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An Exagmination of Imagination

The Creative Imagination: Enlightenment to Romanticism

by James Engell
Harvard University Press, 416 pp., $16.00

This important book is concerned with an important subject, which it handles with authority, learning, and originality. Perhaps the greatest transition that has taken place in our thinking about literature and the arts is the transition from the classical tradition, which had dominated Western thinking from the Greeks until the early eighteenth century, to the modern movement—of which Romanticism comprises the first chapter. In this transition, the pivotal concept is that of the “creative imagination,” which replaces the traditional classical ideal of literature and the arts as what the Greeks called mimesis (or “imitation” of reality). In the process it spawns a score of other premises, values, and aims that have continued to the present day.

According to the classical concept, the imagination was both simple and of minor significance, not only in general psychology but in the theoretical approach to art. It meant merely the ability to call up things not seen or heard at the moment, or to combine things in a way not actually experienced. Thus you take the image of a horse and attach to it the image of wings, and you have a winged horse. But why make any fuss about this simple act of mind? Contrast this attitude with Coleridge’s famous remark in the Biographia Literaria: “The primary imagination I hold to be the Living Power and prime Agent of all human Perception, and as a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation” by God Himself.

Most of us are accustomed to thinking that this new concept of the imagination was created by the Romantics at the start of the nineteenth century. Professor Engell takes a very different view. His theme is that the concept of the “creative imagination,” both in general psychology and in the interpretation of the arts, was developed during the Enlightenment (1660-1780), and that this concept, in turn, created Romanticism (at least serious Romanticism and the several Romantic theories of the arts, from which more recent theories derive). It did so by turning the focus of interest away from the idea of art as “imitation” of nature, and, as M.H. Abrams’s fine book, The Mirror and the Lamp (1953), also showed, transferring that interest to the subjective world: the inner life. Art is conceived as the “expression” of the human mind through symbols in which the “productive” nature of the mind manifests itself.

A few of us long suspected the crucial role of the imagination in this major transition, and have occasionally written on special aspects of it. But we never got around to treating it in depth. For example, I myself planned a similar work forty years ago. After digging into it for three years, I learned that the noted Canadian scholar, Arthur Woodhouse, was, in his fifties, planning to devote his remaining years to this project. I therefore gave up the idea, and published only a short general book, From Classic to Romantic (1946), which devoted some space to the part of imagination in what eighteenth-century scholars rightly call “the great transition.” After Woodhouse’s death no fragments of such a comprehensive work were found among his effects. I suspected then, and suspect now, that he had the same problem the rest of us have faced. The relevant literature, especially in Germany, is enormous and often technically difficult. Fortunately, Professor Engell reads philosophic and even scientific treatises, in several languages, with the ease that high school students read comic books, and he is able to see various connections between ideas which many of us had not noticed.1

Obviously, once Cartesian dualism separated the mind from its object, the great problem—for both philosophy as a whole and also for the arts and literature in particular—was how to reestablish the union of the human mind with nature through genuine insight. How could man and nature meet? What was responsible for the new belief that the “creative imagination” could unite man with nature? And that triumphant confidence of writers, from Blake in the later eighteenth century through Wordsworth and Coleridge (to mention only familiar poets): how did they get it?

The truth is that they drew upon a large background of thought which had been transforming the entire conception of the mind (conscious and unconscious). “Reason” (the key traditional word) could no longer—as the Enlightenment itself realized—convey all the capacities of both mind and feeling. “Imagination”—so colorless a word hitherto—was shoved into the gap, and by 1750 it was fast becoming the new key word for almost everyone who wrote either of literature (and the arts) or of the mind generally.

Even if the British empiricists had been left alone, untouched by Continental thought, they would already have discovered—and had discovered—that the mind, far from being a tabula rasa, “coalesced” things, and melted them into a new entity, as, to use an elementary example, the diverse colors of the spectrum, when combined, make a new color, white; or just as our bodies are more than a mere collection of various elements; or as a word is more than the mere “sum” of its individual letters. So with a phrase or sentence—to jump to larger units—the “coalescence” changes into new units or new “wholes.” The British “associationists,” such as Joseph Priestley, went on to find that not a mere “combination” but a genuine coalescence took place in the mind. All of this is the British mid-eighteenth-century basis for the idea of the “creative imagination.”

In Germany, especially after British thinkers made their impact between the 1760s and the 1790s, the concept was developed with new philosophical profundity. For this drama in the international play of ideas, Professor Engell is an authoritative guide. His book is in the company of the work of René Wellek and Thomas McFarland in revealing the interworking of British and German thought. (France did not much enter the picture: the tradition of neoclassic rationalism persisted there with comparatively little opposition, until France’s own Romanticism in the early 1800s, long after Enlightenment Britain and Germany had together produced the concept of the “creative imagination.”)

Professor Engell begins his study by revealing how late seventeenth-century British empiricists, especially Hobbes and Locke, contributed to the basis of a new idea of the imagination. He discusses the “claims of the spirit” in Shaftesbury and the neo-Platonists, as well as in Leibniz, and carries the concept through Addison to Mark Akenside and the 1740s. He ends in an original and convincing way by pairing Samuel Johnson and David Hume, both of whom, he shows, saw the imagination as the central activity of the mind, whether for good or bad. We are all used to thinking of Hume and Johnson as at opposite poles, largely because of their differences in religious outlook, but here Engell brings them together in an unexpected way.

He also provides the best discussion I have seen of the contribution to critical thinking about the arts by the Scottish Common-Sense School and the British associationists—including not only Joseph Priestley but also John Gay, David Hartley, and Abraham Tucker. He gives an account of the pioneer writings on the psychology of artistic genius in Alexander Gerard’s Essay on Taste (1759) and Essay on Genius (1774) and especially William Duff’s Essay on Original GeniusParticularly in Poetry (1767).

The British associationists, he shows, almost immediately started to apply their ideas to the critical interpretation of the arts and of the creative imagination. Hartley was the first to do this (1749) by extending the philosophy of associationism to virtually everything. Within ten years, four-fifths of all the work concerned with associationism was written by people primarily concerned with discovering the nature of artistic (especially poetic) genius and creativity, particularly in Homer, Shakespeare, Milton, and Pope.2

Probably because of their own literary and artistic interests, the associationists quickly advanced beyond the so-called elementary “laws” of association (resemblance, connection in time and space, contrast, etc.) to the discovery that we make associations by feelings as much as by mere objects or images. One feeling may set off another which will then lead one to an object that may be quite different (for example, a sound may, by striking a common emotional note within us, lead to a visual image): the discussion of this became quite elaborate. Through that discussion a basis was laid for Romantic and modern theories of symbolism, as well as for synesthesia (suggesting objects appealing to one sense by “transference” from another sense), and the use of the indirect, through “suggestiveness,” to arouse a creative act of mind in the beholder. (“The power of poetry,” as Coleridge later said, “is, by a single word, perhaps, to instil energy into the mind, which compels the imagination to produce the picture.”) A brilliant reconsideration of the interrelation of the various arts in this period followed.3

As contrasted with radical British empiricism, German thought had a Platonic and idealistic strain, and contained a potential emphasis on the creativity of the mind. This emphasis was given so firm a restatement by Leibniz at the close of the seventeenth century that German thinkers, during the next generation, remained confident of the “shaping” or “plastic power” of the mind. We see this even in Christian Wolff, who is usually thought of as having systematized Leibniz’s thought into a flat rationalism at variance with its more creative aspects. We see it even more in the array of writers from the “Swiss critics,” J.K. Bodmer and J.J. Breitinger in the 1720s, to J.G.E. Maass, on whose treatment of association in his book on the imagination (1792) Coleridge drew so freely in his Biographia Literaria.

Engell traces the impact of a dozen German writers of whom present-day English-speaking people have scarcely heard—such as Michael Hissmann, Leonhard Meister, J.G. Sulzer, Friedrich Blankenberg—together with others with whom we are more familiar (Karl Moritz, Herder, Lessing). In Tetens and Kant the idea of the “creative function” of the mind in all perception, especially in literature but also in the other arts, reached its climax in German thought, and Engell shows its sources in English and Scottish ideas.

But Engell seems to me most interesting in disclosing the development of the idea of imagination in British thought, particularly in the concept of what the associationists called “coalescence” (“mental chemistry,” to use J.S. Mill’s term), where the fluidities of impression and knowledge are, as it were, melted into unity, thus providing a grasp of things at once more “creative” and yet truer to the nature of external reality. Engell also provides the best and most comprehensive discussion I have read of the “sympathetic imagination” (empathy).

Keats’s friend Richard Woodhouse said that Keats could enter a “billiard ball” with “a sense of delight from its own roundness, smoothness, volubility, and the rapidity of its motion.” Engell traces Keats’s idea of “negative capability”—the ability of the creative poet to lose his identity in a sympathetic identification with other people or objects—to its sources. He shows that Keats was echoing his admired friend, William Hazlitt, whose critical philosophy was built around the concept of “imaginative sympathetic identification.” Hazlitt was fond of saying, for example, that Shakespeare, like Proteus in classical fable, could take any form, and could negate his own identity in that of any other person, and follow out “the germs of every faculty and feeling…intuitively, into all their conceivable ramifications, through every change of fortune, or conflict of passion. He had only to think of anything in order to become that thing, with all the circumstances belonging to it.”

But Hazlitt was himself building on a long tradition—at least seventy years old—of the concept of sympathetic identification. In his neglected early book Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), Adam Smith turned all moral feeling into “sympathy” made possible only by the imagination. But Engell goes back even before Smith, and shows us the contribution of Hume and Burke to the new faith in the ability to connect the mind and the external world. He reveals how strongly the notion of the sympathetic character of the imagination (the ability to identify) led to a deepening interest in Shakespeare, especially between 1750 and 1800, when a greater interest developed in the interpretation of character, in epic, prose fiction, and drama, and even in the language of poetry itself. Particular writers discussed, besides Shakespeare, included Milton, Dryden, Addison among English writers, and Homer and Virgil among classical writers. The classical emphasis on plot in drama and fiction was replaced by the interest in characters, creating a finer realism where speech was suited to individual natures. The closer a poem was to dramatic presentation, the more it showed the poet’s sympathetic identification. Imagery in poetry was prized to the extent that the poet could enter into the object and give what G.M. Hopkins later called its “inscape.” When the young Keats came across the phrase “sea-shouldering whales” in Spenser, he felt the weight of the parting billows on his own shoulders.

Engell gives a comprehensive account of the numerous distinctions between “fancy” and “imagination,” in which the latter word was given a new depth and complexity and the lighter associations of the term were relegated to the former. Coleridge’s distinction is well known, and when we discover a few anticipations of Coleridge on this we write articles. (The present reviewer is typical.) Professor Engell, however, presents us with dozens, and he shows that the distinction was becoming commonplace by the 1790s.

Engell is brilliant on the major “high Romantics,” including Hazlitt, Schiller, Blake and Shelley, Wordsworth. He makes a remarkably original and suggestive parallel between Goethe and Keats, who combined the highest imaginative powers and understanding of the creative imagination with a commonsense realization of the potential “treacheries” of that imagination—and of art—of its ability to lead us away from reality instead of toward it.

What later writers, especially poets, believed the imagination to be has been discussed with increasing frequency since World War II. But these discussions have lacked a sense of the connections in a writer’s thinking with his contemporaries and his background: why and how they came to view the imagination as they did, and to give it a central role in their poetry. Thanks to Professor Engell, we see why and how they did.

Engell rightly ends his book with Schelling and Coleridge. Schelling has never been known to English-speaking readers. It is regrettable that so little of his work has been translated. I suppose the explanation is that during the later nineteenth century, when there were plenty of people in the English-speaking world who knew German, there was an immense drop of interest in the theory of literature. Now, during the last twenty years especially, there is more interest in the theory of literature and the arts than at any other time since the Romantic period. But the impact of two world wars, joined with our general lack of preparation in languages, has left most students of literature innocent of German, at least philosophic German.

Everyone interested in the theory of literature could find not merely suggestions but anticipations of our ideas profoundly explored in the vast literature of German speculation from the 1750s to the 1820s. Engell really opens up Schelling for us, enabling us to see the power and breadth of his appeal on behalf of the imagination as the central element not only in man but in the cosmic creation itself. In Schelling the human imagination is a reflection of the divine creativity itself which continues the process of creativity in the universe.

It would be a hopeless task to try to distill the concepts of art (one must use the plural) in the more than a score of Schelling’s books in less space than Mr. Engell himself uses. Nor is there space here even to summarize Schelling’s elaborate and suggestive distinctions between the different levels of the human imagination (and, in any case, he constantly revised his philosophy of the mind). One can only mention here his main point, that art, the most “creative” use of imagination, “rescues philosophy”—supplements it, saves it from aridity, and, in effect, serves as the “crown” of what philosophy can and should be.

Coleridge, the heir of most of the writers Engell discusses, enriched the concept of the creative imagination with religious and cosmic as well as artistic implications. Thanks to Engell we have a fuller sense of their sources, and Coleridge’s famous remarks on the imagination have new meaning. Moreover, Engell is aware that modern psychologies of art, in their discussion of the imagination, are essentially footnotes to or ramifications (behavioristic or idealistic) of the concept as it was developed from 1660 to the 1820s, including much of the investigation into symbolism and the unconscious generally, from Romantic to modern—as well, indeed, as many of the more serious religions in the past half century.

We have to go back to such works as Arthur Lovejoy’s famous Great Chain of Being (1936) and M.H. Abrams’s The Mirror and the Lamp to find a book that applies the history of ideas to literature, in the eighteenth century, with anything like the scope and authority of Engell’s new work.

  1. 1

    Engell’s new edition of Volume I of Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria (due to be published in January by Princeton University Press), the full annotation of which has intimidated generations of scholars, shows the same mastery of the German sources, and gives a definitive statement of them.

  2. 2

    This is a fact overlooked in what is still widely considered a standard work, Howard Warren’s History of the Association Psychology (1921), though this oversight, one would think, had been corrected by more recent scholars, such as M.H. Abrams, Martin Kallich, Wallace Jackson, and, to a modest degree, my own brief discussion of the subject in From Classic to Romantic.

  3. 3

    This has been perceptively revealed in Jean Hagstrum’s The Sister Arts: The Tradition of Literary Pictorialism and English Poetry from Dryden to Gray (University of Chicago Press, 1958) and Lawrence Lipking’s The Ordering of the Arts in Eighteenth-Century England (Princeton University Press, 1970).

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