Report on Further Investigations of Questions About Imagination

Given, as assumption apriori, the assertions in C. S. Lewis’ short essay “Image and Imagination.”

Short recap of Lewis’ essay:

Can you imagine something that doesn’t exist? Any examples you want to try out?

On first glance, it seems that you can (Fairies?) but actually all you can do is recombine the images of existing things, in new ways. The concept of a fairy, for example, may be  combined from the images of a human being, a bird or insect, and the previous, highly complex image of “magic” – which may be, in turn, combined of many subtle things such as misunderstood efficacies, the “forces of nature,” the wonder of miracles, the real power of blessing and cursing, the dread mysteries of certain religions, the charming yet mysterious emotional effects of natural beauty, and so on.

So it is impossible to imagine anything that doesn’t have its basis in reality.

Therefore, all images are images of real things, or combined from images of real things.

However, when we imagine something, even something that corresponds to things that really exist in our physical world (St. Jack’s example is ‘tower’) we are not really tracing its complete form and substance and history. (The image in our mind isn’t an exact complete copy of something real.) If “imagination” meant a complete re-construction of the reality that is being represented in our minds, then every poem would include literally the whole world – every subatomic particle, every star. Because to explain a real tower, you need to define a tower, and what it’s made of, and what those things are made of, ad infinitum. The only way to escape this is to assume the presence in your hearer’s mind of something real that is also in your mind.

So, when we say ‘tower’ in a poem, the image we are invoking is a common concept of “towerness” – which we understand without knowing how tall this particular tower is, or whether it’s brick, stone, or wood.

Child Rowland to the dark tower came

This is because, even without thinking of the definition “a tall round building that is hollow inside” (and then all the definitions of those words, ad infinitum) we simply grasp ‘towerness’ whole – and we know that we have grasped it because the word has a specific effect on our feelings that it would not have if he had said “hovel” or “castle” or “tall round building that is hollow inside.”

Child Rowland to the dark tower came

However, to experience this effect, we have to stop analyzing for a minute, and surrender ourselves to what we are reading – we have to enjoy it. And to surrender to it, we must believe that it really exists and that the things within it really exist, and that they begotten of things that really exist.

Child Rowland to the dark tower came

The poem is particular, but it’s composed of Universals – not generalizations (which might be different for each person) but patterns, like sewing patterns, or “the pattern showed thee in the mount.” These are the patterns after which all things are formed. You  may think of them as ideas in the mind of God. Or, if it is hard to think of God as having ideas in his mind (simplicity?) you may think of them as expressions of the character of reality,  inherent in the structure of all things that arise within reality, because of the unity of reality, and taking their quality from the intentions of God the Word.

If you doubt the existence of such Universals, I want you to stop reading right now and go listen to this music and then come back. While you listen, let the question remain in the back of your mind: is it possible such things should exist unless the shape and nature of mankind and all created things were united in some original intention, some unifying, and therefore universal, “thisness”?

How else could we recognize, in music we have never heard before, something that goes right down to the roots of us?

What is an image then? Lewis, like me, says more or less that an image is not a spatial picture but a concept. He also adds that it is a hypothetical concept. Every poem is a hypothesis – not made for belief, but for enjoyment.

So now for my (somewhat tentative) conclusions.

Remember the question we are trying to answer: What is a true image, and what is a false image? And how can we recognize them?

1.) Only a proposition can be true, when ‘true’ is opposed more or less to ‘lies.’ Thus an image, not being a proposition, cannot in itself be true or false in that sense. Only when coupled with a subject and a verb does an image have a chance of comprising part of a proposition which is true or untrue.

For instance, combining the image-concepts “mother” and “kill” is not a false image, though it is an objectionable one. People are mothers; people kill; people have really killed their mothers. However, when put into a proposition such as “George Washington was a mother-killer,” then the image becomes part of a true-or-false statement. (False!)

2.) ‘True’ can also mean ‘genuine.’ So is there such a thing as a genuine image and a fake image? If we mean “really an image” there seems to be nothing to argue. Every image is really an image. Something which seems to be an image but isn’t – what is that?

I should think that, like a person weeping wordlessly instead of persuasion, or a person throwing paint at a canvass instead of trying to represent something, a false literary image would be randomly combined words, lacking a concept behind them. It would be unintelligible (not just obscure, but unmeaning, unmeant, unintentional.) It would be a mass of words thrown together in the expectation, perhaps, that the reader would make his own meal of the mash.

Of course we can all think of examples of modernist poetry that tried this.

Never, never, hook! Me
under wholfine fins fishery

But there’s another way this can happen. And that is simply a writer’s failure to know that what he has in his mouth is really an image. Here’s an example that may help. Through our imaginations, we all know what ‘harvest’ is (even if we have never experienced it.) Well, what is the difference between:

Bringing in the sheaves
bringing in the sheaves
we shall come rejoicing
bringing in the sheaves
bringing in the sheaves
bringing in the sheaves
we shall come rejoicing
bringing in the sheaves

on the one hand, and one the other hand,

Come, ye thankful people, come, raise the song of “Harvest home!”
All is safely gathered in, ere the winter storms begin.
God our Maker doth provide for our wants to be supplied;
Come to God’s own temple, come – raise the song of “Harvest home!”

All the world is God’s own field, fruit unto His praise to yield;
Wheat and tares together sown, unto joy or sorrow grown.
First the blade and then the ear, then the full corn shall appear;
Lord of harvest, grant that we wholesome grain and pure may be.

It appears that the great difference is development. The image in the first hymn is taken from scripture – it is a borrowed image (and therefore a real image in itself.) But it is not developed at all. No tendrils creep out from it; no roots go down into the mind; nothing flowers or bears fruit there. (When people complain of improper levels of repetitiousness, I think it is this they really mean.)

So it seems that a fake image would either be unintelligible conceptually, or would simply be an image that an author interacted with in some other way than as an image. The image itself cannot be false: but a writer can be false to it as an image.

The author of “Bringing in the Sheaves” interacted with the image as if it were a ritual phrase, rather than a concept. If the concept had once taken root in his imagination, he would have seen the implications of that image – what it implied about the real thing it represented – and that vision would have worked itself out in further, related ideas, and these would have shown up in his poem.

3.) ‘True’ could mean an image which truly represents what it claims to represent. ‘False image,’ then, would be an image that does not truly represent what it claims to represent.

There are two senses in which this might be true. First, you might have something which is merely mislabeled. In this case the image is not false, but is being used falsely. For instance, in one of Philip Pullman’s novels, we see two fallen angels who have a spiritually intimate, deeply loving relationship. One of them accepts annihilation in order to save the life of the other. So we have three images combined here: the image of the angel, the image of the noble rebel, and the image of self-sacrificial love. Since this is a hypothesis, and not a proposition, it’s not untrue in the most common sense. No one is claiming this ever really happened. It is hypothetically proposed, for the sake of the story.

Furthermore it is really an image – a mental concept that is a reflection of three realities which all educated, intelligent, and experienced people recognize. So it is a genuine image, and it taps into universals.

But is it mislabeled, and therefore misleading? I think so. Pullman has given us an image of  a noble person,  of a glorious nature, and of a true act of love – but he has simply labeled it as the action of a “fallen angel” – a rebel against God. As a logical dodge, it would be laughable if it weren’t written for children, who don’t know any better. So this could be called a false image, but I think it might be better to think of it as a mislabeled image.

But other than being simply mislabeled, is their a second way in which an image might conceivably be considered as misrepresenting its original?

Is it even possible? Are people capable of forming images which genuinely represent their originals, and yet do so inaccurately?

In case you didn’t follow me there, my reasoning is this: if the concept doesn’t genuinely represent its original at all, then it is either an image of no thing that really exists (which we have already decided is impossible – no one can form an image of a new completely non-existent thing) or it is a mislabeled image, that really represents one thing but has been labeled as the image of another – and we’ve already dealt with that possibility.

So the only “inaccurately representing image” that we can conceive of is an image that is partially accurate and partially inaccurate. This would be, for instance, an image that combines God’s omnipotence with mankind’s thirst for revenge – and comes up with a “god” who is all-powerful and vengeful.

Part of working in theology then (and poetry, too) is really a matter of matching the right concepts to the right names. It’s not enough to have good arguments or to be good at analyzing arguments. If you aren’t starting from consistent, and worthy concepts, then you’ll argue from them inaccurately.

How can we learn to recognize which concepts ought to go with which names? I think this is the really sticky question. It seems as if one could be miseducated and simply get the whole label thing wrong from beginning to end, and be forever unable to know what anyone means by what they say.

And maybe that’s true. Thankfully there is in language a mechanism that works against that happening to any great extent – and that is that language always provides itself with a context. How the words follow one another, how they surround one another, how they limit and qualify one another – this is what teaches our mind how to understand words in the first place, and what continues to teach us for as long as pursue ever more complex and high-built language.

Otherwise, I suggest doing some reading on works of etymology, such as “History in English Words” by Owen Barfield, or “Studies in Words,” by C. S. Lewis. Once you start to see that words really do have meanings, determined by their histories, inherent in their structure, you can laugh at the idea that words are merely arbitrary. Then you begin to have a collection of words whose “real” meanings you “really” know – and that helps you tease out more and more, and you get at the secret of good literature more and more often. For instance, let’s take the word “arbitrary.” The way it’s commonly used, it’s almost identical in meaning with “random” if random were to be used to describe human behavior.

But when you think about its cognates “arbitration” and “arbitrate” you begin to understand that this word has in its very heart, inseparable from it, an idea of judgment – making a judgment call. You will use it in a more colorful way after that. You will never use to mean exactly “random behavior,” but you will always feel the weight of that element of judgment, of decision between possible options.

And what’s better, you will begin to recognize it when authors use words with the same sense of weight. It’s impossible to prescribe what that will look like, but the more you think that way, the more you will recognize others who do so as well.

So much of the heart-rending effect of Tolkein’s poetry and prose is the way he combines words to a really high emotional effect. He does this because as a philologist he can weigh each word to the tiniest gram of semantic weight – he is the ultimate chef of words.

WORDS, like fine flowers, have their colors too:
What do you say to crimson words and yellow;
And what to opal, emerald, pale blue?
And elvish gules? — he is a glorious fellow.
Think of the purple hung in Elsinore,
Or call it black, and close your eyes to see;
Go look for amber then on Lochlyn shore
And drag a sunbeam out of Arcady.
And who of Rosamund or Rosalind
Can part the rosy-petalled syllables?
For women’s names keep murmuring like the wind
The hidden things that none for ever tells.
Last, to forgo soft beauty, take the sword,
And see the blue steel redden at the word.

– Ernest Percival Rhys

4.) Lastly, ‘true’ could mean a composite image whose parts are not only an accurate reflection of reality in themselves, but whose parts fit together in a way that is congruent with reality.

For instance, if we have an image-concept of a self-sacrificial hero, but he is portrayed as sometimes vain, we feel the truth of this. People who are vain can sometimes be self-sacrificial as well. But if we are given the image of a self-sacrificial hero who lacks every generous virtue – who is penny-pinching, sees good in no one and beauty in nothing, who has no faith or sense of enjoyment, who worships comfort and has no hankering whatsoever for something outside himself, who has never loved anyone, and most importantly of all, who does not experience some life-changing or character-changing event in the course of the story or poem, then naturally we toss the book a single, disgusted star on Amazon if he suddenly commits an act of supreme self-sacrifice. Sydney Carton must fall in love with a sweet and loyal woman who rightly refuses to join her soul to his; Scrooge must be visited by several avenging spirits and forsee his own death.

So a true image in this sense is one that is internally self-consistent when we compare the parts with one another. It must be, in a very real sense, true to life.

I have assumed that all images are either simple or composite. If they are simple you have a single concept that represents a single real entity. If you have a composite image, you have combined two or more simple concepts to make an image with a sense of novelty. Hopefully the combination of images provides insight.

For instance, Leah’s poem on “Snow White’s Mirror” allowed us insight into the story we had not formerly seen. The point of the awakening, in her poem, is not “the power of true love” but rather “the necessity of resurrection.” In pursuit of this concept she gives us a new combination of images – she combines the concept of the mirror with the concept of the reflective surface of the sea, shows it reflecting heaven, and gives us an image of the mind itself. The image is new in that no other author, as far as we know, has presented the world with this precise image. And yet it is a true image – we instantly recognize it to be such – and therefore as old as creation.


I never saw a moor;
I never saw the sea;
yet know I how the heather looks
and what a wave must be.

I never spoke with God
or visited in Heaven;
yet certain am I of the spot
as if the chart were given.

-Emily Dickensen

We all have a concept of God and heaven; we obtain concepts of the sea and the prairie (or the arctic or jungle) even if we have never seen them. We often emphasize the need to “get it right” – to correct our concept of things endlessly. Paradigm shifts and worldview changes are constantly desired. But it may be that the simple, normal, common image of things is best and most accurate. Perhaps the image that taps into the reality behind the individual thing – the pattern behind the blade of grass, or the tree, or the young woman or the mug or cat, or tower – is that very image which comes through knowing, rather than through making things up.

To reverse my previous argument, even the woman raised in the worst brothel knows what love is, otherwise she would be happy. If she really believed that the abuse she is receiving was love, she would believe herself loved, and be happy. But she is unhappy, because she does not believe herself loved. At worst, she may be unaware of the existence of love in any cogent or conscious way. She may want something that she does not know how to call love. But if she once finds out the truth, she will forever know that the word ‘love’ goes with something that is unlike all her other experience. The concept and the thing and the word will snap together like two magnets in her mind.

Our imaginations then, are an aspect of our knowing faculty. (Lewis insists on this.) But when we want to exercise our imaginative faculty in the attempt to create a work of art – specifically of literary art – then how do we use that concept?

I think I want to say that using language in a poetic manner is an irreducibly complex activity. You simply start doing it, and you learn as you go. When you stop, you look at what you have written and analyze it and hopefully do better next time. But when the time comes to write again, it’s that same old process. You begin to invoke words, and the words invoke images, and the images invoke more words and images, and they arrange themselves in your mind in formal and musical and rational order. Your brain automatically learns how to do this, while you do this. It’s the same thing as learning how to talk: it is an extension of that same activity.

It’s a miracle every time a baby learns how to talk, and it’s a miracle everytime a person learns how to write a poem.

Note: Images can be obscene, without being false. It seems that the creation of an obscene image is very simple: you just combine the concept of something good with the concept of something evil; or you combine the concept of something sacred with the concept of something violent, vile, or inappropriate to that sacred concept.

The effect is violation to one’s natural feelings, (a process which some people find exciting, like comedians apparently!) If the obsecenity is countenanced, a temporary deadening of those feelings results. Thus, accepting obscene images can actually affect a person morally, since morals have far more to do with feelings (or, sentiments) about what is sacred and what is worthy, than with rule-keeping.

I have a very strong feeling against obscene images: I avoid them whenever possible. I feel that this is important, not only as a Christian but also as a poet. (To refer back to our previous point about the combination of ‘mother’ and ‘killer’:) When I think of George Washington – if for instance I suddenly wanted to write a poem about him – I wouldn’t want to be bothered by images constantly popping up, involving him scalping his mother. With a habit of avoiding obscene images, one’s mind becomes stronger so that one is even able to resist obscene images taking root when one does see them – to recognize them for what they are and to mentally reject them.


There is a certain sense in which it is impossible to really explain what is happening with imagination (though I’m sure that someone will be able to do a better job than I’ve done here.) The reason it is so difficult to grasp is that we need to the thing itself to grasp itself and that’s usually not possible, whether physically or mentally. 🙂

But also, that’s the case because images themselves are intelligible, and imagination is intelligence, and the without this relationship, and an assumption of this relationship really existing, there is in a sense nothing to describe. But the moment we assume it does really exist, we are in very deep waters: we’ve tapped the very roots of creation and found in ourselves the mystery of existence. The mystery of imagination is the self-same mystery of being itself. Imagination is the mind’s grasp of being, whole.

1 Comment »

  1. “You begin to invoke words, and the words invoke images, and the images invoke more words and images, and they arrange themselves in your mind in formal and musical and rational order. Your brain automatically learns how to do this, while you do this.”

    Very good summary! I have experienced this, although the “they arrange themselves” part doesn’t always work out for me, so then I start arranging and rearranging, and often the result is worse.

    On the other hand, when I start with feelings, allow them to invoke images and their accompanying words, which in turn invoke more word-images related to the original feelings and enhance them, and maybe begin to understand their significance,and on and on–then things seem to go better. Not that the resulting poems are any better, but I feel better about them because they were conceived (image alert!) in, or from, a powerful emotional event.

    Or do I start with images which carry feelings, and are feelings really a type of image? Not sure. But I think that words by themselves can trick me into feelings that, while universal and real, don’t seem true because they exist “only” in the imagination. And that may explain why I can’t write novels, even though I would very much like to. Also explains my slowness to keep up with our assignments. The discipline is good, but the spirit drags its feet. It’s like working out. A struggle at first, followed by a sense of accomplishment. You are a good coach. On to the world cup of poetry!


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