The Eternal Imagination

Both John Keats and Percy Shelley thought of poetry as an immortal or eternal representation of the world. Keats believed that "[t]he excellence of every Art is its intensity, capable of making all disagreeables evaporate, from their being in close relationship with Beauty & Truth" ("Letter to George" 1263). The imagination perceives beauty in poetry and accepts it as truth, thus causing disagreeables to evaporate. To Keats, what the imagination "seizes as Beauty must be truth" ("Letter to Bailey" 1261). The two ideas are irreconcilable in the realm of the human imagination. Shelley felt that "[a] poem is the very image of life expressed in its eternal truth" and that "[a]ll high poetry is infinite" ("Defence" 1170, 1173). Both poets believed that poetry expressed the truth of the world around them. The imaginative process of the human mind perceived these truths about life. Keats’ "Ode on a Grecian Urn" and Shelley’s "Mont Blanc," through imagery that describes the impalpable spirit of nature, present the workings of the imagination as the interaction between the mind and the intangible essence of nature. This interaction makes immortal the earthly objects and experiences of a mortal world.

Keats’ notion of negative capability is evident in "Ode on a Grecian Urn" as an illustration of the impalpable spirit or essence within nature. In the first stanza of the poem, there is a contrast between heaven on earth and an earthly heaven. The scene depicted on the urn may exist "In Tempe or the dales of Arcady" (1.7). As Earl Wasserman writes in his essay, "The Ode on a Grecian Urn," Tempe is the "earthly region which the gods…were inclined to favor – an earthly heaven – and Arcady that region that man thought to approach most nearly a paradise – a heavenly earth" (115). The immortal, intangible region is Tempe. It is an area that no mortal man shall find on earth. Arcady is a terrestrial paradise. It is not, however, a divine or immortal region. Tempe represents the imagination, an immortal region that does not exist on earth, while Arcady is the region that inspires the creation of thoughts within the imagination. In other words, the earthly paradise of Arcady inspires the creation of the eternal paradise of Tempe within man’s imagination.

The metaphor of Tempe and Arcady parallel the contrast Keats makes between heard and unheard music in the second stanza. Keats explains that "Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on; / Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d, / Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone" (2.11-14). The unheard or silent melodies of the pipes are the sweetest to the ear. These disagreeables, the heard and unheard melodies, evaporate when perceived by the imagination. The soft pipes are called upon to play, not to "the sensual ear," but to the "spirit." The contrast here places sensory perception against the imagination (Ford 136). Heard melodies are those that play to our sensual ear. The sweeter melodies are those that do not exist, except when perceived by our imagination. These "ditties of no tone" are more endearing to our spirit. While sensory melodies cause our ears to hear the sound of the song, the imaginative melodies compel our spirit to feel the tone of the music.

Feelings, not sensory perception, bring immortality to earthly objects. The "Fair youth, beneath the trees," cannot leave his or her song, "nor ever can those trees be bare" (Keats 2.15-16). The song is carried with the youth forever. It is not something that the youth can choose to depart from; it is an internal melody. This song is created by the youth’s imagination. It is a ceaseless flow of music that is formed by the creative mind. While this song plays, the trees that the youth rests under will never be bare. Though all trees must obey a seasonal cycle, losing their leaves in the fall and winter, and replenishing them in the spring and summer, these particular trees are somehow not governed by this temporal cycle. The song and the leaves of the trees are both eternal, not in the realm of the real world, but in the youth’s mind. An image of the trees has been created within him. This intangible essence of nature, having inspired the youth’s imagination, is now eternal.

Human emotions are also eternal, and may breathe immortality into mortal objects. The "Bold lover, never, never canst thou kiss, / Though winning near the goal" does not need to grieve, for "She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss, / For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!" (Keats 2.17-20). This scene appears to be frozen in time. The lover is "winning near the goal"; he appears to be very near consummation with the woman that he loves. He cannot kiss her, however. The two are caught just before the moment of consummation, and cannot move forward with it. This is not a reason to be sad, however. Though he will not feel the bliss of consummation, his love for her will last forever, and so his lover will never fade. On the contrary, she will always be fair. The feeling of love is eternal. It was inspired by an object, in this case his lover, which is outside of him. This eternal feeling of love will always be carried with him, much like the unheard melody. Like the song, this love also exists within the man’s imagination, where his lover will remain as the fair and beautiful woman that he sees before him. Though her earthly body will age as time progresses, in her lover’s imagination, the progression of time does not exist. Their happiness is unending.

The third stanza of the poem, again through the image of a piping song, repeats the idea of unending happiness. The poem presents images of eternity.

Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed

Your leaves, nor ever bid the spring adieu;

And happy melodist, unwearied,

For ever piping songs for ever new;

More happy love! more happy, happy love!

For ever warm and still to be enjoy’d

For ever panting, and for ever young; (3.21-27)

The happy melodist is piping his songs forevermore within the realm of his imagination. This creative imagination keeps the leaves on the trees for all eternity, where they will never see the end of spring. The happy boughs will remain forever green. Happy love is also eternal. It is "for ever warm" and will always be enjoyed. It does not grow old, but rather maintains its youthful vitality. It is an emotion that resides entirely within the human mind. The imagination, therefore, maintains this love, keeping it fresh and warm, so that it will still be felt and enjoyed throughout eternity.

Earthly passions are not as satisfying as those created in our mind, however. "All breathing human passion… / …leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy’d, / A burning forehead, and a parching tongue" (3.29-30). These breathing passions are living, and therefore are finite. Anything that breathes has life, and therefore a beginning and an end. These passions leave the heart mournful, and longing for satisfaction, once they are gone. The forehead burns, and the tongue thirsts, in fact, for these earthly passions after they have died.

In the poem’s final stanza, the urn is said to be an eternal representation of the human imagination. The urn, "When old age shall this generation waste, / …shalt remain… / …a friend to man, to whom thou say’st / ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’ – that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know" (5.46-50). Long after the current generation of man has passed on, the urn will still remain. As a friend to man, it provides man with the only knowledge necessary for existence on earth, that "Beauty is truth, truth beauty." According to Keats, what the imagination "seizes as Beauty must be truth" ("Letter to Bailey" 1261). The urn, therefore, represents the human imagination. It is the extraterrestrial realm that remains forever, providing mankind with the truth and beauty that co-exist in life.

Shelley’s "Mont Blanc" presents a similar glance at the interaction between the imagination and the natural world with images of the River Arve. The poem opens with the description that "The everlasting universe of things / Flows through the mind and rolls its rapid waves, / Now dark – now glittering – now reflecting gloom – / Now lending splendour…" (I.1-4). The "universe of things" is composed of objects not of the terrestrial world. They flow through the mind, and are therefore everlasting. This flow through the imagination is always changing. The waves roll rapidly, becoming dark, then glittering, then reflecting, and finally lending splendor. This constantly changing motion of human thought parallels the constantly changing motion of a river. As the imagination travels through the world, it experiences different sights and sounds, causing the river of thought to transform in response to these new experiences.

In the second stanza, the river of human thought flows into a physical river – the River Arve, where the two seem to blend together. The river runs through a deep ravine, with the "…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 – / Dizzy Ravine!" (II.30-34). The river’s sound is mighty. No other sound can obliterate it or compete with it. The sound is unresting and river’s motion is ceaseless, just as the song in "Ode on a Grecian Urn." The river inspires imaginative thought within Shelley, for when he looks upon the river he "seem[s] as in a trance sublime and strange / To muse on my own separate fantasy" (II.34-36). The river takes Shelley into an otherworldly state of mind. His imagination is now at work, creating a fantasy that is separate from the natural world. This fantasy cause his mind to "…passively / Now renders and receives fast influencings, / Holding an unremitting interchange / With the clear universe of things around" (II.36-39). His mind continues to receive influences, both from his imagination and from the world around him. These influences do not come directly from nature, however, but from the voice of nature.

It is the feeling one receives from nature that inspires thought, not nature itself. In stanza three, nature’s voice teaches man, causing them to feel. "The wilderness has a mysterious tongue / Which teaches awful doubt, or faith so mild" (III.76-77). Mont Blanc also has a voice, as Shelley writes "Thou hast a voice, great Mountain… / …not understood / By all, but which the wise, and great, and good / Interpret, or make felt, or deeply feel" (III.80-83). The voice of nature, coming from both the wilderness and the mountain, teaches the wise, the great, and the good, by causing them to feel. Nature inspires feeling that, in turn, provides man with the truth of the natural world.

Mont Blanc silently presides over this natural world, possessing the secrets that create and regulate human thought. The wind is said to "…heap the snow with breath / Rapid and strong, but silently! Its home / The voiceless lightning in these solitudes / Keeps innocently, and like vapour broods / Over the snow" (V.135-39). Both the wind and the lightning, though usually seen as clamorous forces of nature, are said to act silently atop the mountain. They retain the "…secret strength of things / Which governs thought, and to the infinite dome / Of heaven is as a law" (V.139-41). The natural forces of the wind and the lightning, though existing in silence and solitude, still contain the power to govern human thought and compose the law of the eternal reaches of heaven. Though no human being can hear the winds that swirl or the lightning that crashes atop Mont Blanc, these images still create thought in our imagination. The secret strengths are in fact the laws that heaven abides by. Heaven is a spiritual, extraterrestrial realm. It is not ruled by the same laws that exist on earth, but rather by the same strengths that compose imaginative thought in the human mind. This creates a distinction between the terrestrial world and impalpable realm of human thought.

This imaginative process, which creates nature’s voice out of silence and solitude, is responsible for the existence of things within the human mind. In the final three lines of the poem, the speaker asks "And what were thou, and earth, and stars, and sea, / If to the human mind’s imaginings / Silence and solitude were vacancy?" (V.142-44). This question is left open-ended. If the human imagination did not create something out of silence and solitude, it would leave it just like it appears to be, as emptiness. Without imaginative thought, the earth, the stars, the sea, and even the heavens would cease to be, at least in the realm of the human mind. Anything that was not perceived by the human senses would be seen as not truly existing. Shelley feels that the human imagination creates existence for that which does not exist in the realm of our senses. Though one may not hear the crash of lightning or the roar of the wind, the imagination tells one that it does still exist. This flow of imagination is ever changing, and creates within it an "everlasting universe of things" (I.1).

By interacting with the human imagination, the spiritual essence of nature makes its earthly presence immortal within the realm of the human mind. Both "Ode on a Grecian Urn" and "Mont Blanc" describe this interaction. Whether the role of the poem is to depict truth in what the imagination sees as beauty, or represent the image of the eternal truth of life, the fundamental idea remains the same. The interaction between the human imagination and the essence of nature breathes life into the mortal objects of our world.

 

Works Cited

Ford, Newell. The Prefigurative Imagination of John Keats. Stanford: Stanford University Press. 1951.

Keats, John. "Letter to Benjamin Bailey." British Literature, 1780-1830. Ed. Anne K. Mellor and Richard E. Matlak. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1996.

---. "Letter to George and Tom Keats." British Literature, 1780-1830. Ed. Anne K. Mellor and Richard E. Matlak. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1996.

---. "Ode on a Grecian Urn." British Literature, 1780-1830. Ed. Anne K. Mellor and Richard E. Matlak. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1996.

Shelley, Percy. "A Defence of Poetry." British Literature, 1780-1830. Ed. Anne K. Mellor and Richard E. Matlak. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1996.

---. "Mont Blanc." British Literature, 1780-1830. Ed. Anne K. Mellor and Richard E. Matlak. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1996.

Wasserman, Earl. "The Ode on a Grecian Urn." Keats. Ed. Walter Jackson Bate. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, Inc. 1964.