View Full Version : What is the difference between imagination and fancy?

05-21-2006, 06:30 PM
It was S.T. Coleridge who put forward the theory of imagination and fancy in his famous book "Preface to The Lyrical Ballads". All I want to know that how we can differentiate imagination from fancy. Please submit your answers in new thread or Email me at [email protected] incase you have solid information. :good:

06-30-2006, 03:02 PM
It was S.T. Coleridge who put forward the theory of imagination and fancy in his famous book "Preface to The Lyrical Ballads". All I want to know that how we can differentiate imagination from fancy. Please submit your answers in new thread or Email me at [email protected] incase you have solid information. :good:

Nowadays, when we say that something is "fanciful", we are not praising it but rather casting it in a pejorative light. When we say that something or someone is imaginative, we give praise.

The following link hits the nail on the head when it says that imagination is creative but fancy is not creative, likening their difference to the difference between a true compound (e.g. Friedrich Wohler's synthesis of urea) and a mixture (e.g. sand and salt and sugar, mixed together).



Imagination is creative. The secondary is an echo of the primary, which is, shall we say, God’s faculty. Fancy is not a creative power at all.
The difference is similar to that between a mixture and a compound.
In mixture the ingredients do not lose their individual properties. In a compound the different ingredients combine to form something new.

The word fancy strikes me as archaic. I am not certain that it has the same force today that it had in Coleridge’s time.

You might want to consult Wallace Stevens’ essays “The Necessary Angel” concerning the function of imagination in poetry. He took his title from one of his poems:

Yet I am the necessary angel of earth,/ Since, in my sight, you see the earth again… -- “Angel Surrounded by Paysans”


Coleridge's distinction between imagination and fancy may have been inspired by a dispute with Wordsworth:

Coleridge wants to attribute a flame-like, actively imaginative quality to both his and Wordsworth's poetry, but Wordsworth's associationist poetics extinguish all possibility of such a Flame. Coleridge thus writes to Southey in 1802 of the 'Preface as it stood in the second Volume [of 1800],' saying, 'I rather suspect that some where or other there is a radical Difference in [mine and Wordsworth's] theoretical opinions respecting Poetry--this I shall endeavor to go to the Bottom of' (Hill 19). It seems likely that this examination of his poetic views, in conjunction with his nascent reading of the Germans, provoked Coleridge to reconsider his views and utterly reject Hartleyan determinism.

We see in the next excerpt a more detailed illustration of the compound vs mixture analogy. Think of mixture in terms of bricolage or portmanteau as a mix, how fanciful it is. Then think of compound in terms of forging some unifying new genre which survives its author with a life of its own, and is adopted by successive generations. One example might be what Hemingway achieved in narrative fiction. Another example might be the totally fresh and hitherto unknown style of Walt Whitman's poetry, which was the first to abandon all the classical allusions of predecessors.



The IMAGINATION then, I consider either as primary, or secondary. 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. The secondary Imagination I consider as an echo of the former, co-existing with the conscious will, yet still as identical with the primary in the kind of its agency, and differing only in degree, and in the mode of operation. It dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to recreate; or where this process is rendered impossible, yet still at all events it struggles to idealise and unify. It is essentially vital, even as all objects (as objects) are essentially fixed and dead.

FANCY, on the contrary, has no other counters to play with, but fixities and definites. The Fancy is indeed no other than a mode of Memory emancipated from the order of time and space; while it is blended with, and modified by that empirical phenomenon of the will, which we express by the word CHOICE. But equally with the ordinary memory the Fancy must receive all its materials ready made from the law of association.

"Fancy," in Coleridge's eyes was employed for tasks that were "passive" and "mechanical", the accumulation of fact and documentation of what is seen. "Always the ape," Fancy, Coleridge argued, was "too often the adulterator and counterfeiter of memory."59 The Imagination on the other hand was "vital" and transformative, "a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation." For Coleridge, it was the Imagination that was responsible for acts that were truly creative and inventive and, in turn, that identified true instances of fine or noble art.

The distinction b/w Fancy and the Imagination :

The distinction made by Coleridge between Fancy and the Imagination rested on the fact that Fancy was concerned with the mechanical operations of the mind, those which are responsible for the passive accumulation of data and the storage of such data in the memory.

Imagination, on the other hand, described the "mysterious power," which extracted from such data, "hidden ideas and meaning." It also determined "the various operations of constructive and inventive genius."

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. By establishing the creative act as mimicking the "organic principle" or "one"—a divine principle believed to underlie all reality—the romantic theorist sought to establish a harmonious relationship between the ideal world of the subject and the real world of the object. Baker has demonstrated that Coleridge was convinced that the Imagination acted as "a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM," and that it not only reinforced the notion that perception was active and creative, it established the cosmos as an organic entity.65
For Coleridge, the most important aspect of the imagination was that it was active to the highest degree. The creative act called the whole soul of man into activity. As Baker has argued: "the creative act, on the contrary, is a godlike-act-of-power and causing-to-be, imagination being the divine potency in man. The creative act by which the poet writes the poem is similar to the creative act by which God ordered the world out of chaos; if the poet's creative act is not a creation ex nihilo, it is a process of organic becoming through which the materials are transformed into something absolutely new, and also very likely, strange."

Coleridge explained this property of the "Imagination" as "ESEMPLASTIC," to "shape into one" and to "convey a new sense." Coleridge in the tenth chapter of Biographia Literaria described this ability of the imagination as "Esemplastic." Noting that esemplastic was a word he borrowed from the Greek "to shape," Coleridge explained that it referred to the imagination's ability to "shape into one, having to convey a new sense." He felt such a term was necessary as "it would aid the recollection of my meaning and prevent it being confounded with the usual import of the word imagination."

Derived from Greek words meaning "into" and "one" and "mold," and coined by Coleridge in 1817, the word esemplastic means "having the function of molding into unity; unifying." The picture derived from the word is of someone, probably a poet, taking images and words and feelings from a number of realms of human endeavor and thought and bringing them all together into a poem s/he writes. This requires a huge effort of the imagination, which we might call the "esemplastic power of the poetic imagination." A decade after its first appearance a writer could remark, "Nor I trust will Coleridge's favorite word esemplastic..ever become current."

Not only did the subject subsume the object it can also be argued that Imagination subsumed the role of Fancy within the creative work. Thus while Coleridge argued that the poet relied on both Fancy and Imagination when inventing a poem, and that the poet should seek a balance of these two faculties.