The Infinite IAM: Coleridge, Blake, and the Primary Imagination

The Poet and God: Participating in the Wave Potential Field

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Introduction

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Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834), portrait by Peter Vandyke, 1795

In Chapter XIII of his Biographia Literaria, Coleridge formulated his concept of the imagination, or “the esemplastic power” (meaning “shaping or having the power to shape disparate things into a unified whole”). It was a passage that would come to define and articulate not only the Romantic conception of imagination, but the nature of God, being, perception, and our relation to the universe:

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 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; while it is blended with, and modified by that empirical phenomenon 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.

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The Biographia Literaria is a unique fusion of literary criticism and personal autobiography written by Coleridge and published in 1817

Coleridge’s earliest definition of imagination actually comes at the beginning of his Lecture on the Slave Trade (1795), where he also talks about issues of creativity and “combination”, past and present, and imagination as a “vivifying” power or faculty.

The restless, transformative aspect of imaginative processes seem to both reflect, participate in, and co-create wider evolutionary processes of transformation – hence its role in what he strikingly calls here “the ascent of Being”, and which Shelley had also alluded to in his  great revolutionary poem Queen Mab (1813). In the very last lines of that poem, Shelley presents life, in all its great variety of forms, as embodying and transmitting a ceaseless and “necessarily beneficent” evolutionary process that entwines itself with what he here calls Necessity:

And life, in multitudinous shapes,
Still pressing forward where no term can be,

Like hungry and unresting flame

Curls round the eternal columns of its strength.

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“The ascent of Being”. Image: Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog by Caspar David Friedrich (c. 1818). The great Romantic philosophers and writers were all deeply aware that the universe, far from being at the dead mechanism of the earlier ‘Enlightenment’ age , was essentially alive, responsive, relational, dynamic, and awake.

These writers and thinkers sensed a resonance or relationality between what they were doing as creative artists, and the activity they saw all around them – the constant transmutation of form, the vivifying and implicit energy within being – within the interconnected “web of being” as Shelley referred to it in Queen Mab.

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William Blake, Nick Cave, and the Origins of Creativity

Nick Cave on William Blake: Where does Creativity come from? 

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The Australian musician and songwriter Nick Cave, responding on his website ‘The Red Hand Files‘ to the question ‘How do you know when you have written something worthwhile? What is your process?’, remarks that Blake’s insights into the nature of Imagination and the imaginative process were key to him in this:

In Issue #87 I wrote about my favourite line from the New Testament: ‘Mary Magdalene and the other Mary remained standing there in front of the tomb.’ To me, this line seems to sum up, among other things, the process of songwriting. William Blake said ‘Jesus is the imagination’ and these words have always resonated with me. They have bound together the notion of Jesus and the creative act, and lifted it into the supernatural sphere.

The moment of the cave.

This is a surely a fascinating observation, and connection. Why particularly that line from the Bible, that stood out for him so much, amid so many other striking lines? What was it about the image of the tomb, or the sense of both the possibility of emptiness and of emergence, the moment of waiting or expectation, that so resonated with him?  Was it some sort of analogy between the resurrected tomb and the cave of creativity, of ‘Imagination’? Thankfully, Cave himself provided some further illumination:

A large part of the process of songwriting is spent waiting in a state of attention before the unknown. We stand in vigil, waiting for Jesus to emerge from the tomb — the divine idea, the beautiful idea — and reveal Himself.

Cave’s sense that there is something ‘transcendent’ about our creative moments and experiences is very striking, and very unexpected in our commercialised, cynical, post-modern age. And also unexpected in an artist not writing from any orthodox religious perspective (“I’m not religious, and I’m not a Christian,” he once remarked, “but I do reserve the right to believe in the possibility of a god.”) Cave is aware that there is something profoundly strange about creativity, something mysterious (or “supernatural” as he puts it) about the process by which songs, and images, and poetry, emerge out of, apparently, thin air. Cave suggests that Blake is right to connect them not to material or mundane processes in this world but to something altogether deeper and more mysterious.

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EUrope: A Prophecy, by William Blake

Europe: Materialism and Revolution

 

Introduction to the poem, by Robert MacLean

Europe: a Prophecy does not set out to be prophetic in the conventional sense: it does not set out to predict the future. Rather, according to Paley (in Dörrbecker), the function of the prophetic form is “to expose the otherwise hidden motives and consequences of human decisions”. As Dörrbecker explains: “it is a ‘prophetic’ mode of historical representation as interpretation” where “the history of the immediate past is recounted as an exemplum with a view towards the future”.

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Blake on War, by Rod Tweedy

The Difference between Mental Fight and Corporeal War

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“War is Energy Enslaved” Blake once remarked – an observation that powerfully captures one of war’s most characteristic and toxic aspects: its ability to harness the astonishing productions of human society – our vast collective energies, intelligence, industries, and labour – and put them to profoundly destructive and degrading ends, to set humanity against itself. Blake’s observation equates war with slavery, with both mental and physical obedience and servitude – or “service” as it’s more frequently called today.

Blake witnessed first-hand the devastating impact of warfare: he lived for sixty-nine years (1757-1827) and for each one of those years, Britain was at war or in military conflict with one country or another – with India, with Portugal, with Hanover, Prussia, the Netherlands, Spain, the Dutch Republic, Austria, Germany, Ireland, America, France, Sweden, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Burma …

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