The Imagination of the Romantic Poets

Imagination is the cornerstone of all poetry. It is the imagination itself which allows poets to create their verse, with a mere image as their inspiration. Were it not for this imagination, such liberties with language and metaphor would not be possible. This is plainly illustrated in the poetry of the Romantics.

Within the Romantic movement, it would be difficult to deny that William Blake embraced that imagination the most, and filled his works with the fantasies of his mind, reveling fully in the creations thereof. It was Blake, after all, who stated that “Genius and Inspiration are the Origin and Bond of Society.” This revelation is not too difficult to understand if one begins to complete the aspects in which imagination affects a society. Imagination is, after all, the very origin of language, for language is merely a cluster of symbols, elements of the mind uttered to broadcast a concept from one intellect to another. Without this communication, society and culture would be impossible; human beings would be wholly incapable of interacting with one another. It is also the imagination wherein one can find the roots of culture – an artificial construct of behaviors. The ultimate expression of the imagination – and thus society – can be found in the arts. Thus Blake’s statement, “Art is the glory of the Nation.”

William Wordsworth, on the other hand, felt that the imagination must be tempered. He saw a place for the imagination in literary works, but believed that it must be coupled with careful consideration. He constantly found himself experiencing the workings of his imagination, but always backed off at the last possible instant, removing himself from his visions and daydreams to contemplate and analyze them before composing his works. He even described the moments of fantasy as “Strange fits of passion” (Strange fits of passion I have known). This is evident in all his pieces as a virtual fear of his imagination, a fear that it would overtake him and he would lose his grounding in reality. This fear of imagination can be seen in the Two-Part Prelude, with the horizon representing the boundary of the familiar, and that which lay beyond the horizon as the unknown figments of imagination:

And, as I rose upon the stroke, my boat

Went heaving through the water like a swan-

When, from behind that rocky steep (till then

The bound of the horizon), a huge cliff,

As if with voluntary power instinct,

Upreared its head. I struck and struck again,

And, growing still in stature, the huge cliff

Rose up between me and the stars, and still,

With measured motion, like a living thing

Strode after me. With trembling hands I turned,

And through the silent water stole my way

Back to the cavern of the willow-tree.

The cliff rose from the depths of his imagination, blocking out the reality of the stars. This flight of fancy aroused a great fear within Wordsworth, one which he experienced since childhood: that he would lose his grip on reality and be unable to determine which is in his mind only, and that which is real. He admitted to, as a child, grasping the objects of reality around him (trees, etc.) in order to convince himself they were real, so vivid was his imagination. In Strange fits of passion I have known, he describes this attempt to remain grounded in reality during one such day-dream, the moon representing the grounding element in the poem:

In one of those sweet dreams I slept,

Kind nature’s gentlest boon!

And all the while my eyes I kept

On the descending moon.

And yet, on occasion, he takes joy in his visions, as can be seen in such poems as Daffodils and A Night Piece. In the former, his mind exaggerates an experience, making a cluster of daffodils seem as an huge host dancing, even becoming an extension of the waves blown across the pond next to which they grew. In the latter, he again enlarges the experience. The moon seems to sail, and the stars speed far faster than they truly would. And he describes these experiences both as experiences of joy, as in A Night Piece:

At length the visions closes, and the mind,

Not undisturbed by the deep joy it feels,

Which slowly settles into peaceful clam,

Is left to muse upon the solemn scene.

One can see also, how, though he describes this as an event which brought joy to him, he still backs away from it slightly, and is not altogether unafraid of what has happened. He is, instead, “Not undisturbed” by this moment of fantasy, and must “settle into peaceful calm” to contemplate what has occurred. This approaching the edge of imagination only to turn away is wholly characteristic of Wordsworth’s works.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge represents yet a third approach to the imagination. Many of Coleridge’s pieces display an amazing use of the imagination. He saw poetry as an expression from imagination, based on reality. Whereas Blake wrote entirely from imagination, Coleridge wrote about experiences modified by it. He believed the “true way for a poet is to examine nature, but write from your recollection, and trust more to your imagination than your memory.” He allowed his mind to be inspired initially by nature and reality, then to wander from there to compose as it may. A strong description of the poetic process, as he saw it, can be found in his poem The Eolian Harp.

Some of his works, such as Kubla Khan and the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, were works of the imagination, fantasies. Other works of his more fully illustrate his statement on the “true way for a poet” in their obvious foundation in a real-world event, such as A Day Dream, a poem written about the memory of time spent with the two women he loved.

The imagination, in some sense, can be seen as a redemptive force in Romantic literature. It rescues one from moments otherwise unpleasurable, and either reminds one of joys past, or allows one to transcend the tedium or grief of the moment into a more blissful state. Even Wordsworth, with his extreme fear of his own imagination, demonstrated this redemption in his writing, as can be seen in Daffodils:

For oft when on my couch I lie

In vacant or in pensive mood,

They flash upon that inward eye

Which is the bliss of solitude,

And then my heart with pleasure fills,

And dances with the daffodils.

In Star Gazers Wordsworth seems to imply that the imagination saves even the common man from the tedia of his life, illustrating this by the line of expectant people waiting to take a glimpse at the moon through a showman’s telescope. Their fancies fly about what they shall see through the lenses, causing all of them to remain in line, even to pay for this brief glimpse of the moon, only to leave the experience dejected, the reality of the moon’s appearance failing to meet their expectations. And yet, their fantasy of what they shall see is so strong, they are able to escape, for the time they are waiting in line, the doldrums that are their lives. None of those waiting seem to notice the reactions of those who have seen the reality.

In some instances, the imagination even rescues one from oneself. Wordsworth demonstrated this in Daffodils, when it pulled him from his “pensive mood.” Coleridge's imagination rescues him from a darker moode in A Day Dream:

The shadows dance upon the wall

By the still dancing fire-flames made,

And now the slumber, moveless all,

And now they melt to one deep shade!

But not from me shall this mild darkness teal thee;

I dream thee with mine eyes, and at my heart I feel thee.

The figure of redemption is not always clear in romantic poetry. In some instances, such as the Mariner’s partial redemption in the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, the figure is wholly non-traditional. For certainly, in how many pieces of Christian-influenced literature (and even the literature influenced by many other religions), will one be redeemed by blessing snakes, the symbol of original sin? In Christabel, a redemptive process is under way, but one must peer closely to determine the redemptive figure. Additionally, exactly which character is undergoing this process? Some may point to Geraldine, the very villainess of the poem, as the figure of redemption, as she assisted Christabel to forget, for the time, how dearly she missed her betrothed. However, this hardly seems Coleridge’s intent, as Geraldine later steals the heart of Christabel’s father. More appropriately, Geraldine is the catalyst towards redemption, forcing Christabel to face elements within herself that she would not otherwise have faced, thus leading her to a greater realization of her inner self, and a greater strength therefrom. Coleridge alludes to this in The Conclusion to Part II of Christabel:

Perhaps ‘tis pretty to force together

Thoughts so all unlike each other,

To mutter and mock a broken charm,

To dally with wrong that does no harm.

Perhaps ‘tis tender too and pretty

At each wild word to feel within

A sweet recoil of love and pity.

And what if, in a world of sin

(Oh sorrow and shame should this be true!),

Such giddiness of heart and brain

Comes seldom save from rage and pain,

So talks as it’s most used to do.

This redemption is not always a pleasant process, however. Perhaps this is the very reason Wordsworth feared his imagination. The process of redemption, as described in Coleridge’s the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, sometimes requires something of a baptism of fire. In some instances, this process is not recognized by the figure who is undergoing it, and they are doomed to continue the cycle for eternity, as the Ancient Mariner. A parallel can even be drawn between the Ancient Mariner and Wordsworth here. The mariner, failing to truly understand the lesson he is supposed to learn by the recounting of his tale, is doomed to repeat the tale to any who will hear. Wordsworth, always approaching the boundaries of imagination in his works, always backs off, and never fully embraces his imagination, and continues to repeat the process of approach, anxiety, and retreat.

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