The Romantic Process of Imagination

 Imagination was thought to be the supreme poetic quality in the Romantic period as the emphasis shifted from early 18th century neoclassic reason to later century romantic feeling. As Samuel Taylor Coleridge describes it in Biographia Literaria, imagination is the creative force in which the poet became almost one with his/her creator, making the poet nearly godlike. William Wordsworth also attempts to define imagination in The Lyrical Ballads. He suggests that it is a process in which the poetic mind moves first from physical sensation to spontaneous emotion, then gradually, through a species of reaction such as contemplation or memory, to a second, purified emotion. Only through the refinement of this second emotion can a poet truly express himself and produce poetry, which in itself means to create. Both Wordsworth’s "Tintern Abbey" and Anna Barbauld’s "A Summer Evening’s Meditation," reflect this poetic process, yet each in their own unique way. The two poets experience each phase of the imaginative process through different means, yet ultimately arrive at the same conclusion. Barbauld, through her journey of contemplation to the outer regions of space and Wordsworth, through his transportation via his childhood memories, both come to realize that the only way to experience the last phase of imagination is through death because only through death does one become unified with his/her Creator and thus have the ability to create.

In "A Summer Evening’s Meditation," Barbauld represents physical sensation, the commencement of the imaginative process, through images of daylight because it is only in daylight hours that one utilizes the senses and does not rely heavily upon thought or contemplation. Barbauld opens the poem at dusk, as the sun begins to set and the world prepares for nighttime. This represents the transition from physical sensation and spontaneous emotion to a more refined emotion as night approaches. The physical descriptions and sensations depicted as the day begins to fade marks the first phase of the imaginative process. She describes the sun as "the sultry tyrant of the south" (1); the use of the word sultry implying her immediate cognition of the intensity of the heat. Moreover, she continues to describe the sunlight through a purely physical description: "the skies no more repel/ The dazzled sight, but with mild maiden beams/ Of temper’d luster, court the cherished eye." The use of the word court is extremely important because it emphasizes the notion of passivity. When someone is being courted they play the role of an inert observer; they have no active participation in the courtship, save to be entertained or amused. This passivity parallels the description Wordsworth gives of the first phase of the imaginative process being the passive perception of sensation. It is simply stimulation brought about by one’s senses, or as stated in Lyrical Ballads, "a spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings." However, as the sun sets and darkness covers the earth, the transition is made from the impulsive first emotion to the contemplation and refinement of the second emotion.

Through this transition from the "gaudy hours of noon" (21) to the "still hour of the self-collected soul" (53), when her senses are incapacitated by the darkness, Barbauld begins her journey of contemplation, outward towards her creator God in anticipation of her own creation. The motion of outward movement is specifically important because it emphasizes the direction of thought towards Heaven, the "yon blue concave swell’d by breath divine" (24). She describes the regions of space and the stars through which her mind travels in lines 37 through 39 as "these friendly lamps,/ Forever streaming o’er the azure deep/ To point our path, and light us to our home. Her home is beyond these far reaches of space, yet they point the direction towards heaven and thus her contemplation leads her further. She reaches the second, more refined, emotion as described in line 42 when "Nature’s self is hushed," and thenceforth is submerged in this purified emotion. She describes this phase as "the dead of midnight is the noon of thought,/ And wisdom mounts her zenith with the stars" (51-52). Wisdom is at its highest point and can go no further because it has reached its zenith, which means the peak. It is at this lofty point, amidst the darkness of thought and contemplation, that Barbauld’s imagination reaches it pinnacle. Contemplation has taken her as far as she can go; she can travel no further.

Although she cannot advance beyond this zenith of thought, Barbauld is able to explore this second emotion and through the examination of her own contemplation discovers that only through death does one enter the final stage of imagination with the ability to then create. This epiphany is described in lines 54 and 55, " At this still hour the self-collected soul turns inward and beholds a stranger there/ Of high descent, and more than a mortal rank/ An embryo God, a spark of fire divine" Upon the reflection of her contemplation (turning inward) she finds a partial creator within her which is the embryo God and the spark divine. Both the terms embryo and spark are important because they reflect a need for nourishment and cultivation. Barbauld’s imagination is in need of nourishment and cultivation before passing into the final stage of creation; though she is close, she is not yet ready and will be made ready only through death. This is parallel to the register that is brought up both in line 22 as well as line 119 which discusses the importance of being "ripened." Only when one is fully aged and ripened is he/she prepared to be picked by the hand of God in the process of death. Although she petitions that she might be able to proceed further into the imaginative process: " O be it lawful now/ To tread your the hallow’d circles of your courts, / And with mute wonder and delighted awe/ Approach your burning confines. Seiz’d in thought" (68-71), she realizes it is not her time. Thus, her soul must "drop her weary wing" (113), and "seek again the known accustomed spot" (114). She must be content to "wait th’ appointed time/ And ripen the skies"(118) because "the hour will come" (119). At this appointed time eternal darkness will fall, she will enter into "the desarts of creation, wide and wild" (95), and become one with her creator God. Only then, when she is unified with God, will she be able to create and "unlock the glories of the world unknown" (122).

This ultimate creation, when the poet becomes one with the Creator through the process of death, is also reflected in "Tintern Abbey," although Wordsworth relies upon memory as the species of reaction to refine the first emotion through the imaginative process, as opposed to Barbauld’s contemplation. Wordsworth begins the imaginative process, like Barbauld, through physical sensation as he describes the landscape of the abbey. "These water, rolling from their mountain springs/ with a sweet inland murmur" (3-4), and "Once again I see/ These hedge rows, hardly hedge rows" (16) both draw attention to the poet’s perception of the sights and sounds of the scene; they are simple, spontaneous observations. He continues in the second stanza as he recalls his recollection of the landscape, "These forms of beauty have not been to me, / As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye" (25-26). However, In this sentence there is a shift in the tense; "have not" implies that the forms of beauty are past, and alludes that perhaps the poet will now look upon the scenes with "a blind man’s eye," which would be through memory. Just like a blind man can remember in his mind what he once saw, but he cannot rely upon the physical sensation of sight, the poet enters the second stage of the imaginative process when sensation disappears and the species of reaction develops. Wordsworth describes this transition from physical sensation to memory in lines 27 through 31: " I have owed to them [the spontaneous perceptions of nature],/ In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,/ Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart,/ And passing even into my purer mind/ With tranquil restoration." These interior feelings are important because, unlike Barbauld’s outward contemplation, the reaction of memory is a process that is strictly internal. As Barbauld made the journey outward through contemplation, so too does Wordsworth begin a journey inward through memory.

Tit is through this inward journey through the confines of his childhood memory that Wordsworth attempts to find his creation God. As defined in Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria, creation is god-like process, implying a unification between Creator and poet. As a child Wordsworth believes that he was once one with nature: "to me nature was all.../ That had no need of a remoter charm, / By thought supplied, or any interest/ Unborrow’d from the eye" (82-84). Therefor, by indulging in the memory he hopes to reunite himself with nature which, in turn, would allow him to create through the process of imagination. As he travels back through his memory, he gradually refines the first emotion into the second. He discovers that the second emotion is when he can "look on nature not as the hour/ Of thoughtless youth, but hearing oftentimes/ The still, sad music of humanity" (90-92). Moreover, Wordsworth reaches a zenith of thought much like that of Barbauld’s. "And now with gleams of half-extinguish’d thought/ with many recognitions dim and faint, / And somewhat of a sad perplexity, / The picture of the mind revives again:/ While I stand , not only with the sense/ Of present pleasure, but with pleasing thoughts/ That in this moment there is life and food for future years" (59-65). The future years discussed represents the intersection between life and death, much like that of Barbauld’s embryo God. He can foresee the future pleasures, or rather the unification with nature, but cannot obtain it in the state that he is in because he is yet living. He continues to describe this restraint through a "presence that disturbs me with the joy/ Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime/ Of something far more deeply interfused whose dwelling is the light of setting suns" (95-98). The sense sublime is something that the mortal, human mind cannot comprehend in its entirety; thus the imaginative process cannot advance because of his mortality. He admits to this living state and the separation between himself and Nature when he concedes, " Therefore I am still/ A lover of the meadows and the woods,/ And mountains, and of all that we behold" (104-106). Additionally, he admits to the fact that while he is living, he does not the power of full creation when he states, "Of eye and ear, both what they half-create" (107). The process of imagination through the utilization of the senses can only take the poet so far, because they are not unified with nature, the sense act to separate nature and man.

 Though the imaginative process is halted due to his infallible humanity, Wordsworth is able, like Barbauld did, to examine the process which he describes in the future fancy that is driven from the "picture of the mind that revives again" (62), which allows him not only to be submerged in memory, but also to imagine the future process of death and ultimate creation. He depicts death as

"That blessed mood,/ In which the burthen of mystery,/ In which the heavy and weary weight of all this unintelligible world/ Is lighten’d/...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).

Through death, the body is reunited with nature as it becomes part of the landscape and the living soul becomes unified with its creator. Moreover, Wordsworth reveals the ultimate creation through the introduction of his sister. He creates within her the memory of himself, thus completing the process of imagination. After death, when he is once again reunited with nature and his sister looks upon the landscape that he has become, she will create a picture of him in her memory: "When these wild ecstasies shall be matured/ Into a sober pleasure, when thy mind/ Shall be a mansion for all lovelier forms,/ Thy memory be as a dwelling place" (139-143). This creation can only occur, however, when the poet is "laid to sleep/ in body" (46-47), and should be where he "can no longer hear/ Thy voice, nor catch from thy wild eyes these gleams" (148-149), because only then is he unified with Nature, his Creator and God.

 Samuel Taylor Coleridge defines the imagination as the "repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite act of I AM." "Tintern Abbey" and "A Summer Evening’s Meditation" both reflect upon this definition, wherein the repetition is the journey each poet travels: Wordsworth’s journey within himself, Barbauld’s journey beyond the cosmos. Through the repetition in the finite mind, however, the poets discover that the eternal act of creation is that if human impossibility because the only eternal act of creation is the ultimate darkness and sleep of death. The "infinite act of I AM" is the unification with God and the creation of themselves through it. Imagination lies in the heart of all romantic lyrics because the romantic poet strives for poetry which in itself defines creation, meaning to make or produce. Although the ultimate creation may be unattainable, the process is still valuable because it forces the mind to fully experience and reflect upon its perceptions and emotions and journey beyond sensation to the limits of creation to find an embryo God or life and food for future years.