Readings for January 10

Posted: January 8, 2018 in Readings

Hi! This is the first set of readings for the semester. I plan to begin discussing William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge during our next class. What we don’t finish the first day we will continue to address in subsequent meetings. I will also include texts by William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge in this post, but only to give the more adventurous something to explore. Wordsworth and Coleridge may be difficult read. Do the best you can with them. I have no expectations that anyone will understand these materials perfectly on the first reading. At least some parts of them will be too challenging for that, though there is certainly fun and adventure to be had in accepting challenges. Good luck, and see you soon!

(c) The Wordsworth Trust; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

William Wordsworth
(1770 – 1850)
Preface to Lyrical Ballads (1800)

Samuel Taylor Coleridge
(1772 – 1834)
Biographia Literaria (1817)
“Of The Imagination, or Esemplastic Power”

  1. Collin Andersen says:

    Commentary on “Of The Imagination, or Esemplastic Power”

    On my first reading, this chapter seemed a string of unrelated words and fluff. The reading answers the question: What would you happen if you put a dictionary, Bible, and math textbook through a shredder and pasted the results together?
    Also, can we agree that throwing Latin around without defining it in plain English is kind of snobbish as well as obscurum per obscurius? Oh, what does that mean you ask? It means an unhelpful explanation that is just as confusing as the thing you are trying to explain (

    I was just about to conclude that Coleridge was trying to pose as a wannabe genius when I read his friend’s advise toward the chapter. If Coleridge is willing to admit his faults, perhaps he is the type far more companionable with a book than another person, and simply doesn’t realize he’s being misunderstood. His friend trying to get this point across.
    “…I see clearly that you have done too much, and yet not enough.”

    “…every reader who, like myself, neither prepared nor perhaps calculated for the study of so abstruse a subject so abstrusely treated…”

    “your readers will have both right and reason to complain of you.”

    So Coleridge is hard to understand, but what about the content? On the second reading through, I “translated” thought by thought, and the meaning started to come together. If my deductions are correct, Coleridge is suggesting that philosophical questions might be able to be answered by applying science. He rides Immanuel Kant’s use of opposing forces to illustrate concepts and is optimistic about the same idea shedding light on (what I can only guess to be) human imagination vs. God’s creative imagination. Coleridge stops short of a definite by suggesting that we are not capable of understanding everything right now, but at some point science will help us understand philosophy perfectly.
    Obviously, I could be totally off about this, but that’s philosophy for you.

    • Yes, though Coleridge’s statement about the imagination could well appear to be jibberish (to the uninitiated), the same could be said of most philosophy. This is especially true when a writer is discussing philosophy, such as Kant’s, which is quite new, indeed revolutionary. Without getting to deep into it, Coleridge is using Kant’s concept of the transcendental synthesis of the manifold a prior, which suggest that the world does not pre-exist the mind, but rather is a product of the mind’s active (esemplastic) shaping powers. While this is something all (healthy) minds do automatically, only certain unusually active minds have the power to repeat this process of ‘creating a world’ through the use of images and language. The archetypal instates of this would be Adam, who brings the various animals to life through naming them. Creative powers of this sort (the secondary imagination) are supernatural, and only the very rare individual possesses them. These these exceptional persons we call geniuses and poets. Their imaginative powers are not simply greater than most persons, but they are of a different kind altogether. Meanwhile, the sort of loose juxtaposition of unrelated and unintegrated words and shapes, held together by no set of internal laws, is what Coleridge calls ‘fancy’. Fancy is something which appears constantly in all forms of inferior poetry and art – in particular, the Gothic novels and paintings of Coleridge’s day. Such works my be surprising of momentarily intriguing, but they lack the formal integrity to compel sustained attention.

      As for the content that Coleridge has said, at once, too much and not enough; Wordsworth (the friend) is suggesting that while Coleridge may well be getting at some essential truth about the nature of imaginative productions, he’s done so in a way which beyond the grasp of the very persons the Lyrical Ballads were to address. By waxing philosophical, Coleridge overshoots the mark. Rather than delivering poetry, and a clear explanation of it, to the persons who need it most, Coleridge instead further elevates further beyond the grasp of the public. In a word, the very cult of bards, such as Homer and Shakespeare, which Wordsworth sought to question, Coleridge seeks to establish all the more.

  2. Kaden Plewe says:

    Minor question regarding the Coleridge chapter that I’d like to address before moving on from these:

    At the beginning of the chapter he briefly compares philosophy to “other sciences” by saying “Every other science presupposes intelligence as already existing and complete:…”

    At the very end he describes the Fancy as “[having] no other counters to play with, but fixities and definites.”

    I understood these two statements to be pretty similar and I’m wondering if he ever directly attributes the Fancy to “other sciences” or if this was something that was supposed to be implied in this passage.


    • I’ll respond as best I can. Coleridge’s continuous invocation of other sciences can refer either to rationalism or empiricism, both of which I mentioned in class today. These two positions seem diametrically and absolutely opposed, contraries. Meanwhile, it’s possible to consider other possibilities which lie between contraries. In the case of mind or soul, that would lead to a definition of mind which didn’t see it as a fixed entity which remained essentially the same, despite any external contingencies. Coleridge’s belief is that the mind in a constantly active and ever-changing thing. The mind always shifts from one extreme to the other in an ongoing process of self-maintenance. The point, for Coleridge, is that science must always take account of the mental processes whereby the discovers objects, how these processes necessarily alter (or constitute) the object, and how these moments of discovery simultaneously transform the mind. In a word, all knowledge is highly interactive, dynamic, and should understand itself as such.

      As for the Fancy, the idea here is that this notion of creativity assumes a detached and fixed creator. Further, this notion of a creator also assumes that creativity begins with elements (atoms) that are ready to hand and available for arbitrary combination. Coleridge, following Kant, does not believe in the reality or knowability of elements, either rational or empirical. Consequently, any combination of parts into a larger whole – whether of high or low quality – cannot, of a necessity, assume to have begun from elementary constituents. Some power of synthesis, some prior act of constitution, must have occurred before elements can be identified in the first place. This is to say, the mind is never outside the praxis of creation. We are “always already” involved in creative improvisation. Any poetry which doesn’t acknowledge this and proceed accordingly, for Coleridge, is bound to run awry and yield lifeless creations.

      • Kaden Plewe says:

        Got it, I misunderstood what he meant by “other sciences” and/or missed when you made that clarification in class. Thanks for the response!

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