In chapter XIII of “Biographia Literaria“, Coleridge, unlike Wordsworth, distinguishes between primary and secondary Imagination.
“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 recreate; 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’
The primary imagination is merely the power of receiving impressions of the external world through the senses. It’s the power of perceiving objects of sense, both in their parts and as a whole. The primary imagination is a normal perception that produces the usual world of the sense, the world of motor buses, beef-steaks and acquaintances, the world of the routine, the world of the routine satisfaction is a normal perception that produces the usual world of the sense, the world of motor buses, beef-steaks and acquaintances, the world of the routine, the world of the routing satisfaction of our minimum exigencies. It is an involuntary act of the mind; the human mind receives impressions and sensations from the outside world, unconsciously and involuntarily; it
imposes some sort of order on those impressions, reduces them to shape and size so that the mind is able to form a clear image of the outside world. It’s a great ordering principle or rather, an agency which enables us both to discriminate’ and to ‘order’, to ‘separate’, and to ‘synthesize’ and thus makes perception possible. If the act of creation is conceived as being essentially and perpetually the bringing of order out of chaos, destroying chaos by making its parts intelligible by the assertion of the identity of the designer, as it were. then the primary imagination is essentially creative and “a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite IAM”
The primary imagination is universal, it is possessed by all. The secondary on the contrary may be possessed by others also, but it is the peculiar and distinctive attribute of the artist. Art is possible only with it. It is more active and conscious in its working. It requires an effort of the will, volition, and conscious effort. It works upon what is perceived by the primary one; its raw material is the sensations and impressions supplied to it by the primary imagination. By an effort of the will and the intellect, the secondary imagination selects and orders the raw material and reshapes and remodels it into objects of beauty. It is esemplastic, i.e. “a shaping and modifying power” which, by its plastic stress, reshapes objects of the external world and steeps them with glory and dream that never was on land and sea. It is an active agent which “dissolves, diffuses, dissipates. in order to recreate”
The secondary imagination is at the root of all poetic activity. It harmonizes and reconciles the opposites, and hence Coleridge calls it a “magical synthetic power” This unifying power of the imagination is best seen in the fact that it synthesizes or fuses the various faculties of the soul – perception, intellect, will, emotion- and fuses the internal with the external, the subjective with the objective, the human mind with the external nature, the spiritual with the physical and material. It is through the play of this unifying power that nature is colored by the soul of the poet, and the soul of the poet is steeped in nature. The identity which the poet discovers in man and nature results from the synthesizing activity of the secondary imagination.
Oddly enough, Coleridge considers these two imaginations as differing not in kind, but only in degree, although he considers fancy and imagination as to differ in both. But isn’t it true that the normal power of perception in human beings and the special power with which poets and artists create images of beauty cannot differ in degree alone? The difference certainly is one of kind also.