George MacDonald.

A Dish of Orts : Chiefly Papers on the Imagination, and on Shakespeare online

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Since printing throughout the title _Orts_, a doubt has arisen in my
mind as to its fitting the nature of the volume. It could hardly,
however, be imagined that I associate the idea of _worthlessness_ with
the work contained in it. No one would insult his readers by offering
them what he counted valueless scraps, and telling them they were such.
These papers, those two even which were caught in the net of the
ready-writer from extempore utterance, whatever their merits in
themselves; are the results of by no means trifling labour. So much a
man _ought_ to be able to say for his work. And hence I might defend, if
not quite justify my title - for they are but fragmentary presentments of
larger meditation. My friends at least will accept them as such, whether
they like their collective title or not.

The title of the last is not quite suitable. It is that of the religious
newspaper which reported the sermon. I noted the fact too late for
correction. It ought to be _True Greatness_.

The paper on _The Fantastic Imagination_ had its origin in the repeated
request of readers for an explanation of things in certain shorter
stories I had written. It forms the preface to an American edition of my
so-called Fairy Tales.


EDENBRIDGE, KENT. _August 5, 1893._

















[Footnote: 1867.]

There are in whose notion education would seem to consist in the
production of a certain repose through the development of this and that
faculty, and the depression, if not eradication, of this and that other
faculty. But if mere repose were the end in view, an unsparing
depression of all the faculties would be the surest means of approaching
it, provided always the animal instincts could be depressed likewise,
or, better still, kept in a state of constant repletion. Happily,
however, for the human race, it possesses in the passion of hunger even,
a more immediate saviour than in the wisest selection and treatment of
its faculties. For repose is not the end of education; its end is a
noble unrest, an ever renewed awaking from the dead, a ceaseless
questioning of the past for the interpretation of the future, an urging
on of the motions of life, which had better far be accelerated into
fever, than retarded into lethargy.

By those who consider a balanced repose the end of culture, the
imagination must necessarily be regarded as the one faculty before all
others to be suppressed. "Are there not facts?" say they. "Why forsake
them for fancies? Is there not that which, may be _known_? Why forsake
it for inventions? What God hath made, into that let man inquire."

We answer: To inquire into what God has made is the main function of the
imagination. It is aroused by facts, is nourished by facts; seeks for
higher and yet higher laws in those facts; but refuses to regard science
as the sole interpreter of nature, or the laws of science as the only
region of discovery.

We must begin with a definition of the word _imagination_, or rather
some description of the faculty to which we give the name.

The word itself means an _imaging_ or a making of likenesses. The
imagination is that faculty which gives form to thought - not necessarily
uttered form, but form capable of being uttered in shape or in sound, or
in any mode upon which the senses can lay hold. It is, therefore, that
faculty in man which is likest to the prime operation of the power of
God, and has, therefore, been called the _creative_ faculty, and its
exercise _creation_. _Poet_ means _maker_. We must not forget, however,
that between creator and poet lies the one unpassable gulf which
distinguishes - far be it from us to say _divides_ - all that is God's
from all that is man's; a gulf teeming with infinite revelations, but a
gulf over which no man can pass to find out God, although God needs not
to pass over it to find man; the gulf between that which calls, and that
which is thus called into being; between that which makes in its own
image and that which is made in that image. It is better to keep the
word _creation_ for that calling out of nothing which is the imagination
of God; except it be as an occasional symbolic expression, whose daring
is fully recognized, of the likeness of man's work to the work of his
maker. The necessary unlikeness between the creator and the created
holds within it the equally necessary likeness of the thing made to him
who makes it, and so of the work of the made to the work of the maker.
When therefore, refusing to employ the word _creation_ of the work of
man, we yet use the word _imagination_ of the work of God, we cannot be
said to dare at all. It is only to give the name of man's faculty to
that power after which and by which it was fashioned. The imagination of
man is made in the image of the imagination of God. Everything of man
must have been of God first; and it will help much towards our
understanding of the imagination and its functions in man if we first
succeed in regarding aright the imagination of God, in which the
imagination of man lives and moves and has its being.

As to _what_ thought is in the mind of God ere it takes form, or what
the form is to him ere he utters it; in a word, what the consciousness
of God is in either case, all we can say is, that our consciousness in
the resembling conditions must, afar off, resemble his. But when we come
to consider the acts embodying the Divine thought (if indeed thought and
act be not with him one and the same), then we enter a region of large
difference. We discover at once, for instance, that where a man would
make a machine, or a picture, or a book, God makes the man that makes
the book, or the picture, or the machine. Would God give us a drama? He
makes a Shakespere. Or would he construct a drama more immediately his
own? He begins with the building of the stage itself, and that stage is
a world - a universe of worlds. He makes the actors, and they do not
act, - they _are_ their part. He utters them into the visible to work out
their life - his drama. When he would have an epic, he sends a thinking
hero into his drama, and the epic is the soliloquy of his Hamlet.
Instead of writing his lyrics, he sets his birds and his maidens
a-singing. All the processes of the ages are God's science; all the flow
of history is his poetry. His sculpture is not in marble, but in living
and speech-giving forms, which pass away, not to yield place to those
that come after, but to be perfected in a nobler studio. What he has
done remains, although it vanishes; and he never either forgets what he
has once done, or does it even once again. As the thoughts move in the
mind of a man, so move the worlds of men and women in the mind of God,
and make no confusion there, for there they had their birth, the
offspring of his imagination. Man is but a thought of God.

If we now consider the so-called creative faculty in man, we shall find
that in no _primary_ sense is this faculty creative. Indeed, a man is
rather _being thought_ than _thinking_, when a new thought arises in his
mind. He knew it not till he found it there, therefore he could not even
have sent for it. He did not create it, else how could it be the
surprise that it was when it arose? He may, indeed, in rare instances
foresee that something is coming, and make ready the place for its
birth; but that is the utmost relation of consciousness and will he can
bear to the dawning idea. Leaving this aside, however, and turning to
the _embodiment_ or revelation of thought, we shall find that a man no
more _creates_ the forms by which he would reveal his thoughts, than he
creates those thoughts themselves.

For what are the forms by means of which a man may reveal his thoughts?
Are they not those of nature? But although he is created in the closest
sympathy with these forms, yet even these forms are not born in his
mind. What springs there is the perception that this or that form is
already an expression of this or that phase of thought or of feeling.
For the world around him is an outward figuration of the condition of
his mind; an inexhaustible storehouse of forms whence he may choose
exponents - the crystal pitchers that shall protect his thought and not
need to be broken that the light may break forth. The meanings are in
those forms already, else they could be no garment of unveiling. God has
made the world that it should thus serve his creature, developing in the
service that imagination whose necessity it meets. The man has but to
light the lamp within the form: his imagination is the light, it is not
the form. Straightway the shining thought makes the form visible, and
becomes itself visible through the form. [Footnote: We would not be
understood to say that the man works consciously even in this.
Oftentimes, if not always, the vision arises in the mind, thought and
form together.]

In illustration of what we mean, take a passage from the poet Shelley.

In his poem _Adonais_, written upon the death of Keats, representing
death as the revealer of secrets, he says: -

"The one remains; the many change and pass;
Heaven's light for ever shines; earth's shadows fly;
Life, like a dome of many coloured glass,
Stains the white radiance of eternity,
Until death tramples it to fragments."

This is a new embodiment, certainly, whence he who gains not, for the
moment at least, a loftier feeling of death, must be dull either of
heart or of understanding. But has Shelley created this figure, or only
put together its parts according to the harmony of truths already
embodied in each of the parts? For first he takes the inventions of his
fellow-men, in glass, in colour, in dome: with these he represents life
as finite though elevated, and as an analysis although a lovely one.
Next he presents eternity as the dome of the sky above this dome of
coloured glass - the sky having ever been regarded as the true symbol of
eternity. This portion of the figure he enriches by the attribution of
whiteness, or unity and radiance. And last, he shows us Death as the
destroying revealer, walking aloft through, the upper region, treading
out this life-bubble of colours, that the man may look beyond it and
behold the true, the uncoloured, the all-coloured.

But although the human imagination has no choice but to make use of the
forms already prepared for it, its operation is the same as that of the
divine inasmuch as it does put thought into form. And if it be to man
what creation is to God, we must expect to find it operative in every
sphere of human activity. Such is, indeed, the fact, and that to a far
greater extent than is commonly supposed.

The sovereignty of the imagination, for instance, over the region of
poetry will hardly, in the present day at least, be questioned; but not
every one is prepared to be told that the imagination has had nearly as
much to do with the making of our language as with "Macbeth" or the
"Paradise Lost." The half of our language is the work of the

For how shall two agree together what name they shall give to a thought
or a feeling. How shall the one show the other that which is invisible?
True, he can unveil the mind's construction in the face - that living
eternally changeful symbol which God has hung in front of the unseen
spirit - but that without words reaches only to the expression of present
feeling. To attempt to employ it alone for the conveyance of the
intellectual or the historical would constantly mislead; while the
expression of feeling itself would be misinterpreted, especially with
regard to cause and object: the dumb show would be worse than dumb.

But let a man become aware of some new movement within him. Loneliness
comes with it, for he would share his mind with his friend, and he
cannot; he is shut up in speechlessness. Thus

He _may_ live a man forbid
Weary seven nights nine times nine,

or the first moment of his perplexity may be that of his release. Gazing
about him in pain, he suddenly beholds the material form of his
immaterial condition. There stands his thought! God thought it before
him, and put its picture there ready for him when he wanted it. Or, to
express the thing more prosaically, the man cannot look around him long
without perceiving some form, aspect, or movement of nature, some
relation between its forms, or between such and himself which resembles
the state or motion within him. This he seizes as the symbol, as the
garment or body of his invisible thought, presents it to his friend, and
his friend understands him. Every word so employed with a new meaning is
henceforth, in its new character, born of the spirit and not of the
flesh, born of the imagination and not of the understanding, and is
henceforth submitted to new laws of growth and modification.

"Thinkest thou," says Carlyle in "Past and Present," "there were no
poets till Dan Chaucer? No heart burning with a thought which it could
not hold, and had no word for; and needed to shape and coin a word
for - what thou callest a metaphor, trope, or the like? For every word we
have there was such a man and poet. The coldest word was once a glowing
new metaphor and bold questionable originality. Thy very ATTENTION, does
it not mean an _attentio_, a STRETCHING-TO? Fancy that act of the mind,
which all were conscious of, which none had yet named, - when this new
poet first felt bound and driven to name it. His questionable
originality and new glowing metaphor was found adoptable, intelligible,
and remains our name for it to this day."

All words, then, belonging to the inner world of the mind, are of the
imagination, are originally poetic words. The better, however, any such
word is fitted for the needs of humanity, the sooner it loses its poetic
aspect by commonness of use. It ceases to be heard as a symbol, and
appears only as a sign. Thus thousands of words which were originally
poetic words owing their existence to the imagination, lose their
vitality, and harden into mummies of prose. Not merely in literature
does poetry come first, and prose afterwards, but poetry is the source
of all the language that belongs to the inner world, whether it be of
passion or of metaphysics, of psychology or of aspiration. No poetry
comes by the elevation of prose; but the half of prose comes by the
"massing into the common clay" of thousands of winged words, whence,
like the lovely shells of by-gone ages, one is occasionally disinterred
by some lover of speech, and held up to the light to show the play of
colour in its manifold laminations.

For the world is - allow us the homely figure - the human being turned
inside out. All that moves in the mind is symbolized in Nature. Or, to
use another more philosophical, and certainly not less poetic figure,
the world is a sensuous analysis of humanity, and hence an inexhaustible
wardrobe for the clothing of human thought. Take any word expressive of
emotion - take the word _emotion_ itself - and you will find that its
primary meaning is of the outer world. In the swaying of the woods, in
the unrest of the "wavy plain," the imagination saw the picture of a
well-known condition of the human mind; and hence the word _emotion_.
[Footnote: This passage contains only a repetition of what is far better
said in the preceding extract from Carlyle, but it was written before we
had read (if reviewers may be allowed to confess such ignorance) the
book from which that extract is taken.]

But while the imagination of man has thus the divine function of putting
thought into form, it has a duty altogether human, which is paramount to
that function - the duty, namely, which springs from his immediate
relation to the Father, that of following and finding out the divine
imagination in whose image it was made. To do this, the man must watch
its signs, its manifestations. He must contemplate what the Hebrew poets
call the works of His hands.

"But to follow those is the province of the intellect, not of the
imagination." - We will leave out of the question at present that poetic
interpretation of the works of Nature with which the intellect has
almost nothing, and the imagination almost everything, to do. It is
unnecessary to insist that the higher being of a flower even is
dependent for its reception upon the human imagination; that science may
pull the snowdrop to shreds, but cannot find out the idea of suffering
hope and pale confident submission, for the sake of which that darling
of the spring looks out of heaven, namely, God's heart, upon us his
wiser and more sinful children; for if there be any truth in this region
of things acknowledged at all, it will be at the same time acknowledged
that that region belongs to the imagination. We confine ourselves to
that questioning of the works of God which is called the province of

"Shall, then, the human intellect," we ask, "come into readier contact
with the divine imagination than that human imagination?" The work of
the Higher must be discovered by the search of the Lower in degree which
is yet similar in kind. Let us not be supposed to exclude the intellect
from a share in every highest office. Man is not divided when the
manifestations of his life are distinguished. The intellect "is all in
every part." There were no imagination without intellect, however much
it may appear that intellect can exist without imagination. What we mean
to insist upon is, that in finding out the works of God, the Intellect
must labour, workman-like, under the direction of the architect,
Imagination. Herein, too, we proceed in the hope to show how much more
than is commonly supposed the imagination has to do with human
endeavour; how large a share it has in the work that is done under the

"But how can the imagination have anything to do with science? That
region, at least, is governed by fixed laws."

"True," we answer. "But how much do we know of these laws? How much of
science already belongs to the region of the ascertained - in other
words, has been conquered by the intellect? We will not now dispute,
your vindication of the _ascertained_ from the intrusion of the
imagination; but we do claim for it all the undiscovered, all the
unexplored." "Ah, well! There it can do little harm. There let it run
riot if you will." "No," we reply. "Licence is not what we claim when we
assert the duty of the imagination to be that of following and finding
out the work that God maketh. Her part is to understand God ere she
attempts to utter man. Where is the room for being fanciful or riotous
here? It is only the ill-bred, that is, the uncultivated imagination
that will amuse itself where it ought to worship and work."

"But the facts of Nature are to be discovered only by observation and
experiment." True. But how does the man of science come to think of his
experiments? Does observation reach to the non-present, the possible,
the yet unconceived? Even if it showed you the experiments which _ought_
to be made, will observation reveal to you the experiments which _might_
be made? And who can tell of which kind is the one that carries in its
bosom the secret of the law you seek? We yield you your facts. The laws
we claim for the prophetic imagination. "He hath set the world _in_
man's heart," not in his understanding. And the heart must open the door
to the understanding. It is the far-seeing imagination which beholds
what might be a form of things, and says to the intellect: "Try whether
that may not be the form of these things;" which beholds or invents _a_
harmonious relation of parts and operations, and sends the intellect to
find out whether that be not _the_ harmonious relation of them - that is,
the law of the phenomenon it contemplates. Nay, the poetic relations
themselves in the phenomenon may suggest to the imagination the law that
rules its scientific life. Yea, more than this: we dare to claim for the
true, childlike, humble imagination, such an inward oneness with the
laws of the universe that it possesses in itself an insight into the
very nature of things.

Lord Bacon tells us that a prudent question is the half of knowledge.
Whence comes this prudent question? we repeat. And we answer, From the
imagination. It is the imagination that suggests in what direction to
make the new inquiry - which, should it cast no immediate light on the
answer sought, can yet hardly fail to be a step towards final discovery.
Every experiment has its origin in hypothesis; without the scaffolding
of hypothesis, the house of science could never arise. And the
construction of any hypothesis whatever is the work of the imagination.
The man who cannot invent will never discover. The imagination often
gets a glimpse of the law itself long before it is or can be
_ascertained_ to be a law. [Footnote: This paper was already written
when, happening to mention the present subject to a mathematical friend,
a lecturer at one of the universities, he gave us a corroborative
instance. He had lately _guessed_ that a certain algebraic process could
be shortened exceedingly if the method which his imagination suggested
should prove to be a true one - that is, an algebraic law. He put it to
the test of experiment - committed the verification, that is, into the
hands of his intellect - and found the method true. It has since been
accepted by the Royal Society.

Noteworthy illustration we have lately found in the record of the
experiences of an Edinburgh detective, an Irishman of the name of
McLevy. That the service of the imagination in the solution of the
problems peculiar to his calling is well known to him, we could adduce
many proofs. He recognizes its function in the construction of the
theory which shall unite this and that hint into an organic whole, and
he expressly sets forth the need of a theory before facts can be
serviceable: -

"I would wait for my 'idea'.... I never did any good without mine....
Chance never smiled on me unless I poked her some way; so that my
'notion,' after all, has been in the getting of it my own work only
perfected by a higher hand."

"On leaving the shop I went direct to Prince's Street, - of course with
an idea in my mind; and somehow I have always been contented with one
idea when I could not get another; and the advantage of sticking by one
is, that the other don't jostle it and turn you about in a circle when
you should go in a straight line." (Footnote: Since quoting the above I
have learned that the book referred to is unworthy of confidence. But
let it stand as illustration where it cannot be proof.)]

The region belonging to the pure intellect is straitened: the
imagination labours to extend its territories, to give it room. She
sweeps across the borders, searching out new lands into which she may
guide her plodding brother. The imagination is the light which redeems
from the darkness for the eyes of the understanding. Novalis says, "The
imagination is the stuff of the intellect" - affords, that is, the
material upon which the intellect works. And Bacon, in his "Advancement
of Learning," fully recognizes this its office, corresponding to the
foresight of God in this, that it beholds afar off. And he says:
"Imagination is much akin to miracle-working faith." [Footnote: We are
sorry we cannot verify this quotation, for which we are indebted to Mr.
Oldbuck the Antiquary, in the novel of that ilk. There is, however,
little room for doubt that it is sufficiently correct.]

In the scientific region of her duty of which we speak, the Imagination
cannot have her perfect work; this belongs to another and higher sphere
than that of intellectual truth - that, namely, of full-globed humanity,
operating in which she gives birth to poetry - truth in beauty. But her
function in the complete sphere of our nature, will, at the same time,
influence her more limited operation in the sections that belong to
science. Coleridge says that no one but a poet will make any further
_great_ discoveries in mathematics; and Bacon says that "wonder," that
faculty of the mind especially attendant on the child-like imagination,

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Online LibraryGeorge MacDonaldA Dish of Orts : Chiefly Papers on the Imagination, and on Shakespeare → online text (page 1 of 21)