Popular Science Monthly/Volume 11/August 1877/Imagination


LADIES AND GENTLEMEN: Amid the asperities of the great political crisis which has convulsed a nation, it is pleasant to find the elegant repose of a salon where culture and refinement stand like sleepless sentinels on guard against dissension; and in the Lenten season—when the fugitive madrigal of society is hushed in the measured cadence of the penitential psalm, and the brilliant poppies of fashion grow pale in the shadow of the palm—it is meet that thought should turn from outward things to the contemplation of those within.

The few moments during which an unworthy member of the Society is indulged to-night will be devoted to the consideration of Imagination as one of the intellectual faculties which, if common in some degree to all, is nevertheless, in its highest development, the rarest, most precious, and most splendid, of human endowments. I need not—I shall not—be coldly critical now, nor seek to bend your judgment to my will; for I must speak my aspirations, not my personal experiences, and move you from the heart, or not at all. The subject bids defiance to the trammels of custom or precedent, and will be bound by no conventionality.

For facts, as simply such, I dare say I have a great and growing contempt, perhaps less due to any familiarity I may have acquired, than to my habitual contemplation of structures without reference to the materials of which they are composed, The architect, not his workmen—the plan, not the details of its execution—the design, not the methods of its accomplishment—these are within the higher view to which intellectual insight may aspire. Let us pay tribute to the gifted poet who taught us to contrast the insignificance of a fact with the sublime signification of a truth. No one may imagine for a moment that the imaginative faculty is an imaginary thing, or doubt the reality of imagination, because it is immaterial and immeasurable, inscrutable to the physical senses, unsusceptible of analysis or synthesis, triable by no test, overriding logic, outwitting philosophy, laughing at science—this imperious mistress of mind, this fertile mother of all art!

This, that, and the other, of things unnumbered, material and immaterial, wise and otherwise, make up the marvelous microcosm we call Self—the world where, like the sun of the planetary system, shines the intellect with perfect splendor. But, as the spectrum has dissected the solar ray, so has the understanding, by a process of self-inflicted vivisection that seems scarcely less than divine in its insight, pierced and resolved the mysteries of its own composition. We know that the mind is a bundle of many fagots, the united strength of which can never be broken, though racked on doubt and put to the wheel of despair—though cast beneath the car of superstition, or consigned to the nether millstone of inhuman persecution. We know that these mental fagots are of many kinds—sturdy oak of the scientist, pliable ash of the schoolman, sail-bearing pine of the positivist, cypress of pessimist, rose-wood of optimist, heart-wood, it may be, for all of us; and the one mysterious piece, so like and yet so unlike them all. Let the rest season, nay, even blacken: this one is changeless and ever-enduring, as fresh and as green as if cut but to-day from the parent stem; it buds on forever, like a wonderful air-plant whose tendrils find nourishment wherever there is sensitized atmosphere, and needs the grosser nurture of no vulgar mould; this veritable Hamamelis, witch-hazel of the mental sheaf, fitly styled the "divining-rod;" for this is the magic wand of the sculptor, the painter, the poet, the singer, the seer alike!

Technical definition of the imagination may be found in the dictionaries of all civilized languages—those monuments of learning and labor which compel the most profound respect, while they excite the liveliest emotions of gratitude and sympathy for the men who were born to erect them. But the conventional label of the imaginative faculty need not be recited before this Society; nor need I enlarge upon its manifest inadequacy beyond the requirements of formalism. Definition is, or should be, diagnostic description; but in what terms may that be described which exists only in imagination? Definition implies limitation and boundary; the gist of the term is the setting of corner-stones; but how measure off and survey that which is boundless? No syllogism is competent here. Let imagination seek its own conclusions, with strong white wings that melt not even in the dazzling light and heat of its own glorious achievements. What care I for the crutch of logic here, or any Ariadne's thread in a labyrinth of verbal niceties! Enthusiasm bears too hard upon the check-rein of sober reflection; fancy leaps lightly; ecstasy beckons, and the lotos is waving over the still, cool waters of my judgment. But expression may lawfully seek even the pinnacle of rhapsody, for naught but superlatives are fitting for that which is beyond comparison.

We can but imagine the possibilities of this attribute of intellect; as its peculiarities deny comparison, and its processes scrutiny, so do its powers defy comprehension. But what of its effective operation and manifest results? What of its purposes and pleasures of its pangs and penalties? And what, alas! of its perversions? Of these we know something, if not from our own experience, then from the teachings of the consummate masters of expression whose thought-laden voices strike home—or, should they pass over our heads, leave us, at least, in no doubt that something has gone over.

To a practical point first: one excellent and most useful purpose which the imagination subserves at the hands of the gifted few whom the higher development of this faculty makes leaders of thought and watchful guardians of human progress, is, to put men of science on their proper level, and to teach them to know their place.

As this may possibly be considered—by some of my friends whose generous appreciation of my efforts in scientific lines of inquiry may blind them to the slightness of my acquirements—to be rather a ticklish position for me to assume, let me fortify with authority as well recognized in literature as is that of the sinewy, daring, and brilliant gladiator of the scientific arena who stigmatized poetry as "sensuous caterwauling."[2]

"In these times the educational tree seems to have its roots in the air, its leaves and flowers in the ground; and I confess I should very much like to turn it upside down, so that its roots might be solidly imbedded among the facts of Nature, and draw thence a sound nutriment for the foliage and fruit of literature and of art. No educational system can have a claim to permanence unless it recognizes the truth that education has two great ends to which everything else must be subordinated. The one of these is, to increase knowledge; the other is, to develop the love of right and the hatred of wrong.

"With wisdom and uprightness a nation can make its way worthily, and Beauty will follow in the footsteps of the two, even if she be not specially invited; while there is, perhaps, no sight in It has been perceived and said, in substance, that the great scientists and the great artists are in really closer brotherhood than many suppose—they hold divided sway over much common ground; it is only a seeming paradox, that few discoveries in science, perhaps no great ones, have been made without the exercise of the imagination, or of some faculty so nearly like it that distinction between them is difficult; for the line which separates the operations and results of imagination from those of induction is obscure. Ratiocination is the twin-brother of imagination. The apple that Eve plucked, and the apple that Newton saw fall, grew on the same tree. But to my intrenchment: "Poetry," says one who understood it, "is the first and last of all knowledge—it is immortal as the heart of man. If the labors of the men of science should ever create any material revolution, direct or indirect, in our condition, and in the impressions which we habitually receive, the poet will sleep then no more than at present; he will be at the side of the man of science, carrying sensation into the midst of the objects of science itself. The remotest discoveries of the chemist, the botanist, the mineralogist, will be as proper objects of the poet's art as any upon which it can be employed, if the time should ever come when these things shall be familiar to us, and the relations under which they are contemplated by the followers of the respective sciences shall be manifestly and palpably material to us as enjoying and suffering beings. If the time should ever come when what is now called science, thus familiarized to men, shall be ready to put on, as it were, a form of flesh and blood, then the poet will lend his divine spirit to aid the transfiguration, and will welcome the being thus produced as a dear and genuine inmate of the household of men."[3] This utterance of half a century ago seems like prophecy now when the presaged changes are imminent. The conflict may nevertheless be protracted as long as either contestant is blinded to the real strength of his antagonist—senseless though it be to attempt the impossible divorce of the material from the immaterial, of matter from force, of the body from the spirit—that would be death. And it is the physicist himself who is loudest to proclaim that, without the force which gives motion to material particles, there is no light, no heat, no life.

Here I would repeat with emphasis, what I intimated in the beginning, that the microscopic eye which peers too long and too intently upon the motes of facts which play in the sunbeam, will be blinded to the force and beauty of the truths which both the motes and the beam conspire to announce.

In thus insisting upon the intimate relationships which I believe subsist between the offices of the imaginative and those of the reasoning faculty, I must not be misunderstood to depreciate or disparage the mighty prowess of the latter, which I love to contemplate. Pure reason, as expressed—I had nearly said symbolized—in the simple, faultless syllogism, has nothing to fear from the sovereignty of the imagination. It is beautiful and fearful to see that clear, cold, naked blade, gleaming with steel-blue temper, resistlessly incisive—to see it cleave with equal ease the solid ingot of ignorance and the gossamer web of illusion—to see it work like a giant steam-hammer, smoothly, noiselessly, and irresistibly, whether its power be adjusted to the cracking of an egg-shell of superfine subtilties, or the forging of the massive links by which it is anchored secure in a storm of error. Yet this Titan is not omnipotent; its powers are limited; and it is precisely at the point where reason hesitates that the office of imagination begins. The higher faculty takes up the story when reason omits to point the moral, and adorns the tale that Nature tells to man. It brings her seeming discords into one grand harmony, and crowns the noble shaft of Science with the immortal wreath of Art.

I speak of imagination in its full development, and in the truest, highest, and best sense that the term can bear; and I am reminded here to draw a broad, even if a devious and uncertain, line of distinction between this splendid faculty and mere Fancy—a pert Miss, whose wills-o'-the-wisp are too often mistaken for the head-light of the imagination. I will not weary you with over-nice formalities of definition in a case where shades of difference blend. Know, by their fruits, that fancy is a parody on imagination. The play of fancy is quips and quirks and airy nothings, and the whole mob of littlenesses we call smart and clever. The working of imagination breathes life into marble and canvas, inspires the drama, the poem, the symphony, and vivifies systems of religion.

What faculty but the imaginative can conceive, what but the power of the imagination itself can convey, the full meaning of this soul of genius? It is creative; and, when this is said, expression falters by the wayside of anticlimax. If there be within us one single spark of the divine fire, this spark it is that sends "the long light shaking" from pillar to pillar of the temple that the lesser god of the imagination rears to a God eternal, till it irradiates the shrine where all men sooner or later must kneel in devotion; and we, who now gaze wistfully at the veil which screens the inner sanctuary from eyes profane, may yet be permitted to kiss the hem of a seamless garment. Oh, the searching, the far-reaching insight of the epigram, "If there be no God, man must invent one!" Invention, conception, imagination, creation, are synonymous, and in one sense convertible terms.[4]

The pleasures of the imagination—if so slight an expression may hint at a meaning, the fullness of which is rapture or transport—are manifold, and too manifest to require subtilty of discrimination for their recognition and explanation. These are among the things of blessed memory, of blissful hope, and among those the reality and universality of which are confirmed by all experience. Even those who cuddle the bantlings of their fancy, in the fond delusion that they nurture the offspring of the fertile mother, feel somewhat of the charm indescribable. What, then, the serenity, what the majestic repose, of the creators of thought after their labor, we may only faintly imagine.

What of the pangs and penalties now—what of the price to be paid for this power? To bring forth in travail was not the sentence of one-half the human race alone. There have been those, indeed, like Raphael, who have wrought the miracles of imagination in the sunshine of the heart, to sweet music of the soul; but oh, so few escape the throes of thought-birth! Physiologists tell us of a certain mental process they call "unconscious cerebration." The operation of the imagination unconscious of labor is better known by another name—inspiration; its expression is revelation; its mouth-piece the seer. But rare clay, and only the finest, incases such spirits; men must work in the storm, in sorrow and suffering, each to his measure of creative ability. Let us never forget, in the terrible struggle for expression, that it is given to lips which press the sword of pain to speak to fellow-men the words "Go thou up higher!"

I crave your indulgence for one other thought. Authority and responsibility go hand-in-hand with equal pace. The measure of creative ability is the measure of accountability for its exercise, and the measure of the penalty which perversion of the godlike faculty entails. Like every other energy in Nature, the imagination is equally potent for good and for evil. Let the bravest man tell me he never shudders when he looks within, at the possibilities there disclosed. There is power to make this earth seem nearer heaven or hell. Whose rebellious imagination conceived it were better to reign below than to serve above? Sound is as full of discord as of harmony. Light may blind us, or guide us on our way. Heat constructs and heat destroys. The dual nature of every force wars with its opposite. The imagination is equally potent to sanctify and to pollute. Guard, then, this gift with fear and trembling; great issues depend upon this most powerful, most perilous, and most precious endowment of the intellect. Not like the victor in history need we sigh for other worlds to conquer, if we move the world of the imagination to the ends of truth and beauty; for a greater triumph is ours then, and the soul may leap at the inward shout, "Victory! victory! conquest of self!"

  1. Read before the Literary Society of Washington, D.C., March 17, 1877.
  2. Although, in the sphere of imagination, "facts" are apt to be regarded as troublesome and impertinent, and looseness of statement as only a very venial transgression, yet, for the benefit of those readers who care for accuracy, it may be stated that the author of this celebrated phrase, that has given so much offense to artistic and poetic minds, did not use it in the manner here stated. Prof. Huxley has never, as we are aware, "stigmatized poetry as sensuous caterwauling." It was not poetry itself, but only some poetry, to which he applied this eminently felicitous epithet; and if Wordsworth were living, he would no doubt cordially indorse it. We give the memorable passage, as it will bear frequent repeating.—(Ed.) the whole world more saddening and more revolting than is offered by men sunk in ignorance of everything but that other men have written—seemingly devoid of moral belief or guidance, but with the sense of beauty so keen, and the power of expression so cultivated, that their sensuous caterwauling may be almost mistaken for the music of the spheres.

    "At present, education is almost entirely devoted to the cultivation of the power of expression and of the sense of literary beauty. The matter of having anything to say beyond a hash of other people's opinions, or of possessing any criterion of beauty, so that we may distinguish between the godlike and the devilish, is left aside as of no moment. I think I do not err in saying that, if science were made the foundation of education, instead of being, at most, stuck on as a cornice to the edifice, this state of things could not exist."

  3. Quoted from E. C. Stedman's "Victorian Poets," the page where Wordsworth is thus reproduced being further laid under contribution.
  4. "In seinen Göttern malet sich der Mensch."—Goethe.