The Views of Keats and Shelley on Imagination and Reality

The writings of John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley both emphasize important roles of the imagination, but as revealed in Keats’s "Ode On A Grecian Urn," and Shelley’s "Mont Blanc," the two poets have different views on what the role of imagination is. Keats believes the imagination to be supreme. He uses it to develop an intimate relationship with the objects that he observes. To Keats, the imagination is so powerful that is can break the laws the people living solely in the real world are accustomed to. Mixing the world of imagination with the real world is important to Keats because without imagination the real world is confined to ugliness. In the end, Keats resolves the creations in the imagined world are just as valid as the "real world." Shelley’s use of imagination is somewhat different. Shelley believes the real world is impossible to view in its completeness, but the imagination can add to our experience with the real world. Shelley feels the real world is supreme, and it can teach us much, but because of its eternal existence, it will always surpass the imagination.

Keats’s enhances the intimacy of his relationships through his imagination. Speaking to the Grecian Urn, he says:

Thou still unravished bride of quietness

Thou foster-child of silence and slow time,

Sylvan historian, who canst thus express

A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme (1-4).

In this section of the poem, there are two types of relationships described. One is that of the historian whose role is to "express a tale," or, in other words, tell the story of the Grecian Urn. A historian’s relationship with a particular artifact is a very professional relationship, but Keats’s relationship is not. He compares the urn to a bride and his foster child. To expound on the metaphor, the comparisons admit that the speaker has no blood relationship with the urn, as one does not have with a bride or an adopted child. A bride and an adopted child, however, come into a relationship with a husband or father in a closeness that nearly mimics the closeness two people can experience through a relationship of blood. This closeness with the urn is created by Keats’s imagination.

Keats’s world of imagination has the power to redefine the rules we experience in the real world by heightening joys and extending them on forever. He contrasts the imaginary world with the real world:

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard

Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;

Not to the sensual ear, but, more endeared,

Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone. (11-14)

To hear a melody, a person needs physical ears. It is possible, though, to experience the melody without ears in the world of imagination. To Keats, the unheard tones are "more endeared," and sweeter. He even suggests it may be a spiritual experience. What makes the experience in the mind even more enjoyable, is that it doesn’t seem to end as it might in the real world.

Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave

Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare. (15-16)

Ah happy, happy boughs! That cannot shed

Your leaves, nor ever bid the spring adieu;

And happy melodist, unwearied,

Forever piping songs for ever new;

More happy love! More happy, happy love!

Forever warm and still to be enjoyed. (21-26)

In these lines, some of the finest joys possible to experience in life are mentioned. The freedom of youth accompanied with the comfort of sitting under a leafy tree is an experience most adults long for. In the real world, youth is quickly fleeting, and the time that a tree has all of its leaves is only a few months a year. In Keats’s world of imagination, the laws of nature as we know them are broken, and the experiences that are most joyful last forever. On a shorter time scale, a melodist in the real world can only play for a few hours at the most before he or she becomes tired. Even in the most wonderful of all earthly paradises, the time of Spring lasts no longer than three or four months. Somehow, Keats’s imagination invokes a power on all experience that extends them on through eternity. Perhaps the greatest rule broken by Keats’s imagination is the compounding of happiness. "More happy love! More happy, happy love!" Those words seem so unnatural to those living in the real world, but they are common in imagined world where the rules of life are seemingly redefined.

Contrasting the paradise of his imagination, Keats describes the real as bound to its own ugliness. As the funeral procession passes by, he notices the forest and the ground vegetation. Whereas, in his imagined world the trees never lost their leaves, the trees of the real are made of nothing but bare "branches" (43). The ground vegetation is described as weeds that are trodden. Unlike the imagined youth that was to last forever, the generation of the real world is doomed "waste" (46). Not only will the little town will become "desolate" (40), but it seems confined to that fate as it "can never return" (40), and all that will remain is "woe" (47). The picture of the real world is depicted as the near opposite of the world in Keats’s mind.

Keats loved the world of his imagination so much because he saw it as just as valid as the real world. He says, "Beauty is truth, truth beauty." To an ordinary citizen, the definition of truth may be what he or she can observe with the five senses. Beauty, to the ordinary citizen, would not be necessary to define truth. Hence, the ordinary citizen lives in the world of trodden weeds and desolation. For Keats, as long as what he experienced was beautiful, even if it didn’t exist to the five senses, it was true.

Whereas Keats assumed the ability to create truth in his imagination, Shelley believed the mind was incapable of discovering truth in it fullness.

The everlasting universe of things

Flows through the mind, and rolls its rapid waves,

Now dark--now glittering--now reflecting gloom--

Now lending splendor, where from secret springs

The source of human thought its tribute brings

Of waters--with a sound but half its own. (1-6)

Where waterfalls around it leap forever,

Where woods and winds contend, and a vast river

Over its rocks ceaselessly bursts and raves. (9-11)

First, it is important to note that Shelley recognized his experiences with an object as an incomplete representation of what that object is in its entirety. The splendor that Shelley enjoys is lent to him, and in a way that continually changes form. The object he is observing is initially described as "dark," then "glittering," and then "reflecting gloom." To get this effect, one of two possibilities must happen. One, the object that is being observed must be changing, or, two, Shelley’s perception of the object must be changing as it "flows through the mind." Because the universe is described as "everlasting" we are left to assume Shelley’s mind is viewing the object in different ways, at different times. He is unable to view the object in its complete form because it has a nature of its own. The sounds the mind interprets are seemingly borrowed from the river, and that river "leaps forever," and "ceaselessly bursts and raves," independent of the minds partial awareness of it.

Even though, to Shelley, an objects existence and observation of that object were two independent things, he feels the imagination is an important tool in enhancing the experience of observation.

Dizzy Ravine! And when I gaze on thee

I seem as in a trance sublime and strange

To muse on my own separate fantasy. (34-36)

The Ravine is the object that exists independent of his observing it, but when he does look at it, his imagination begins to take over and the experience becomes a "sublime fantasy."

One legion of wild thoughts, whose wandering wings

Now float above thy darkness, and now rest

Where that or thou art no unbidden guest,

In the still cave of the witch Poesy,

Seeking among the shadows that pass by

Ghosts of all things that are, some shade of thee,

Some Phantom, some faint image. (41-47)

The Ravine is first looked at from Shelley’s standing position, but his imagination quickly lifts him up and offers him a view that would be impossible to gain otherwise. He mind takes him to the cave of the witch Poesy where he sees various images. Each, as was suggested in the beginning lines of the poem, is not an accurate view of what is, but "some faint image... of all things that are."

Certainly the imagination offered a lot to Shelley’s experience with Mont Blanc, but he, unlike Keats, realized that his imagination was limited in the information it could offer to him. For what his imagination could not give him, Shelley looked deeper into Mont Blanc.

Is this the scene

Where the old Earthquake-demon taught her young

Ruin? Were these their toys? Or did the sea

Of fire envelop one this silent snow?

None can reply--all seems eternal now. (71-75)

In a Keats-run world, the imagination could decide what the answers to Shelley’s questions were, and if the answers were beautiful or offered a sense of enjoyment to the mind, they would hold the same validity as the actual events that took place. To Shelley it was clear that the mind could not answer. In fact, "None could reply." The only answers he could find were in Mont Blanc itself.

The wilderness has a mysterious tongue

Which teaches awful doubt, or faith so mild,

So solemn, so serene, that man may be,

But for such faith, with Nature reconciled;

Thou has a voice, great Mountain, to repeal

Large odes of fraud and woe; not understood

By all, but which the wise, and great, and good

Interpret, or make felt, or deeply feel. (76-83)

Shelley feels Mont Blanc is the source of truth. As with the initial trance the Ravine sent him into, the object, Mont Blanc, plays the role of a catalyst. It teaches "faith" that can only be reconciled by "Nature." That which Mont Blanc teaches surpasses most human thought because what is says is "not understood by all."

To Shelley, Mont Blanc surpasses human greatness because humans will surely pass away, but Mont Blanc will survive.

So much of life and joy is lost. The race

Of man flies far in dread; his work and dwelling

Vanish like smoke before the tempest’s stream,

And their place is not known. (117-120)

Joy was the one of the things Keats believed the imagination could keep forever, but, according to Shelley, it will one day pass away. The "work" and "dwellings" are the results of man’s imagination, but they too will one day vanish, thus proving the weakness of man’s imagination. All that will remain is the "everlasting universe of things" as represented by Mont Blanc.

Mont Blanc yet gleams on high:--thee power is there,

The still and solemn power of many sights,

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

Interestingly, the poem concludes similarly to how it began: with different sights and sounds, but this time man is not there to perceive it. It is the closing message that man’s perception of the object, in this case Mont Blanc, has near zero influence on the truthfulness or reality of the object.

In comparing the ideas of Keats and Shelley, the role of the imagination can shift from the ultimate defining tool of all that is true to a temporary tool to help us understand something that is greater than ourselves.