In his introduction to Unfettering Poetry, Jeffrey C. Robinson uses terms from Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria to delineate two strands of poetry: that of the Fancy, and that of the Imagination. Where the Imagination “idealizes” the world into a whole, the Fancy is a dispersive faculty, which celebrates the mind’s freedom within an oppositional social and philosophical famework that actively seeks to constrain perception. A highly artificial division of characteristics found in poetry of the imagination and poetry of the fancy might look like this:







Closed forms.


Open or organic forms (Levertov) – “free verse” / Juxtaposition / Metonymy



Political conservatism.



Liberalism and radicalism


Moral conservatism.



Transgression and eroticism


Transcendent lyrical “I”.



Simultaneous projection of the referent and the mind in a state of heightened awareness. The Fancy offers the possibility of an image of the interpenetration of mind and world.











Colour – (cf. Blake and Fuseli) – hence a Kristevan subject / object indeterminacy and a Kantian femininity.



Containment and control.



Un-fettering of the mind





Dispossessed and disenfrachised







Contemplation of the world.



Construction of the world








This, admittedly highly reductive table, makes it clear where Jeffrey C. Robinson’s sympathies lie. What is harder to see is how we come to see the items in the right-hand column as the oppositional ones in poetry. On the first page Robinson writes that established contemporaries of the romantics criticized the risk of progressive or radical poetry on the basis of the fear of radical politics. ‘Such criticism’, he writes, ‘has continued throughout the history of poetics from the Romantic Period to the present, and has led to a privileging of a more conservative Romantic poetics…’

            Despite – or perhaps because I enjoyed the book so much — I have quibbles here. Is there such a thing as a conservative Romantic poetics and a radical Romantic poetics? Isn’t Romantic itself a term derived from a certain group of writers and artists rather than a period? To claim that more radical poets who are not traditionally considered in this group are romantic, even “more romantic” is to redefine romanticism along the lines politics and poetics. It seems like there is a missed economic discourse here. What about the normative nature of printing at the time and now? It (still) isn’t practical to print in colour, or to print forms – like Whitman’s – that didn’t fit on the page.

            And then is the further problem of working out exactly what is radical. What represents a fettered poem and an unfettered poem? Isn’t our perception of whatever constitutes expressive open or organic form actually a far greater societal stricture than many traditional forms? Perhaps what seemed most radical then was precisely what became canonised and by being canonised seems less radical now?

            Take Blake for instance – the original author of this ‘unfettering’ project. He is supposedly the poet of fancy par excellence, but might it not be more interesting to cast Blake as a poet of the Coleridgean Imagination? After all, what Blake creates in his universe is a system – a whole. His poems allegorize to a greater extent than they critique, and I wonder what we think of as radical if he had been taken up by his contemporaries.

            This leads me to a final question about the ostensible link between Romanticism and radical modernism. Is the Waste Land a poem of the fancy or the imagination? It seems obvious, considering Eliot’s conservatism, his canonisation, and his melancholy that we should regard it as the latter. But this is also paradigmatic instance of breaking the pentameter, of juxtaposition and fragmentation. What about Pound? If we accept Pound as a poet of the Imagination, then what about Zukofsky or the Language Poets? In the end I’m sceptical about whether the division between poetry of the imagination and poetry of the fancy has all that much to do with the poetry itself, rather than it’s later success – something related more closely in my mind to the self-advertising skills and networking of the poet as well as the vagaries of historical fortune. 

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