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"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." --"On the imagination, or esemplastic power"

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Esemplastic is a qualitative adjective which the English romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge claimed to have invented. Despite its etymology from the Ancient Greek word πλάσσω for "to shape", the term was modeled on Schelling's philosophical term Ineinsbildung – the interweaving of opposites – and implies the process of an object being moulded into unity. The first recorded use of the word is in 1817 by Coleridge in his work, Biographia Literaria, in describing the esemplastic – the unifying – power of the imagination.

Biographia Literaria

The Biographia Literaria was one of Coleridge's main critical studies in which he discusses the elements and process of writing. In this work, Coleridge establishes a criterion for good literature, making a distinction between the imagination and "fancy". Whereas fancy rested on the mechanical and passive operations of one's mind to accumulate and store data, imagination held a "mysterious power" to extract "hidden ideas and meaning" from such data. Thus, Coleridge argues that good literary works employ the use of the imagination and describes its power to "shape into one" and to "convey a new sense" as esemplastic. He emphasizes the necessity of creating such a term as it distinguishes the imagination as extraordinary and as "it would aid the recollection of my meaning and prevent it being confounded with the usual import of the word imagination".


Use of the word has been limited to describing mental processes and writing, such as "the esemplastic power of a great mind to simplify the difficult", or "the esemplastic power of the poetic imagination". The meaning conveyed in such a sentence is the process of someone, most likely a poet, taking images, words, and emotions from a number of realms of human endeavor and thought and unifying them all into a single work. Coleridge argues that such an accomplishment requires an enormous effort of the imagination and, therefore, should be granted with its own term. The invention of this word was met with controversy; the Scottish philosopher J. F. Ferrier wrote a scathing comment: "You there [in Schelling's Darlegung] found the word In-eins-bildung—“a shaping into one”—which Schelling or some other German had literally formed from the Greek, εἰς ἓν πλάττειν, and you merely translated this word back into Greek, (a very easy and obvious thing to do,) and then you coined the Greek words into English, merely altering them from a noun into an adjective." The term is infrequently used in modern speech and text, and has only appeared in two other literary works.

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Esemplastic" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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