Art Theory – Cultivation Of The Originative Powers

The exercise both of imagination and invention, which has been shown to consist merely in different operations of the same intellectual faculty of origination, is regulated by principles as sure as determined and as direct as is that of taste, and even of reason. Moreover, the reason and other faculties as much aid here as they do in the exercise of taste. By the reason, imagination and also invention are both directed aright, and prevented from going astray. The former faculty should, how-ever, be so exercised that they be guided only, not impeded by it. It should check extravagance without destroying freedom.

The imaginative and inventive powers of the mind are, more-over, capable of being much enlarged and invigorated by exercise and cultivation, possibly to an extent almost if not entirely unlimited. Of this we shall be best convinced by again recurring to our inquiry into the nature and constitution of this branch of our intellectual faculties. As has been already pointed out, t imagination is a capacity, not of actually creating or originating things or ideas out of nothing, but of uniting together several ideas so as to form combinations different from what we have before experienced. We cannot produce anything entirely new out of the elements we resort to, as although the combinations themselves which we form may be new and original, the elements which constitute them are old and stale and of everyday use. Thus, as I have pointed out, all Milton’s most imaginative descriptions, such as those of Satan, sin, death, hell, will be found to be entirely made up of elements, or of different qualities of beings, with which we are well acquainted, however original and novel when so combined they may appear in the composition.

The cultivation and enlargement of the imaginative capacity may be therefore effected principally in two modes :-1. By storing the mind with ideas and elements suitable and effective for the purpose of making these combinations. 2. By exercising it to perform with skill and effect combinations of this nature.

By the first of these efforts we shall obtain an ample store of ideas peculiarly suitable for making apt and original combinations of this kind; and the more striking and original and effective are these ideas individually, the more so must necessarily be the combinations they are capable of producing.

The more richly the mind of any one is furnished with ideas to combine, the richer it may be expected will be his imaginative combinations ; although different men will of course vary as to the skill with which they effect this operation. Many ideas, poor in themselves, may, moreover, form combinations of great value. Thus, viewing strange phenomena of nature, such as those displayed in the vast subterraneous cavities of the earth, or in the wild recesses of deserts or mountains, or among the frozen regions, or the spectacles occasionally afforded by the changes or irregular appearance of the heavenly bodies, or by rare and extraordinary animals, especially reptiles and insects, above all those wonders of the otherwise invisible world, both animal and vegetable, which the microscope reveals to us, are all highly useful and available in this respect. Tracing forms in the clouds, in the fire, or else-where, may also, as observed in the last section, in certain instances, greatly aid us here, and even – serve to furnish us .directly with compositions such as we are striving to effect. Whatever, indeed, contributes to expand, and enrich, and en-noble the mind and to add to its imaginative stores, is of service to us in this way. Thus, the study of astronomy, the observation of the heavenly bodies, and the conjecturing and speculation upon the wonders and prodigies in the unexplored regions of the universe, are each highly calculated to raise in us the sublimest ideas, and greatly to expand the imaginative power. Milton is a splendid instance of a mind so imbued and invigorated, of which every description and every sentiment in his immortal ‘Paradise Lost’ bears testimony. Even dreams may occasionally contribute to aid us here in the wild fantastic combinations they produce, and the supernatural aerial mode in which some scenes are described by them, and from which certain poets and painters are said to have derived their most effective descriptions.

By the second of these modes, we acquire a habit of combining those ideas which are most suitable one with another, and which by their combination will produce the most striking effects.

It should be borne in mind, however, that it is a very different thing to cultivate the imagination, and merely to exercise it. Many attempt the latter, but very few effect the former. The results of the two are also different. In the one case we en-large and extend and invigorate the powers of the machine, which is an aim that should be ever carefully kept in view : in the other we merely put it in motion. In the one case we obtain new force; in the other we simply expend the force existing.

Care should moreover be taken to raise the mind above insipidity, which is occasioned by feebleness in the imaginative powers, on the one hand; and to preserve it from running into extravagance, which is as it were the corruption of imagination, on the other, and from which reason should serve to restrain it. The imagination, indeed, like every other capacity of the mind, requires to be regulated and even kept in subjection. Extravagance is, in reality, nothing more or less than the free exercise of invention and imagination, unrestrained and uncorrected by the reason and by nature. Rules are, in, deed, adapted not so much to improve, as to direct the exercise of the imaginative powers ; although they cannot accelerate, they may control and order rightly these operations.

It may here be observed that by the foregoing exercises, if judiciously and effectively carried out, the mind will be also improved in the use and application of each of those elements of imaginative construction to which I have before referred,* as well as in making its various combinations and comparisons with the utmost skill, propriety, and effect;—in raising the most suitable inferences ;—in attributing those qualities which mainly conduce to aid imaginative description ;—in the obscurity arid supernatural atmosphere in which many of these new objects and ideas should be enveloped;—and in supplying ideas and notions of beings and things of a supernatural and extraordinary description, such as our unaided inventive powers are unable to suggest.