The development of romantic imagination

The two conversation poems The Task (1784) by William Cowper and Frost at Midnight (1798) by Samuel Taylor Coleridge are poems of romantic imagination of nature. But though hence a close relationship between these two poems can be observed, the poets’ romantic imagination distinctively differs. Cowper writes a kind of epic poem with several scenes following one another in an almost unplanned sequence, describing the tension of the individual and the world by showing the poet’s perceptions of nature through his sensorium, whereas Coleridge composes a lyrical poem about a world in which he links and interweaves the individual and nature. Cowper as the ‘first’ romantic poet prepares the way and in several respects supplies instruments and motives of literal and metaphorical movement used by later romantic poets, such as Coleridge.

Cowper acquits himself of the task of writing a poem on a sofa in blank verse already after 102 verses. This "humble theme" (I.5) induces him, contrary to former didactic poems (I.1-4), to take a strive through the history of "invention[s]"(I.17) of different kinds of seating accommodation. The climax of this development is the sofa, representing the "luxury" (I.88) of a society that Cowper does not aspire at. Though being in the possession of a sofa himself he contrasts this society with quite a different world, the world of rural life (I.109).

It is typical of Cowper that he goes back to his own childhood, a stage of development in the life of a human being, which is characterized by a closeness to nature, by great emotions and by a persistence of those impressions. Cowper’s personal recollection of perception remains throughout the poem. It begins with a movement of time, namely the "I" (I.109) „remember[ing]" (I.116) his past boyhood. This movement is immediately linked with a second one, being originally a physical activity. He follows his "rural walk[s]" (I.109). The wandering in the countryside is concrete, but simultaneously incorporates the metaphor of wandering through life. The "ramble"(I.115) of a child, which occurs more or less aimless, is from the very beginning a "pass[ing of] bounds" (I.114), gaining liberty. Those experiences are so intense that they outlast time. They are still immanent at an older age and provide "joy", "charm" and "love" (I.143-149).

Cowper explicitly addresses the reader being conscious of the rural walks as "thou" (I.150) to explain the premise of his new poetry. An opening towards nature is necessary if one wants to "sing" (I.1) "genuine [and to be] art partner" (I.147). This is underlined by the following abundance of first-hand observations. Cowper detects the beauty of the "Ouse" valley (I.163), the area where he lived when he was young and often went for a walk.

It is striking how the sensorium centers around two senses, namely the eye and the ear. The eye skims over objects, living beings and particular scenery but it is not only fixed on things by itself. It is also "conduct[ed…in its] course delighted" (I.165). Similarly, the poem does not only contain a surprising number of different sounds (I.181 ff.), which the poet hears, but he himself is reached by acoustic waves: "The sound of cheerful bells just undulates [his] listening ear." A correlation between nature and the poet exists.

Those perceptions of nature through sounds and views can be very sharp and minute: "…rural walk through lanes / Of grassy swarth, close cropped by nibbling sheep, / And skirted thick with intertexture firm / Of thorny boughs…" (I.109-112). The same applies to sounds, described in the lines 181 forth following. The perceptions of Cowper refer to the animated and the unanimated nature, to plants, animals and human beings, especially to people who work in a rural environment, such as the ploughman or "the thresher [he discerns] at his task" (I.356 ff.). "Thump after thump resounds the constant flail / That seems to swing uncertain, and yet falls / Full on the destined ear. Wide flies the chaff; / The rustling straw sends up a frequent mist / of atoms sparkling in the noonday beam"(I.356- 361). In addition to the minute perception by eye and ear not only the sound, but even the rhythm is recollected and expressed by the poet. The reader has been refreshed and his sensitivity has been sharpened by the preceding recollections of nature. Now the poet calls the reader’s attention to the thresher scene for the reflection on the circular course of nature that follows and bases it on the thresher image: "By ceaseless action all that is subsists " (I.367). It is restless work that maintains the thresher, who following the order of nature fulfils his task the whole day according to the season. He deserves sleep and meals, but not the man in the city. This reflection is followed by another one, based on the metaphor of the wheel, which comprehends the course of the world in this way: "nature …lives … while she moves. / Its own revolvency upholds the world" (I.369-371).

Cowper is not an idyllic poet. He knows the contrasts of live. So he does not exclude discordant sounds or as he puts it "sounds inharmonious" (I.207) such as "cawing" (I.203), he does not exclude discordant impressions from his retreat, which is at once a "Peasant’s nest" (I.227 ff.). He suffers from noise, recognizes dirt in the "water" (I.239-40), and sees unreliable people like the baker. A complement of life is also the fate of the unhappy insane wanderer Kate (I.534-556), who sees not the lifelong day, but only "the lifelong night" (I.549).

The extract of Cowper’s book II expands the range of images. He contrasts the remote life in the country with the life outside, which is disturbed by slavery and war. In the country exists still a feeling of togetherness, and values such as "human feelings"(II.27), "heart"(II.8), human rights, "brotherhood"(II.9) prevail as a condition for equality and "freedom"(II.33). According to the theme, of this part of the poem dealing with world affairs is more characterized by reflection, which does not mean cool reason, but reflection combined with affection. This can be seen several times in the way the "soul" (II.6) questions "what … man [is]" (II.26). Slavery is for example discerned as "human nature’s … foulest blot" (II.22).

Images of nature are more in the background, but still visible. The metaphor of the two drops that unite to a bigger one (II.19) become for example a transparent illustration of two human beings of the same kind being absorbed in a larger mankind. Watching nature leads to moral conclusions. The metaphor of the hare, who lives in Cowper’s house, is fed and protected by him and proves that such an animal, otherwise aim of hunters, can become an intimate friend (II.326-351).

Book IV is then the first one to contain long descriptions of images of nature, and especially the metaphorical image of evening points to definite romanticism. Characteristic is already the introductory verse: "Come, evening, once again, season of peace"(IV.243). When the poet addresses the evening, he implies a personal relationship between man and nature. The mood of peace is evoked again with the request to last as long as possible (IV.244). The characteristic adjective "sweet" contains the perception of taste and feeling. So there are a rich emotions in this beginning.

Cowper uses the device of personification. Evening and night become female persons. The evening is called mother, the romantic image of the person that protects and gives birth. Her movement, the "matron-step" (IV.246) is, like dusk itself, slow. The natural sequence of evening and night can be observed in the image when the night steps on the "sweeping [evening’s] train" (IV.246-47). In the poet’s imagination the evening’s function is to protect, which is shown by the metaphor of the "curtain …[guaranteeing undisturbed] repose" (IV.248). It is an act of reasoning comparing the two female figures, the night and the evening, but when the poet sees them decorated with different numbers of stars his imagination is concerned. When he evaluates them, namely "pageantry" versus "modest" (IV.14-5), it is mixed with reflections.

Then Cowper moves to the theme of man and nature. To a human being the evening is the time for relaxing and recreation. After a list of physical activities Cowper eventually comes to the actual pure mental occupation, which he as a romantic poet prefers. His fancy follows the movement of light and shadow of the low-burnt fire in the fireside of his sitting-room. It gives his imagination an impulse to wander about. He enjoys the "parlour twilight" (IV.278) that blurs the outline of things (IV.267). Cowper enjoys to move between "contemplative" and "unthinking mind" (IV.279-80), to give way to fancies in the state of day-dream (IV.287), may these be buildings, plants or superstition like the "stranger"(IV.295) or giants ("Goliath" in IV.270). Here Cowper sees the creative poet when he says: "I gazed myself creating what I saw" (IV.290). By a noise brought back to reality, "restore[d] …to [him]self"( IV.307), he consciously begins to realize the warmth and silence of his room. His memory carries him back to images of nature, to the theme of man and nature, to the tension of the individual and world.

With a surprising variety of colours and hues, e.g. "green", "faded", "golden", "mellow-brown", "verdure", "sable hue" (IV.70-78) the poet describes the change of nature. The change of time follows immediately. Cowper anticipates the morning and its light, for the poet knows about change, which most people do not notice because it is "silent" and "slow"(IV.323-24). Cowper puts this idea in the following words: "[Performance is] the face of universal nature"(IV.324-325). To underline this statement the poet adds another image (IV.84 ff.), i.e. the snow that like the twilight blurs outlines of things and like the evening covers the plants with a cold veil that protects and spreads warmth at the same time. The contrast of cold and warm is balanced.

Cowper’s poem The Task contains, scattered over more than 3500 verses, many romantic elements, whereas Coleridge’s "Frost at midnight" with its 74 verses is a romantic poem throughout. Coleridge writes about a cold winter night sitting in his house by the fire-side, only accompanied by his sleeping child, remembering past times, developing visions of the future and his philosophy of life which at the same time contains his task as a poet. Similarities to Cowper’s evening in book IV of The Task are obvious: evening, winter, fireside, idling spirit, fancies, stranger.

Coleridge’s poem contains important romantic elements from the very beginning; the opening line runs: "The frost performs its ministry…" (line 1). The poem is about a process of nature, but it is more. The performance is a ministry and this ministry is secret. It will be the poet’s task to find out the secret. Cowper speaks of his "genuine" (I.152) view of nature; Coleridge speaks of the secret of nature. Cowper deals with a variety of performances of nature whereas Coleridge concentrates on the composition of one image, the frost of midnight.

Cowper’s and Coleridge’s poetical imagination are only evoked under certain preconditions of life: a quiet house and a state of restfulness. A poet, such as Coleridge needs silence (8,10), "solitude" (5) and "musing" (6) to compose his poem. His mind becomes receptive for things otherwise not realized by people. First, the poet hears the owl’s cry from outside, which is "loud" (3) in a frost night; then he sees the cradle in the room. He feels the peace, which surrounds his child’s sleep and the "extreme silentness" (4-10). Coleridge looks out again and recognizes the outline of the landscape around: "sea, and hill, and wood…" (10-11). A thought makes clear to him that life in the village has calmed down as well and he uses the comparison "inaudible as dreams" (13). Thus perception and thought lead towards the sphere of dream. But within a moment his eyes are fixed on "the blue flame…on the grate"(13-16) and he notices that nothing around him moves any longer except for the "film" (15). Coleridge’s subjective imagination begins to work. He interprets the secret message the fluttering film sends to him as a companionable form of his "idling spirit" (20), which follows his "moods" (21). Mood means perception plus thinking. The spirit is searching for its own self, mostly its picture that can be perceived in a mirror or through an echo (21-23). Cowper sees sitting by the fireside fancies of a different kind, e.g. a towering giant, or according to superstition the stranger. Coleridge proceeds one step more towards the romantic and mysterious.

Coleridge’s second stanza of "Frost at Midnight" deals with memory and hence implies a contrast ("But" in line 23) and logical change of time from present to past, but there are several links between the two stanzas. One link is the rhythm and metre because the end of the first stanza and beginning of the second is in the middle of the blank verse (23). Several images are resumed or continued such as flame, which for example "flutters" (16) or is a "fluttering stranger" (26). Similarly, "sleep" also found as "slumber" continues throughout the lines 7-35 and is linked with dreaming (13-35). The "toy" (23) associates it with the theme of childhood in the second stanza. But it is presumably the child itself. In stanza one Coleridge’s child is lying next to him, in stanza two he sees himself as a child and links past and present through his memory. Coleridge opens a child’s perspective of life whereas Cowper recollects a child’s lasting impressions of nature. Coleridge takes the child’s soul in account more than Cowper does.

Both poets’ imaginations begin with something real. The young Coleridge sees his native town, hears the bells, remembers how it was at school with his "swimming book" on his desk (38) with the stern teacher. He thinks of his sister (28-43) and longs for her. The child observes and listens carefully. He "gaze[s]" (25 and 34), "watch[es]" (26), "snatche[s] a … glance" (39-40) with his eyes, hears sounds (33) and has the faculty of emotion. He has a "believing mind" (24), is "presageful" (25), "[his] heart leap[s] up" (40) and he "hope[s]" (41). But the child blends reality and dream. "With unclosed lids … [he] dream[s]" (26). The "stranger" of the future is already present (26-41), "the following morn" (36) longed for. Cowper’s female personification of the evening (book IV) is already romantic, but the child in Coleridge’s poem is more. It interweaves reality and dream present past and future perception and feeling.

In the third stanza Coleridge returns to the present time. Expressions such as "dear" (44), "gentle"(45), "thrills my heart" (48), "tender gladness" (49) show how the poet loves his child. The rhythm of the child’s breathing reminds us of the rhythm in the thresher’s work in Cowper’s poem. The thresher is part of the regular course of nature. The child’s breathings in Coleridge’s poem are linked to the poet’s thoughts and interweave the deep relationship of father and child. Then Coleridge utters the wish that his son should have a better youth than his father, who had grown up with the confinedness of the city, and instead should experience the beauty of nature in the country (53-58).

Both poets prefer the perception of seeing and hearing and a retreat into the rural landscape. But Cowper uses for example the metaphor of the wheel to show the circular course of nature, whereas Coleridge says that God is present in nature and teaches us through nature. The philosophy of pantheism influences his poetry. Coleridge wishes that God would become his son’s teacher in experience of nature. So nature teaches ideas and forms man’s spirits (63-64).

In the last stanza Coleridge’s imagination moves from the "Great universal Teacher" (63) to the beauty of nature as it will present itself to Coleridge’s son (65-74). The poet describes the change of seasons with animals and plants with a similar minuteness of observation as Cowper in The Task. Then Coleridge includes man and moves to his house by talking of "thatch" and "eave-drops" (69-70) and thus linking the last stanza to the first and the situation of the poet being the only person awake in a frost night Sounds as "blasts" (70) and "drops " (71) become fainter until in the end there is silence. This corresponds to the extreme silentness of the first stanza. The secret ministry of frost changes "eave-drops" (70) to "icicles" (73), turning liquid into something solid. So the falling drops can no longer be heard, but the icicles now can reflect the light of the moon back to this eternal star. The movement is from the universe to earth back to the universe. The imagination of the romantic poets’ traces this secret.

As a conclusion one can say that a basic romantic imagination can be found in Cowper’s poem The Task, but is brought to perfect minuteness in Coleridge’s Frost at midnight. The latter one rather soundly reflects the metaphysical language of romantic imagination, whereas the former still shows more adhesion to reality.


 Works cited


Coleridge, Samuel Tayor. "Frost at Midnight." Coursepack, English 222, University of Puget Sound, 2000.

Cower, William. "The Task: A Poem." Coursepack, English 222, University of Puget Sound, 2000.