The Romantic Imagination

Although many great names are associated with Romantic literature, two poets who stand out as immensely influential figures are William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Friends during their own lifetimes, Wordsworth and Coleridge collaborated near the end of the eighteenth century to create "a volume that many literary historians consider to be the opening statement of Romanticism in England" (Matlak and Mellor, 681). In the Preface of this volume, titled Lyrical Ballads, with a Few Other Poems, Wordsworth describes the key elements that constitute Romantic literature, among them the role of the Imagination. However, before one can understand the role of the Imagination in Romantic literature, it is vital to understand what constitutes the Imagination as described by Coleridge in his Biographia Literaria, and how this definition ties in with Wordsworth’s comments in his Preface. Although Wordsworth’s "Preface" and Coleridge’s definition of Imagination illuminate the meaning and purpose of Romanticism, the extent to which Romantic poems truly express their vision varies. Thus, an analysis of the relationships between nature and physical sensations, and their roles in the formation and function of imagination in Wordsworth’s "Tintern Abbey" and Anna Barbould’s "A Summer Evening’s Meditation," demonstrate the ways in which these poems constitute Romantic lyrics.

Coleridge’s dual definition of the Imagination, combined with Wordsworth’s comments on Romantic literature, is conveniently divided into three simple functions. Essentially, the Imagination is a mode of memory, a mode of perception, and a mode of projection. As a mode of memory, the imagination "dissolves, diffuses, [and] dissipates, in order to recreate" (Coleridge, 750). It has the power to "conjure" up images from the past in order to recreate the feeling or the experience in the present, "For our continued influxes of feelings are modified and directed by our thoughts, which are indeed the representatives of all our past feelings" (Wordsworth, Preface, 577). As the "living power and prime Agent of all human perception," the Imagination interprets and evaluates new images and information (Coleridge, 750). As a mode of projection, the Imagination can create images and experiences, for a Romantic poet has the "disposition to be affected more than other men by absent things as if they were present, an ability of conjuring up in himself passions" (Wordsworth, Preface, 577). In addition, Romantic poets also possess a "greater promptness to think and feel without immediate external excitement," although the "causes which excite these…moral sentiments and animal sensations" might include "the operations of the elements and the appearances of the visible universe"(Wordsworth, Preface, 579). Thus, this definition of the imagination emphasizes the role of memory and creativity.

Although this definition is an accurate interpretation of Coleridge’s definition, there are two functions of the Imagination, which he uniquely emphasizes. The first is that the primary Imagination is "the repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I Am" (749). This "repetition in the finite mind" suggests a continuous search for perfection, ideality, or even divinity. Indeed, the ability of the mind to create states of tranquility that lead to a close understanding of this "eternal act of creation" is found in both "Tintern Abbey" and "A Summer Evening’s Meditation." The other aspect of the Imagination, which Coleridge uniquely emphasizes, is that "it is essentially vital, even as all objects (as objects) are essentially fixed and dead" (750). The emphasis on "as" is to signify that the imagination is important in itself, before it assumes any mode or function. Thus, just as objects are "fixed and dead" until someone conveys meanings on them, the Imagination is always to be valued highly, whether or not it is being applied properly.

From the definition above, it appears that the Imagination functions by recreating, reevaluating, and creating in an effort to perceive and understand the world. However, to this Wordsworth adds that the role of Imagination in Romantic literature is to react against the "multitude of causes unknown to former times [which] are now acting with a combined force to blunt the discriminating powers of the mind, and unfitting it for all voluntary exertion to reduce it to a state of almost savage torpor" (Wordsworth, Preface, 575). This emphasis on the human mind’s capability "of excitement without the application of gross and violent stimulants" is Wordsworth’s reaction to the growing number of city-dwellers who incessantly crave awesome and abominable "violent stimulants" (Wordsworth, Preface, 575). However, even in light of this disappointment, Wordsworth characterizes the Romantic poet as "finding every where objects that immediately excite in him sympathies which, from the necessities of his nature, are accompanied by an overbalance of enjoyment" (Wordsworth, Preface, 578). Indeed, according to Wordsworth, "The end of poetry is to produce excitement in coexistence with an overbalance of pleasure" (Wordsworth, Preface, 580). Wordsworth’s emphasis on the role of poetry as a "nonviolent" stimulation and one of pleasure, as well as the various roles of imagination in nature, are exemplified throughout "Tintern Abbey."

Indeed, one way in which "Tintern Abbey" constitutes Romantic lyrics is in its emphasis on the power of the aesthetic beauty of nature, rather than the excitement of rapid communication’s "extraordinary incidents," to provoke and satisfy the imagination. For example, the relationship immediately presented shows how the mind reacts to the non-gross and non-violent sensation of beholding a wonderful image of nature. After five years of absence, the speaker returns to the Banks of the River Wye. He remarks, "again I hear / These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs / With a sweet inland murmur, Once again / Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs, / Which on a wild secluded scene impress / Thoughts of more deep seclusion" (Wordsworth, 2-7). In these lines, the neutral sound of the river and the unremarkable sight of the cliffs are transformed into sensations of physical and mental excitement through the adjectives "sweet," "wild," "steep," and "lofty." By conveying a sense of awe in the face of unrestrained or unbound natural chaos, these words stimulate the consciousness of the speaker. In addition, these adjectives specifically signify a negative reaction to the deterioration of the imagination as a result of the growing trend of city life: these words could have easily been used to describe the fast-paced city lifestyle, but they are used here to describe a simple country scene. Although the result of the passage is that the "wild" image of nature is able to provoke "thoughts of more deep seclusion," the point is that these natural images are best at doing so.

Several passages throughout the poem show how by provoking "deep thoughts," images of natural beauty lead to elevated physical and mental conditions. The speaker remarks that the thought of those "forms of beauty" described above created in him sensations of peace and tranquility in the midst of everyday strife: "mid the din / Of towns and cities, I have owed to them, / In hours of weariness, sensations sweet, / Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart, / And passing even into my purer mind / With tranquil restoration" (27-31). Thus, the mere thought of nature’s beauty created in the speaker "sweet" emotional and physical sensations of peace. In addition, because the mind is voluntarily stimulated by these thoughts of nature, it is, in effect, rejecting the reprehensible mental state of "savage torpor." Perhaps the greatest evidence of how thoughts of nature produce a heightened sense of mental stimulation is the speaker¹s awareness of an "aspect more sublime; that blessed mood, / In which the burthen of the mystery, / In which the heavy and the weary weight / Of all this unintelligible world / Is lighten¹d," as a result of mental stimulation by nature (38-42). This awareness is also expressed as "elevated thoughts; a sense sublime / Of something far more deeply interfused" (96-97). These passages reveal that peace and "tranquil restoration" are a consequence of an unburdening of the soul by contemplation. The "burthen of the mystery" and "weary weight / Of all this unintelligible world" are shared by every human being. Thus, consciousness of the wonders of nature produces peace by momentarily relieving the soul of its spiritual burdens.

Another way in which "Tintern Abbey" constitutes Romantic lyrics is by portraying the ability of the imagination to perceive without "external excitement." However, as previously discussed, this ability is manifest primarily as a function of memory and as a function of projection. The function of the imagination as memory is exemplified by the speaker¹s recollection of his youth by the river: "with gleams of half-extinguish¹d thought, / With many recognitions dim and faint, / And somewhat of a sad perplexity, / The picture of the mind revives again" (59-63). Although the memories of his youth are vague, what the speaker remembers most clearly is how he felt about those memories, "I cannot paint / What then I was. The sounding cataract / Haunted me like a passion: the tall rock / The mountain, and the deep and gloomy wood, / Their colours and their forms, were then to me / An appetite: a feeling and a love" (76-81). In these lines, rather than merely recall the straightforward sights and sounds of the past, the speaker remembers the passions, the love; in short, the feelings those sensations had provoked in him. In this way, the relationship between physical sensation and imagination lies in the mind’s ability to remember feelings and passions of the past. However, it would be incorrect to imply that the speaker does not experience any type of feeling in remembering the past in this manner. On the contrary, a vital function of the Imagination is to reinterpret and reevaluate. Thus, although the speaker may not be experiencing the "appetite" of his youth for the first time, he is certainly affected by the process of remembering what that appetite felt like.

The other function of the mind that does not require "external excitement" is the function of projection, or the ability to conjure images of things that are not there. In order to completely dissociate this definition from the mode of Imagination that deals with memories of the past, the mode of projection only applies to instances that deal with insight or pure creativity. A good example from "Tintern Abbey" of this mental capability occurs at the beginning of the poem. While lying under a sycamore tree, the speaker examines the area that surrounds the River Wye. Across the sky he notices "wreathes of smoke / Sent up, in silence, from among the trees, / With some uncertain notice, as might seem, / Of vagrant dwellers in the houseless woods, / Or of some hermit’s cave, where by his fire / The hermit sits alone" (18-23). Although the speaker can neither see nor hear the "vagrant dwellers" or the hermit in his cave, his Imagination, prompted by the sight of the smoke, predicts its origin. In this way, the Imagination utilizes habits of association. The speaker notices the smoke and, although he is uncertain, interprets the smoke as evidence of the presence of vagrant dwellers or hermits. Interestingly, it is unclear as to whether or not the speaker knows that there are no houses in the forest. If he does know, then his Imagination merely makes a logical connection of the smoke to the presence of vagrant dwellers or a hermit. However, it is even more interesting if the speaker does not know if the forest is houseless. In this case, the speaker’s Imagination first pictures a houseless forest, and then predicts the cause of the smoke based on that initial image. In this way, the Imagination creates its own images of association. In either case, the role of the Imagination is to conjure up images of the vagrant dwellers and an even more precise image of a hermit sitting alone by his fire, neither of which the speaker can actually see.

Although it is shown that "Tintern Abbey" exemplifies both the purpose and expression of Romantic lyrics, perhaps the most satisfying aspect, which has yet to be addressed, concerns the result of these characteristics; namely, the fact that "the end of poetry is to produce excitement in coexistence with an overbalance of pleasure." Indeed, there are several passages throughout "Tintern Abbey" which portray the speaker’s joy as a result of the "coexistence" of imagination and nature. For instance, while contemplating natural "forms of beauty," the speaker recalls the manner in which such thoughts provided a "tranquil restoration" amidst the "din / Of towns and cities" (26, 31). The speaker then proceeds to describe a "serene and blessed mood" that stems from this tranquility (42):

In which the affections gently lead us on,
Until the breath of this corporeal frame,
And even the motion of our human blood
Almost suspended, we are laid asleep
In body, and become a living soul:
While with an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things. (43-49)

These lines describe how, as a result of the interaction between the mind and nature, the body reaches a state of such supreme tranquility, that senses normally overpowered by the din of everyday life are awakened by the powers of joy and harmony. Although many readers may pause to contemplate the "overbalance of pleasure" this state of tranquility must afford, there are undoubtedly a few who raise an eyebrow in skepticism. Interestingly, the speaker directly addresses these readers, "If this / Be but a vain belief / How oft, in spirit, have I turned to thee / O sylvan Wye! Thou wanderer through the woods, / How often has my spirit turned to thee!" (50-51, 56-58). In this way, the speaker confirms that his joy stems from contemplating nature, and not merely from experiencing nature.

Although they are not nearly as explicit, there are several more incidents of joy and pleasure, which stem from the "coexistence" between the Imagination and nature in "Tintern Abbey." The "forms of beauty" which produced the "tranquil restoration" of the mind, produced "feelings too / Of unremembered pleasure" (31-2). These "unremembered" pleasures are comprised of the "little, nameless, unremembered acts / Of kindness and of love" (37-38). In addition, while recalling his time spent at the river during his youth, the speaker emphasizes that "here I stand, not only with the sense / Of present pleasure, but with pleasing thoughts / That in this moment there is life and food / For future years" (63-66). This passage exemplifies the freedom of the Imagination across time, manifested in its ability to remember the past, experience the present, and imagine the future. Indeed, this notion of time is key in understanding the role of "Tintern Abbey" in deciphering the relationship between the mind and nature. Thus, despite all the ways in which "Tintern Abbey" exemplifies Romantic poetry, perhaps its central meaning is that the speaker is "well pleased to recognize / In nature and the language of the sense, / The anchor of [his] purest thoughts" (108-110).

Throughout "Tintern Abbey" the Imagination is active as memory, perception, and projection. However, its depth of focus remains relatively domestic in comparison to the extremities of space and time reached by the Imagination in Anna Barbould’s "A Summer Evening’s Meditation." Throughout this poem the Imagination explores not only the intricacies of the inner spiritual world, but also the extreme outer limits of the universe. Thus, the aspect of the mind to be emphasized here, which is lacking in "Tintern Abbey," is the ability to create incredible and impossible experiences.

In a discussion of the mind’s journey from the inner soul to the outer limits of space, it is important to note the role of nature in dictating the thoughts of the speaker. Specifically, it is the "operations of the elements and the appearances of the visible universe" that initially direct the speaker’s attention toward the sky. Once the sun has set, the speaker notes "’Tis now the hour / When Contemplation / Moves forward; and with radiant finger points / To yon blue concave swell’d by breath divine" (18, 24-25). In response the "unsteady eye" of the speaker "wanders unconfin’d" across the starry heavens, pondering their origin and purpose (9, 10). Interestingly, time moves quickly and soon "This dead of midnight is the noon of thought, / Wisdom mounts her zenith with the stars" (51-52). Here it is shown that the characteristics of the night are optimum conditions for the processes of thought. Thus, there is a direct correlation between the activity of the Imagination and the operations of nature.

Once it is established that the atmosphere is prime for the activity of the Imagination, the mind takes its first radical journey inward. Interestingly, what it encounters there resembles the "aspect more sublime" or "serene and blessed mood" encountered in "Tintern Abbey." The speaker describes, "At this still hour the self-collected soul / Turns inward, and beholds a stranger there / Of high descent, / and more than mortal rank; / An embryo God; a spark of fire divine" (53-56). The words "embryo God" and a "spark of fire divine" suggest the existence of potential divinity, or the presence of God, within the soul. In other words, through a process of contemplation influenced by elements of the environment, the Imagination succumbs to deeper thoughts of a spiritual nature. However, this ability of the mind to understand elusive spiritual quandaries through deep contemplation is also expressed in the thought process of "Tintern Abbey," which utilizes the "eye made quiet by the power / Of harmony, and the deep power of joy." In this passage, it was shown how the speaker’s reverence for the "forms of beauty" (images of the landscape surrounding the River Wye) could induce an exceptional state of physical and emotional peace and tranquility. In this state of tranquility, the speaker is able to "see into the life of things," not unlike the speaker’s experience in "A Summer Evening’s Meditation." Perhaps the reason these two passages express the same idea is because, as Romantic lyrics, they express one of the aspects of Coleridge’s definition of primary Imagination: the "repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I Am." Thus, it is one of the functions of the Imagination to continually seek evidence of this "eternal act of creation" that exists in every spiritual being.

Although this function of the Imagination applies to both "Tintern Abbey" and "A Summer Evening’s Meditation," this is only in reference to its introspective aspect. Only in "A Summer Evening’s Meditation" is the Imagination employed in search of spiritual understanding by projecting the mind externally, into the furthest reaches of the universe. After the encounter with the "stranger" found within, the speaker wonders about what it would be like to "tread the hallow’d circles" of the "citadels of light" (69, 61). Suddenly, "Seiz’d in thought / On fancy’s wild and roving wing I sail / From the green borders of the peopled earth, / And the pale moon, her duteous fair attendant" (71-74). The speaker’s journey, however, does not end there: "fearless thence / I launch into the trackless deeps of space, / Where, burning round, ten thousand suns appear"(81-83). The role of the Imagination here is unique in that rather than merely conjure images by way of association, the mind effectively transports the consciousness of the speaker into the image is has created. The speaker metaphorically experiences the journey itself, in that, although she does not physically move, her consciousness really is launched into the "trackless deeps of space," along with her Imagination. Thus, rather than describe the images of the journey, the speaker claims first hand experience with the word "I". Unfortunately, the journey into the depths of the unknown cannot last forever, and the speaker wonders, "Where shall I seek thy presence? how unblam’d / Invoke thy dread perfection? / Have the broad eye-lids of the morn beheld thee?" (101-103). These lines show that the purpose of the speaker’s journey was in search of the maker of the universe. Because her soul cannot survive the flight to the "dread confines of eternal night," the speaker concludes with the joyous knowledge that one day such a journey will be possible (93).

An analysis of "A Summer Evening’s Meditation" and "Tintern Abbey" reveals that these two poems constitute Romantic lyrics in slightly different ways. Not surprisingly, Wordsworth’s "Tintern Abbey" satisfies all the criteria for Romanticism, which was initially discussed. "Tintern Abbey" expresses the author’s indignation against the "discriminating powers of the mind" and emphasizes the ability of the Imagination to be creatively stimulated by the awe-inspiring beauty of nature. In addition, "Tintern Abbey" employs all three modes of the Imagination, and manages to convey a sense of pleasure and joy to the reader. Although "A Summer Evening’s Meditation" does not touch upon every one of these criteria, this poem is a perfect example of how central ideas still penetrate throughout work of the same genre. Specifically, "A Summer Evening’s Meditation" employs habits of association and thoroughly engages the roles of the mind and nature in order to portray the relationship between the two. Perhaps most importantly, "A Summer Evening’s Meditation" portrays the role of the Imagination in a way that is most understood today: the power of the mind to "unlock the glories of the world unknown" (122).

Works Cited

Barbould, Anna. "A Summer Evening’s Meditation." Ed. Anne K. Mellor and Richard E. Matlak: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1996. 168 - 169.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. "Chapter 13 [Imagination] of Biographia Literaria." British Literature 1780-1830. Ed. Anne K. Mellor and Richard E. Matlak: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1996. 749 – 50

Wordsworth, William. "Preface from the Second Edition of the Lyrical Ballads." British Literature 1780-1830. Ed. Anne K. Mellor and Richard E. Matlak: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1996. 573 – 81.

Wordsworth. William. "Tintern Abbey." British Literature 1780-1830. Ed. Anne K. Mellor and Richard E. Matlak: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1996. 571 – 573.

 

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