Poetry isn’t just about all of those classroom haikus you were assigned during grade school. The world’s greatest poets know that their words must tantalize the senses if their work is going to survive the test of time. To accomplish this, all poets must have a keen awareness of their imagination and how to utilize its various depths in their art.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge proposed that the human imagination is broken up into two distinct parts: the primary and the secondary. Literary essayist Shawn Rider describes the primary imagination as the spontaneous act of creation, when inspiration overtakes the poet and guides him in his writings. The secondary imagination, on the other hand, is tapped when the poet consciously and willfully tries to dream up his work.
Samuel Coleridge was born in 1772 in England; he was a contemporary and friend of William Wordsworth. The two helped launch the Romantic Age of English literature, both with their poetry and with their literary criticisms. It’s among these criticisms that Coleridge penned the “Biographia Literaria,” his autobiography that was also a collection of his literary theories.
Though Coleridge theorized about primary and secondary imagination, he never spent a great deal of time elaborating on his theories directly, but he touched on them from time to time in his criticisms. This single passage on Page 387 of the “Biographia Literaria” captures Coleridge’s words on the matter: “The primary imagination I hold to be the living power and prime agent of all human perception, and as a repetition in the finite of the eternal act of creation of the infinite I AM. The secondary I consider as an echo of the former, coexisting with the conscious will, yet still identical with the primary in the kind of its agency, and differing only in degree, and in the mode of its operation.”
Coleridge was influenced by several thinkers before him, as well as by a few of his time. Chief among them were Immanuel Kant and Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling, whose philosophical ideas about the human thought process and the imagination provided a foundation for Coleridge’s own ideas. He was also influenced by Wordsworth, who believed that poetry should be understood by everyone, whereas Coleridge felt that this limited a poet’s word choice, thereby limiting his imagination.
Coleridge's primary and secondary imagination concepts might seem like ideas that belong in college classrooms, but they’re more applicable than that. If you’ve taken a creative writing class, you know this. When you’re forced to complete an assignment, whether it’s a poem or a short story, you’re tapping your secondary imagination, according to Coleridge. But if you love writing for the sake of it, then you’re familiar with the feeling of the muse’s inspiration here and there. This is your primary imagination at work.