This is an old topic, one that's popular for essays. Coleridge introduced the distinction to help explain why he thought Milton was better than Cowley, and why Wordsworth was good. My interest in it has been revived by reading "The Further Reach", an article by Maitreyabandhu in Poetry Review, 101:3, Autumn 2011. He says that imagination
- "is a faculty that unites and transcends reason and emotion and points us toward a deeper understanding of life beyond the limitations of the rational", p.59
- "spontaneously selects sights, sounds, thoughts, images and so forth, and organises them into pleasurable formal relations that draw their deeper significance, expressing fundamental truths beyond the machinery of conceptual thought", p.61
- "unifies the contents of experience by discovering something within them, some underlying meaning or significance, inaccessible to ordinary consciousness", p.64
- "unifies the poet - better still imagination is the unified consciousness of the poem", p.64
- "is the mind functioning at its most integrated and penetrating. It is the entirety of the person - reason, emotion, volition and sensation - blended into complete action", p.65
In contrast, Fancy is "novelty for novelty's sake", p.61. He offers Hughes' "The Thought Fox" as an example of Imagination, something that absorbs the "strange yet familiar". He doesn't name any Fanciers. More examples would help. Here's one: A winged horse introduces a new concept into our minds, a new entity that we might almost believe could exist somewhere. That's Imagination - it puts 2 and 2 together to make 5. Contrastingly, in labs they've grafted a human ear onto the back of a rat. That's Fancy. I'd guess that the Martian and Metaphysical poets get accused of being Fancy too.
When one wants to separate two similar terms, it's tempting to associate some features you like with one of the terms. Here the ideas of non-rationality, unity, and deep/fundamental truths are aspects of Imagination. Not everyone considers these features positive ones, and there's even less agreement when people have to decide whether any particular piece exhibits Fancy or Imagination. These features seem commonly bunched though, and not just under the banner of Romanticism. For example, in ARTEMISpoetry, Issue 7 (Nov 2011) M.R.Peacocke writes (p.22) that
- "my poems ... come from myself: I mean my true and inward self. The question at any moment is to what extent the self is true or how far it is behaving according to modifications or manipulations."
- "I believe that my rather formal upbringing and a rigid kind of academic education modified and manipulated me to a considerable extent; but that I am gradually finding the voice of the original creature. She preserved herself when young by spending a lot of time on her own, and in interacting without instruction with other creatures - animals and plants"
- "I do not understand very much about this process of discovering meaning, but I know it is not achieved by means of the intellect"
- "The imagination, which I take to recognise similarities and connections and therefore to create metaphor, plays a major part in the making of a poem"
Imagination, poetry and selfhood become interrelated.
The Self and the Poem
In "Biographia Literaria", Coleridge wrote that "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 in the infinite I AM". He also wrote that a poem must be a cohesive unit, with every part working together to build into a whole. As Sana Shahid points out, "The significance of the Imagination for Coleridge was that it represented the sole faculty within man that was able to achieve the romantic ambition of reuniting the subject and the object; the world of the self and the world of nature". Imagination is the faculty that incorporates alien matter and experiences into new wholes.
This terminology is tied up with self-discovery and the notion of the self as a unified whole (or at least a unified core, a soul, surrounded by socially-conditioned contingencies). The Romantic preoccupation with individualism and the Self (against or with Nature) coupled with the demotion of language helps enforce the idea of the integrity of the Self, outcomes being the lyric and poets' striving to find their "voice". The two beliefs (in self-integrity and aesthetic wholeness) might be related.
Transcendence is the means of escape, of growth. Surrealist juxtaposition seems a useful tool of the Imagination, bypassing Reason - "In Surrealist metaphor, two terms are juxtaposed so as to create a third which is more strangely potent than the sum of the parts ... The third term forces an equality of attention onto the originating terms", ("Statutes of Liberty", Geoff Ward, Macmillan, 1993, p. 73-74). Surrealism is also an easily used generator of Fancy. Is Comte de Lautréamont's "beautiful as the chance meeting on a dissecting table of a sewing machine and an umbrella" Fancy or Imagination? Like beauty, I suppose it's in the eye of the beholder.
Symbolists also strived to bypass habitual thought patterns, to "purify language of base, commercial, and everyday meanings, an alchemical principle of the transubstantiation of matter designed to elevate poetry to the condition of music", Anthony Mellors, "Late Modernist Poetics", Manchester University Press, 2005, p.3-4
Maitreyabandhu writes about something grander that transcends more than reason and language. It "completely transcends our usual self-consciousness ... We cannot but experience it as coming from beyond the self".
Maitreyabandhu writes "Modern western culture has mostly lost touch with the depth and importance of imagination; it's just another part of the entertainment industry. At the same time 'imagination' can also be used to glorify the irrational or as another weapon in the war against reasoned thought" (p.59). I don't think we've lost touch. It's more that the goal posts have moved. In Romanticism the Self comes face to face with the world. In this relationship
- Language is an impediment. The more transparent it is the better
- Society is a hindrance. The true self becomes obscured by accretions of habit and social conditioning
Fancy is mechanical, non-transcendental, industrial. Imagination shows that there is a world beyond, bypassing language and reason. By unpeeling layers, the true self can be revealed, tempted by the exotic, the beyond.
We still care about the concepts involved with the discussion of Fancy and Imagination even if we don't use those terms. What's changed are the values we associate with the concepts, and the reader/writer relationship that the appreciation of these values engender. Hype, commercialisation and the sheer volume of juxtapositions have made us wary of mere novelty. Google can churn out connections to order. Improved communications makes the search fast and easy. In an age where Ultimate Truths are few, we still seek out the Radically New, the latest discovery. Increasingly, "new" means "new combinations of old material/genres" or an emergent phenomenon resulting from a "more is different" philosophy. Has Imagination moved with the times?
- We moved from "Language is an impediment" to "Language is a tool", then to distrust language, treating language as a subject. Stephen Burt suggested that if you're like Armantrout you come to "realize (emotionally) what you might have known (intellectually) all along: these see-through dialects of fraud and bad faith, these corruptible, companionable, always-already-commercial phraseologies, are all these is ... there is no authentic alternative, no uncorrupted language reserved for true sentiment"
- The notion of a true self sullied by society has been weakened by the realisation that even basics like vision require timely stimulation during one's developmental phase otherwise they're permanently impaired. Personality is fragmented, a toolbox of coping mechanisms that are combined to suit the situation. Peeling away "layers" merely impoverishes one's resources, restricting one's range of behaviours. One claimant to the role of true-self is the behaviour informed by long-term-memory - if that region of the brain is damaged, you're "not yourself" any more. But many other types of brain damage change a person. Unity is another layer of socialisation to be peeled away.
- The need for unity in a work of art has come under scrutiny - see Literary order and chaos for more about literary wholeness, the Aristotlean notion that in a masterpiece everything contributes to the whole. Unity is no longer an artistic necessity, nor is it in some way a reflection of persona integrity - it's not considered psychologically realistic.
When the poet's worldview is language or at least deeply mediated by language, the poems that the poets write might reflect this viewpoint and will no longer be a whole. We've moved from Eliot's fragments held together by a single spiritual vision of the age to Auden's varieties of quotable wisdom and then to Berryman ("When he found his voice [Berryman] found his voices" wrote Louise Gluck). Whereas in the past poets came to understand themselves by their relationship to Nature, now the focus has changed to concentrate on living in language.
We still like believable characters and self-sustaining worlds even if we know they're not "real" (Harry Potter and "Lord of the Rings" are considered sustained feats of imagination), though we're less likely nowadays to suggest that "time held me green and dying though I sang in my chains like the sea" transcends anything. Some examples of Fancy works better than others, but the distinction between Fancy and Imagination has become untenable. The reality of the quantum world described in mathematical equations "transcends" appearances, showing us a "deeper reality", making possible MRI scanning which in turn gives us insights into how brains work and how minds operate. It doesn't bypass rationalism, but that seems a small price to pay for learning more about the Self and Nature. Language (other than the language of mathematics) doesn't get much of a look-in so neither does poetry.