One of the topics that are especially pertinent to Romantic poetry is imagination. This concept is notable because it cannot be defined clearly and can be considered motif readers can see in the works of the period. The purpose of this paper is to explain how the imagination is relevant to Romantic poetry on the examples of poems of the period. In this report, the works by William Wordsworth, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and John Keats will be analyzed.
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Imagination in Romantic Poetry
Romanticism is a significant poetic movement of the late 18th and early 19th centuries (Poetry Foundation, 2019). It can be characterized by the focus on the world of feelings and images rather than the real world. Some poets of the Romantic period, including Wordsworth and Coleridge, are known for their emotional sensitivity, while others, such as Keats, took their inspiration from nature (Kehoe n.d.). The imagination is one of the most significant themes of Romantic works. Even when its impact is not obvious to the reader, the power of the human mind’s ability to create images can be seen in many poems of Romantic authors.
Imagination in Wordsworth’s Works
One of the poets that addressed the value of imagination in his works is William Wordsworth, who can be considered one of the founders and significant contributors of Romanticism in England (Poetry Foundation 2019e; Parrish 2019). Wordsworth perceived the imagination as a power to see reality in its true form and a force that works along with people’s senses and helps them to interpret the world (Wordsworth Trust n.d.). The poet believed that everyone should be imaginative, as it is crucial for human well-being. One of the greatest and most recognizable works by Wordsworth is The Prelude. In this poem, the imagination is one of the main themes, although the author does not always refer to it directly and the reader can only recognize it by analyzing the words Wordsworth uses.
It is possible to say that in The Prelude, the author moves into his imaginative experience more and more deeply as his story continues. The work is autobiographic and can be seen as a journey, as the poet states the names of places where he is located, such as London, Cambridge, and France. He describes the events that happen to him, the feelings he experienced, and the people he meets as if he wants the reader to live through these moments with him. It is possible to see that the author’s passages allow the readers to relate to the feelings he had through their imagination. At the same time, the reader should use imagination to interpret and conceptualize Wordsworth’s words. Although Wordsworth’s audience may have seen the images he presents or experienced the feelings he discusses, individuals should utilize the imagination to interpret the author’s internal vision on the reality he pictures in his mind. For example, in the third book, Wordsworth writes:
“In a world
Of welcome faces up and down I roved
Questions, directions, counsel, and advice
Flowed in upon me from all sides” (Wordsworth 1805, p. 34).
“As if awakened, summoned, rouzed, constrained,
I looked for universal things, perused
The common countenance of earth and heaven,
And, turning the mind in upon itself,
Pored, watched, expected, listened, spread my thoughts,
And spread them with a wider creeping, felt
Incumbencies more awful, visitings
Of the upholder, of the tranquil soul,
Which underneath all passion lives secure
A steadfast life” (Wordsworth 1805, p. 37).
In the fourth book, the imagination also plays a significant role when it helps the author to overcome disappointment. Wordsworth’s imagination helps him to transcend the physical world to a different dimension and experience a spiritual breakthrough. It is possible to see that the images change the world around the author and allow him to see its true beauty. The author describes his feelings in the following way:
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“O happy state! What beauteous pictures now
Rose in harmonious imagery; they rose
As from some distant region of my soul
And came along like dreams” (Wordsworth 1805, p. 63).
The Simplon Pass also requires the readers’ attention due to its imagery. This part of Wordsworth’s work shows that Wordsworth interpreted nature imaginatively. The poem presents paradoxical images and the alterations of the reality that the author’s imagination offers. For example, Wordsworth talks about muttering rocks, frozen waterfalls, and “torrents shooting from the clear blue sky” (Wordsworth 1805, p. 100). In addition, the author shows that he does not restrain his imagination but rather dissolves in it, allowing the images to captivate him. Wordsworth’s words reveal that imagination was the part of his life:
“The ever-living universe
And the independent spirit of pure youth 705
Were with me at that season, and delight
Was in all places spread around my steps
As constant as the grass upon the fields” (Wordsworth 1805, p. 104).
Imagination in Shelley’s Works
Percy Bysshe Shelley is a notable poet of the Romantic era, as his works present all extremes of the period, including joyous ecstasy and despair (Poetry Foundation 2019b). The author’s use of the imagination is different from that seen in Wordsworth’s works. The author uses imagination to escape from the world around him and to create a different space free of disappointment, tyranny, and injustice. Shelley’s works are different from Wordsworth’s ones, as the poet does not focus on describing the real world. Instead, he presents a better world that does not exist yet because it is, in ways, overly ideal.
Shelley’s Mont Blank presents the author’s almost spiritual appreciation for nature. The reader can feel that the poet recognizes the beauty that surrounds him and wants to translate his knowledge about it through imagination. In this work, the author describes the landscape of Switzerland, referring to it as the secret Strength (Shelley 2003). Shelley compares the human brain to the stream that flows through people’s minds, sometimes dark, sometimes glittering, and sometimes being a reflecting gloom (Shelley 2003). In Mont Blank, the imagination is presented as the waters of the stream and is compared to the power of the mountain. This point is notable because it shows the difference in Wordsworth’s and Shelley’s perceptions of nature, as the first poet believed that it was gentle, while for the second one, it is highly powerful.
The Arve River can be perceived as the representation of consciousness in nature. If knowledge is a combination of imagination and sensory perceptions, then the river can be seen as one of the sources of conscious power. At the same time, the Arve River represents the chaotic nature of human imagination. Shelley describes it in the following ways:
“From the ice-gulfs that gird his secret throne,
Bursting through these dark mountains like the flame
Of lightning through the tempest”
“Thy caverns echoing to the Arve’s commotion,
A loud, lone sound no other sound can tame;
Thou art pervaded with that ceaseless motion,
Thou art the path of that unresting sound” (Shelley 2003).
These passages address the strength of the imagination while showing that its goal is not to put everything in its order but to be a source of inspiration. The poet implies that the individual’s imagination cannot be tamed, constrained, or limited in any way. Instead, he presents the imagination as the power all people can use to transform the world around them and connect to the experiences and feelings they desire to have in their life.
Imagination in Keats’ Works
John Keats is also considered one of the poets of the Romantic period, although he did not associate himself with them (Poetry Foundation 2019a). The author’s imagination is notable because the author refers to a predominantly artificial world in his works. This perspective is similar to Wordsworth’s use of the imagination to understand life and its beauty. In Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn, the author presents the contrast between an imaged world of art and the reality of life and suffering. The central theme of the poem is the beauty that can be found in all forms of art. Although the poem belongs to the Romantic period, it is possible to see the author’s focus on classical style and form. The theme of the imagination makes the work a piece of Romantic poetry.
In the Ode on a Grecian Urn, Keats reveals his desire to belong to an eternal world. The poem starts concerning the reality, as he describes the engravings on the ancient marble urn and tries to understand the story they tell.
“What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?” (Keats 2019).
Then, the author continues his analysis, looking into the deeper details of the stories the urn tells. He describes the stories of lovers, pilgrims, and other people engraved on the urn. Keats reflects on the beauty of the eternal world these mysterious people live in and uses many epithets to address it. To the author, this world seems perfect, and he shows great appreciation for its eternity. To Keats, the imagination serves as a means of engaging with this world, which he deeply desires.
“Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;
And, happy melodist, unwearied,
Forever piping songs for ever new” (Keats 2019).
It is possible to say that the poet wants to identify with the stories his imagination offers to him. He wants to be a part of the eternal world and escape from the real world’s challenges and problems. Keats sees two domains, one of which presents the painful impact of time while the other one addresses the pleasurable world that will never change. The author is fascinated by the immortal nature of art while also not wandering in the imagination only. It is possible to say that Keats believes that art can compensate for the transience of life because of its perfection and immortality.
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Imagination in Coleridge’s Works
Samuel Taylor Coleridge was Wordsworth’s collaborator during the authors’ careers as poets (Poetry Foundation 2019d). He defined the imagination as the individual’s temporary replication of the world’s divinity (Robinson 2019). It is possible to say that the poet distinguished between two types of imagination. The first one was the imagination related to individuals’ power to produce images with the help of their perceptions. The second type was the poets’ imagination, which they can use consciously to create pictures in people’s minds and transform the existing world into a new one. Frost at Midnight is one of the author’s famous works; in this poem, Coleridge reflects on the human mind’s ability to mirror the natural world. One of the motifs of this work is the power of dreams and imagination. While his son is sleeping, his mind is creating pictures of a stranger and a guest that is about to come. The reader can sense the author’s discomfort, as he is sitting in silence at the midnight.
“The owlet’s cry
Came loud—and hark, again! loud as before.
The inmates of my cottage, all at rest,
Have left me to that solitude.” (Coleridge 1912).
Regardless of the possible tension, Coleridge’s imagination brings him pictures of his childhood. He reflects on the innocence of his young days and remembers the pleasures he enjoyed as a child.
“With unclosed lids, already had I dreamt
Of my sweet birth-place, and the old church-tower,
Whose bells, the poor man’s only music rang
From morn to evening, all the hot Fair-day,
So sweetly, that they stirred and haunted me
With a wild pleasure, falling on mine ear
Most like articulate sounds of things to come!” (Coleridge 1912).
This passage shows the power of the imagination Coleridge’s work focuses on. In his childhood, imagination brought him great joy. He continues by projecting his memories on his infant son. The author’s imagination helps him to perceive childhood as an innocent time, and he wants him to live a different life than he did. The following passage reveals that for Coleridge, the imagination was a way of seeing a better world and hoping for the good things to happen and an attempt to transform the existing reality:
“For I was reared
In the great city, pent ‘mid cloisters dim,
And saw naught lovely but the sky and stars.
But thou, my babe! shalt wander like a breeze
By lakes and sandy shores, beneath the crags
Of ancient mountain, and beneath the clouds,
Which image in their bulk both lakes and shores
And mountain crags” (Coleridge 1912).
The presented works by Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats and Shelley reveal that the imagination is highly relevant to romantic poetry. Wordsworth’s poems show that the imagination is the tool that can help individuals to improve reality; the author believed that everyone should use it to change the life around them. For Shelley, the imagination was a way to escape from the dreadful reality and live in and an unlimited power that all people had. Keats, in his turn, tried to understand life and beauty through imagination. He preferred his imaginary world to the real one and seemed to value the immortality and perfection of it. Finally, Coleridge perceived the imagination as the individual’s ability to mirror the world. In addition, images helped the author to transform the existing reality into the one he wanted to live.
Coleridge EH (ed.) 1912, The complete poetical works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Clarendon Press, London, England.
Keats, J 2019, Ode on a Grecian urn. Web.
Kehoe, B n.d., What is romanticism? Web.
Parrish, SM 2019, William Wordsworth. Web.
Poetry Foundation 2019a, John Keats. Web.
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Poetry Foundation 2019c, Romanticism. Web.
Poetry Foundation 2019d, Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Web.
Poetry Foundation 2019e, William Wordsworth. Web.
Robinson, K 2019, Samuel Taylor Coleridge: “Frost at Midnight”. Web.
Wordsworth Trust n.d., Imagination. Web.
Wordsworth, W 1805, The Prelude of 1805, in thirteen books. Web.