Sensation and the Poetic Process of Romanticism: Visions in the Night

In the beginning of the 19th century a poetic movement emerged that viewed the human mind in a revolutionary way. Rejecting previous ideas to the contrary, Romantic poets began to look upon the human mind as an object with creative power, not a purely receptive being. In addition to perceiving the human mind in a different light poets such as William Wordsworth derived processes describing exactly how the mind creates. Poets of the time, such as Anna Barbauld and Wordsworth, began to look inward for inspiration and creation. Anna Barbauld, in her poem "A Summers Evenings Meditation" concretely follows the Wordsworthian ideal of the poetic process, while demonstrating that glimpses of creative power can be garnered through the emotions resulting from the death-like sensations of night even though true creative power can only be arrived at in death. William Wordsworth, in "Tintern Abbey," also demonstrates the fact that creative power can be glimpsed at night and realized in death, yet he also explains how for him creative realization will occur in death. Consequently, taken together, "A Summer Evenings Meditation" and "Tintern Abbey" demonstrate how death-like sensations in life can offer glimpses of the creative power that will eventually be achieved in death.

Yet, in order to understand how Barbauld and Wordsworth’s draw their conclusions about creation, it is first necessary to understand specific romantic ideals authored by Wordsworth and Samuel Coleridge, both of whom were Romantic poets. In the Preface of his "Lyrical Ballads", Wordsworth describes the format from which all artists, including romantic poets, create their work. Wordsworth explains a process in which an individual has an experience that produces a spontaneous emotion. The individual then internalizes this emotion and through a process of thought, memory, or contemplation produces a second refined emotion. The second emotion, which contains traces of the mind, is then expressed in poem, which at its root means to create. Therefore, the above-described system in which emotions are refined is how, according to Wordsworth, all art including romantic poetry is created.

Yet the basic understanding of Romantic poetry must include Coleridge’s definitions of fancy and imagination, in addition to Wordsworth’s Preface, if "A Summer Evenings Meditation" and "Tintern Abbey" are to be properly analyzed. Summed up and simplified, imagination, to Coleridge, is the creative power of the individual derived from repetitive thought in the mind. Yet this creative power can only emerge when the separation between the poet and her creator has ceased to exist and they literally become one. Hence, for the rest of the paper the idea of imagination, which is for the poets the ultimate creative goal, will be referred to as imaginative reconciliation because it is only from a reuniting of the poet and his creator that true creation can occur. Fancy, on the other hand is a simpler concept. Fancy is merely the sensation or memory that comes from experience. Thinking of Coleridge’s definitions in light of the creative process described by Wordsworth, one can see that fancy ties in with the original emotion of the individual, while imaginative reconciliation is the creative work derived from the refined second emotion. Together, Wordsworth’s process of creation and Coleridge’s definitions of fancy and imagination are essential to understanding the journey towards imaginative reconciliation sought in the poetry of Barbauld and Wordsworth.

Anna Barbauld’s "A Summers Evenings Meditation" is a wonderful example of the poetic process described by Wordsworth and elaborated upon by Coleridge, because the poem itself is a written representation of Barbauld’s personal journey toward imaginative reconciliation. Consequently, Barbauld’s poem concretely follows Wordsworth’s process of poet vision: first demonstrating how the sensations experienced at night lead her to discover a spontaneous emotion, which she then leads through a process of thought in the hopes of refining the emotion and achieving imaginative reconciliation. "A Summer Evenings Meditation" allows for a deeper understanding of the poetic process Wordsworth describes because the emotional journey of the narrator, Barbauld, strictly follows the poetic process laid forth in "Lyrical Ballads".

For Barbauld the journey through the process of poetic vision begins at night, a time that brings forth unique sensations that lead her inward to discover a spontaneous emotion. The poem begins at the dusk in which, "the skies no more repel / The dazzled sight, but with maiden beams / Of tempered luster, court the cherish’d eye" (3-5). Barbauld then describes the emergence of the stars as, "one by one, the living eyes of heaven / Awake" (25 – 26). Throughout the descriptions of the moon and the stars a metaphorical register of sight is intertwined. For Barbauld originally states that at night, a time of darkness when one cannot see, the skies allow the "dazzled sight" (4) and "cherish’d eye" (5), the moon, to emerge. Furthermore, she describes the stars as "living eyes of heaven" (25). It is important to examine the fact that Barbauld describes the moon and the stars as eyes. The eyes of course are the part of the body which are used to see. The moon and the stars are symbols of night, a time when the sensation of sight is restricted. Consequently, Barbauld insinuates through her description of nightly symbols as eyes that although humans cannot physically see at night, an ability of vision does exist. Yet, the restricted sensation of sight does not, on its own, produce an emotion.

In addition to the lack of sensation of sight, Barbauld also describes the night as lacking sound yet still containing conversation. Just as Barbauld places images of sight amidst darkness, she also speaks of sound in silence. She describes the night as:

Nature’s self is hush’d

And, but a scattered leaf, which rustles thro’

The thick-wove foliage, not a sound is heard

To break the midnight air; thro’ the rais’d ear,

Intensely listening, drinks in every breath.

How deep the silence? Yet how loud the praise;

But are they silent all? or is there not

A tongue in every star that talks with man, (42-49)

Two phrases are key in Barbauld’s description of sound in silence. First, Barbauld states "How deep the silence? Yet how loud the praise" (47). Barbauld describes a contradictory state in which although the night is silent, there is still a loud praise; an opposition much like her association of sight in the darkness of night. Then she states "or is there not / A tongue in every star that talks with man" (48-49). The tongue is the part of the body associated with speaking which is merely making sounds. As Barbauld claims that stars possess a tongue, it is remembered that she had earlier spoke of the stars as "living eyes of heaven" (25). Therefore stars, which are from heaven, possess sight and sound, two sensations that are seemingly lacking in the night. It is the two sets of sensations, the earthly lack of sight and sound, and the heavenly sounds and visions, which emerge at the same time, that spur Barbauld to look inside herself and find a spontaneous emotion.

Looking inward as a result of the earthly and heavenly sensations she experiences, Barbauld finds an emotion, which turns out to be a glimpse of imaginative creation. Speaking of the night Barbauld states, "At this still hour the self-collected soul / Turns inward and beholds a stranger there / Of high descent, and more than mortal rank; / An embryo God; a spark of fire divine" (53 -56). Keeping in mind that the romantics’s ultimate goal is to find a creation within themselves, it is quite fitting that Barbauld finds in herself, "An embryo God" (56). An embryo is a group of cells, created through conception, which if nourished in the womb of the mother, one of its creators, will eventually emerge as an equal being. Barbauld finds an embryo God; God of course being the all knowing, all loving, creator. In Barbauld’s inward search she has found an emotion she describes as an "embryo God;" a tiny reflection of the love, knowledge, and ability of her creator, that if nourished could ultimately emerge as the ultimate creator of love, God. Therefore, the nightly sensations have led Barbauld inward where she has spontaneously found a glimpse of godly creative ability that if nurtured and nourished could become imaginative reconciliation.

Yet it is no coincidence that the sensations of the night lead Barbauld to find a God inside of her; for the night mimics death, the time when one expects to find God and heaven. As already demonstrated the state of night with its darkness and silence represses the human sensations of sight and sound. Upon dying one no longer possesses any earthly sensation. Hence, the repressed sensations caused by the night mimic the total lack of sensation in death. Furthermore, the repressive night brings forth the heavenly entities of the stars, which offer glimpses and sounds of heaven. In death, the soul will travel to heaven to bask in the sights and sounds of eternal happiness and meet God. Barbauld, in the deathlike state of night, experiences glimpses and faint sounds of heaven that lead her to discover an emotion capable of reuniting her with her creator. It is the night, and all its qualities that resemble death, that begin Barbauld on her journey to imaginative reconciliation.

With the sensations of night leading Barbauld to the emotion described as an embryo God, she continues to follow poetic form and contemplate about her emotion with the hopes refining it and producing the creation that comes from imaginative reconciliation. Barbauld compares the process of thought to a journey out to space. She writes of being, "Seiz’d in thought, / On fancy’s wild and roving wing I sail" (71-72). This passage is quite remarkable because it connects her figurative journey towards heaven and the poetic form described by Wordsworth and Coleridge. Wordsworth describes a poetic process where a spontaneous emotion is contemplated to eventually produce a refined emotion. Coleridge further explains this process through defining fancy as the experience that follows sensation. Describing herself as being "Seiz’d in thought" (71) and flying on "fancy’ wing" (72) Barbauld demonstrates that she is in the process of refining her emotion. For she is "seiz’d" or taken with thought, while traveling on the sensation that is fancy. The fancy she is traveling is the original experience of finding the embryo God while the thought that has "seiz’d" her is the process of refining this experience. It is also important to note that she is flying on "fancy’s wing". Barbauld is trying to refine her embryo God by searching for, in thought, God himself. To do this she must fly on fancy’s wings to the heavens where God is found. Consequently Barbauld’s figurative journey is demonstrating the poetic process described by Wordsworth.

Yet according to the Wordsworthian poetic process Barbauld’s refining of emotion should enable her to reach imaginative reconciliation, an end result that she does not find. Barbauld’s inward journey of contemplation, figuratively represented as a travel through space ends when she reaches the beginning of creation, the place of God. Barbauld’s travels cease upon reaching, "The deserts of creation, wide and wild; / Where embryo systems and unkindled suns / Sleep in the womb of chaos; fancy droops / And thought astonish’d stops her bold career" (95-98). Again terms from the metaphorical birth register reappear. She is at the desert of creation where she observes "embryo systems and unkindled suns" (96) nourishing and growing in the "womb" of chaos. The phrase "womb of chaos" (97) at first seems odd. For why would there be chaos in the midst of creation. Yet upon consulting the Oxford English Dictionary it is discovered that the ancient Greeks personified the word chaos as meaning the oldest of the gods. Therefore, Barbauld has reached the womb of God; the very location where she can join with her creator and find imaginative reconciliation. However seeing the womb of God so amazes Barbauld that thought, the instrument which has brought her to this point stops "her career" (98) in overwhelming astonishment. What Barbauld is witnessing, the beginning of creation, is so amazing that the human process of thought, which is supposed to lead her to her creator, stops. With thought no longer leading the journey toward God, the poetic process ends at the threshold of creation without actually realizing its goal of imaginative reconciliation.

With the goal of imaginative reconciliation unattained Barbauld decides wait for death, when she will truly be reunited with her creator. Instead of further pursuing the creative power that has eluded her Barbauld decides to "wait th’ appointed time / And ripen for the skies; the hour will come / When all these splendors bursting on my sight / Shall stand unveil’d, and to my ravish’d sense (118-121). Once again it is important to examine the idea of sight. Barbauld speaks of the hour when the splendors of heaven will burst on her sight, which she describes as a "ravish’d sense" (121). Ravished means to be taken or carried away. Yet sight, and all her other senses, will only be taken in death, a passing that will reunite her with her creator God. Consequently, when she dies, and looses all her earthly senses, she will achieve the final poetic vision of imaginative reconciliation; a process that began when she first glimpsed the possibility of God, at night when her senses of sight and hearing were rendered useless, thereby mimicking death.

Yet, Barbauld is not alone in her discoveries, William Wordsworth too, finds in his poem "Tintern Abbey" that imaginative reconciliation can only be attained in death. "Tintern Abbey" is very similar to "A Summer Evenings Meditation" in the way that it follows the poetic process its author describes in "Lyrical Ballads." However, three main differences exist between the two poems. First, "Tintern Abbey" does not lead the reader through the sensations that lead to the first emotion; the poem merely opens with the author’s attempt to transition to the second refined emotion. Second, unlike Barbauld who uses the process of thought in her attempt to reach a refined second emotion, Wordsworth relies on memory in his attempted transition. Finally, for Wordsworth the ultimate creative power is nature, not God. Yet differences aside, Wordsworth’s connections between the death-like state of night, death, and imaginative reconciliation are the same.

True to the similarities Wordsworth, like Barbauld, finds glimpses of imaginative reconciliation during the night. Speaking of the poetic process leading to the refined emotion Wordsworth states:

that blessed mood,

In which the burthen of the mystery,

In which the heavy and the weary weight

Of all this unintelligible world

Is lighten’d: - that serene and blessed mood,

In which actions lead us on

Until, the breath of this corporeal frame,

And even the motion of our human blood

Almost suspended, we are laid asleep

In body and become a living soul:

While with an eye made quiet by the power

Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,

We see into the life of things. (38-49)

As with Barbauld connections between the night and a sense of vision into creation emerge. Wordsworth speaks of the soul becoming alive when the body sleeps. Sleep of course is also a death-like state, during which the blood and breath become "almost suspended" (46). If blood and breath are completely suspended the body would die. Therefore the process of sleep, which entails a slowing of blood and breath, is in itself, deathlike. Furthermore, Wordsworth claims that in sleep one can "see into the life of things" (49). Again, with the physical sense of sight gone, for the eyes are closed, an unearthly sensory ability emerges, in this case a vision into life. Yet, let it not be forgotten that the state of sleep, which for Wordsworth allows glimpses into life, occurs at night, a period of time that in itself has death like qualities. Therefore, like Barbauld’s "A Summer Evenings Meditation," for Wordsworth in "Tintern Abbey" the death-like states of sleep and night offer glimpses of imaginative reconciliation that can only be attained in death.

Fittingly, Wordsworth ends "Tintern Abbey" with a description of how, in death, he will find imaginative reconciliation with his ultimate creative power, nature. Speaking to his sister about her life after his death, Wordsworth pleads, "Nor wilt thou then forget, / That after many wanderings, many years, / Of absence, these steep woods and lofty cliffs, / And this green pastoral landscape, were to me / More dear, both for themselves, and for thy sake" (157-160). Obviously, Wordsworth has been deceased for some time in this image for he describes "many years of absence" (158). He also offers a description of woods and cliffs, a "green pastoral landscape" (159). This landscape is for him a cherished image of nature, which is his ultimate creative force. Remembering that nature is the creative force which he seeks in life, it is easy to see how the landscape, which is representative of nature, is "more dear" (160) to him in death. When a person dies they are returned to nature, to the earth. Whether it is through cremation or burial, the human body at its end becomes a tangible part of nature. Since Wordsworth’s creative ideal is nature, in death he is united with nature. Hence the reason nature has become "more dear" to him: he is now one with nature. In death Wordsworth has achieved imaginative reconciliation.

According to Wordsworth and Barbauld imaginative reconciliation will eventually occur, yet only in death. In following this train of thought a sense of irony emerges out of the Romantic poems of these two great poets. For they both view the mind as a creative tool; yet they can only become one with their creator and actually create in death. Therefore, in life the mind still seems to lack the ability to create. However, when the senses are restricted, mimicking the state of death, the mind can glimpse into the creative ability to come. And perhaps it is these glimpses that kept the poets chasing the imaginative reconciliation they knew could only be achieved in death.


Works Cited

Barbauld, Anna. "A Summer Evenings Meditation." British Literature 1780-1830. Eds.

Richard Matlack and Anne Mellor. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1996. 168-169.


William Wordsworth. "Tintern Abbey." British Literature 1780-1830. Eds. Richard Matlack

and Anne Mellor. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1996. 571-573.