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…

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