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The sympathetic imagination is the ability of a person to penetrate the barrier which space puts between him and his object, and, by actually entering into the object, so to speak, to secure a momentary but complete identification with it. “If a sparrow comes before my window, “ wrote Keats, “I take part in its existence and pick about the gravel.”


The sympathetic imagination vs. reason. By its sympathetic identification the imagination perceives, as abstract reason cannot, the fundamental reality and inner working, the peculiar “truth” and nature of the particular, concrete object.


The sympathetic imagination vs. empathy, vs. projection. The act of identification consists not in reading into the object subjective feelings aroused by it in the observer, but in perceiving, by instinctive but sagacious insight, the essential character and reality of the object itself. Empahty or Einfuhlung emphasizes the dissolving of the boundary between the artist and his object and his identification with ity but signifies less an actual entering into the imaginative object, with the consequent perception of its true nature, than the unconscious attribution to it of qualities and responses known and felt by the imagination itself, i.e. the merging of the perceiving mind and the perceived object is largely the by-product of the working of the imagination, projected upon the object.


The sympathetic imagination and poetry. Shaftesbury praised the poet as the one who above all else knows the ‘inward form and structure of his fellow creatures.” Keats contended that the true poet “has no character . . . no identity,” that he is “annihilated” in the characters of others and concerns himself solely with revealing their essential natures, and that he “has as much delight in conceiving an Imago as an Imogen. What shocks the virtuous philosopher, delights the chamelion poet.” Shakespeare has been frequently praised because he “seems to have had the art of the Dervise, in the Arabian tales, to throw his soul into the body of another man, and be at once possessed of his sentiments, adopt his passions, and rise to all the functions and feelings of his situation.”


The sympathetic imagination and morality. As Adam Smith suggested, almost all knowledge of the inner nature and feelings of others must come through the imagination: “As we have no immediate experience of what other men feel, we can form no idea of the manner in which they are affected, but by conceiving what we ourselves should feel in the like situation. Though our brother is upon the rack, as long as we ourselves are at our ease, our senses will never inform us of what he suffers. They never did and never can carry beyond our persons, and it is by the imagination we place ourselves in his situation.” Moral judgment thus involves sympathetic participation with those, other than the agent himself, who would be affected by the external consequences, good or bad, of an act. Dugald Stewart suggested that “the apparent coldness and selfishness of mankind may be traced, in great measure, to a want of attention and a want of imagination.” Thus it has been suggested that the sympathetic imagination in literature and morality are psychologically dependent on each other, that they augment each other’s growth and delicacy, and the decline in one necessarily precipitates decline in the other. In any case, whether it comprises the fundamental impulse of morality or not, and in however varying a degree it may exist among individuals, it has been suggested that there is a natural and instinctive sympathy for one’s fellow man; that we sympathise with what we see rather than what we hear intellectually delineated; and that, because of its primary importance in the constitution of man, identification by sympathy, which is achieved through the imagination, characterizes the highest moral and aesthetic exertion.

“The Sympathetic Imagination in Eighteenth-Century English Criticism” by Walter Jackson Bate ELH, Vol. 12, No. 2 (Jun., 1945), pp. 144-164.

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