Essay about Imagination and Literature

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Imagination and Literature

The importance and influence of imagination on the creation and critique of literature varies between and within various artistic eras. Originally seen as an aberrant function of the mind, imagination was subservient to the powers of reason and order. Art involved mere replication of the real, a craft rather than an unique act of creation. Beginning as early as Aristotle, however, human imagination has been linked to the power and value of art. The ascendancy and, in some eras even superiority, of imagination as a potent mental faculty gave birth to new critical enterprises bent on articulating the manner, motivation, and merit embedded in art and the artistic process. By tracing the development of
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Imagination is a natural structure of the mind which must be trained or attuned to appreciate the greatness of art, to develop a meaningful standard of taste. Where Hume addresses the critic, Johnson's attention is fixed on the writer and the duty of each writer "to increase prudence without impairing virtue" (227). Imagination is both the key and the obstacle to Johnson's moral vision of art. In order to inspire an audience toward goodness, an artist must possess a fertile and ever expanding imagination. "Whatever is beautiful, and whatever is dreadful, must be familiar to his [the poet's] imagination... for every idea is useful for the enforcement or decoration of moral and religious truth" (228). Imagination is good when its powers are given direction, moral purpose. Johnson assumes a somewhat utilitarian attitude toward imagination; the value of imagination is dependent on its usefulness in attaining or helping others to attain virtue. Unchecked, imagination promotes virtue and vice ambivalently. Imaginative freedom must only exist within the bounds of an imminently rational moral code.

Romantic critics turn the Eighteenth Century division between reason and imagination to their own poetic and critical purposes, however. Percy Shelley offers a radical revision. Rather than being an aberration or inferior form of mental activity, imagination is placed over the powers of reason