Paul Baines

A useful characterization of imagination is uttered by Theseus in A Midsummer Night's Dream as he rejects the "antique fables" the lovers have related and celebrates "cool reason" against "shaping fantasies":

The lunatic, the lover, and the poet

Are of imagination all compact . . .

The poet's eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,

Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven,

And as imagination bodies forth

The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen

Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing

A local habitation and a name.

This is ironic, coming from someone who is himself an "antique fable" speaking in verse; and, as Hippolyta points out, the narration rests on better evidence than "fancy's images" (V. i. 25). But Theseus' view, stripped of context, was one of the most quoted passages of Shakespeare in the eighteenth century, cited in poems, essays, novels, and books oftravel. There was perhaps at least as much sense of pleasure as of peril in the quotation. However, observing the practice, Blake reminds us: "Thus Fools quote Shakespeare; the above is Theseus' opinion not Shakespeare's." Blake interprets Theseus' description of imagination in a negative sense, an interpretation which can certainly be linked to widespread seventeenth-century suspicions about the nature of the imagination. For Bacon (in The Advancement of Learning, 1605), imagination's pleasure was also its peril:

Poesy is a part of learning in measure of words for the most part restrained, but in all other points extremely licensed, and doth truly refer to the imagination; which, being not tied to the laws of matter, may at pleasure join that which nature hath severed, and sever that which nature hath joined; and so make unlawful matches and divorces of things. (Bacon 1926: 101)

Robert Burton, in The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), identifies imagination with "Phantasie," the power of comparing sense-impressions by which one "faines infinite other unto himselfe." "This faculty is most Powerfull and strong" in those subject to melancholy, "and often hurts, producing many monstrous and prodigious things" (Burton 1989: vol. 1, 152). Burton has a whole chapter of psychopathology, "Of the force of Imagination," detailing actual bodily harm that develops from an insufficiently controlled imagination. It is a mental health issue; as imagination "rageth in melancholy persons," causing them to conceive "fantastical visions," so it can work "even most forcibly sometimes in such as are sound," and "a corrupt, false, and violent imagination" is a psychological disaster.

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