Fancy: A term generally used synonymously with imagination and in opposition to reason until the publication of Biographia Literaria (1817), by English romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who assigned a much higher value to imagination than to fancy. Coleridge saw fancy as a mode of memory “emancipated” from the normal constraints of time and space and assigned to it the function of reordering the sensory images it receives. He thus denied fancy any creative capability, limiting its effects to a rearrangement of what already exists. He credited imagination with the loftier function of creation, arguing that it is the organic imagination that can dissolve and remake sensory images — essentially “re-birth” them — into something completely new and different. Imagination alone, unlike the mechanical fancy, has the ability to unify disparate and even contradictory elements into a vital and interdependent whole. Although William Wordsworth, also an English romantic poet, had drawn a similar distinction between imagination and fancy two years before Coleridge, in his preface to the 1815 edition of Lyrical Ballads, it is Coleridge who usually is credited with making the distinction because of his extensive and in-depth discussion in the Biographia Literaria.
Subsequent critics have continued to differentiate fancy from imagination, but most do not delineate the two in as judgmental a manner as Coleridge. Instead, they typically claim that fancy produces a lesser, lighter verse while imagination generates the higher, more serious work we attribute to greater artists.
EXAMPLES: Coleridge considered John Milton an imaginative writer and Abraham Cowley a fanciful one. Since Coleridge, most critics have assumed that light verse, such as limericks, results from the workings of fancy, whereas a poem like Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” (1881) is the work of imagination.