secondary imagination to highlight the human capacity to exceed this primary imagination to reconstruct intuitive constituents and produce new meaning. There is no creativity and ingenuity in the primary imagination. Primary imagination generally creates a duplicate of what has been observed in nature by others. But the secondary imagination breaks down what has been observed so as to create new meaning or thing. The secondary imagination creates something new, not just a copy. Thus Secondary imagination is the method by which our mind recreates incidents in relation to our perception of the world. This method is somewhat collaborative in that the bits and pieces when combining have a greater significance than their respective value. 

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Coleridge states that the primary and the secondary imagination is not separate and individualistic. The Secondary imagination has to depend on the primary imagination for its resources. While the crucial terms linked with the primary imagination are “repetition” and “perception”, the crucial terms linked with the secondary imagination are “unify” “recreate” and “process”. In both these scenarios, Coleridge appears to be declaring that the primary imagination is involved with natural human understanding familiar to all, while the secondary imagination is involved with creative or poetic creation. 

Coleridge’s concept of fancy:

Coleridge compares fancy and imagination, saying that fancy is inferior to the imagination. According to Coleridge, fancy is like memory which collects many images to form an image in a different way. For example, when a poet uses metaphor or simile, he uses fancy because he joins the similar and dissimilar together. According to Coleridge, fancy is a logical faculty that organizes materials. Fancy does not create anything new. Imagination on the other hand is associated with artistic creation that takes our existing objects and transforms them into a completely different thing or object.

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Coleridge differentiates imagination and fancy with the examples of Milton and Cowley. Coleridge states that Milton has an imaginative or creative mind, on the other hand, Cowley has a fanciful mind. Cowley is extremely proficient in the art of organizing words and ideas into attractive designs. Milton, on the other hand, is an imaginative original, with capabilities that are literally creative and innovative. Coleridge censures William Wordsworth for blending fancy and imagination together in his works. Coleridge concludes by stating that a poet can have both imagination and fancy but he points out that only the former is crucial for greatness. 

Coleridge’s concept of imagination and his poems:

We essentially noticed Coleridge’s conception of imagination in one of his famous poems “Kubla Khan”. Because the poem is written in the form of dream vision, the primary imagination offered the basic resources that Coleridge’s creative mind recreated into an artwork. 

If we see the poem from the point of view of Coleridge’ concept of imagination, then the first stanza of the poem seems to derive from the primary imagination. It is like visualizing a place we probably perceive in nature. 

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Then in the later part of the poem, Coleridge uses these basic resources of primary imagination and recreates it to a creative, more elated level, blending the raw materials of nature with musing on the divine. There is such a fountain from which water flows and causes floods. Amidst all these tumult the king hears “ancestral voices”. “Romantic chasm”, “Huge-Fragments” and “Ancestral voices” indicate superior degree of imagination i.e secondary imagination than general unimaginative explanation of the universe.  

In the last stanza of the poem, the speaker asserts that if he had the ability of bringing the music played by a young woman, then he would be able to rebuild Kubla Khan’s kingdom. So the poet’s blending of raw materials – we probably come across and perceive, such as a mysterious maid playing a dulcimer – are an example of a superior level of imagination i.e. secondary imagination.   


In conclusion, we can say that the concept of imagination and fancy of Coleridge plays an important role in the development of English literary theory and criticism, and even today when we talk about the identity of the poet and his role as poet in society we mention Coleridge’s concept of imagination and fancy.

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