Vi

This was not a straightforward "progress." Christopher Smart, a poet whose claim to imaginative richness is very strong today, and who celebrates the "firey-wing'd imagination" for its attempt to get close to the divine ("On the Eternity of the Supreme Being," l. 138, in Smart 1987), maintained conservative wisdom in "Reason and Imagination. A Fable" (1763). Imagination is conceived as a flighty female, kitted out in fashionable gear and make-up and bearing a wand "which Magick's utmost pow'r excell'd" (l. 56). She proposes marriage to Reason, offering to transport him "To those bright plains, where crowd in swarms / The spirits of fantastic forms . . ." (ll. 107-8). Reason declines the offer, but proposes in turn to come to her aid whenever "your raptures rise" (l. 123); he deprives her of her "wand and winged steed" and gives her instead "this compass and this rule" (ll. 134-5).

Smart's friend Samuel Johnson was still more sober on the issue. In the very year of Akenside's Pleasures Johnson published a biography of the poet Richard Savage that might have been subtitled "The Disasters of the Imagination" (1744). Johnson salutes Savage's "ardent imagination," declaring him (approvingly) to have had "an imagination not to be suppressed" and an impressive "gaiety of imagination" ( Johnson 1905: vol. 2, 326, 338, 343). But gradually this faculty turns away from creativity and toward escapism, becoming a personal problem rather than a poetic asset. Savage "lulled his imagination with . . . ideal opiates," schemes of happiness never to be fulfilled. He used "to amuse himself with phantoms of happiness . . . and willingly turned his eyes from the light of reason, when it would have discovered the illusion, and shewn him, what he never wished to see, his real state" (p. 380). There came a point when he could imagine writing, but could not actually do it - his schemes lasted "till the vigour of his imagination was spent, and the effervescence of invention had subsided," and were then dropped (p. 390). Finally Savage admits that fanciful schemes have produced "a chaos of my imagination," and he dies (p. 421).

In Johnson's Rambler essays we can see a similar ambivalence. Johnson praises Milton's "sallies of imagination" (Rambler, no. 140, in Johnson 1958-90: vol. 4, 381), and seems to regard the "vehement and rapid" "Imagination of the first authors" as a positive thing (no. 158, in vol. 5, 77). But he confesses himself bemused by the "wild strain of imagination" shown in old romances (no. 4, in vol. 3, 20). Biography prompts a sympathetic "act of the imagination" by which we relive the deeds of others to our own moral benefit (no. 60, in vol. 3, 318). But imagination distorts our judgment, and we tend not to be very good at understanding it (nos. 92, 93, 121, in vol. 4; 156, in vol. 5). "Imagination, a licentious and vagrant faculty, unsusceptible of limitations, and impatient of restraint, has always endeavoured to baffle the logician, to perplex the confines of distinction, and burst the inclosures of regularity," writes Johnson (no. 125, in vol. 4, 300), making imagination sound like some kind of intellectual freedom fighter. If there is a trace of admiration in these ringing phrases, by the time of Rasselas (1759) we are all but back in Burton's psychological world. Imagination is strongly linked with that desire for which there is no adequate object or fulfillment, as it had been in Johnson's early poem The Vanity of Human Wishes. The apparently wise hermit confesses to "vanities of imagination, which hourly prevail upon me" (Johnson 1958—90: vol. 16, 82). Imlac thinks the Pyramids must have been erected "in compliance with that hunger of imagination which preys incessantly upon life, and must be always appeased by some employment" (p. 118). After hearing from an astronomer who believes he controls the weather, we are offered a miniature dissertation on "the dangerous prevalence of the imagination," to which the astronomer has fallen victim. Imlac once more sees the cause: "There is no man whose imagination does not sometimes predominate over his reason . . . No man will be found in whose mind airy notions do not sometimes tyrannise, and force him to hope or fear beyond the limits of sober probability. All power of fancy over reason is a degree of insanity" (p. 150). His companions one by one confess their private fantasies and resolve to cure themselves by sober, social activity; the astronomer is gradually cured of his malaise by socialization and female company.

Few men were more troubled by the prospect of mental disarray than Johnson; he had studied "diseases of the imagination" intensely, according to Mrs Thrale (Piozzi 1786: 77). It was not a faculty one could sedately choose to indulge at leisure; rather, it was so powerful one had to keep it in check all the time. His analysis here is a kind of imagination about imagination, within a careful fiction itself exotic and visionary. Literature itself could offer unexpected remedy, as when Johnson in the "Preface" to his edition of Shakespeare (1765) manages to recruit the dramatist to the antiimagination cavalry, a sort of Knight of Arts and Industry against fantasy:

This therefore is the praise of Shakespeare, that his drama is the mirrour of life; that he who has mazed his imagination, in following the phantoms which other writers raise up before him, may here be cured of his delirious extasies, by reading human sentiments in human language; by scenes from which a hermit may estimate the transactions of the world, and a confessor predict the progress of the passions. ( Johnson 1958—90: vol. 7, 65)

By the time Johnson comes to reflect on a lifetime's experience of poetry, and the biographical and economic forces that produce it, in the Lives of the Poets, imagination is more evenly poised between usefulness and error. Blackmore is censured for acquiescing too easily in the "first suggestions of his imagination" ( Johnson 1905: vol. 2, 253); Collins, "by indulging some peculiar habits of thought was eminently delighted with those flights of imagination which pass the bounds of nature" (vol. 3, 337). Akenside, in endeavoring to display the pleasures of the imagination, confuses us with too much imagery. The Bible keeps imagination in its proper place: it is read "with submissive reverence, and an imagination over-awed and controlled" ("Cowley," vol. 1, 49). "Imagination is useless without knowledge," we are told ("Butler," vol. 1, 212). But when Elijah Fenton writes, of Roscommon, "his imagination might have probably been more fruitful and sprightly, if his judgment had been less severe," Johnson is minded to be withering: "It is ridiculous to oppose judgement to imagination; for it does not appear that men have necessarily less of one as they have more of the other" (vol. 1, 234, 235).

Johnson knows well enough that in poetry only pleasure will do anything at all: "Works of imagination excel by their allurement and delight; by their power of attracting and detaining the attention" ("Dryden," in Johnson 1905: vol. 1, 454). "Poetry is the art of uniting pleasure with truth, by calling imagination to the help of reason" - a reversal of Smart's priorities ("Milton," vol. 1: 170). Fortunately, certain poets show us how it should be done. Congreve "very early felt that force of imagination and possessed that copiousness of sentiment by which intellectual pleasure can be given" (vol. 2: 213-14). Smith's "judgement, naturally good, soon ripened into an exquisite fineness and distinguishing sagacity, which as it was active and busy so it was vigorous and manly, keeping even paces with a rich and strong imagination, always upon the wing, and never tired with aspiring" (vol. 2: 3). Thomson has "the eye which Nature bestows only on a poet, the eye that distinguishes in every thing presented to its view whatever there is on which imagination can delight to be detained" (vol. 3: 298-9); Johnson almost seems disposed to be seduced by the opening canto of The Castle of Indolence, "a scene of lazy luxury, that fills the imagination" (vol. 3: 294). Milton's Comus may, as a masque, be necessarily "given up to all the freaks of imagination," but "L'Allegro" and "Il Penseroso" are simply "two noble efforts of imagination" (vol. 1: 168, 167). As for Paradise Lost, the epic task of describing the universe and human history required the utmost stretch of vision; but fortunately Milton had "an imagination in the highest degree fervid and active, to which materials were supplied by incessant study and unlimited curiosity" (vol. 1: 177). Milton can even survive what sounds like a criticism: "he had accustomed his imagination to unrestrained indulgence, and his conceptions therefore were extensive" (vol. 1: 177).

Johnson knew what was happening to Pope's reputation and mounted a spirited defense, which appears to grant Pope two parts creativity to one part control:

Pope had, in proportions very nicely adjusted to each other, all the qualities that constitute genius. He had Invention, by which new trains of events are formed and new scenes of imagery displayed, as in The Rape of the Lock . . . He had Imagination, which strongly impresses on the writer's mind and enables him to convey to the reader the various forms of nature, incidents of life, and energies of passion, as in his Eloisa, Windsor Forest, and the Ethick Epistles. He had Judgment, which selects from life or nature what the present purpose requires, and, by separating the essence of things from its concomitants, often makes the representation more powerful than the reality. (Johnson 1905: vol. 3, 247)

This was something of a rearguard action: Pope continued to have his defenders on the score of imagination (most redoubtably, Byron); but outside Johnson's circle the theoretical goalposts were being not so much moved as positioned much more narrowly.

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