M. Szenczi on Imagination & Nature according to
Coleridge, Wordsworth, Blake, Bacon, & Kant

In contrast to Coleridge’s careful, conscious artistry Wordsworth’s emphasis is on spontaneity and emotionalism; according to one of his definitions, “all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”. 83 An extreme example of his spontaneity and artlessness is the poem We Are Seven in which simplicity of language and sentiment seems carried to such an excess that a friend warned Wordsworth to cancel the poem as the first edition of Lyrical Ballads was going through the press, “for, if published, it will make you everlastingly ridiculous”. 84 The poem, as is well known, relates the poet’s conversation with “a little cottage girl” who insists on numbering her dead sister and brother among the living. Wordsworth himself designed the ballad for an illustration of the psychological fact that a child who “feels its life in every limb” cannot grasp the fact of death—the child’s vitality is too strong for such a realization. But in Bradley the poem aroused “a feeling analogous to the supernatural”; he gave voice to his ‘heresy’ in an interesting note in which he expressed a doubt whether Wordsworth’s statement of his theme in the first stanza “truly represents the imaginative experience from which the poem arose”. In the poem the bond between the living and the dead is not broken; the little girl keeps visiting the graves, knits her stockings, often eats her supper there, sings a song to her dead brother and sister. It is by these simple means that the poem arouses in us a sense of immortality which, Bradley assures us, “is inherent in human nature”. It was this dim realization, the critic believes, that, unknown to himself, arrested the poet in the child’s persistent ignoring of the fact of death. Hence, Bradley concludes, the naive ballad We Are Seven is, in fact, allied to the great philosophical poem, Wordsworth’s Immortality Ode. 85

The simplicity of Wordsworth’s poems is often deceptive, the plain narrative admits of different symbolic interpretations as “the film of familiarity” is removed and our eyes are opened to the “loveliness and the wonders of the world before us”. It is this effect, attained in different ways by the authors of the Lyrical Ballads, that has made Theodore Watts-Dunton to describe the essence of the romantic period as the “Renascence of Wonder in Poetry”. 86

The cardinal point in the theory and practice of the authors of the Lyrical Ballads is the reconciliation of two seemingly conflicting claims:

83 From the Preface to the 1802 edition of Lyrical Ballads, in Literary Criticism of W. Wordsworth, ed. P. M. Zall (University of Nebraska Press, 1966), p. 42.

84 The story, told by Wordsworth to Miss Fenwick, is found in the Globe edition of The Complete Poetical Works (London, 1930 (1924)), p. 74. The note contains interesting details about the joint work of the two poets in the composition of The Ancient Mariner and We Are Seven.

85 A. C. Bradley, Oxford Lectures on Poetry (London, 1955 (1909)), pp. 146-48.

86 See the introduction to vol. III of Chambers’s Cyclopaedia of English Literature (London and Edinburgh, 1938), pp. 1-10.


the claim of adhering to the truth of nature and the claim of the free exercise of the imagination. It is the special distinction of Coleridge as a critic that he recognized and described the working to two apparently opposite principles and discovered their intimate union in a work of art which is both an “imitation” or representation of reality and an expression of the artist’s or poet’s attitude to it, thus overcoming the barriers between the subject and the object, and effecting a fusion of the perceiving ego and the reality perceived in the resulting artifact, whether a “verbal icon”, a musical composition, or a creation of the visual arts.

Coleridge’s formulation has a universal validity which is absent from the one-sided statements of most of his contemporaries or predecessors. In Blake’s A Vision of the Last Judgment (c. 1810) the world of Imagination becomes identified with the world of Platonic Ideas: it is Infinite and Eternal, the World of Permanent Realities, of which we only see a reflection in this Vegetable Glass of Nature! 87 Ten years later, on the plate of the Laocoon Group, Blake equates Art and Religion, preaches the gospel of “Art deliver’d from Nature and Imitation”, and declares that “All that we see is Vision”. 88 In 1826, the year before his death, Blake jots down some angry remarks in a copy of Wordsworth’s Poems. Rejecting Wordsworth’s statement that observation and description are among the powers requisite for the production of poetry, Blake states emphatically: “One Power alone makes a Poet: Imagination, The Divine Vision”. He sees in Wordsworth “the Natural Man rising up against the Spiritual Man continually, and then”, Blake adds, “he is no Poet but a Heathen Philosopher at Enmity against all true Poetry or Inspiration”. In his comment on Wordsworth who stressed “the influence of natural objects in calling forth and strengthening the Imagination in boyhood and early youth” Blake remarks with scorn: “Natural Objects always did and now do weaken, deaden and obliterate Imagination in Me”. 89

One is tempted to regard such statements as the vagaries of an extreme romantic, or even the figments of a fevered brain—and then discovers with surprise somewhat similar pronouncements by the sage and serious Francis Bacon, some two centuries before the romantic movement. Poesy, Bacon tells us, “was ever thought to have some participation of divineness, because it doth raise and erect the mind, by submitting the shows of things to the desires of the mind, whereas Reason doth buckle and bow the mind unto the nature of things”. The basis of this distinction lies in Bacon’s division of the realm of human learning according to the faculties of the mind: history corresponds to man’s memory, poesy to his imagination, philosophy to his reason. The freedom and “divineness” of poesy thus spring from the nature of the imagination which, “being not tied to the laws of matter, may at pleasure join that which nature hath joined”. 90

87 Poetry and Prose of William Blake, ed. G. Keynes (London, 1956), p. 639.

88 Ibid., pp. 580-82.

89 Ibid., p. 821.

90 F. Bacon, Advancement of Learning and the New Atlantis (The World’s Classics, OUP), pp. 75-76, 89-90.


The two views agree in finding some sort of “divineness” in poetry and attributing it to the working of the imagination. But while in Blake imagination is a door to ultimate, spiritual reality and is actually identified with the Divine Vision, in Bacon it is a means of relieving man from the thraldom of the actual world of experience: it creates a world of fiction of “escape” which satisfies the heart’s desire. Blake follows the central idealistic tradition in attributing existence in the full sense only to the infinite and eternal, what he calls “the World of Permanent Realities”, while Bacon considers existence from three different angles and divides human learning into three departments which correspond to reason, memory, and imagination, the three fundamental faculties of the human mind. We may remark that a similar departmentalization may be found in Kant who regarded understanding as our faculty of knowledge, reason as the faculty of desire, and taste as the faculty of aesthetic judgment, remarking that judgment “in the order of our cognitive faculties, forms a middle term between understanding and reason”. 91

Coleridge, in his philosophy of poetry and art, is sharply opposed to any such departmentalization; in his eyes “the poet, described in ideal perfection, brings the whole soul of man into activity”. Chapter XIV of Biographia Literaria closes with an eloquent tribute to that “synthetic and magical power” to which he has “exclusively appropriated the name of imagination”. It is not some isolated “aesthetic” faculty but is “first put into action by the will and understanding”. Its effect is to “diffuse a tone and spirit of unity”, it “reveals itself in the balance or reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities: ... of the general, with the concrete; the idea, with the image; the individual, with the representative; the sense of novelty and freshness, with old and familiar objects”. The last pair of opposites recalls the opening statements of the chapter about the “two cardinal points of poetry”, the seemingly conflicting claims of “a faithful adherence to the truth of nature” and the charm of novelty supplied by “the modifying colour of imagination”. The power of imagination is described here in terms very different from Bacon’s, who saw the essence of poetry in delivering the mind from the pressure of reality. For Coleridge, imagination, while blending and harmonizing the natural and the artificial, “still subordinates art to nature; the manner to the matter”. 92

91 Preface to the first edition (1790) of The Critique of Judgment. Op. cit., p. 461 (see Note 51).

92 BL, II, p. 12.


SOURCE: Szenczi, M. “Imagination and Truth to Nature—Philosophical Foundations of Coleridge’s Literary Criticism,” in European Romanticism, edited by István Sőtér and I[rina Grigor’evna] Neupokoyeva, translated by Éva Róna (Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó, 1977),  pp.127-182. This excerpt: pp. 149-151.

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