The truth of it is, I look upon a sound imagination as the greatest blessing in life, next to a clear judgment, and a good conscience. In the mean time, since there are very few whose minds are not more or less subject to these dreadful thoughts and apprehensions, we ought to arm ourselves against them by the dictates of reason and religion, to pull the old woman out of our hearts (as Persius expresses it in the motto of my paper) and extinguish those impertinent notions which we imbibed at a time that we are not able to judge of their absurdity. Or if we believe, as many wise and good men have done, that there are such phantoms and apparitions as those I have been speaking of, let us endeavour to establish to ourselves an interest in Him who holds the reins of the whole creation in his hands, and moderates them after such a manner that it is impossible for one being to break loose upon another without his knowledge and permission.
A man of a polite imagination is let into a great many pleasures that the vulgar are not capable of receiving. He can converse with a picture, and find an agreeable companion in a statue. He meets with a secret refreshment in a description, and often feels a greater satisfaction in the prospect of fields and meadows than another does in the possession. It gives him, indeed, a kind of property in everything he sees, and makes the most rude uncultivated parts of nature administer to his pleasures: so that he looks upon the world as it were in another light, and discovers in it a multitude of charms that conceal themselves from the generality of mankind.
The pleasures of the imagination are not wholly confined to such particular authors as are conversant in material objects, but are often to be met with among the polite masters of morality, criticism, and other speculations abstracted from matter, who, though they do not directly treat of the visible parts of nature, often draw from them similitudes, metaphors, and allegories. By these allusions, a truth in the understanding is, as it were, reflected by the imagination; we are able to see something like colour and shape in a notion, and to discover a scheme of thoughts traced out upon matter. And here the mind receives a great deal of satisfaction, and has two of its faculties gratified at the same time, while the fancy is busy in copying after the understanding, and transcribing ideas out of the intellectual world into the material.
It is this talent of affecting the imagination that gives an embellishment to good sense, and makes one mans compositions more agreeable than anothers. It sets off all writings in general, but is the very life and highest perfection of poetry. Where it shines in an eminent degree, it has preserved several poems for many ages, that have nothing else to recommend them; and where all the other beauties are present, the work appears dry and insipid if this single one be wanting. It has something in it like creation. It bestows a kind of existence, and draws up to the readers view several objects which are not to be found in being. It makes additions to nature, and gives a greater variety to Gods works. In a word, it is able to beautify and adorn the most illustrious scenes in the universe, or to fill the mind with more glorious shows and apparitions than can be found in any part of it.
Imagination I understand to be the representation of an individual thought. Imagination is of three kinds: joined with belief of that which is to come; joined with memory of that which is past; and of things present, or as if they were present: for I comprehend in this, imagination feigned and at pleasure,as if one should imagine such a man to be in the vestments of a pope, or to have wings.
The imagination may be said, in its widest sense, to be synonymous with invention, denoting that faculty of the mind by which it either bodies forth the form of things unknown, or produces original thoughts or new combinations of ideas from materials stored up in the memory. The fancy may be considered that peculiar habit of association which presents to our choice all the different materials that are subservient to the efforts of the imagination.
Besides the ideas, with their annexed pains and pleasures, which are presented by the sense; the mind of man possesses a sort of creative power of its own; either in representing at pleasure the images of things in the order and manner in which they were received by the senses, or in combining those images in a new manner, and according to a different order. This power is called imagination; and to this belongs whatever is called wit, fancy, invention, and the like. But it must be observed that this power of the imagination is incapable of producing anything absolutely new; it can only vary the disposition of those ideas which it has received from the senses. Now the imagination is the most extensive province of pleasure and pain, as it is the region of our fears and our hopes, and of all our passions that are connected with them; and whatever is calculated to affect the imagination with these commanding ideas, by force of any original natural impression, must have the same power pretty equally over all men. For since the imagination is only the representation of the senses, it can only be pleased or displeased with the images, from the same principle on which the sense is pleased or displeased with the realities; and consequently there must be just as close an agreement in the imaginations as in the senses of men. A little attention will convince us that this must of necessity be the case.
Edmund Burke: On the Sublime and Beautiful; Introd. On Taste, 1756.
Imagination, although a faculty of quite subordinate rank to intellect, is of infinite value for enlarging the field for the action of the intellect. It is a conducting and facilitating medium for intellect to expand itself through, where it may feel itself in a genial, vital element, instead of a vacuum.
John Foster: Life and Thoughts by W. W. Everts, 266.
It is a certain rule that wit and passion are entirely incompatible. When the affections are moved there is no place for the imagination. The mind of man being naturally limited, it is impossible that all its faculties can operate at once; and the more any one predominates, the less room there is for the others to exert their vigour. For this reason a greater degree of simplicity is required in all compositions where men, actions, and passions are painted, than in such as consist of reflections and observations. And as the former species of writing is the more engaging and beautiful, one may safely upon this account give the preference to the extreme of simplicity above that of refinement.
It is the divine attribute of the imagination that it is irrepressible, unconfinable; that when the real world is shut out, it can create a world for itself, and with a necromantic power can conjure up glorious shapes and forms, and brilliant visions to make solitude populous, and irradiate the gloom of a dungeon.
Generalization is necessary to the advancement of knowledge; but particularity is indispensable to the creations of the imagination. In proportion as men know more and think more, they look less at individuals and more at classes. They therefore make better theories and worse poems. They give us vague phrases instead of images, and personified qualities instead of men. They may be better able to analyze human nature than their predecessors. But analysis is not the business of the poet. His office is to portray, not to dissect. He may believe in a moral sense, like Shaftesbury; he may refer all human actions to self-interest, like Helvetius; or he may never think about the matter at all. His creed on such subjects will no more influence his poetry, properly so called, than the notions which a painter may have conceived respecting the lachrymal glands, or the circulation of the blood, will affect the tears of his Niobe, or the blushes of his Aurora. If Shakespeare had written a book on the motives of human actions, it is by no means certain that it would have been a good one. It is extremely improbable that it would have contained half so much able reasoning on the subject as is to be found in the Fable of the Bees. But could Mandeville have created an Iago? Well as he knew how to resolve characters into their elements, would he have been able to combine those elements in such a manner as to make up a man, a real, living, individual man?
Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay: Milton, Aug. 1825.
In a barbarous age the imagination exercises a despotic power. So strong is the perception of what is unreal that it often overpowers all the passions of the mind and all the sensations of the body. At first, indeed, the phantasm remains undivulged, a hidden treasure, a wordless poetry, an invisible painting, a silent music, a dream of which the pains and pleasures exist to the dreamer alone, a bitterness which the heart only knoweth, a joy with which a stranger intermeddleth not. The machinery by which ideas are to be conveyed from one person to another is as yet rude and defective. Between mind and mind there is a great gulf. The imitative arts do not exist, or are in their lower state. But the actions of men amply prove that the faculty which gives birth to those arts is morbidly active. It is not yet the inspiration of poets and sculptors; but it is the amusement of the day, the terror of the night, the fertile source of wild superstitions. It turns the clouds into gigantic shapes and the winds into doleful voices. The belief which springs from it is more absolute and undoubting than any which can be derived from evidence. It resembles the faith which we repose in our own sensations. Thus, the Arab, when covered with wounds, saw nothing but the dark eyes and the green kerchief of a beckoning Houri. The Northern warrior laughed in the pangs of death when he thought of the mead of Valhalla.
The first works of the imagination are, as we have said, poor and rude, not from the want of genius, but from the want of materials. Phidias could have done nothing with an old tree and a fish-bone, or Homer with the language of New Holland.
Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay: John Dryden, Jan. 1828.
Imagination is that faculty which arouses the passions by the impression of exterior objects; it is influenced by these objects, and consequently it is in affinity with them; it is contagious; its fear or courage flies from imagination to imagination: the same in love, hate, joy, or grief; hence I conclude it to be a most subtle atmosphere.
Nor let it be supposed that terrors of imagination belong to childhood alone. The reprobate heart, which has discarded all love of God, cannot so easily rid itself of the fear of the devil; and even when it succeeds in that also, it will then create a hell for itself. We have heard of unbelievers who thought it probable that they should be awake in their graves: and this was the opinion for which they had exchanged a Christians hope of immortality!
The business of conception is to present us with an exact transcript of what we have felt or perceived. But we have, moreover, a power of modifying our conceptions, by combining the parts of different ones together, so as to form new wholes of our own creation. I shall employ the word imagination to express this power, and I apprehend that this is the proper sense of the word, if imagination be the power which gives birth to the productions of the poet and the painter. The operations of imagination are by no means confined to the materials which conception furnishes, but may be equally employed about all the subjects of our knowledge.
The faculty of imagination is the great spring of human activity, and the principal source of human improvement. As it delights in presenting to the mind scenes and characters more perfect than those which we are acquainted with, it prevents us from ever being completely satisfied with our present condition or with our past attainments, and engages us continually in the pursuit of some untried enjoyment, or of some ideal excellence. Hence the ardour of the selfish to better their fortunes, and to add to their personal accomplishments; and hence the zeal of the patriot and philosopher to advance the virtue and the happiness of the human race. Destroy this faculty, and the condition of man will become as stationary as that of the brutes.
Wherever men are assembled in societies, and are not swallowed up in sloth or most debasing passion, there the great elements of our nature are in action; and much as in this day, to look upon the face of life, it appears to be removed from all poetry, we cannot but believe that, in the very heart of our most civilized lifein our cities, in each great metropolis of commerce, in the midst of the most active concentration of all those relations of being which seem most at war with imaginationthere the materials which imagination seeks in human life are yet to be found. It were much to be wished, therefore, for the sake both of our literature and of our life, that imagination would again be content to dwell with life; that we had less of poetry, and more of strengthand that imagination were again to be found, as it used to be, one of the elements of life itself,a strong principle of our nature, living in the midst of our affections and passions, blending with, kindling, invigorating, and exalting them all.
When the imagination frames a comparison, if it does not strike on the first presentation, a sense of the truth of the likeness, from the moment it is perceived, growsand continues to growupon the mind; the resemblance depending less upon outline of form and feature than upon expression and effect,less upon casual and outstanding, than upon inherent, internal properties; moreover, the images invariably modify each other. The law under which the processes of fancy are carried on is as capricious as the accidents of things, and the effects are surprising, playful, ludicrous, amusing, tender, or pathetic, as the objects happen to be oppositely produced, or fortunately combined. Fancy is given to quicken and beguile the temporal part of our nature; imagination to incite and to support the eternal. Yet it is not the less true that fancy, as she is an active, is also, under her own laws, and in her own spirit, a creative, faculty. In what manner fancy ambitiously aims at a rivalship with imagination, and imagination stoops to work with the materials of fancy, might be illustrated from the compositions of all eloquent writers, whether in prose or verse.
The grand storehouse of enthusiastic and meditative imagination, of poetical as contra-distinguished from human and dramatic imagination, are the prophetical and lyrical parts of the Holy Scriptures, and the works of Milton, to which I cannot forbear to add those of Spenser.