Iv

An Essay on Man (1733-4), contrastingly, seems to award itself poetic privilege to survey the unseen universe even as it argues that such imaginative attempts have the seed of blasphemy in them. At the same time it acknowledges a dark side to imagination's function within individual psychology, as the toxic "ruling passion" gains sway in the mind ("Epistle II," in Pope 1939-69: vol. 3, i. 148): "Imagination plies her dang'rous art, / And pours it all upon the peccant part" (ll. 143-4). Even here, however, Pope's point is not that Imagination itself is "peccant" (or diseased), since "Reason itself but gives it edge and pow'r" (l. 147) - the whole mind is given over to the Ruling Passion, imagination merely fueling an already determined process.

The Essay was Pope's entry in the catalogue of post-Miltonic "sublime" poems claiming unfettered imaginative scope to range over the universe, often with an increased accent on the operation of the perceiving mind [see ch. 37, "The Sublime"]. A slightly earlier poem of this kind, James Thomson's The Seasons (1726-30), crowds a multitude of reflections, narratives, descriptions, and images into a four-part structure, and makes the unseen visible or imaginable. Here there is less sense of a necessary restraint to imagination: "catch thy self the Landskip, gliding swift / Athwart Imagination's vivid Eye," Thomson advises ("Spring," in Thomson 1981: ll. 458-9). The problem is more one of equivalence:

Behold yon breathing Prospect bids the Muse Throw all her Beauty forth. But who can paint Like Nature? Can Imagination boast, Amid its gay Creation, Hues like hers?

"Fancy . . . fails beneath the pleasing Task" — yet "tho' successless, will the Toil delight" (ll. 473—4, 480); Thomson makes the effort anyway, for pleasure's sake. There is no problem attached to soaring on "Fancy's Eagle-wing" ("Summer," l. 198). Even the "philosophic melancholy" ("Autumn," l. 1005) about which Burton worried is now (mostly) aligned with creativity, since that mood "inflames imagination" (l. 1011) to good effect: "Ten thousand thousand fleet Ideas, such / As never mingled with the vulgar Dream, / Croud fast into the Mind's creative Eye" (ll. 1014—16). The "visionary scene" is not merely invoked by the poem (l. 1122), but realized: "With swift Wing / O'er Land and Sea Imagination roams," the poem says of itself (ll. 1334—5).

Imagination is a devout attempt to read the world in terms of God's creative wisdom. Where Thomson might be said to cast doubt on imagination is in his last poem, The Castle of Indolence (1748), where "a most enchanting Wizard" seduces pilgrims into "a pleasing Land of Drowsyhed," a deceptive happy valley of dreamy sloth (Thomson 1986: i. 12, 46). It is beautifully imagined as a Spenserian fancy, even as Thomson's poet claims not to be able to imagine it (i, stanza xlv). But in the second canto it is completely destroyed by the Knight of Arts and Industry, wielding "an anti-magic Power that hath / Truth from illusive Falshood to command" (ii. 597—8). The poem stigmatizes "Indolence" rather than imagination, but it seems to borrow some of its characteristic features from the realm of fancy (in this it may be aligned with The Dunciad ).

Four years before this Pope had told the bookseller Dodsley to offer a decent price for a new poem: Mark Akenside's The Pleasures of Imagination (1744). Akenside adopted and developed Addison's general categories (grandeur, newness, beauty) but was keen to assert that imagination is more important than pleasure; not only does it link us with the divine imagination that created the world in the first place, but it is only imagination (the ability to recall vividly and compare experiences) that allows us to make ongoing moral sense out of what we perceive. In a long note (to Book III, ll. 18—19) Akenside states: "The influence of the imagination on the conduct of life, is one of the most important points in moral philosophy. It were easy by an induction of facts to prove that the imagination directs almost all the passions, and mixes with almost every circumstance of action or pleasure" (Akenside 1772: 106).

Akenside seeks not only to offer us "an account of the natural and moral advantages resulting from a sensible and well-form'd imagination" ("Argument of the Third Book") but to make a poem that can "enlarge and harmonize" the reader's imagination ("The Design") (Akenside 1772: 70, 6). The man of imagination must ascend Pope's imaginary Alp and send "from heights aerial . . . his eye / Around a wild horizon" (iii.

232-3); the soul should not "Consent her soaring fancy to restrain" but search through "loftier views" of comets and constellations to "wide creation's utmost shore" - and indeed, beyond into "the gloomy void" (iii. 239, 254, 264, 267). This is a divine mission entrusted to our "bold imagination" (iii. 227).

There can be problems. "Where fancy cheats the intellectual eye, / With glaring colours and distorted lines," our moral sense goes astray (iii. 29-30); "those lying forms which fancy in the brain / Engenders" must be curbed (iii. 63-4), especially among the young:

From the inchanting cup Which fancy holds to all, the unwary thirst Of youth oft swallows a Circsan draught, That sheds a baleful tincture o'er the eye Of reason . . .

But in an extended series of images towards the end of the poem, Akenside demonstrates how it is all meant to work: the "child of fancy" contemplates the store of mental images in his "pregnant breast," resolves to create "he knows not what excelling things," and lets his "plastic powers" get to work (iii. 375, 376, 378, 381). He becomes, without embarrassment, Theseus' poet:

with loveliest frenzy caught, From earth to heaven he rowls his daring eye, From heaven to earth. Anon ten thousand shapes, Like spectres trooping to the wisard's call, Flit swift before him.

From earth, ocean, heaven, and the "dark abyss" he assembles "rising phantoms," compares, contrasts, and puts them in order, just as "the voice divine" once arranged "from Chaos old the jarring seeds / Of nature" (iii. 389, 391, 399-400). [See ch. 17, "Mark Akenside, The Pleasures of Imagination"]

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