In order to understand Wordsworth’s view on imagination, we have to go to his poems, and to his letter. In ‘The Preface’, the word occur first when Wordsworth tells us that his purpose has been to select incidents and situations from humble and common life and make them look uncommon and unusual by throwing over them a coloring of imagination.
This clarifies that imagination is a transforming and transfiguring power which presents the usual in an unusual light. The poet does not merely present “image of men and nature” but he also shapes, modifies and transfigures that image by the power of his imagination. Thus imagination is creative; it is a shaping or ‘plastic’ power. The poet is half the creator; he is not a mere mechanical reproducer of outward reality, but a specially gifted individual, who, like God, is a creator or maker as he adds something to nature and reality. It is the imagination of the poet which imparts to nature, the ‘glory and freshness of a dream’, the light that never was on land and sea.
In making the poet’s imagination a creative power, Wordsworth goes counter to the ‘associationist’ theories of David Hartley who had considerable influences on the poet. Hartley and other associationist psychologist thought that the human mind receives impressions from the external words, which are therein associated together to form images. In this way, the mind merely reflects the external world. But according to Wordsworth the mind does not merely reflect passively, it actively creates. At least, it is half the creator. Imagination is the active, creative faculty of the mind. As Florence Marsh points out, for Wordsworth imagination is a mental power which alters the external world creatively.
“It is a word of higher import, denoting operations of the human mind upon those objects and processes of creation or composition, governed by certain fixed laws.”
It is through imagination that the poet realizes his kinship with the eternal. Imagination works upon the raw material of sense impressions to illustrate the working of external truths. It makes the poet perceive the essential unity of “man, God and Nature” while “the meddling intellect” of the scientist multiplies diversities.
Again, he tells that the poet is a man who thinks long and deeply, and so he can treat things which are absent as if they were present. In other words, the poet contemplates in tranquility the emotions which he had experienced in the past and through imagination can visualize the objects which gave rise to those emotions initially. Imagination is the mind’s eye through which the poet sees into the ‘heart of things’ as well as into the past, the remote, and the unknown. It is imagination which enables the poet to render emotional experience, which he has not personally experienced, as if, they were personally felt emotions.
The power of imagination enables the poet to universalize the particular and the personal, and arrives at universal truths. Henry Crabbe Robinson describes the process in the following words:
“The poet first conceives the essential nature of his object, and then strips it of all casualties and accidental individual dress, and in this he is a philosopher; … he re-clothes his idea in an individual dress which expresses the essential quality and has also the spirit and life of a sensual object. And this transmutes the philosophic into a poetic exhibition.”
Stressing the importance which Wordsworth attached to the role of imagination in the process of poetic creation, C M. Bowra writes:
“For him, the imagination was the most important gift that a poet can have, and his arrangement of his own poems shows what he meant by it.”
The section which he calls, ‘Poems of the Imagination’, contains poems in which he united creative power and a special visionary insight. He agreed with Coleridge that this activity resembles that of God. It is the divine capacity of the child who fashions his own little world:
For feeling has to him imparted power
That through the growing faculties of sense
Doth like an agent of the one great Mind
Create, creator and receiver both,
Working but in alliance with the works
Which it beholds.
The poet keeps this faculty in his maturity, and through it he is what he is. But Wordsworth was full aware that mere creation is not enough, that it must be accompanied by a special insight. So he explains that the imagination,
Is but another name for absolute power
And clearest insight, amplitude of mind,
And Reason in her most exalted mood.
“Wordsworth did to go so far as the other Romantics in relegating reason to an inferior position. He preferred to give a new dignity to the word and to insist that inspired insight is itself rational.”
It should be noticed that here Wordsworth calls imagination, “reason in her most exalted mood”. It is a higher reason than mere reason. It is that faculty which transforms sense perceptions and makes the poet conscious of human immortality. It makes him have visions of the divine.
Wordsworth deals with imagination at much greater length in his Preface to the 1815 edition of the Lyrical Ballads. There he draws a distinction between Fancy and Imagination. Wordsworth’s distinction between Fancy and Imagination is not so subtle and penetrating as that of Coleridge. According to Wordsworth, both Imagination and Fancy, “evoke and combine, aggregate and associate”. But the material which they evoke and combine is different, and their purpose in evoking and combining is different. They differ not in their natures but in their purpose, and in the material on which they work. The material on which Fancy works is not so susceptible to change or so pliant as the material on which imagination works. Fancy makes things exact and definite, while Imagination leaves everything vague and indefinite
Rene Wellek’s comment in this respect is illuminating and interesting:
“Both Wordsworth and Coleridge make the distinction between Fancy, a faculty which, handles, ‘fixities and definites, and Imagination, a faculty which deals with the ‘plastic, the pliant and the indefinite’. The only important difference between Wordsworth and Coleridge is that Wordsworth does not clearly see Coleridge’s distinction between imagination as a ‘holistic’ and fancy as an ‘associative’ power and does not draw the sharp distinction between transcendentalism and associationism which Coleridge wanted to establish.”