Imagination And Invention In Artistical Representation


HAVING considered in the preceding chapter the adaptation of art for the representation of human nature, and of nature generally we have next to inquire into the efforts which it is capable of exerting in the realms of imagination and invention. Nor can it be doubted that the noblest of the soul’s powers are those of origination. Through these it not only effects operations in regard to objects already existent, but of itself forms new beings altogether. It pursues here not merely the path along which other minds have proceeded before it, but in its capacity of creation it imitates the prerogative of its own divine Creator. Its sphere in this department, like eternity, is infinite. And the regions where it roams extend from the sublimest depths of earth and hell, to the loftiest realms of heaven.

It might, indeed, appear to many, upon a cursory view of the subject, and from the consideration of those mighty and astonishing works of imagination and invention which have been produced by some great geniuses, that the mind possessed a power of, as it were, thinking of, and becoming acquainted with things beyond its own experience, and of absolutely and entirely creating anew certain objects, without the aid of any elements out of which to form them, or of any previous know-ledge of their nature.

Upon a close examination of this subject, it will, however, be obvious that the mind is endowed with no faculty or power which can capacitate it to this extent; and that what appears on these occasions to have been an absolute new creation, is, in reality, but the composition, or union together in a different manner to what we have before observed, by the faculty which I have described,* of the old elements which contributed to the constitution of many objects familiar to us. As in the case of building, the same stones and materials which placed together in a particular order once formed a castle, may, by being re-united in a different mode, be made to construct a common dwelling, or any other building.

Hence, it will be obvious, upon a close and careful inquiry into the whole subject, that the faculty of origination consists in nothing more than in this power of compounding together different ideas belonging to various objects, so as to form a new one out of them, entirely dissimilar indeed to what had before existed; as hi the ideas of a centaur, a dragon, or a sphinx, which are each mere creatures of the imagination, having been constituted by uniting together in one imaginary animal, ideas of the properties and characteristics of two or more very different species.

When phantoms of objects novel, and unnatural, and often exciting in their appearance, have been so conjured up, we are led to contemplate them with wonder and with awe. The mind becomes perplexed as to their reality and origin and nature; and thus the opinion is entertained that they are entirely new and original creations, and not mere combinations of the mind; and hence also arises that astonishment and perplexity with which they are regarded.

It appears, therefore, that this compounding together of ideas of different objects or beings into one, is the utmost effort of origination of which the mind is capable. Indeed, the correctness of what I have here contended will be but the more clearly evinced by a close examination of those prodigious and astonishing works of imagination which have most contributed to establish the opposite theory, and to lead many to consider that nothing less than the faculty of producing entirely new ideas out of original elements, or the gift of inspiration itself, could have enabled those who achieved them to have thus depicted them. Hence, the ideas of Satan, whose description by Milton I have extracted in a previous chapter,* and those of death, t might be obtained by collecting them from the qualities of other beings, and adding to them one of human shape, and by comparison magnifying him to superhuman stature. In the representations of them alluded to, we shall, indeed, find no single idea, or quality, which might not have been obtained or availed of in this manner.

Nor would I be supposed to consider this circumstance as in any way detracting from the genius, or the imaginative or inventive power of the great poet alluded to, who doubtless de-serves to the full all the praise which has been bestowed upon him, and whom the more fully we study and understand, the more completely we shall admire, and the more entirely appreciate.

But the most satisfactory and conclusive proof that the mind can invent or imagine nothing absolutely original, arises from the fact that we can form no ideas of beings of which, from not possessing a knowledge of their qualities, we are unable to combine ideas from other subjects or objects. Thus in the case of the Deity, of whose form or appearance we know nothing, we are unable to give any description of Him that we can consider in any way just or adequate ; all that has been attempted here has been effected by borrowing and combining ideas of other beings with which we are acquainted, so as to constitute one which was deemed to be so far as we could conjecture re-presentative of Him,

Nor can we even create in our imagination any notions of a new animal, or new object in nature, except by effecting combinations of this kind Thus the common idea of an angel is obtained by somewhat grossly uniting that of a bird, so far as regards its pinions at least, with that of a man. So also when we try to conjecture the idea of a spirit, we join together that of a shadow or a cloud with that of a man, and imagine a being something of the shape of the latter with the substance of the former. A person who had never seen a reptile or a fish or an insect, would gain no appropriate conception of either of them from a beast or a bird. There may possibly be many species of animals existing in nature, as in the planets, of which we can form no ideas, as they are entirely remote as regards their qualities, from any with which we are acquainted. If we try even to imagine a new sense, and some philosophers suppose we may be endowed with many such in a future state, we are at once bewildered in the attempt, and are only led to the effort by combining together some of the qualities of those we now possess. Not only, indeed, is every original idea or object formed in this manner by combinations together of ideas with which we are well acquainted; but we find that when a combination is attempted consisting of ideas of which we have not a clear and distinct notion or conception,—when as it were the mind appears to be making an effort to invent or conjure up ideas beyond its own experience,—such a combination fails effectively to strike the mind, owing to our being unable to obtain a proper notion of its nature, so that we are incompetent to travel the least beyond the verge which is prescribed to us by the limit placed to our intellectual powers, and which extends only to the perception of simple ideas, and the various combination of them together. An instance is afforded of the truth of this proposition by the sublime and highly imaginative description afforded in the sacred Scriptures of the vision of Ezekiel,* where a very wonderful and extraordinary account is given of certain supernatural appearances, but of which we are unable to obtain any clear notions, because the combinations of which it is made up are each beyond our knowledge and experience, and of which we are unfitted to form proper and adequate ideas.

We ought, in all cases, to possess the power of first imagining and conceiving in our minds, adequately and completely, if not distinctly and clearly, any great subject or scene, before we presume to depict it on canvas. Imagination must originate in, and spring from the mind of the artist itself. No example, and no imitation of others can direct him here. All such efforts ought, moreover, to be not only free but infinite. They should not merely be unconstrained in their operation, but uncontrolled in the extent to which they wander. But although free and unfettered, they should be distinct on the one hand from the frantic visions of the madman ; and on the other hand equally removed from the formal insipidity of the mind destitute of genius. The latter has no fire in its composition; the former is consumed by the fervency of its own fire. Nature should here be our guide ; bold and wild and terrible as she sometimes appears, she is, nevertheless, ever sane, and even regular in her movements. Imagination, indeed, is not restrained, it is only guided by attending to, and by following the course of nature. Instead of running wild, its course is directed straight; its forces which were scattered, thus become concentrated. This power is, moreover, as vigorous and as active in old age as it is in youth. There is this great difference, however, that in the former it is controlled by reason, in the latter it is frequently uncontrolled. Perhaps fancy, which is an effort of origination extensively put forth in matters of a trivial and unimportant nature, is that which is most exercised in youth. Imagination, such as I have here considered it, is mainly exerted in mature, as also in advanced age.

An important question here arises in what originality, whether belonging to invention or imagination, really and actually consists ; and, above all, in what cases the use of ideas or elements belonging to another deprives the artist of the merit of originality, or where he may claim to be still original. If he may avail himself of the inventions of others, or merely convert to his own use what he already finds prepared for him by nature, there appears but little occasion for resorting to originality. On the other hand, if availing himself of the ideas used by others, or of those which nature yields, deprives any one’s ideas of originality, hardly any can lay claim to it, as these materials constitute as it were the raw commodity out of which the imaginative intellectual wares of all are formed. The true test and criterion to determine whether originality exists or not, whether ideas be dishonestly stolen or lawfully appropriated, appears, therefore, in reality to depend not on the borrowing, but on the application of them. If the ideas in question are simply taken and transposed by the artist from the work of another, or from nature herself, without acknowledgment of the proprietorship, or without making any alteration or modification ; the mere purloining of the ideas of another is all that is effected, and the person so using them is a pilferer and a copyist. But if, before applying them to his own use, he entirely remodels their form, or alters their position, or reconstructs their disposition, he is entitled to be considered an original composer, however much he may be indebted to the source from which he derived them. He is, in reality, in such a case under obligations not for his workmanship, but for his materials only. His was the machine which effected the work, while the quarry merely supplied the stone. In this sense Shakespeare and Milton, who borrowed largely to this extent from other poets, are entitled to be deemed original ; because after having borrowed they so reconstructed their images and ideas as to make them their own. If the substance was taken from others, all the skill which was applied to it was theirs. Others may be destitute of originality whose ideas and images may be quite new, but whose mode of treating them is copied from those about them. In this, I repeat, ‘consists the important distinction between feloniously stealing and fairly borrowing. Hence, some men, although they imitate others by obtaining ideas from them, recreate them anew and convert them to their own property by the original combinations which they effect. By the fire of their genius the old materials are melted down, and reappear in a new composition. We may fairly and honestly obtain the bricks from others, if the building we raise is of our own design. It is no derogation to the genius of Wren that he did not create the stones out of which St. Paul’s is built, as well as erect that stupendous edifice. Nevertheless, not only in art, but in each pursuit of man, how little is original in comparison with what is copied. How much easier is it to imitate than to invent !