I write this in a mood somewhere between bogglement and sheepishness. After all: I've been working on Coleridge for many years, have published scholarly work on the man and blogged extensively about him. More I am currently in what I hope are the latter stages of writing a bloody monograph on the geezer. It's late in the day to realise, for the first time, something that strikes me as so central to my author's imaginative and intellectual praxis, something that means one of his most famous and influential ideas suddenly slots into a new focus (as an optician clicks down lens after lens into the ungainly face-worn frame until suddenly, bingo, there's the chart in all its clarity). Long story short: I should have known this long before. It is but small exculpation to note that nobody else seems to have noticed it either. Unless they have and I've missed that? Or unless nobody has because there's nothing there and I've lost my mind? That's possible too, I suppose.
It has to do with Coleridge's concept of the imagination, something he wrote about in various places, but which he most famously elaborated in the Biographia Literaria (1817). There Coleridge makes the distinction between ‘imagination’, which is genuinely creative, and ‘fancy’ which is merely imitative:—a process of pastiche of more imaginative writers, the shuffling around of pre-existing counters rather than the poetic or artistic bodying-forth of something new and meaningful. Towards the end of chapter 4 of the Biographia, Coleridge says:
Repeated meditations led me first to suspect,—(and a more intimate analysis of the human faculties, their appropriate marks, functions, and effects matured my conjecture into full conviction,)—that Fancy and Imagination were two distinct and widely different faculties, instead of being, according to the general belief, either two names with one meaning, or, at furthest, the lower and higher degree of one and the same power. ... Milton had a highly imaginative, Cowley a very fanciful mind. If therefore I should succeed in establishing the actual existence of two faculties generally different, the nomenclature would be at once determined. To the faculty by which I had characterized Milton, we should confine the term imagination; while the other would be contra-distinguished as fancy. Now were it once fully ascertained, that this division is no less grounded in nature than that of delirium from mania, or Otway'sOtway thinks, fancifully, the way to capture madness is to have his character babble random things because madness is a kind of randomness, or a sort of babble. Shakespeare knows better, that madness is actually that which bends sanity around the lines of force of its obsession. Fair enough. Then, in what now strikes me as a dead giveaway, and by way of concluding chapter 4, Coleridge goes from this passage to a lengthy quotation from Hooker's Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity—I mean, it really is right there. The thing is that then, in characteristic Coleridgean style, he gets distracted and instead of developing this idea he embarks on a massive metaphysical and theological detour, one which occupies the whole of chapters 6-13. Finally, right at the end of his long thirteenth chapter, Coleridge returns to imagination and fancy with this often-cited, rarely-understood definition:
Lutes, laurels, seas of milk, and ships of amber,from Shakespeare's
What! have his daughters brought him to this pass?
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 its operation. It dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to recreate: 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.So,  God makes the world, including our souls;  the true artist makes a little world in his/her art, in a finite imitation of the infinite primary creativity of God, and  the crappy artist merely copies-and-pastes (we can compare Tolkien's subcreation, and its relationship to divine creation). With that, Vol 1 of the Biographia ends. Vol 2 starts an entirely new enterprise, largely pursuing practical criticism of Wordsworth's poetry, amongst others. There's one more wrinkle: according to his daughter, Coleridge crossed out ‘as a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM’ in his own copy of the Biographia.
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 phaenomenon 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.
I knew of course that Coleridge read the celebrated Elizabethan theologian Richard Hooker—that's him, at the top of this post, with a seagull on his loaf—in detail and with sympathy. It's something all Coleridgeans know. Volume 2 of the Bollingen Marginalia prints forty, count ’em, pages of close-written marginal annotations Coleridge scribbled on his edition of Hooker's complete works (these actually date from 1824-26, which is too late for my purposes here—though Coleridge was reading Hooker all his life).
Of course, some scholars have engaged with this vector of influence, usually in the service of unpacking Coleridge's religious and political thought: Nicholas Sagovsky (2014) on Coleridge's ideas of Church and State for instance, or Luke Wright's patchy but interesting Samuel Taylor Coleridge and the Anglican Church (Notre Dame, 2010). But nobody, so far as I know, has ever made the point I'm about to make in the remainder of this blogpost, even though it does seem to me, occuring to me late in the day though it do, both a vital gloss on Coleridge's theory of the imagination and also just, well, obvious when it's pointed out.
It comes about because, even though I knew how important Hooker was to Coleridge, I was content to let my knowledge of the eminent theologian rest at second hand. I had the sense of Hooker as a famous prose stylist who argued against the excesses of the Puritans and defended the legitimacy of the Anglican church; which is, kind-of, what he was (although he nowhere uses the phrase Anglican, it turns out). But then I read some Hooker. And then I slapped the palm of my hand to my brow, Wallace-and-Gromit style.
Because it turns out the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity is about rather more than just refuting Puritain opposition to the established church. It is a comprehensive attempt to establish the idea of polity, the legal establishment of social and religious law, authority and order, from first principles. Hooker's proximate objective is indeed to make a particular case, contra Puritanism, about the polity of the Church, but his larger aim is to describe the structure of polity as such: what the law is, under what circumstances it might be changed to meet changing circumstances, and why we should all follow it. Hooker chooses the word polity deliberately: he might have written about Ecclesiastical Discipline or Ecclesiastical Government, but the former term had been too effectively colonised by the Puritans, and the latter he thought people would associate with ‘the exercise of superiority peculiar unto Rulers and Guides of others’ [LEP, 3.1.4]. Polity, he thinks, is the best expression of the collective assent to Law as such, grounded (as he sees it) in God. So the first book of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity sets out to define Law as such, and to that end Hooker insists that there are two Laws, which we can call primary and secondary. The primary is the ‘First Eternal Law’ [1.3.1]; ‘that Law which giveth life unto all the rest’ [1.1.3], ‘that order which God before all ages hath set down with Himself to Himself to do all things’ [1.2.6]. Himself to Himself, or I AM THAT I AM—this latter one of Coleridge's favourite Biblical moments, of course. Of this Primary Law, Hooker says:
The Being of God is a kind of Law to His Working: for that Perfection which God is, giveth Perfection to that He doth. [LEP, 1.2.2]But Hooker also posits a secondary Law, ‘the Second Eternal Law’ which he defines as ‘that order with which Himself God hath set down as expedient to be kept by all His Creatures, according to the several conditions wherewith He hath endued them’ [1.3.1]. This is, if you like, the iteration of the infinite divine Law in the finite realm, and manifests in, for instance, what we would today call the laws of physics, as well as in the law that governs angels and so on. But Hooker's focus, as you'd expect, is on ‘the Law of Men, a Law of continual progress to that Perfection which is in God alone’ [5.1.2.]. The eight books of the Ecclesiastical Polity explore many facets of this, from questions of duty and ethics to the ‘Law Politic’, and especially the linked categories ‘Laws made by a Body Politic which is civilly united’ and ‘Laws made by a Body Politic which is spiritually joined, and makes such a Body as we call the Church’ [1.10.11]. And the important thing for my purposes is that Hooker insists that this secondary law manifests in two distinct ways: ‘within each’ of the disciplines of human law ‘there is a distinction between Primary and Secondary Laws; the one grounded upon sincere, the other built upon depraved, Nature’ [1.10.13]
Now, in the Biographia Coleridge devotes a good deal of space not just to explicating Kant's ideas but to stressing the impact reading Kant's Critique of Pure Reason had upon his younger self: Kant ‘took possession of me as with a giant's hand’ is how he phrases it. But although the Biographia does quote Hooker, there's no equivalent passage describing Hooker's giant hand on Coleridge's shoulder, perhaps because STC never got around to it, or perhaps because it seemed to him so much more obvious (nobody was reading Kant in Britain in the early 19th-century because he hadn't been translated into English; but everyone knew about Hooker, one of the greats of English prose—so maybe Coleridge figured Kant needed to be explained in a way that he assumed wasn't true of Hooker). Anyway, it came home to me with sudden force that this is what Coleridge was doing in the Biographia, or at least this is what he set out to do before his work diverticulated to such an extent that he ends-up promising he'll explain the real meat of his argument in his forthcoming Logosophia.
What is he doing? I think he's setting his own fundamentally aesthetic-psychological theory of the imagination calculatedly alongside the theories of those two other great thinkers: one, Kant's distinction between Understanding and Reason—which Coleridge interpreted in his own, particular way, identifying a human but also a divine Reason and associating the latter with the Logos—and two, Hooker's distinction between divine Law, human-primary Law and human-secondary Law. In other words: the Biographia Literaria presents a coherent theory of aesthetic creation and appreciation that posits human poetry (in the broadest, ποίησις sense of the word) as something with a pure and an impure form, the former mimicking the primary creative-imaginative ποίησις of God Himself; and Coleridge does so in order to parallel this with the Kantian distinction between Divine Reason, Human Reason and Human Understanding on the one hand, and the Hooker-ian distinction between the First Eternal Law of God, the Second Law of (sincere) Men and the lesser Law of (depraved) men on the other. That, to be plain, Coleridge sees all three of these as versions of the same thing, rooted in the same Divine origin and sanction, and expressing in the three overlapping realms, art, mind and law, the same fundamental logic. It would be a very Coleridgean thing to argue, and it makes such sense of the Coleridgean distinctions of the primary imagination/secondary imagination/fancy thing that I'm sheepishly boggled that, until this weekend, it had honestly never occurred to me.