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An essay by Hamilton Wright Mabie

The Play Of The Imagination

Title:     The Play Of The Imagination
Author: Hamilton Wright Mabie [More Titles by Mabie]

It is interesting to study the personality of a man whose work is invested with freshness, charm, and individuality, because such a study invariably makes us aware of that subtle and elusive skill in the use of all materials which is not technical but vital. That skill is impossible without special training, but it is not the product of training; it is not dexterity; it is not facility; it has the ease and grace of a harmonious expression of all that is distinctive and original in the man. No one thinks of technical skill in that moment of revelation which comes when one stands for the first time in the presence of a noble work; later one may study at length and with delight the perfection of workmanship disclosed in solidity of structure and in harmony of detail; but in the moment of revelation it is the essential and interior truth and beauty, which shine from form and colour and texture as the soul shines in a human face, which evoke a thrill of recognition in us.

Now, this higher skill which dominates and subordinates the technical skill, this skill of the spirit which commands and uses the skill of the body, is born in the soul of the worker and is the ultimate evidence and fruit of his mastership. It is conditioned on the free play of the imagination through all the material which the worker uses. It involves that fusion of knowledge, intelligence, facility, and insight which can be effected only by the constant use of the imagination. In statesmanship Burke and Webster are examples of this highest type of worker; men who not only command the facts with which they are called upon to deal, but who so organise and vitalise those facts that, in their final presentation, they possess the force of irresistible argument, and are illumined and clothed with perennial beauty as works of art. In like manner, in the pulpit, Chrysostom, Fenelon, Newman, and Brooks not only set religious truth in impressive order, but gave it the appealing power of a noble and enduring beauty.

It is impossible to do a great piece of work unless one can form an image of it in advance, unless one can see it as it will finally appear. If one were limited in vision to the detail actually in hand, the whole would never be completed; that which makes the perfection of the whole possible is the ability of the worker to keep that whole before him while he deals with the detached parts. Without that power the worker is a mechanical drudge, whose work has no quality save that of dogged fidelity to the task. Now, this power of keeping the whole before the mind while dealing with the parts, of seeing the completed machine while shaping a pin or a cog, of getting the complete effect of the argument while elaborating a minor point, resides in the imagination. It is the light which must shine upon all toil that has in it intelligence, prevision, and freshness; and its glow is as essential in mechanical as in purely artistic work. Whenever, in any kind of work dealing with any kind of material, there is any constructive quality, any fitting of part with part, any adjustment of means to ends, there must be imagination.

Work which is done without imagination is so rudimentary that, at the best, its highest use is to save some one else a little drudgery. This elementary kind of work is often done by those students of literature who confuse the study of grammatical construction with style, and those students of the Bible who think they are illustrating the truths of religion by purely textual study. Theology has suffered many things at the hands of those who have attempted to explain the divine mysteries without the light which alone penetrates these mysteries. To do the commonest work with sincerity and force; to understand the simplest character; to perform the simplest services of friendship; to enter into another's trial and to give the balm of sympathy to one who is smitten and bruised; to conduct a campaign by foreseeing the movements of an adversary, or to carry on successfully a great enterprise by forecasting its probable development; to make any invention or discovery; to be a really great preacher, physician, lawyer, teacher, mechanic;--to do any of these things one must have and one must use the imagination.

The charm with which the imagination invests childhood is due to its habitual and unconscious use by children, and is suggestive of the methods by which this faculty may be made the inspirer of all tasks and toil. The child makes vivid images of the ideas which appeal to it; it gives reality to those ideas by identifying them with the objective world; it clothes all things with which it plays with life. In his autobiography Goethe describes the door in the wall of a certain garden in Frankfort within which many marvellous things happened; a true romance of incident and adventure which became as real to the romancer as to his eager and credulous listeners. De Quincey created an imaginary kingdom, peopled with imaginary beings whom he ruled with benignant wisdom, amid universal prosperity and peace, until, in an unlucky hour, he admitted his brother into a partnership of authority; and that brother, unable to withstand the temptation of absolute power, became a remorseless tyrant. And De Quincey feelingly describes the reality of his anguish when, to protect his innocent subjects from a tyrant's rapacity, he was compelled to destroy his imaginary kingdom. The imaginative boy turns a vacant lot into an African jungle, and hunts wild beasts in constant peril of his life; the imaginative girl carries on social intercourse with her dolls as seriously as with her most intimate playmates. Everything is real and alive to a child, and the world of ideas has as much substance as the world of matter.

These characteristics of a child in its play throw clear light on the true methods of the man in his work; for the play of childhood is prophetic of the work of maturity; it is the prelude in which all the great motives are distinctly audible. The man who gives his work completeness and charm must conceive of that work, not as a detached and isolated activity, but as part of the great order of life; a product of the vital forces as truly as the flower which has its roots in the earth. To the growth of the flower everything contributes; it is not limited to the tiny plot in which it is planted: the vast chemistry of nature in soil, atmosphere, and sky nourish it. In like manner a man must habitually think of his work, not as a mere putting forth of his technical skill, but as the vital product of all the forces which sustain him. A real poem grows out of all that is deepest in a man's nature; to its making in spiritual conception, structure, form, and style his body, his mind, and his soul contribute; its metre adjusting itself to his breathing, its ideas taking direction and significance from his thought, and its elusive suggestiveness and beauty conveying something of his mysterious personality. A true sermon is never what is sometimes called a pulpit effort; it is always the product of the preacher's experience; he does not and cannot make it; it must grow within him. A great oration has the same vital relationship with the orator, the occasion, the theme, and human experience. It is never a bit of detached brilliancy; it is always, like Lincoln's address at Gettysburg, the summing up and expression of a vast and deep movement of the human spirit. In its form it reveals the man who makes it; in its content it is seen to be inevitable. It lies in the consciousness of a race before it rises into the consciousness of the orator and takes flight on the wings of immortal speech.

To think habitually of one's work as a growth and not a thing made out of hand, as a product of all the forces of one's nature and not a bit of skill, as alive in the sense in which all things are alive in which spirit and life express themselves,--to conceive of one's work in this large and vital way is to keep the imagination playing through and inspiring it.

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Hamilton Wright Mabie's essay: The Play Of The Imagination