Fancy and Imagination: Definition & Explanation

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      We use the term ‘Fancy’ to refer to the world of fairy tales or make-believe. It signifies the realm of our dreams or, better, day-dreams. It is just the faculty which enabled Keats (in his ‘Ode to Fancy’) to invent the incident of Hebe’s kirtle slipping its golden clasp and falling to her feet to reveal her white waist and side.

      Imagination is not wild like fancy; it is made of soberer stuff; even while it invents, it is rooted in reality, like Wordsworth’s skylark, whose heart is in the nest below even while it is scaling the empyrean heights. It is a faculty which presents the objects of reality in terms of their ideal hues, and in an ideal combination, by removing their defects and discrepancies. It is the inventive power which brings the nightingale’s song in some Arabian haunt, and the cuckoo’s from the Hebrides, to parallel, illustrate and illuminate the Solitary Reaper’s song. It is also the power which results in intuition, like the faith which Wordsworth declared in ‘Written in Early Spring’: that every flower enjoys the air it breathes. Thus by its creation and by its weight of truth, it at once satisfies a sober mind and helps to make this much-loved earth more lovely. Fancy is no more than make-believe, and may please us by the delicacy or extra-ordinariness of its creation, but can never wholly satisfy us, for its fruits are gathered at random, and the impulse which does it is wanton. The terms were used in the 17th century more or less J synonymously in the sense of make-believe or invention. A distinction, however, gradually arose and pagination came to occupy a higher place. Even so, William Taylor, in his British Synonyms Discriminated (1813), gave the name of Fancy to the higher power of inventing or freely creating, while he reserved Imagination to the lower, more or less reproductive, faculty deriving its force from memory (Just the kind of faculty that is described in Keats’s ‘Fancy’ as retrieving the beauties that the earth has lost).

      Wordswoth, in an attempt to correct Taylor, wrote in his Preface to the 1815 Poems that the imagination was the higher faculty. In his opinion the distinction had been made at a very low level. He said both the faculties were inventive; only while Fancy was frolicsome and inferior, Imagination was serious and superior.

      Coleridge disagreed with Wordsworth essentially in this regard. According to him the terms are not synonymous; nor do they represent a higher and a lower reach of the same faculty. The two are distinct faculties, he said.

      Fancy is the aggregating, associating faculty while Imagination is the co-daunting (unifying) power. Fancy is a mode of memory (refer to Taylor above) and its products are mechanical, subjective (i.e. ‘ fanciful’, to beg the question) and arbitrary (there is no unifying principle). The imagination is a vital power whose products are living images and a beautiful creations.

      As an example of the imaginative type Coleridge cited Milton, and of the ‘fanciful’ he cited Cowley. So ‘Fancy’, as defined by Coleridge, comes very near to what we mean by ‘Wit’ or ‘Metaphysical Wit’. It is the faculty of bringing together dissimilar images and ideas on the basis of one point or more of likeness. However, these are mechanically associated; they are not essentially perceived as one or a unity. In the Biographia Literaria itself, Coleridge gives no illustration of the works of Fancy, but he does in his lecture, Shakespeare: a Poet Generally. He refers to the quatrain in Venus and Adonis, where Venus holds Adonis by the hand and the youth is described in the following terms:

A lily imprisoned in a jail of snow,
Or ivory in an alabaster band;
So white a friend ingirts so white a foe:

      So Fancy does no more than pick images from the mind’s infinite store, and brings them together by a process of association, rather than knitting, or melding them together into an organic unity. It flits from image to image like a butterfly.

      (Ruskin said that Fancy sees the outside and gives a superficial picture—clear, brilliant and full of detail, though; whereas imagination sees the heart and inner nature of things and makes them felt. For an illustration of the works of Fancy he used Wordsworth’s poem ‘To a Daisy’, wherein the poet calls the flower soft names ‘in many a mused rhyme’— a nun queen, a cyclops, a shield, a star, which are but a string of images unconnected by any unifying principle. The imagination, on the contrary, - he said, reveals the underlying kinship between object and subject).

      Now Coleridge’ viewed the Imagination under two aspects: Primary and Secondary. The Primary Imagination is the general Faculty which exists in all men and enables them to ‘construct’ (make sense of, integrate) experience. In so far as it presents to the mind the external world as a reflection of itself (The mind ‘receives but what it gives’), it participates in the divine act of creation. Thus the Primary Imagination serves as abridge between perception and understanding (The mind’s inner world, and the outer world of the senses, act and react upon each other and blend into a single vision.) It links object and subject, nature and man. The Secondary Imagination (the esemplastic imagination) is the special gift of the poet and artist, it is the higher plastic (shaping) power, it dissolves, dissipates in order to re-create, it resolves the opposites of Man and Nature, Subject and Object, Matter and Mind, Thought and Mind, the Conscious and Unconscious, and sees the whole world as kin. It likewise creates enduring and beautiful shapes which reflect the harmony of spirit and matter, the inner world of man and the outer world of nature.

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