Supposing Romanticism a Lamp – what then? It needs a Flame. Unlike a mirror, a lamp needs internal incandescence: it cannot simply reflect reality; it must focus reality. But according to the dominant 18th century British empirical philosophers, focusing reality is impossible. Their empiricism asserts we can only passively associate impressions to generate fanciful, reducible, unreal images. Further, the more extreme empirical associationists claim we do not have any control over what fancies we generate. Greater reality through thought thus lies beyond our reach: an incandescent Flame is impossible. But despite Britain’s claims, no country is an island, entire of itself; each is a piece of the world, a part of the main – turning to the continent we see a philosophy ablaze with Idealism. In stark contrast to the empiricists, the Idealists think our first impressions of the visible world are the least real. They believe we can actively focus reality by fusing discrete but related parts together into new wholes via imagination. By representing this imaginative fusion in a Lamp the human creator thus ignites a valuable Flame. Like Prometheus, Coleridge stole the Flame of imagination from the immortal continentals for the eternal elevation of the English artist. Like Prometheus, he will forever be punished for this theft.

The Flame is of course Coleridge's infamous secondary imagination:

The secondary [imagination] I consider as an echo of the former, co-existing with the conscious will, yet still as identical with the primary in the kind of its agency, and differing only in degree, and in the mode of its operation. It dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to re-create; or where this process is rendered impossible, yet still at all events it struggles to idealize and to unify. It is essentially vital even as all objects (as objects) are essentially fixed and dead. (Coleridge 304)
He contrasts this positive faculty with the rather negative fancy:
Fancy, on the contrary, has no other counters to play with, but fixities and definites. The Fancy is indeed no other than a mode of Memory emancipated from the order of time and space; and blended with, and modified by that empirical phenomenon of the will, which we express by the word CHOICE. But equally with the ordinary memory it must receive all its materials ready made from the law of association. (Ibid 305)
With this definition of Fancy, Coleridge neatly sums up the empiricists’ conceptions of imagination and completely rejects the deterministic theories of the associationist psychologists. But with by distinguishing between fancy and imagination he also rejects the empiricists' claim that the mind is wholly passive, instead holding we are a priori, actively capable of imagination. He draws this distinction because he believes we are capable of creating wholly new, irreducible ideas – ideas a passive mind could not possibly create. Imagination's a priori existence does not, however, imply its value. But the idealist basis of this theory provides a justification: imagination breaks through the phenomenological haze to more truly represent the real world. I shall first examine Coleridge’s relation to the associationist philosophers. I shall then elaborate on Coleridge’s distinction between empirical Fancy and idealist secondary Imagination. Finally, I shall examine the problem of primary imagination.

In 1794, Coleridge told Southey, ‘[I am] a compleat [sic] Necessitarian—and understand the subject as well almost as Hartley himself—but I go farther than Hartley and believe in the corporeality of thought' (Hill 8). By calling himself a 'Necessitarian' and disciple of Hartley, Coleridge places himself in a clearly deterministic, completely passive philosophy. By 'going farther than Hartley,' by believing in the 'corporeality of thought,' Coleridge makes this passive determinism even more extreme. Yet in 1801 he wrote, '[I have] overthrown the doctrine of Association, as taught by Hartley, and with it all the irreligious metaphysics of modern Infidels—especially the doctrine of Necessity' (McFarland 222). Why did Coleridge decide to utterly reject this system he had formerly placed so much faith in? He hints at his reasons in another passage from the same year:

'Mind in [the associationists’] system is always passive—a lazy Looker-on an external World. If the mind be not passive, if it be indeed made in God’s Image, & that too in the sublimest sense—the Image of the Creator—there is ground for suspicion, that any system built on the passiveness of the mind must be false, as a system.' (McFarland 222)
As is so often true in Coleridge’s thought, he describes his reasons in theological terms. But while the philosophical basis of his rejection undoubtedly lies in theology, the impetus for the rejection is probably a bit more concrete. For Coleridge made these comments in 1801, and Wordsworth issued his preface in 1800. As Hill notes, Wordsworth’s poetic theory is heavily based in Hartley’s associationism:
The principle object of these Poems was … further, and above all, to make these incidents and situations interesting by tracing in them, truly though not ostentatiously, the primary laws of our nature: chiefly, as far as regards the manner in which we associate ideas in a state of excitement … Poems to which any value can be attached … [were produced] by a man who, being possessed of more than usual organic sensibility, had also thought long and deeply. For the continued influxes of feeling are modified and directed by our thoughts, which are indeed the representatives of all our past feelings … by obeying blindly and mechanically the impulses of those habits, we shall describe objects, and utter sentiments, of such a nature, and in such connection with each other, that the understanding of the Reader must necessarily be in some degree enlightened, and his affections strengthened and purified. (Hill 20)
Coleridge wants to attribute a flame-like, actively imaginative quality to both his and Wordsworth’s poetry, but Wordsworth’s associationist poetics extinguish all possibility of such a Flame. Coleridge thus writes to Southey in 1802 of the 'Preface as it stood in the second Volume [of 1800],' saying, 'I rather suspect that some where or other there is a radical Difference in [mine and Wordsworth’s] theoretical opinions respecting Poetry—this I shall endeavor to go to the Bottom of' (Hill 19). It seems likely that this examination of his poetic views, in conjunction with his nascent reading of the Germans, provoked Coleridge to reconsider his views and utterly reject Hartleyan determinism.

Instead of outright rejecting the philosophy of the empiricists, Coleridge simply relegates their theory of imagination to the negative 'Fancy.' Unlike Hartley, most empiricists are not determinists, but they still believe in the absolute passivity of the mind. Hume, for example, writes, '[the] creative power of the mind amounts to no more than the faculty of compounding, transposing, augmenting, or diminishing the materials afforded us by the senses and experience' and 'the mixture and composition of these [materials] belongs alone to the mind and will' (Kolak 576). But though this power may belong to the mind, it cannot be an a priori power, for the empiricists deny all a priori knowledge. Since 'all the materials of thinking are derived either from our outward or inward sentiment,' the will must merely be an 'empirical phenomenon' (Kolak 576). Thus, while association is not deterministic, the passivity of the empiricists’ mind makes it mechanistic, passive. Hume also writes, 'when we analyze our thoughts or ideas, however compounded or sublime, we always find that they resolve into such simple ideas as were copied from a precedent feeling or sentiment,' past experiences (Kolak 577). In other words, the complex ideas the empiricists’ creative power produces are in all cases reducible to their constituent simples. Put simply, the empiricists’ creative power is passive and aggregative.

A mirror clearly falls out of this definition, but there is no flicker of flame. In contrast, Coleridge desires a faculty capable of actively '[producing] out of many things … a oneness,' able to, 'diffuse a tone and spirit of unity and … fuse, each into each' (Abrams 487, 482). Instead of a passive and aggregative faculty, Coleridge wants an active and assimilating one. He demands a power able not to weld, but to fuse. And for fusion we need 'that synthetic and magical power to which we have exclusively appropriated the name of imagination' (Abrams 482). Coleridge thus rejects Johnson’s 1755 definition of imagination as 'Fancy' and draws his famous distinction between Fancy and Imagination. He does not deny the empiricists’ proposed power; he simply relegates it to the lower of two powers, the negative Fancy. Coleridge’s Fancy – playing entirely with 'fixities and definites,' 'equal with the ordinary memory' and receiving 'all its materials ready made from the law of association' – thus neatly maps onto the empiricists’ 'creative power.'

I have thus far written only of Coleridge’s two-part faculty between imagination and fancy. But he draws a distinction within a distinction, dividing imagination into 'primary' – 'the living power and prime agent of all human perception, … a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM' – and secondary (Coleridge 304). To find the roots of Coleridge’s imagination we must account for both a two-part imagination, and a distinct fancy: we must discover a three-part faculty.

Discovering the route he took to this three-part distinction is a forbidding task, but Coleridge gives us some help: 'In the preface of my Metaphys. Works I should say—Once & all read Tetens, Kant, Fichte &c—& there you will trace or if you are on the hunt, track me' (McFarland 206). McFarland presents a persuasive case for Tetens as the primary source. Tetens is unknown today, but he is one of the primary bridges between the idealism of Leibniz and the critical-idealism of Kant. Much like Coleridge, Tetens divides human thought into 'perception' and 'fancy,' and a third power called 'self-active fancy' capable of '[creating] new images and representations' (McFarland 209). He also describes this 'self-active fancy' in terms more than vaguely reminiscent of Coleridge: it 'blends and (as it were) fuses,' and performs such activities as 'dissolving,' 'reuniting,' and 'diffusing' (Ibid 212). But though Tetens is undoubtedly a major source, it seems unlikely his influence is as powerful as McFarland proposes. After all, the materials leading up to the definitions in chapter 13 are plagiarized – both verbatim and in paraphrase – from Schelling (Engell BL cxix). And, as J. Wordsworth perhaps a bit too pedantically notes, Tetens’ three-part division is out of order: unlike Coleridge, he puts perception first, fancy second, imagination third. Moreover, Tetens was one among many philosophers Coleridge had read who draw a three-part distinction. It thus seems more likely that Coleridge’s imagination emerged from a synthesis of at least five of the German thinkers he had read: 'Platner, Tetens, Kant, Maass and Schelling' (Engell BL cii).

These five philosophers are tied together by more than just a distinction between imagination and fancy: all five made crucial contributions to the incredibly deep stream of thought called critical idealism. Leibniz established the bed for this stream in an essay published in 1765, many years after his death:

There are some ideas and principles which do not come to us from the senses, and which we find in ourselves without forming them, although the senses give us occasion to perceive them. (McFarland 219)
In Coleridge’s words, this stream of thought is an attempt to 'make the senses out of the mind—not the mind of the senses, as Locke did' (Engell CI 334). Simply put, it is the idea that a priori knowledge is possible. From it, Kant goes on to assert, 'The understanding does not derive its laws (a priori) from, but prescribes them to, nature' (Kolak 664). It is exactly what Coleridge was searching for: a direct refutation of the empiricists’ proposed passive mind. Without a priori knowledge the mind must be passive and Coleridge’s imagination is thus impossible; with a priori knowledge the mind suddenly becomes active, and Coleridge’s primary imagination becomes necessary, his secondary undoubtedly possible. Primary imagination – 'perception' – becomes necessary as an active way to represent in our minds the phenomena we no longer passively experience. Secondary imagination – 'recreating' and 'unifying' wholly new, irreducible ideas from the materials of the primary – becomes possible because the mind is capable of more than the essentially passive 'law of association.' Whereas the empiricists claim the greatest thing imagination can aspire to is the passive, empirically observed 'law of association,' Coleridge can now justifiably claim we possess another a priori faculty, secondary imagination, capable of active, 'recreative,' irreducible production. He could have claimed such a faculty from observation, like the empiricists, but in order for the faculty to be active it must be a priori. From this basic foundation of a priori idealism it becomes uncertain just which philosopher Coleridge used to arrive at his three-part imagination, but the foundation is indisputable.

It is not immediately obvious how the new, unified ideas Coleridge’s imagination produces are useful. It seems these ideas cannot correspond to anything in our experience – how then could they possibly be useful for life? Engell provides an interesting gloss:

The imagination … in creating new wholes, wills them into being, designs their totality, and acts not as an ‘empirical phenomenon’ but as a conscious desire for something not yet in existence, something to be created. (BL ciii)
But Coleridge writes of 'IMAGINATION [as] the soul that is everywhere' in 'poetic genius' (Abrams 483). He also writes, 'truth, either moral or intellectual, ought to be the ultimate end [of poetry]' (Abrams 480). From this it seems to follow that the ultimate purpose of imagination is truth. While 'a conscious desire for something not yet in existence' may at times be truth, those times are rare; Engell’s gloss is too limiting. A solution lies in the idealist metaphysics underlying Coleridge’s theory. Kant provides a good example of this metaphysics: 'we can know objects only as they appear to us (to our senses), not as they are in themselves' and 'appearances … are mere representations' (Kolak 645, 650). Coleridge seems to believe the first representations we generate from sensations are the products of the 'prime agent of human perception,' primary imagination. But over time we acquire many appearances from a single thing, and thus produce many different representations of that thing. In these multiple representations of the same object lies the key to secondary imagination: it allows us to 'dissolve, diffuse, [and] dissipate' the errors in our first representations and 'recreate' a new, unified, more real representation of the real object. Secondary imagination is thus the faculty that gives us access to truth higher than 'first impressions,' the first representations of primary imagination. Secondary imagination is a flame whose fuel is falsity: it dissolves, diffuses, dissipates the false parts of old representations, and then recreates a new 'idealized, unified,' whole that is wholly true, freed from falsity. The lamp, equipped with its truth-focusing-flame, can thus present things more real than what seems to be reality.

Yet it seems a bit absurd to reduce primary imagination to mere perception. For it is both the 'prime agent of all human perception' and 'a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM.' Engell writes,

The adjective ‘secondary’ does not imply a lesser power but signifies that ‘superior degree of the faculty,’ much in the way a secondary school advances over but follows and builds on the primary grades. (CI 344)
But Engell provides no reference for his quote, and of the fifty or so senses the OED identifies of ‘secondary,’ Engell’s is the only one rating it above ‘primary.’ Moreover, as J. Wordsworth notes, the language Coleridge uses to describe the primary – 'living Power,' 'prime Agent,' 'repetition … of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM' – is much more grandiose than the rather plain language of the 'echo of the former' that is the secondary. In contrast to Engell, J. Wordsworth argues, 'It is not Coleridge but his critics who have been preoccupied with the poetic [secondary] imagination' (46). Instead of mere perception,
The primary imagination at its highest is the supreme human achievement of oneness with God; the secondary, though limited by comparison, contains the hope that in the act of writing the poet may attain to a similar power. (50)
This better fits Coleridge’s continuous tendency toward Christianity, as well as explaining the powerful language of the primary. It also fits with Coleridge’s later rejection of the Biographia as 'mere Pantheism' (J. Wordsworth 22). Primary imagination is the faculty of perception and it is through perception that we come to know God.

J. Wordsworth derives his explanation of the primary imagination largely from a number of pre-Biographia letters and speeches, but the Christian element is equally evident in Coleridge’s poetry. In 1797, he wrote in Kubla Khan:

I would build that sunny dome! those caves of ice!
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise. (lines 45-55)
Defining the primary imagination as humanity’s access to God provides an effective interpretation of these lines: through his imaginative faculty Coleridge gained access to God and thus 'drank the milk Paradise.' From this Godlike knowledge of primary imagination he then wishes to 'build that sunny dome!' with his secondary imagination. In 1797, Coleridge probably had not yet discovered his three-part conception of imagination, but he may well have generated it to explain the passages he imaginatively wrote. Written in 1802, the concept of imagination in Dejection: An Ode reflects his intellectual development:
I see them all so excellently fair,
I see not feel, how beautiful they are! …
I may not hope from outward forms to win
The passion and the life, whose fountains are within …
We receive but what we give,
And in our life alone does nature live …
But now afflictions bow me down to earth: …
But oh! each visitation
Suspends what nature gave me at my birth,
My shaping spirit of Imagination.
For not to think of what I needs must feel,
But to be still and patient, all I can. (lines 34-35, 45-48, 82-88)
In these lines a distinction between primary and secondary imagination becomes clear. The primary imagination is the fountain within, wherein alone does nature live. But afflictions have bowed Coleridge down to earth and suspended his shaping spirit of primary imagination. Yet though he cannot feel, Coleridge can still write! Though he has lost his primary imagination, he somehow retains his secondary. He no longer acquires new experiences of truth, of God, but he still has past experiences to dissolve and recreate into secondary representations. It seems that while Coleridge’s distinction between imagination and fancy arose from his disagreement with Wordsworth, his distinction between primary and secondary imagination came from his ability to write without feeling, to perform creation without a connection to the world.

While the imagination/fancy distinction reveals the primary poetic difference between Coleridge and Wordsworth, the primary/secondary distinction reveals the main religious difference. For both Wordsworth and Coleridge 'These beauteous forms, / Through a long absence, have not been … / As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye.' Yet where for Wordsworth these forms have 'oft, in lonely rooms … in hours of weariness' been the sources of 'sensations sweet,' for Coleridge they have been the source of torment. For Wordsworth, memories of primary imagination produce faith, produce undoubtable knowledge that God is present in the world, and though we may now be out of touch, this feeling cannot last long. For Coleridge, memories of primary imagination produce torment. For if God could let us fall out of feeling for just a moment, couldn’t he leave us for eternity? By Coleridge’s definitions, both he and Wordsworth had unshakeable secondary imagination, but Wordsworth had eternal faith in his primary while Coleridge forever fell into doubt.


Works Cited: Abrams, M. H., ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature: Seventh Edition, Volume 2. New York: W. W. Norton & Company Inc., 2000.

Coleridge, Samuel T. James Engell and W. Jackson Bate ed. The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge – 7 – Biographia Literaria. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., 1983.

Engell, James. The Creative Imagination: Enlightenment to Romanticism. London: Harvard University Press, 1981.

Hill, John S. Imagination in Coleridge. Totowa, New Jersey: Rowman and Littlefield, 1978.

Hume, David. An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. From: Kolak, Daniel, ed. The Mayfield Anthology of Western Philosophy. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Publishing Company, 1998.

Kant, Immanuel. Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics. Trans. Paul Carus (Open Court, 1902). From: Kolak, Daniel, ed. The Mayfield Anthology of Western Philosophy. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Publishing Company, 1998.

McFarland, Thomas. 'The Origin and Significance of Coleridge’s Theory of Secondary Imagination.' From: Hartman, Geoffrey H., ed. New Perspectives on Coleridge and Wordsworth: Selected Papers from the English Institute. New York: Columbia University Press, 1972.

Wordsworth, Jonathan. 'The Infinite I AM: Coleridge and the Ascent of Being.' From: Gravil, Richard and Lucy Newlyn, et al., eds. Coleridge’s Imagination: Essays in Memory of Pete Laver. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Log in or registerto write something here or to contact authors.