The role of the imagination is an important concept in Romanticism. Due to the absence of imagination during the Enlightenment period, Romanticism began a movement in which its followers wanted to revive the concept of imagination within the human condition. Imagination comes to mean different things as the Romantic movement grows and the time changes, which can be seen in the encounter with the "other" throughout the poetry of the period. Two views on how imagination should be defined present themselves in Keats "Ode on a Grecian Urn" and Shelleys "Mont Blanc". Shelley would contend that the role of the imagination is revived and inspired while in the presence of silent nature, the mountain, while Keats would contend that the silent Grecian Urn pulls the speaker out of thought and into imagination. For both poets, silence and thought have key roles but opposite results.
The beginning of "Mont Blanc" establishes the concept of nature as a provider of knowledge and the consistency of the world. A cycle of feelings from melancholy to happiness exists inside the mind, which comes from the "universe of things"(1). The visualization of this universe consists of water as shown by "flows through the mind, and rolls its rapid waves"(2) and illustrates the eternal nature of the universe. Water never stops flowing through the mind; it never stops bringing knowledge. Furthermore, the waves are not peaceful waves; rather they are rapid and keep beating against the mind. Within this image of beauty and knowledge continuously placed inside the mind, comes the image of "silent springs/ The source of human thought its tribute brings/ of waters"(4-6) juxtaposing an image of silence and power. From these beginning lines, an image of silence and power first becomes apparent and will show up later in the poem. An "everlasting universe of things" signifies that unlike some other conditions, the universe never ends or dies. What is the opposite condition? Humanity becomes the other condition for this everlasting universe is that which inhabits the mind and gives it thought. Thus, the first lines of the poem establish a link between the universe and its encounter with humanity providing the imagination a chance within the human condition.
As the poem continues, a precise object of nature, the Ravine of Arve, is juxtaposed against the mind to intensify the separateness between nature and the mind. The sight of this ravine causes the speaker "to muse on my own separate fantasy,/My own, my human mind, which passively/Now renders"(36-38). This creates two images for the reader: one of the inactive mind and one of a separate mind. Not only is the mind separate, but it is a separate fantasy which begins a discussion of the imagination. Imagination becomes linked here to nature because it is nature that causes the speaker to develop a sense of separateness from the body. The mind is seen as apart from human condition, and it becomes part of the eternal world. The mind begins to become seen as a passive entity that "receives fast influencing,/Holding an unremitting interchange/ with the clear universe of things around"(38-40). Once again, the images of the first lines appear; nature does not stop influencing the mind for it is "unremitting". Further the universe is described as "clear" to suggest that the mind when not part of the external universe holds confusion. The universe wants to change this and become a stepping stone towards imagination, the mind that should be desired.
With nature established as the promoter of imagination, the poem turns to the world that is beyond humanity to argue that imagination is most available upon death of the body. "Some say that gleams of a remoter world/ Visit the soul in sleep"(49-50) presents the idea of sleep as the state in which imagination will become its best. What is sleep? To many, sleep is viewed as the state in which the least amount of activity is present which is true for the bodily functions; but the state of the mind is at its most active when in sleep. The remote world would be the world that is infinite, that which is beyond the grasp of humanity. What does it say that the infinite would try to reach the soul when in sleep? It says that the world of the infinite is most attainable when the earthly concepts are gone and the mind is at its most active state. Besides the infinite, imagination can be seen as a remote world because the public at this point in time does not readily accept imagination. Yet, if the public would pay attention while in sleep, the public would see that imagination exists and that in this state of imagination, more thoughts exist that "outnumber/ of those who would wake and live"(51-52). In death, which is similar to sleep because the body is inactive but the soul is active, an attainable sense of sublimity becomes a possibility upon Earth. The argument that people need to become inactive in the body but active in the mind is a central thought of this poem.
Death not being a possibility to remain on Earth, the speaker proposes the alternative, which is to promote empathy and sensibility to find imagination. Images of the destructive force of nature proceed in the lines, "None can replyall seems eternal now./ The wilderness has a mysterious tongue/Which teaches awful doubt, or faith so mild"(75-77). In the destructiveness of nature, people find that nothing can be saved; not even their faith can be saved. The majority of people tend to focus on this destructiveness, which forces them to destroy any attempt at belief in another world. Yet, "the wise, and great, and good/ Interpret or make felt, or deeply feel"(52-54) the command the mountain has to offer to humanity. This mountain can bring faith and a relationship to the eternal gentle world, which can only be understood by the wise. What makes people wise is the ability to feel or to make their feelings known to others. Thus, knowledge becomes linked with feelings and a Romantic ideal of sensibility is introduced into the poem. Through the experience of grand nature, the mountain, one can find this sensibility that will allow him/her reach higher than other humans who become stuck inside the destructive world.
Taking the concept that grand nature is the step to imagination and knowledge, one turns to the last lines of the poem which present the radical conclusion that in inactivity the mind is actually most active. In the lines, "And what were thou, and earth, and stars, and sea,/If to the human minds imaginings/ Silence and solitude were vacancy?(141-143), the word "vacancy" is a key to understanding the meaning of the passage. A definition, which Shelley would have used in his time but which has become null and void, comes from the Oxford English Dictionary that states that vacancy means "the absence of occupation; idleness; inactivity" which opens up a world of possibility to the passage. The problem with humanity is its attempt to impose definitive terms on everything. In Lockean terms, definitions determine the merit of an object but this cannot be applied to nature. Human definition would rush to label silent nature as inactive or vacant; this is untrue. Though the nature is silent and rushes throughout the world, it holds power. Thus, the reader will see that the poem comes full circle to the discussion of sleep. In sleep, an inactive bodily state, the role of nature though silent becomes the active part. Just as imagination is seen as an inactive state, so will it turn into the powerful player in life. Thus, the encounter with the other, grand nature, becomes the road, which leads to imagination.
In "Ode to a Grecian Urn", the encounter with the other while leading to a discussion of death and inactivity does not relate the imagination with death. In fact, the images of the Grecian Urn are ones in which youth is revered and scenes depicted on the urn are held within the imagination of the characters upon the urn. In the final lines, "Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought/As doth eternity"(45-46), the pictures on the urn become transposed into the aging world, which draws the speaker out of thought. The coming of death pulls the speaker away from thought and places him back within the realm of reality rather than imagination. Unlike the speaker in "Mont Blanc", this speaker sees death as the opposite of imagination, as a stark reality of the human condition. Silence does not have the same form as in "Mont Blanc" either, for "the silent form" pulls the speaker away from thought. Thus, death becomes the reality-based realm of thought while the imaginative lives in the world where youth never dies.
The pictures upon the urn are scenes of actions about to be committed signifying the role of the imagination of the viewer of the urn. "Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,/ Though winning near the goal yet, do not grieve"(17-18) illustrates one of the scenes that the speaker sees where there will never be a conclusion. For the speaker, imagination becomes the only insight that can offer a conclusion because the speaker can imagine what the outcome of this scene is. Though the imagination can never be clarified, it is enough just to think about what could happen. The speaker speaks to the figures on the urn, telling them not to grieve because "She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,/ For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!"(19-20). This is an eternal state of a period that exists before action. In this sense, a tie can be drawn to "Mont Blanc" because it is in the state of inaction that imagination becomes apparent and happiness and bliss can be found. Though the kiss may be what the lover wants, the lover should be content to know that the girl will never age and his love for her will never die. Thus, the common difference between the two views presented by these two poems relates back to death and age. The encounter with the other in this ode leads the speaker to promote the role of everlasting youth.
Never the less, the speaker in this poem does realize that the urn represents an idealistic state of youth and spring and glory, which cannot remain on Earth. When the discussion of the sacrifice begins, the speaker tells this fantasy town that "thy streets for evermore/ Will silent be; and not a soul to tell/ Why thou art desolate, can eer return"(38-40). So, the speaker sees the unseen image of the urn, which is the town that these worshippers came from to sacrifice. The town will always remain empty in the world of the urn because just as the girl cannot age in the first image, the people cannot return to their village. Silence becomes a depressing idea, one, which will bring the speaker to, the image of death and the return back to reality in the next stanza. Unlike the silent strength of the Mont Blanc, the silence of the town is one of desertion and emptiness. The silence becomes what Shelley says people had misinterpreted as silence, a silence of void. The urn becomes a representation of the state, which cannot exist on Earth due to human condition and which disallow the ability to exist in perpetual youth, or the joy that exists before the slaughter of a cow in a ritual activity. Every image on the urn is a state that exists before pain and before death. Thus, Keats represents death as an end to imagination.
The speakers evolution of thought leads him to change his attitude toward the urn, which changes his mind on eternity. In the beginning of the poem, "Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard/ Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on"(11-12), the pipes refer to an image on the urn which the speaker can imagine is playing a sweet song. What makes this song sweeter than a song that the speaker could really hear? It is the absence of the world and any sadness that it could bring to the world that allows the music that exists within the imagination to have such sweetness. It continues into the "fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave/ Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare"(15-16) to show that the melody signifies an everlasting beautiful state that can be likened to springtime where trees cannot be bare. In stanza three, the speaker returns to the image of the spring tree and concludes that it will remain "for ever warm and still to be enjoyd"(26). As shown before, though, the urn sheds a new light for the speaker who after thought is pulled out of his imaginative state into one of reality. Through contemplation, then, the speaker finds that he cannot have an eternal world on earth and speaks in a melancholic tone by the end of the poem. For others, it will remain an "unravishd bride of quietness"(1) until they, too, will think about it.
Keats and Shelley create two different images of the imaginative creativity and how imagination is a part of creativeness. While Keats "Ode to a Grecian Urn" propels the speaker to a state of melancholy and one in which silence and death pull him from thought, Shelleys "Mont Blanc" propels the speaker to honor nature and its silence as a path to imagination. Silence becomes a significant image in the role of the imagination for both poets contend that silence is a necessary component of imagination. For one, the imagination in Grecian Urn pulls the reader to believe that the silent song of the piper is a fantasy image, which cannot exist in the real world. For the other "Mont Blanc", does not place its bliss in a world that does not exist but in nature, which can be attained on Earth. While thought leads the speaker from nature bliss in Shelleys poem, thought is exactly what leads the speaker in Keats ode out of the imaginative world.
Keats, John. "Ode to a Grecian Urn." Ed. Anne K. Mellor. British Literature: 1780-1830. New York: Harcourt Brace College Publishers. 1996. P 1297-1298.
Shelley, Percy Bysshe. "Mont Blanc." Ed. Anne K. Mellor. British Literature: 1780-1830. New York: Harcourt Brace College Publishers. P 1063-1064.