The Sleeping Images of Things
In a charity shop I picked up, slightly randomly, The Poetic Image by Cecil Day-Lewis (Daniel’s dad; also a crime writer whose book The Beast Must Die was adapted by Chabrol). It’s a very interesting treatise on the forms and uses of imagery in poetry ancient and modern (or modern-ish — the book dates from 1947. A stamp on the inside front cover says it was presented to Lynn Watson os Shrewsbury High School as Modern Languages Prize in 1970.)
Among the food for thought is a very fine description of the creative process, which applies whatever kind of writing one is involved in, I should say. Perhaps a work of fiction may be more likely to be sparked not by a poetic image (a kind of engram, compressing together object, idea or emotion) but by some more abstract narrative notion. Rarely does it begin with a theme, I think. Here’s what Cec says ~
The poet, then, starts with an impression, a drop in the river of experience, crystallized perhaps into an image. Or, let us rather say, that is how the poet is apt to start nowadays; for there have been times, as we have noticed, when he at any rate seems to have begun with an abstract idea and set out to put it into verse. The modern method, insofar as it differs from the classical, is indicated in Goethe’s words,
It wasn’t on the whole my way, as a poet, to stride after the embodiment of something abstract. I received within myself impressions — impressions of a hundred sorts, sensuous, lively, lovely, many-hued — as an alert imaginative energy presented them.
This is the first stage. W.B. Yeats witnessed the second when, quoting Goethe’s ‘One must allow the images to form with all their associations before one criticizes,’ he went on to speak of the trance-like state in which ‘images pass rapidly before you,’ and said that it is necessary to ‘suspend will and intellect, to bring up from the subconscious anything you already possess a fragment of.’ That concentrated attention which watches over the birth of a poem from the moment when the first birth-pang is felt — a concentration will-less indeed, yet intense, and by its very passivity aiding the process which brings the whole poem out into the light — may fairly be called a suspension of the intellect. But it overlaps with the third stage, then the poet’s attention becomes more active (Malebranche called this attention ‘the prayer of the intellect’), and the work of criticism begins, the selection or rejection of associated images in conformity with the now emerging pattern of the poem. The creative process up to the emergence of formed images from the unconscious, is described by Dryden in his introduction to The Rival Ladies, where he speaks of the time when the play was only ‘a confused mass of thoughts, tumbling over one another in the dark: when the Fancy was yet in its first work, moving the sleeping images of things towards the light, there to be distinguished, and then either chosen or rejected by the Judgement.’
That Lucretian phrase, ‘moving the sleeping images of things towards the light,’ may be set beside this passage from E.S. Dallas —
Trains of thought are continually passing to and fro from the light into the dark, and back from the dark into the light. When the current of thought flows from within our ken to beyond our ken, it is gone, we forget it … After a time it comes back to us changed and grown, as if it were a new thought.
I do not know that out modern psychology, which he and Dryden so far anticipated, could have put the whole thing any better.
The best account of creativity I’ve ever read. Polanski has said that he mainly works on instinct, but applies his critical faculties to what his instincts suggest. Dali spoke of his paranoiac-critical method. It’s all about catching images thrown up more or less irrationally from parts of our brains we don’t control. and then attempting to fit them into a pattern which makes its own kind of sense.
Picture is by William Blake. Chosen for irrational reasons.