Imagination, Transformation, and Perfection:

The Mind and Nature in Shelley and Keats

The solitude and silence of a monumental mountain or an intricately carved Grecian urn are the inspiration for man’s imagination. In Percy Bysshe Shelley’s "Mont Blanc: Lines Written in the Vale of Chamouni" and John Keats’ "Ode on a Grecian Urn," these visions are the fodder for man’s creativity, feeding his mind with the countless images and idyllic pictures that transform themselves in his own imaginative world. By subscribing to the concept that he is separate from the world around him, a man finds somewhere in his "dark…[and] glittering" (Shelley, 3) mind the powerful creativity capable of finding inspiration even within the simplest, quietest image of nature. Deep inside the solitary quietude of his reverie, this man is contemplative and creative, attempting to identify himself with the "other," the object of his scrutiny, and thereby connect himself with his surroundings. It is because he can relate himself to his environment that man can picture the grandiose river of "the everlasting universe of things" (Shelley, 1) flowing rapidly through his mind; his ability to "hold…an unremitting interchange / With the clear universe of things around" (Shelley, 39-40) shows the actively imaginative "dialogue" he has with his surroundings. However, man is not always capable of this connection with his environment, for he is not always able to fully grasp the "other," as is exemplified in Keats’ "Ode." His urn is a picture of absolute idealism, a timeless "unravish’d bride of quietness" (Keats, 1). The idyllic pastoral carvings on the urn suggest to the man the beauty and perfection of the bygone days that he can neither see nor understand, as he possibly could with the "dizzy ravine" (Shelley, 34). Upon inspecting the urn, the mind is boggled by the paradigm it depicts, and the man is incapable of identifying himself with the model world worked delicately in marble. In both circumstances, then, the man must ultimately remain separated from nature. The "self" is incapable of permanently connecting with the "other," and thus the man is still distinctly "a man," and nature is still decidedly "nature." Due to this complex compulsory separation, the mind is forced to create imaginative pictures with what it observes, and though it cannot completely connect itself to these outside objects, it nevertheless can attempt to comprehend their beauty and significance.

The comprehension of beauty in "Mont Blanc" lies first within the reception of images, in order that the mind may have a foundation upon which to base its subsequent creative visions. The fluidity of the images which "flow…through the mind" (Shelley, 2) in the work suggest initially that they are transients that float in and out of a man’s thoughts, momentarily connecting him with the natural world around him, but subsequently leaving him "to muse on [his] own separate fantasy" (Shelley, 36) when they are no longer needed. Suggesting that the mind is definitely distinguishable from nature, this "separate fantasy" is fed by the "secret springs" (Shelley, 4) that are, in turn, fed by the images picked up in nature. These rivulets of nature images are, like naturally occurring springs, origins from which flow the stream of human thought; they provide the initial images, and the mind is then urged to expand on these pictures it is continually receiving. This reception of "fast influencings" (Shelley, 38) is what sparks the imagination, as it provides the mind with quick and impulsive images that can be stored in the "secret springs" of the mind and later used to construct grand visions and fantasies. It is through reception that the mind is able to collect its fuel for imagination, for without the initial images with which to work, the mind is left without fuel for creation.

The reception, however, is not solely passive; rather, the "human mind… / …renders" (Shelley, 37-38) images as well, "holding an unremitting interchange" (Shelley, 39) with the world around it, giving the mind a chance to commune with its environment and thereby understand it more completely. This construction and subsequent exchange of fantasy between the mind and the world around it is accomplished through the undeniably creative means of poetry, which classically spotlight the aesthetic beauty of the surrounding world. The "legion of wild thoughts" (Shelley, 41) that the mind internalizes "rest[s] / …In the still cave of the witch Poesy" (Shelley, 42-44), waiting patiently to be "rendered" into new, creative visions by the human mind. The language of lines 42-44 suggests that these internalizations of nature repose in a timeless, or "still," cave, in which the bewitching Lady of Verse resides. Because the poetic creativity is represented as a "witch," it is clear that the force by which the mind "renders" its internalized images is somewhat magical, that it has the power to perhaps transform images and morph them into the novel imaginative visions so common to the art of poetry. Likewise, the metaphor of the cave as a place in the mind serves to further the idea that outside images clearly influence the creative mind, simply because they reside in a cavernous mouth of earth, a place of refuge in both the real world and the world of imagination. The "wild thoughts" temporarily dwelling with the "witch Poesy" in her transformation cave are not alone in their errant, "wild" stopover in the man’s mind for they live with other "[g]hosts of all things that are" (Shelley, 46). This cave, then, is a shelter for all the images the mind takes in and stores; it provides a home to all the pictures, or "ghosts," of the real, tangible objects the mind observes.

These observations, "phantom[s]…[and] faint image[s]" (Shelley, 47) of nature, are transformed by the aforementioned "witch" of the mind and used to further separate the man from his surroundings by teaching him to rely on that separation to aid him in retaining his powers of imaginative creativity. The mind receives the images nature feeds it with and turns them into lessons to be learned, for "[the] wilderness has a mysterious tongue / Which teaches" (Shelley, 76-77) to the receptive mind. This attribution of the "mysterious tongue" to a traditionally speechless nature serves to reinforce the concept that it has the ability to "[t]each the adverting mind" (Shelley, 100), as it suddenly is given the means by which to physically speak to the mind it teaches, and, theoretically, directly tell the "secret springs" exactly what images to internalize and interpret. However, though nature appears to have the power to speak to the "adverting mind," it nevertheless is incapable of truly fusing itself with the "secret springs" of human thoughts, simply because it not only teaches "awful doubt, [but also] faith so mild" (Shelley, 77) which serves to permanently separate man from his surroundings. Truly, "man may be, / But for such faith, with nature reconciled" (Shelley, 78-79), but it is impossible for the mind to reconcile, or equate, itself with nature due to its undying faith that nature will remain as it always has been. That is, the "faith so mild," though it is slight, is nonetheless capable of keeping the mind faithfully dependant on its separateness; this gentle faith nature teaches is precisely what keeps the mind and nature from truly being reconciled as one force. Because the mind relies on nature to provide it with a continual stream of fresh images, it cannot afford to let itself be one with its inspiration, simply because that fusion would lead to the dissolving of the "unremitting interchange" that the mind had thus far cultivated with the natural world. If all are rendered the same, there is no room for interchange, for it naturally requires more than one voice. The relationship the mind and nature currently had would fall apart without this interaction, and the "faith so mild" would similarly disappear into the man’s newly conceptualized picture of himself as one with the natural world around him. Clearly, man’s observations of nature’s intrinsic beauty are considerably significant, in that they are the dividing force which keeps the mind in continual production of poetic renderings of outside messages.

On the other hand, the man can also use these internalized images during his intermittent periods of respite from active observation, where they are manifested in the form of dream visions, which he falsely views as glimpses into the world of death. These "gleams of a remoter world / [that] Visit the soul in sleep" (Shelley, 49-50) are the mind’s exaggerated renditions of the images it receives during the daylight hours; they are "gleams," or reasonably short flashes of the mind’s manufactured images of the "remoter world" of death. Clearly these "gleams" are merely creative shimmers of what the mind supposes death to be, for it lacks the experience of a familiarity with the reality of death, as all minds do. The closest relation the living mind has to death is sleep, and ironically, that is the place in which it draws the farthest away from being connected with the world of the dead, in that the "might[y] world of sleep" (Shelley, 55) is the world in which the contrived visions of the mind’s imagined death run rampant. It is in this dream world that the mind renders its "cave dwelling" images of nature into a conglomeration of image upon image, "spread[ing] far around… / Its circles" (Shelley, 56-57) in the mind’s amalgam of imagery. The "spreading" of the images the mind stores from seemingly unrelated "circle" to circle is the function of the sleeping mind; it takes the unconnected messages received from nature and combines them despite their lack of relational ties. Thus, an imaginative picture the likes of which no mind has witnessed is created, and because this new picture is markedly foreign, it is labeled as the "unfurl[ing]" (Shelley, 53) of a vision inspired by an "unknown omnipotence" (Shelley, 53). This anonymous sculptor of dreams is merely a convention the mind invents to reconcile its strange new visions of mish-mashed nature. The mind is then left to ponder the significance of its supposed "death visions," and wakes to feed once more on the stimulating images from nature, which, in turn, sustain both his poetic sensibilities and his nightly reveries.

This mismatched natural world of "Mont Blanc" is decidedly contrary to Keats’ "Ode on a Grecian Urn," which cites the outside inspiration of the urn’s the ideal picture of a utopian world, incomprehensible to the human mind, simply because the mind has no experience upon which to base an idea of "perfection" as it is inherently imperfect. The images carved into the urn portray scenes of pastoral flawlessness, of "deities or mortals, or of both" (Keats, 6) living contemporaneously in a harmonious "leaf-fring’d legend" (Keats, 5) of immortal marble. It would seem to the observers of the urn that man has been "with nature reconciled" (Shelley, 79), as it shows the "happy, happy boughs that cannot shed / [their] leaves" (Keats, 21-22) in complete accord with the "[f]air youth, beneath the trees" (Keats, 15) playing his eternal song. These ebullient trees caught in an eternal spring and beautiful boy forever piping his song are clearly idyllic fantasies, the likes of which are virtually impossible in reality. Spring fades to summer each year; youths grow older and cease their songs in death. These ideal pictures of men and nature existing as one eternal force together are the quixotic pictures of a people long since passed, and yet they still remain for later generations to ponder, to imagine, and to desire.

The creative ponderings the urn inspires are essentially eternal, for the marble-wrought object, a "still… / …foster-child of silence and slow time" (Keats, 1-2), represents the timelessness of the mind’s image of an ideal life, as it is the "still," or everlasting, progeny of both quietude and the unhurried march of time. This urn is left behind even after "old age…this generation waste[s]" (Keats, 46), still depicting its images of men and gods, still retaining its mysterious power to convey the perfect life to the perplexed minds who contemplate its static relief. Its beauty speaks to the mind through images, but these depictions are foreign to a more modern mind whose capabilities for understanding the ideal are, as is the case with all other minds, severely lacking. This foreign quality is clearly represented at the end of Stanza One with the series of questions regarding the images observed on the urn, "What men or gods are these? What maidens loth? / What mad pursuit? [etc…]" (Keats, 8-9). These questions represent the mind’s initial attempt to grasp the concept of the ideal as depicted on the pristine marble urn. The mind searches, asks, endeavors to understand the idyllic world it sees. Unfortunately, the urn "dost tease [men] out of thought / As doth eternity," (Keats, 44-45); its perfect world, like the concept of infinite time, is completely impossible for the finite, imperfect human mind to grasp. It would appear that the urn tricks, or "teases," the thoughts directly out of the heads of the observers, leaving them unable to understand its cryptic pictures.

Though these images remain a mystery, however, the urn nevertheless speaks to the mind, telling the man of the beauty and timelessness of its sacred splendor. Named the "unravish’d bride of quietness" (Keats, 1), this urn is clearly an unmolested partner to silence, and though it does not physically talk, its images speak to the mind much louder than perhaps audible words ever could. Truly, "[h]eard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter" (Keats, 11-12); the unspoken words of the urn which span across time are much more beautiful, due to the fact that they are open for interpretation. That is, though the man is incapable of truly understanding the "unheard melody" of the picture-perfect society on the urn, he is still capable of attempting to imagine that world. His creativity would be dampened, obviously, if the melody were already played out for him. He would be left to merely replay the melody in his mind, over and over, without room to renew it with his own creative imagination. The urn, though it does convey an image, does not create for the observer a completely comprehensible picture. Instead, it offers an image of beauty and perfection, open to interpretation by the minds that wish to muse upon the life rendered in cold marble.

The indifferent marble face of the perfect urn and the circling images of the expansive Mont Blanc serve to inspire and perpetuate creativity and imagination. They offer the mind stimuli with which to render pictures of its surroundings, and provide a means through which the mind can commune with that from which it is separate. This distinct separation the mind makes between itself and the outside world is crucial to the survival of imagination, for without the continual flow of images in and out of the mind’s imaginative channels and waterways, creativity would cease to exist. The imagination would have nothing left to base its visions upon, and though it would be rendered one with the natural world it once observed, it would nevertheless be unable to drink up and reinvent the images it had previously been able to survey. The mind, then, would be left without inspiration, without the "secret Strength [of nature]… / Which governs thought" (Shelley, 139-40) and provides the imagination with its ever-unfolding images of beauty.