“There’s no need to fear or hope, but only to look for new weapons.”

— Gilles Deleuze

“Imagination is the only weapon in the war against reality.”

― Lewis Carroll


Noun imag·​i·​na·​tion 1: the act or power of forming a mental image of something not present to the senses or never before wholly perceived in reality  2a: creative ability b: ability to confront and deal with a problem : RESOURCEFULNESS use your imagination and get us out of here c: the thinking or active mind : INTEREST stories that fired the imagination 3a: a creation of the mind especially : an idealized or poetic creation b: fanciful or empty assumption


“Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution.”


  • Albert Einstein




A History of Literary Criticism From Plato to the Present

by M. A. R. Habib pg 428-466




  • POE




Last month we talked about IRONY, and how in the age of the Romanticism movement, Irony graduated from a rhetorical device to a mode of being, where, with more emphasis placed on subjectivity, and major contradictions happening in the society of the day, artists were able to hold contradictory states within themselves and rise above the ambiguity and ambivalence to find new ways to approach the world.


“The Romantic self was a profounder, more authentic ego lying beneath the layers of social convention, a self which attempted through principles such as irony to integrate the increasingly fragmented elements of the bourgeois world into a vision of unity. The Romantics exalted the status of the poet, as a genius whose originality was based on his ability to discern connections among apparently discrepant phenomena and to elevate human perception toward a comprehensive, unifying vision.


The most crucial human faculty for such integration was the imagination, which most Romantics saw as a unifying power, one which could harmonize the other strata of human perception such as sensation and reason. It should be  noted that Romanticism is often wrongly characterized as displacing Enlightenment “reason” with emotion, instinct, spontaneity, and imagina­tion. To understand what is at issue here, it is necessary to recall that much Romantic  thought took Kant’s philosophy (which itself was not at all Romantic) as its starting point, notably his distinction between phenomena and noumena, his treatment of imagination, and his establishing of a relative autonomy for the category of the aesthetic. Kant declared that the categories of the  understanding applied throughout the phenomenal world, but did not extend into the world of “noumena.” The only objects in the noumenal realm – God, freedom, and immortality – were merely presuppositions required for our moral behavior. Kant had, moreover, viewed imagination as a mediating principle which reconciled sense-data with the categories of the understanding. The Romantics, like Hegel (who himself was not a Romantic), placed the noumenal realm within the reach of human apprehension, and often exalted  the function of imagination, viewing it as a vehicle for the attainment of truths beyond the phenomenal world and beyond the reach of reason alone. But they did not attempt to dismiss or discard the findings of logic and reason, merely to place these within a more embracing scheme of perception. Shelley even saw imagination as having a moral function, as a power enabling the self to situate itself within a larger empathetic scheme, as opposed to reason which expressed the selfish constraints of the liberal atomistic self.

Hence the relation between Romanticism and the mainstreams of bourgeois  thought, which had risen to hegemony on the waves of the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, and the Industrial Revolution, was deeply ambivalent. Our own era is profoundly pervaded by this ambivalent heritage.


At the core of irony as formulated by most nineteenth-century thinkers was a  Romantic propensity to confront, rather than overlook, the obstinate disorder, contingency, flux, and mystery of the world. In this sense, an ironic vision accepts that the world can be viewed from numerous irreconcilable perspectives, and rejects any providential, rational, or logical foreclosure of the  world’s absurdity and contradictions into a spurious unity. Yet such Romantic irony is not entirely negative: while it rejects the “objective” order imposed upon experience or the word by religious or rational means, it seeks a higher transcendent unity and purpose, grounded ultimately in subjectivity.


Irony was essentially an idealistic reaction against the reductively mech­anistic, utilitarian, and commercial impetus of bourgeois thought. Irony was a means of reinvesting the world with mystery, of limiting the arrogant claims of reason, of denying the ideals of absolute clarity and definition, of reaffirm­ing the profound interconnection of things,  and of seeking for the human spirit higher and more spiritual forms of fulfillment than those available through material and commercial efficiency. Yet irony could merely voice subjective protests against colossal historical movements which were already in process of realization.

The Romantics’ only recourse was to an ironic vision which insisted that reality is not confined to the here and now but embraces the past or is located in a Platonic ideal realm.




In philosophy, transcendence conveys the basic ground concept from the word’s literal meaning (from Latin), of climbing or going beyond, albeit with varying connotations in its different historical and cultural stages. It includes philosophies, systems, and approaches that describe the fundamental structures of being, not as an ontology (theory of being), but as the framework of emergence and validation of knowledge of being. “Transcendental” is a word derived from the scholastic, designating the extra-categorical attributes of beings.


The main philosopher of Romanticism was Friedrich Schelling (1775-1854), who argued in his System of Transcendental Idealism (1800) that consciousness essentially knows only itself, and its knowledge of the external world is a mediated form of self-consciousness. The systems of both Fichte and Schelling effectively merge the realms of subject and object, self and nature. Schelling held that the mind achieves its highest self-consciousness in art, in a process of intuition.

Schelling’s influence extended to Coleridge and the other English Romantics.


Ralph Waldo Emerson was one of the main proponents of “transcendentalism” with its insistence on the value of intuition, individuality of perception, the goodness of human nature,  and the unity of the entire creation. His views of nature and self-reliance not only influenced American literary figures, as noted above, but also left their mark on European writers such  as George Eliot and Nietzsche, as well as the American pragmatist philosophers William James and John Dewey.





THAT IS ALL / YE KNOW ON EARTH,                                       





Keats’s brief literary-critical insights are notable. He suggests that, in poetic creation, the poet acts as a catalyst for the reaction of other elements,  stating that “Men of Genius are great as certain ethereal Chemicals operating on the Mass of neutral intellect … they have not any individuality, any determined Character.” Deploying what Keats calls the “negative capability ” ot abstaining from particular positions or dogmas, the poet’s mind loses itself wholly among the objects and events of the external world which are its poetic material.







Central to Coleridge’s project are his views of the imagination. He seems to follow Kant (and much eighteenth-century thought)  in viewing the imagination as a faculty which unites what we receive through our senses with the concepts of our understanding;  but he goes further than Kant in viewing imagination as a power which “completes” and enlivens the understanding so that the understanding itself becomes a more comprehensive and intuitive (rather than merely discursive) faculty.

The Romantics, including Coleridge, are  often characterized as extolling imagination  as the supreme human faculty. Nonetheless, Coleridge  appears to view reason as the supreme faculty, one which  contains all the others: “the REASON without being either the SENSE, the UNDERSTANDING or the IMAGINATION contains all three within itself, even as the mind contains its thoughts, and is present in and through them all” (LS,  69-70). Hence, just as imagination combines sense with understanding, so reason, placed at a higher vantage point, unites the knowledge derived from all three of these. Coleridge insists that each individual partakes of the light of a reason which is universal and divine. In Biographia Literaria, Coleridge makes his famous distinction between fancy and imagination:

The  IMAGINATION  then I consider either  as primary, or secondary.  The primary IMAGINATION I hold to he 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 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 its operation. ‘ It dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to re-create; or where this process is rendered impossible, yet still at all events it struggles to idealize and to 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; and blended with, and modified by that empirical phenomenon of the will, which we express by the word CHOICE. But equally with the ordinary memory it must receive all its materials ready made from the laws of association. (BL, I, 304-305)


Coleridge’s most comprehensive definition of the activity of the poet sees it as relying on the unifying power of imagination, which reveals itself in the balance or reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities: of sameness, with difference; of the general, with the concrete; the idea, with the image;  the individual, with the representative; the sense of novelty and freshness, with old and familiar objects; a more than usual state of emotion, with more than usual order; judgment ever awake and steady self- possession, with enthusiasm and feeling profound or vehement. (BL, II, 16-17).


The  best part of language,  according to Coleridge, “is derived from reflection on the acts of the mind itself” (BL, II, 54). But, like Wordsworth, Coleridge uses classical Aristotelian precepts – in this case, the poetic expression of universal truths – toward Romantic ends. What allows the poet to communicate general and essential truths is the unifying power of imagination  which sees the connections between particular and general, concrete and abstract, individual and representative.


Coleridge referred to nature as the “language of God.”


Perhaps the most fundamental  trait of all Romanticism was its shift of emphasis away from classical objectivity towards subjectivity (MONARCH WRITERS NOTE: WE TALKED ABOUT THIS MOVE FROM SUBSTANCE – TO – SUBJECT – when we talked about Hegel. Go back to November 2018 meeting notes to read more.) :  in the wake of the philosophical systems of Fichte, Schelling, and, above all, of Hegel, the worlds  of subject and  object, self and  world, were viewed  as mutually constructive processes, human perception playing an active role rather than merely  receiving impressions passively from the outside world. Such an emphasis placed a high value on uniqueness, originality, novelty, and exploration of ever-expanding horizons  of experience, rather than the filtering; of experience through historically accumulated layers of tradition and convention. The emphasis on uniqueness is amply exemplified in Rousseau’s Confessions. Moreover, the “self” which is exalted in Romanticism was a far cry from the bourgeois individualistic notion of the self as an atomistic (and economic)  unit.






What Wordsworth is calling for is a return to a kind of realism, a descent of poetic language from its stylized status, from its self-created world of metaphorical expression and artificial diction to the language actually used  by human beings in “common life,” especially those engaged in “rustic life,” who speak a purer language than those mired in the Squalor and corruption of city Iite. But he adds that the poet~ should throw over these incidents from common life “a certain colouring of imagination, where_by ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual aspect” (PLB, 123-125, 160-162).


In Wordsworth’s characterization, the poet is “a man speaking to men”; but  he has a “disposition to be affected more than other men by absent things as it they were present; an ability of conjuring up in himself passions,” passions that are closer to those produced by real events than those that most men can otherwise reproduce (PLB, 138). The power to which Wordsworth  alludes here is imagination,  or the  “image-making”  power (PLB, 138). In a sense. the~very faculty which characterizes the poet – imagination – is not a faculty orientated toward realism in our modern sense; rather, in its “very nature- ; it is a transformative faculty which uses the “real” world as its raw  material.


And  yet, the  imaginary world  created by the poet  must “resemble” that real world (PLB, 139). In support of such realism, Words­worth cites a classical authority:  “Aristotle, I have been told, has said, that Poetry is the most philosophic of all writing: it is so: its object is truth, not individual and local, but general, and operative; not standing upon external testimony, but carried alive into the heart by passion; truth which is its own testimony” (PLB, 139). Though Wordsworth’s Preface is viewed as archetypally Romantic, his ideal here is a classical one: poetry does not so much express  private emotions and the particulars of a given situation as the universal truths underlying these. Wordsworth insists that the poet “converses with general nature,” and directs his attention to the knowledge and sympathies shared by all human beings (PLB, 140). Again, in classical fashion, Wordsworth sees poetry as concerned with what is central and universal in human experience. In transcending his time, the poet reestab­lishes the unity of humankind, reaffirming the relationship and unity of all things.


Also classical  is Wordsworth’s insistence on poetry as a  rational art: he speaks of the pleasure that  “a Poet may rationally endeavour to impart” (PLB, 119). His statement that “all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”  has often been torn from its context to illustrate an allegedly Romantic view of poetic creation as an expression of immediate feelings. Yet Wordsworth proceeds to say that  “our continued influxes of feeling are modified and directed by our thoughts, which are indeed the representatives of all our past feelings” (PLB, 127). Wordsworth sees such a close connection between thought and feeling that these can actually pass into each other. What the poet expresses then is neither thought nor feeling alone but a complex of both; and what appears as spontaneity is the result of long reflection and practice.







Romanticism in America flowered somewhat later than in Europe, embroiled as the new nation was in the struggle for self-definition in political, economic, and  religious terms. It was American independence from British rule, achieved in 1776, that opened the path to examining national identity and developing a distinctly American literary tradition in the light of Romanti­cally reconceived visions of the self and nature.  The major American Ro­mantics included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Margaret Fuller, Henry David Thoreau, and Herman Melville. While some of these writers were influenced by European Romantics and philosophers, nearly all of them were inspired by a nationalistic concern to develop an indigenous cultural tradition and a distinctly American literature.


Indeed,  they helped  to define – at a far deeper and more  intelligent level than the crude definitions offered Dy politicians since then until the present day – the very concept of American national identity.  Like the European Romantics, these American writers reacted against what they perceived to be the mechanistic and utilitarian tenor of Enlightenment  thinking and the industrial, urbanized world governed by the ethics and ideals of bourgeois commercialism. They sought to redeem the ideas of spirit, nature, and the richness of the human self within a specifically American context.


The poet, says Emerson, “proposes Beauty as his main end,” whereas the philosopher proposes Truth. Nonetheless, they both seek to ground the world of phenomena  in stable and permanent laws, in an idea whose beauty is infinite. Hence, the “true philosopher and the true poet are one, and a beauty, which is truth, and a truth, which is beauty, is the aim of both” (RWE, 47). Whereas later writers such as Poe will subordinate truth and morality to the overarching aim  of beauty, Emerson holds these together in a precarious balance flown into the modern world directly from Plato’s Athens.







Poe’s essay “The Poetic Principle” (1850) urges that a “totality of effect or impression”  is the “vital requisite” in all works of art.14 He attempts to undermine what he calls “the heresy of The Didactic which refers to the view that “the ultimate object of all Poetry is Truth” and that every poem “should inculcate a moral.” As against this, Poe insists that the most dignified and noble work is the “poem per se – this poem which is a poem and nothing more – this poem written solely for the poem’s sake” (“PP,” 892-893). Poe makes a  sharp distinction between “the truthful and the poetical modes” (“PP,” 893). In somewhat Kantian fashion, Poe divides the mind into three aspects: “Pure Intellect, Taste, and the Moral Sense.” He places taste in the middle, acknowledging that it has “intimate relations” with the other two aspects, but he observes a distinction between these three offices: the intellect is concerned with truth; taste apprehends the beautiful: and moral sense disposes us toward duty (“PP,” 893). Poe admits that the precepts of duty or even the~fei»SOiy; of  truth can be introduced into a poem; but they must subserve the ultimate purpose of art, ancTmust be placed “in proper subjection — to that~beauty which is the atmosphere and the real essence of the poem”


Hence  poetry should  not be realistic,  merely copying or imitating  the beauties that lie before us. Poe defines the “poetic principle” in Platonic terms as “the Human Aspiration for Supernal Beauty,” a quest for an excitement of the soul that is distinct from the intoxication of the heart or the satisfaction of reason. Poe defines poetry as


“The Rhythmical Creation of Beauty. Its sole arbiter is Taste … In the contem­plation of Beauty we alone find it possible to attain that pleasurable elevation, or excitement, of the soul, which we recognize as the Poetic Sentiment, and which is so easily distinguished from Truth, which is the satisfaction of the Reason, or from Passion, which is the excitement of the Heart. (“PP,”  895)”


What is not Platonic is Poe’s isolated exaltation_of beauty over truth and goodness;  the Platonic harmony between these has disintegrated into a desperate craving for a beauty that is not found in the actual world, and a retreat from the increasingly troubled realms of truth and morality. Nonetheless, the poet, according to Poe, recognizes in many phenomena  “holy impulses … generous, and self-sacrificing deeds” (“PP,” 906). Hence, the very morality that is expelled from the poet’s quest for beauty returns as the very ground of this quest, resurrected in aesthetic form on the ground of its own beauty. In other words, morality becomes an integral part of the aesthetic endeavor, and becomes justified on aesthetic grounds. Once again, art is seen as salvific, displacing the function of religion in serving as our guide to the world bevond.




I’ve asked Liv to pick out a poem to share with the group related to the theme of either IMAGINATION or TRANSCENDENCE. We’ll have one by the meeting on the 14th to read through. I’ll print out copies for everyone.

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