Absence and the Function of the Creative Imagination in Mont Blanc and Manfred, a Dramatic Poem

In late eighteenth century Britain, the role of the imagination became crucial in placing oneself, and understanding one’s role in the natural or the external world. The romantic imagination that was produced, was one in which the mind not only thought, and reasoned but created. Such creation is found in both esteemed romantic works, Mont Blanc, by Shelley, and Manfred, a Dramatic Poem, by Byron. The speaker and protagonist’s act of distinguishing the self from the world around them in both Mont Blanc and Manfred effectively removes them from the external world and allows for the recognition of absence and the corresponding need to create in this absence using the imagination. Thus, absence essentially demands the creative use of imagination, the process that forms a relationship of power in which the external world subjects the human mind to create in the presence of absence.

Removal of the self from the rest of the world is evident and in the first stanza of Shelley’s Mont Blanc is found the references to "surface," which suggest the mind is dynamically related to, while distinguished from, the "universe of things" and from the absence that exists beneath this surface. The beginning of the poem begins, "The everlasting universe of things / flows through the mind, and rolls its rapid waves" (1-2). The initial distinction made in this poem, is clearly between the mind, and the "universe of things." Moreover, this universe of "things separate from the mind" is likened to the image of a river in these first lines in that it "flows through the mind," and "rolls its rapid waves." The river-like universe of things, while distinct, is clearly involved in a dynamic relationship with the mind, a relationship that in this passage is compared to the motion of rolling waves. This relationship is further clarified as the poem continues to refer to the waves as, "Now dark—now glittering—now reflecting gloom— / Now lending splendor" (3-4). What is interesting about these four descriptions when compared to the previous description of the "rolling waves" in terms of motion is that they all involve descriptions in terms of light. Moreover, the references of light draw attention to the surface of the water on which the light is potentially reflected. In all these cases, not only does the description of a surface point to the distinction between what essentially separates the water from the air (the surface), but in describing the surface of the water, the passage avoids actually describing the body of water itself, and what lies beneath the surface remains ambiguous. Therefore, this passage clarifies the relationship between the mind and the river-like universe of things by pointing out the dynamic motion of the fluid-like universe of things, which is distinguished from the mind of the speaker and alludes to the absence within the universe of things, separated from the mind by the us of surface.

While the mind is effectively removed from the universe of things and the absence within it, it is clear that the dynamic relationship between the two is one in which the river-like universe of things requires a degree of subjection from the mind, in terms of a "tribute." In the first stanza, the passage continues its description of the movement of the universe of things through the mind, "where from secret springs / the source of human thought its tribute brings / Of waters" (4-6). Here the poem indicates that within the mind are secret springs, which are the source of human thought. Again the imagery of water appears, but this time it is not in terms of a flowing river with rapid waves, but as a spring. Normally referring to a source of water, the spring in this sense serves as the source of human thought, making a metaphorical connection between thought and water. Having made this connection, the lines can be understood to mean that "human thought is the tribute of water brought from the sources or the secret springs of the mind to the eternal universe of things." The relationship that is created, then, is one in which human thought is a tribute, or the necessary payment of the mind to the eternal universe of things. Taking the register of water even farther, the relationship can be thought of in terms of the mind as a spring, from where thoughts, as waters, originate, but essentially must flow into the river-like universe of things in the same way that all tributaries must eventually lead into the larger river. Therefore, it is clear that as this universe of things flows through the mind, it requires a tribute from the mind in the form of thought, essentially subjecting the mind to the universe of things.

Although essentially subject to the universe of things, the minds renders thought to the universe of things, as a response of creative imagination to the simultaneous stimulus received by the mind in its recognition of absence within the universe of things. The nature of this tribute in further clarified in the second stanza, in which the speaker refers to,

My own, my human mind, which passively

Now renders and receives fast influencings,

Holding an unremitting interchange

With the clear universe of things all around. (37-40)

The order of events occurring in the mind in these lines is especially important in understanding the process with which the mind interacts with the universe of things. Instead of receiving influences and then "rendering" them, as would seem logical, the mind in this poem quickly renders and receives influencings at the same time ("now"). To "render" can be to "to pay as due (a tax, tribute, etc.)" (Random House Dictionary) in which case the concept of the mind being required to pay a tribute to the universe of things again applies. To "render," however, can also be "to cause to be or become; make" (Random House Dictionary). Therefore, the mind’s tribute to the river, as the source of human thought, can be thought of as an act of creating thought, or imagining. This act of imagination, as the lines suggest, is the simultaneous response to passively receiving "fast influencings" of "the clear universe of things all around." Normally the passive reception of an influence of the universe of things would be thought of as the same as "perceiving" the universe of things. In this case, however, the universe of things, while all around, is "clear." Essentially, there is nothing for the mind to perceive except for absence, which can’t be perceived but merely recognized as absence. Therefore, the mind is revealed to be the passive point of interchange in which the absence of the universe of things received is simultaneously created by the imagination.

The unconscious need for the imagination to create in the awareness of any absence establishes a relationship of power in which the mind is subject to the universe of things. In the poem, Mont Blanc itself is essentially a haven of absence to the mind of the speaker. The last stanza of the poem begins,

Mont Blanc yet gleams on high:—the power is there,

The still and solemn power of many sights

And many sounds, and much life and death. (127-129)

While it is clear in the first line that the mountain is powerful, it is not readily apparent how. The next lines suggest, rather paradoxically, that it is through the "still and solemn power" of "many sights and sounds," sights and sounds being neither sill or solemn, and certainly not characteristic of absence. Nevertheless, this paradox is a function of the speaker’s mind that has already been analyzed; the mind cannot perceive absence, or even recognize it without simultaneously creating with the imagination. Thus, to the speaker, the still and solemn Mountain must be filled with sights and sounds. This fact is made even more apparent as the speaker goes on to say,

In the calm darkness of the moonless nights,

In the lone glare of day, the snows descend

Upon that Mountain; none beholds them there. (130-132)

The speaker faces the same dilemma as before. One cannot see the snow falling in the "darkness of the moonless nights," or through the bright glare of the Mountain in the day. Unless the speaker is assumed to be at the Mountain and somehow able to sense the falling of snow despite the obscurity of darkness or glare, there is no way that the speaker could no it was snowing. Yet the speaker admits "none beholds them (the snows) there (upon the Mountain)" (132). Thus, given the vast emptiness that the Mountain poses, the creative imagination of the speaker has no choice but to create the falling snow. This is the power that the Mountain possesses; the power is there, in the inconceivable vastness that is immediately translated into many sights and sounds. The poem comes back to this power in the last lines of the poem, which read,

The secret strength of things

Which governs thought, and to the infinite dome

Of heaven is as a law, inhabits thee! (139-141)

As the secret spring was the source of thought within the mind, absence within the universe of things is "the secret strength of things" which governs that thought in the way that it demands the imagination to create. This secret strength in absence is "as a law," the speaker says, and it inhabits "thee," referring to the Mountain. Therefore, it is clear that the mind is governed by the absence that is the power of the universe of things in the way the imagination is subject to absence in its need to create.

As in Mont Blanc, the removal of the self from the external world renders the creative mind subject to the absences of this world in that the need to create becomes an act of destruction, essentially its own destruction. In Byron’s Manfred, a Dramatic Poem, the protagonist, Manfred, is effectively estranged from the external world. Like the "universe of things," Manfred distinguishes himself from the external world by identifying a separate "visible world." He says, "Beautiful! / How beautiful is all the visible world / How glorious in its action is all this visible world (36-38)." Manfred effectively removes himself in these lines from a world that does not encompass him, but encompasses everything he can see. Moreover, this world is beautiful "in itself," suggesting that Manfred perceives this world as a separate entity entirely. The visible world, in Manfred’s perspective, is also beautiful in its "actions," suggesting that like the mind and the river-like universe of things, Manfred’s relationship to the visible world can be analyzed in terms of motion. The following lines shed light on this relationship, which read,

But we, who name ourselves its sovereigns, we,

Half dust, half diety, alike unfit

To sink or sour, with our mix’d essence make

A conflict of its elements, and breathe

The breath of degradation and of pride,

Contending with low wants and lofty will. (I,II,39-44)

Manfred explains his removal from the external world by pointing out that he is not sovereign to it, in which case he would be incorporated as a part of the visible world; instead Manfred is in conflict with this world, in a manor that is derived from his composition of neither dust (nature) nor diety, but half of each. Thus, Manfred goes on to describes this conflict in terms of motion, suggesting that with his "mix’d essence," he is essentially in conflict with the sinking and soaring motion of this world, the same "beautiful action" of the visible world from before. Sinking is the fluid motion through water, and soaring the corresponding motion through air. This motion is characteristic of what Manfred essentially concludes separates him from the rest of the world, the contention between his "low wants and lofty will." These contending desires correlate with the dust and deity halves of his being, the low wants composing his earth bound desires, and his lofty will his aspirations for the divine. Manfred speaks of these contending motives again later in the poem saying, "My joys, my griefs, my passions, and my powers, / Made me a stranger (II,II,55-56). Thus, it is clear that Manfred’s perception of his contending motives and apparent estrangement from creation remove him from the external world.

Having completely removed himself from this world, Manfred is not only exposed to absence that leads to his creation of spirits throughout the poem, but he finds absence of self in Astarte, his own kin, which causes him to create love in a relationship that is incestuous. Throughout the poem, Manfred spends his time not with other men of a visible world from which he has been removed, but with spirits of another world, presumably his own world, created by the imagination in light of the absence he receives from the external world. Evidence for the idea that Manfred’s spirits are indeed products of his creative imagination includes the fact that they appear whenever he is immersed in this absence (when he’s completely alone), or when he is actively pursuing this absence (the visit by the Abbot). Likewise, during one of the several times that Manfred converses with the spirits, he beckons them to approach him, in which case one of the spirits replies,

We have no forms beyond the elements

Of which we are the mind and principle:

But choose a form—in that we will appear. (I,I,181-183)

These lines reveal Manfred’s creative mind at work, in which case the spirits literally are the mind, and will appear however Manfred imagines them. It comes as no surprise then that the spirit adopts the shape of a beautiful female figure. The underlying absence for Manfred in the poem is that of his assumed sister, Astarte, whose presence Manfred ultimately tries to regain, and is obviously the beautiful figure conjured up by Manfred’s imagination on this occasion to whom Manfred cannot help but respond saying,

Oh God! If it be thus, and thou

Art not a madness and a mockery,

I yet might be most happy.—I will clasp thee,

And again will be—. (I,I,188-191)

Manfred clearly states that if this is indeed be Astarte, he will seek pleasure by embracing her, and repeating the same incestuous sin he condemns himself for throughout the rest of the play. In his description of Astarte, Manfred admits that,

She was like me in lineaments—her eyes,

Her hair, her features, all, to the very tone

Even of her voice, they said were like to mine. (II,II,105-107)

While the poem never says that Astarte is Manfred’s sister, it is clear from this passage that there are definite parts of Manfred in Astarte. Yet, even so, these lines make it clear that it is not Manfred who recognizes this, but others who made the comparison for him. Manfred does not have the ability to recognize himself in another because he has completely removed himself from this world. Thus, Manfred’s act of incest, to Manfred, is not with his sister, or even with himself, but with the product of his own mind. In completely removing himself from the external world, Manfred is incapable of recognizing himself in Astarte, only the absence, in which case he sins against his own creation.

Whether Manfred’s act of creation is the "deadliest sin" (II,IV,24) or the ultimate act of self fulfillment, it is apparent that his creative imagination provides Manfred with supple power in the poem. However powerful Manfred’s act of creation makes him, this act of creation intricately linked to destruction, rendering Manfed’s creative mind subject to the absences of the external world that feed it. In the last stanza of the poem Manfred relates the final feat of the creative imagination, the ability to terminate one’s own existence. Manfred says,

The mind which is immortal makes itself

Requital for its good or evil thoughts—

Is its own origin of ill and end. (III,IV,129-131)

If the concept of death for all circumstances relevant to the external world is essentially the concept of ultimate absence, then death by ways of the external world is inconceivable and becomes a faculty of the creative imagination. Therefore, for all practical purposes, Manfred’s mind is its own origin and end. It would seem that control over death, as well as self-pleasure would ultimately render the creative imagination all-powerful. Both of these creative processes, however, are bound to destruction. Manfred’s act of incest with the creation of his own mind is ultimately linked to his destruction of his creation. The act of incest in turn motivates the creative imagination to pursue the only greater creative faculty, the creation of ones own death, or inversely, the destruction of one’s own life. It is evident that for Manfred, the act of creation continuously leads to the recognition of more absence with which the imagination can create, a cycle that escalates until creation essentially became destruction. Therefore, because the inevitable consequence of creation is death, the creative mind is subject to the incomprehensible absence of the external world.

There fore, it is clear that in both Mont Blanc and Manfred, the removal of the mind from the external world allows for the recognition of absence within this world and the corresponding need to create in this absence using the imagination. This process renders the human mind subject to the absence of the natural world as the act of creation in its most escalated form becomes on of destruction. Thus the relationship of the romantic imagination with the external world is powerful, while ultimately destructive, and sufficiently subject absence as it appears in nature in both poems. Such a relationship provides a new understanding of the imagination that is crucial in understanding romantic thought.

 

Works Cited

Byron. "Manfred, A Dramatic Poem." British Literature 1780-1830. Eds. Anne Mellor, Richard Matlak. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College Pub, 1996. 927-46.

Random House Webster’s College Dictionary. New York: Rand House, 1999.

Shelley, Percy. "Mont Blanc" British Literature 1780-1830. Eds. Anne Mellor, Richard Matlak. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College Pub, 1996. 927-46.