Samuel Taylor Coleridge was an English poet, philosopher, literarycritic,  and theologian who, along with William Wordsworth, founded the Romantic Movement in England. He is the foremost poet-critic of modern English tradition, renownedfor the influence and scope of his thinking about literature as much as for hisinnovative verse.

Active in the wake of the French Revolution as a dissentingpamphleteer, he inspired a brilliant generation of writers and attracted thepatronage of progressive men of the rising middle class. His poems of thisperiod, meditative, speculative, and strangely oracular, put off early readersbut endured the doubts of Wordsworth and Robert Southey to become recognizedclassics of the romantic idiom. Coleridge’sexplanation of metaphysical principles werepopular topics of discourse in academic communities throughout the 19th and20th centuries, and T.S.

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Eliot stated that he believed that Coleridge was”perhaps the greatest of English critics, and in a sense the last.” Coleridge’s various and imposing achievement, a cornerstoneof modern English culture, remains an incomparable source of informedreflection on the brave new world whose birth pangs he attended.Coleridge renounced poetic vocation in his thirtieth yearand set out to define and defend the art as a practicing critic. In addition to hispoetry, Coleridge also wrote persuasive pieces of literary criticismincluding Biographia Literaria, a collection of histhoughts and opinions on literature which he published in 1817. The workdelivered both biographical explanations of the author’s life as well as hisimpressions on literature. Coleridge waspre-eminently responsible for importing the new German critical philosophy. The collectioncontained an analysis of a broad range of philosophical principles ofliterature ranging from Aristotle to Immanuel Kant and Schelling and appliedthem to the poetry of peers such as William Wordsworth.

In the Biographia(after all his endless preliminaries, warnings and preparations) Coleridge’stheory of the Imagination started with a theory of the act of consciousness, orof knowledge, or, as he called it, ‘the coincidence or coalescence of an OBJECTwith a SUBJECT’.Coleridge asserts that Philosophy uses whathe calls the Inner Sense and that therefore it cannot ‘like geometry,appropriate to every construction a corresponding outward intuition’. But where acts and operations of the Inner Senseare concerned matters are not so easy. We are not all equally experienced inusing the Inner Sense:One man’s consciousness extends only to thepleasant or unpleasant sensations caused in him by external impressions; anotherenlarges his inner sense to a consciousness of forms and quantity; a third inaddition to the image is conscious of the conception or notion of the thing; afourth attains to a notion of his notions—he reflects upon his own reflections;and thus we may say without impropriety that the one possesses more or lessinner sense than the other. This more or less betrays already that philosophyin its first principles must have a practical or moral as well as theoreticalor speculative side.

As Blake put it, ‘A fool sees not the sametree that a wise man sees’. Coleridge assumes that these successivelevels, as it were, of the action of the Inner Sense are stages that can be achieved—withpractice—by the right people; that from notions of our notions we can go on toan Inner Sense of the act of notioning, of the act of choosing among ournotions and framing them, comparing them and so on., and he begins hisphilosophy with a certain act of examination, a realizing intuition whichbrings into existence what he calls ‘the first postulate of philosophy’ an toolto be used in his later accounts.What he is asking us to do is to perform forourselves an act of contemplation, of realizing intuitions, at the same timeand in the same act becoming aware by the Inner Sense of what we are doing. Coleridge states regarding Imagination:The primary Imagination I hold to be theliving Power and prime agent of all human Perception, and as a repetition inthe finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I am.

Thesecondary Imagination I consider as an echo of the former, co-existing with theconscious will, yet still as identical with the primary in the kind of itsoperation… Fancy, on the contrary, has no other counters to play with, butfixities and definites. The Fancy is indeed no other than a mode of memoryemancipated from the order of time and space; …The Primary Imagination is normal perceptionthat produces the common world of the senses, the world of the beef-steaks, motor-buses,and acquaintances, the framework of events and things within which we maintainour everyday existence, the world of the routine fulfilment of our necessities.The Secondary Imagination, re-forming this world, gives us not only poetry—inthe limited sense in which literary critics concern themselves with it—butevery aspect of the routine world in which it is invested with other valuesthan these necessary for our bare continuance as loving beings: all objects forwhich we can feel love, awe, admiration; every quality beyond the account ofphysics, chemistry and the physiology of sense-perception, nutrition,reproduction and locomotion; every awareness for which a civilized life ispreferred by us to an uncivilized. All the supernumerary perceptions whichsupport civilized life are the product of the Secondary Imagination; and,though the process by which they are created are best studied in words—in thehighest examples, in poetry—the rest of the fabric of the world of values is ofthe same origin. Thus, that there should be a connection between ordering oflife and poetry should not surprise.Against Primary Imagination and SecondaryImagination is set Fancy—which collects and rearranges, without remaking them,units of meaning already established by Imagination. In Imagination the mind isgrowing; in Fancy it is merely reassembling products of its past creation,stereotyped as objects and obeying, as such ‘fixities and definites’, the lawsof Hartley’s association.

Coleridge’s best-known formulation of thedifference between Imagination and Fancy comes at the end of the first volumeof Biographia. Many readers havegathered from them that the distinction is in some way ‘metaphysical’; that thePrimary Imagination is a finite repetition of creation; that the SecondaryImagination, an echo of the primary; that it dissolves to recreate or, atleast, ‘to idealize and to unify’; and that is vital, as opposed to Fancy which’has no other counters to play with but fixities and definites’ and is ‘a modeof memory emancipated from the order of space and time’.Coleridge begins in Biographia after theopposition: “Milton had a highly imaginative, Cowley a very fanciful mind,” bycomparing the relation between fancy and imagination to that between deliriumand mania.

Under the checks of the senses and reason, ofthe activity of thought and the exuberance of the accumulative memory, the mindin its normal state uses both Fancy and Imagination. Coleridge insisted thatFancy and Imagination are not exclusive of or unwelcoming to one another. He says of Wordsworth’s account of them:I am disposed to conjecture, that he hasmistaken the co-presence of fancy and imagination for the operation of thelatter singly.

A man may work with two very different tools at the same moment;each has its share in the work, but the work effected by each is very differentIn drawing with Coleridge, a line betweenImagination as a bringing into one—an esemplastic power—and Fancy as an amassing,aggregating power, we must bear in mind the purpose for which we draw it. Theimportance and the persistence of the purpose, and utility of the distinction,establish the line, and it has no other establishment.  “A poem contains the same elements as a prosecomposition,” said Coleridge in beginning his discussion of meter, “thedifference therefore must consist in a different combination of them, inconsequence of a different object being proposed”.

He goes on to discussdifferent possible objects, or purposes, and does not here linger to considerwhat these ‘elements’ may be; but our understanding of his theory of meter willdepend upon our view of these elements.Coleridge, in his discussion of the functionsof meter, wavers between two conceptions; sometimes taking metre as a sensorypattern of the songs, sometimes making it the very motion of the meaning. Andthis is part of the explanation of the oddly incoherent condition of hisargument.After noting the superficial mnemonic unitythat verse confers, and ‘the particular pleasure found in anticipating therecurrence of sounds and quantities’—two important subsidiary points—heintroduces a definition of a poem in terms of purpose, truth and pleasure.A poem is that species of composition, whichis opposed to works of science, by proposing for its immediate object pleasure, not truth; and from all other species(having this object in common with it) it is discriminated by proposing toitself such delight from the whole,as is compatible with a distinct gratification from each component part.

Coleridge was fond of this definition. Heconsidered it as one of the best things he had done. But the more patiently weexamine it, the less satisfactory we shall find it.

Not only is there ambiguityin its chief term pleasure (as wellas in the opposed term, truth) butthe final phrase seems to be irredeemably misleading in spite of its obscurity.The tenor of his description confuses pleasure as the ultimate outcome (thesomething nobler) with pleasure as the immediate lure of interest.Coleridge hoped to do something muchambitious—to deduce a necessary connection between metre and poetry. Later, forexample, when he says, that whatever is put into metre ‘must be such as tojustify the perpetual and distinct attention to each part, which an exactcorrespondent recurrence of accent and sound are calculated to excite’.

Aglance at the foot of the page where he remarks that ‘philosophic critics ofall ages’ deny ‘the praises of a just poem… to an unsustained composition, fromwhich the reader collects rapidly the general result, unattracted by thecomponent parts’ shows us one thing he is doing with it. He is saying that apoem is something to be really read, not skimmed like a newspaper.In a brief conclusion, for Coleridge, Good Sense is the body of poetic genius, Fancyits drapery, Motion its life, and Imagination the soul that is everywhere, andin each; and forms all into one graceful and intelligent whole.