Born in the aftermath of the French Revolution (1789), and in the midst of the industrial revolution that was changing the face of contemporary Britain, Romanticism was a radical movement in philosophy, art and culture. In defying the mores of the Enlightenment period – that reason was the primary basis for knowledge – it placed a new emphasis upon physical and emotional passion, and argued for an epistemology based on nature. Furthermore, it elevated the imagination, and emancipated the individual from the strictures of neo-classicism.
The English Romantic poets were idealists – young men in accord with the revolutionary currents of their age. The ‘first wave’ of these poets, including William Blake, William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, were, initially at least, sympathetic towards the revolutions in France and America, because they represented a political realisation of imagination, hope and liberty. In offering a new poetry for a new world, their works demonstrate a linguistic shift from the decorous formality of Alexander Pope, to the unadorned language of the common man. In so democratising poetry, the Romantics embraced the created epic of nature but dismissed reason because it relied more upon interpretation than creation. Although the individual works of these poets stand alone, ‘they can be read more richly in each other’s company for their problem, theme and central resource are nearly as one.’ For the purposes of this essay, I shall, therefore, compare selected works of Blake and Coleridge to that of the ‘second wave’ poet, John Keats, to demonstrate that, for them, the imagination was superior to reason, and that they used language to liberate and emphasise the imagination, and to oppose the enslaving nature of reason.
Without imagination, the Romantics considered that poetry was impossible, for it shaped their fleeting visions into concrete forms that were unhindered by the logic and reason espoused by the likes of John Locke:
For a century English philosophy had been dominated by the theories of Locke. He assumed that in perception the mind is wholly passive, a mere recorder of impressions from without. His system was well suited to an age of scientific speculation which found its representative voice in Newton.
In this age of discovery, philosophers and scientists looked to give mechanistic explanations of the world, and human instinct was dismissed as hocus-pocus. Locke’s emphasis on reason and argument represented the antithesis of Romantic expression and he subsequently became the target of Blake, who believed that the imagination was essential to the human understanding of the world:
This world of Imagination is the world of Eternity; it is the divine bosom into which we shall all go after the death of the Vegetated body. This World of Imagination is Infinite and Eternal, whereas the world of Generation, or Vegetation, is Finite and Temporal. There Exists in that Eternal World the Permanent Realities of Every Thing which we see reflected in this Vegetable Glass of Nature. All Things are comprehended in their Eternal Forms in the divine body of the Saviour, the True Vine of Eternity, The Human Imagination.
For Blake, then, the imagination was eternal and divine, and thus superior to the finite material world. Although he was interested in the visible world, his greater concern was with the invisible, and, of all the English Romantic Poets, he is the most meticulous in his conception of the imagination. This is evidenced in his illuminated volume, Songs of Innocence, which he published himself in 1789. Together with Songs of Experience, which he added to make a single volume in 1794, ‘they constitute one of the most remarkable collections of lyrical poems written in English.’ Although they can be enjoyed apart from their illustrations, they can be better understood when combined with their visual counterparts, as together they offer ‘an integral and mutually enlightening combination of words and design.’ The combined title page describes the songs as ‘Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul’ and here, Blake juxtaposes the ‘imaginative vision of the state of innocence’ against an adult world of corruption and destruction.
The opening poem of Songs of Innocence, is entitled ‘Introduction.’ Here, Blake
uses simple language and the familiar allegories of the shepherd and the lamb to introduce a state of Arcadia. Unflawed by experience, this state echoes Thomas Gray’s view that ‘Where ignorance is bliss/’Tis folly to be wise.’ Written in the first person, the poet aligns himself with David, the accredited author of Psalm 23, and imagines himself as a shepherd wandering through wild valleys, piping to his sheep and conversing with a child on a cloud – a symbolic representation of Jesus. In obeying the latter’s divine will to ‘…sit thee down and write/In a book that all may read,’ the poet is inspired to produce the collection of poems that follow, that ‘every child may joy to hear’. Here, ‘child’ refers to the innocent, and the appeal endorses the Christian belief that ‘anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.’ Furthermore, the allegory of the ‘Good Shepherd’ depicts God’s humanity, thus affirming Blake’s claim that the human imagination is ‘nothing less than God as He operates in the human soul.’
In his study of William Blake, Fearful Symmetry, Northrop Frye describes the imagination as:
The creative force in the mind from which everything that we call culture and civilisation derives: it is the power of transforming a sub-human physical world into a world with a human shape and meaning.
In the deeply ironic ‘The Chimney Sweeper’, Blake addresses that ‘sub-human physical world’ in the context of the exploitation of innocence, albeit in a somewhat sentimental form. Here, ‘innocence’ is more problematic than in ‘Introduction’, since it is portrayed as something that can be manipulated by man’s reasoning. Furthermore, ‘reason’ is class-bound, and denigrated in the portrayal of a young boy who has been sold by his father to work as a chimney sweep. In spite of the dirt, danger and abuse that young boys suffered at the hands of their employers, Blake demonstrates that the imagination is superior to reason because that alone can cross class boundaries and empower even the underprivileged, for it is through his dreams that little Tom Dacre is emancipated: ‘And by came an Angel who had a bright key/And he open’d the coffins & set them all free.’ This is arguably a political poem, for, in a two-pronged attack, Blake addresses not just the issue of child slavery, but also the black slave trade that that William Wilberforce (1759-1833) was contemporaneously striving to abolish through his motions to parliament:
The black skin of the sweep of Innocence is indeed, as Northrop Frye suggests, a symbolic ‘modulation’ of the black skin of the African.
In ‘The Little Black Boy,’ Blake expands this notion of racial inequality, explaining that ‘any skin colour is a cloud that cannot obscure the essential brotherhood of man in a fully enlightened society such as heaven.’
Many of the Songs of Innocence, have a counterpart in the Songs of Experience. In his ‘Introduction’ to the Songs of Experience, Blake envisions himself as the Bard, whose imagination is unbound by time:
Hear the voice of the Bard!
Who Present, Past, & Future sees;
Whose ears have heard
The Holy Word
That walk’d among the ancient trees;
Here, the Bard has overheard God’s conversation with Adam in the Garden of Eden, and he calls upon fallen man (‘the lapsed soul’) to regain control of the Arcadian world that was represented in Songs of Innocence, and that was lost when imagination was replaced with reason (‘the starry pole’). In the final quatrain, Blake uses the symbolism of the ‘starry floor’ to represent rigid, rational order, and ‘the watry shore’ or the sea, to represent chaos, which he prophesies are only there until the break of day when Earth consents to rise from her slumberous mass.
In ‘London,’ the theme of enslavement and indoctrination is revisited and developed further in an outspoken protest against the effects of industrialisation and social injustice. Here, Blake achieves ‘his mature lyric technique of compressed metaphor and symbol that explode into a multiplicity of references:’
In every cry of every Man
In every Infant’s cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear.
The ‘mind-forg’d manacles’ represent a physical restraint imposed by man’s injustice to man, as well as a mental restraint upon the imagination through its self-limitation and under-use. Blake is thus asserting that the person of experience cannot perceive of anything beyond what his senses tell him. In its various guises, the definition of ‘ban’ fits the meaning of the poem, whether a prohibition of political or legal nature, a public condemnation or a declaration of intended marriage. In any event, the urban setting portrays a life blighted by the reasoned force of industrialisation – surely the antithesis of Arcadia – and dominated by sorrow and despair.
The Songs of Innocence and Experience portray the dichotomy of Blake’s imaginative thought, which, whilst liberating in and of itself, when set against the reasoning nature of experience, created a crisis of uncertainty, from which he later wrote his miraculous poetry. For Blake, however, the external world of ‘reason,’ in its guise of scientific and industrial development, was flawed, since it only liberated the wealthy and powerful. The internal world of the imagination, though, he deemed democratic, since it was available to everybody, regardless of their social status, and it remained a prime motivator throughout his life.
The imagination, then, was the cornerstone of Blake’s work, and, a frame of reference for his thoughts on human social behaviour and spirituality. Likewise, Coleridge had a ‘deep trust in the imagination as something which gives a shape to life’ but where Blake’s concerns were eternal and divine, his concern was with the limitless possibilities of the imagination and its potential for expressing the supernatural. In 1815 he published his Biographia Literaria, a ‘hastily assembled…exposition of organic unity and his treatment of poetry as the reconciliation of opposites.’ At the centre of this work is his inquiry into and defence of the imagination, which he considers either as primary or secondary:
The primary imagination I hold to be the living power and prime agent of all human perception, and as a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM. The secondary imagination I consider as an echo of the former, co-existing with the conscious will, yet still as identical with the primary in the kind of its agency, and differing only in degree, and in the mode of its operation.
According to Coleridge, the primary imagination transmutes the external world of fixed and dead objects through the spontaneous creation of new ideas which are perfectly expressed. This, he professes, is akin to the creative power of God, and it is this creative energy – what we might today term ‘the muse’ – that he values most. The secondary imagination is a conscious act, and one that he considers imperfect, since the consequence of its imperfect creation is imperfect expression. Coleridge further subdivides the act of imagination by introducing his concept of fancy which ‘has no other counters to play with, but fixities and definites.’  Fancy, he asserts, is the lowest form of the imagination because it has no creative energy, and is simply a reconfiguration of ideas.
Doubtless inspired by his reading of Immanuel Kant, Coleridge’s greatest works are exemplified by his use of the primary imagination. Eschewing Wordsworth’s notion that poetry is the language of the common man, he adopted a sonorous diction and a wide vocabulary which he believed gave the poet a greater choice of words and concepts to draw from. In Biographia Literaria, Coleridge writes of his collaboration with Wordsworth in The Lyrical Ballads:
Our conversations turned frequently on the two cardinal points of poetry, the power of exciting the sympathy of the reader by a faithful adherence to the truth of nature, and the power of giving the interest of novelty by the modifying colours of imagination…my endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic; yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.
The first poem in the collection, ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,’ presents a dramatic exposition of these two cardinal points of poetry – characters and events that are rooted in reality, yet which exhibit certain ‘fantastical’ elements which are purely imaginative. Brett asserts that:
These characters and events are sufficiently strange and novel to arouse in us a new state of awareness. And yet they are sufficiently like reality to convince us of the truth they represent.
Furthermore, these events do a great deal more than simply reproduce the thrills of gothic horror, for the poem is as human and compelling as Wordsworth’s poetry of everyday things. ‘Mariner’ is based upon a dream of Coleridge’s neighbour, Cruickshank, and was originally planned as a collaboration between himself and Wordsworth to pay for a walking tour they took with Dorothy Wordsworth in 1797. The dystopian landscape – impenetrable and symbolic – and Coleridge’s penchant for phantasmagoric detail were innovative, and exerted a profound influence upon the later works of Browning and Eliot. His adoption of a lofty language also emphasises the mysterious and supernatural images with which the poem is imbued:
The very deep did rot: O Christ!
That ever this should be!
Yea, slimy things did crawl with legs
Upon the slimy sea
Here, the balladic form and musical tone create a supernatural effect that could not have been achieved had Coleridge adopted Wordsworth’s favoured plainness of common speech. Furthermore, his poetic images are the embodied expression of his imagination and are the result of conscious intellectual activity. The moral of ‘Mariner’ is open to conjecture, however, as a deeply spiritual man Coleridge was keen to point out the superiority of his supernatural faith over superstition. Traditionally, the albatross is seen as a good omen; that the mariner shoots and kills it, drives the narrative forward and provides a point of conflict in the story:
‘God save thee, ancient Mariner!
From the fiends, that plague thee thus! –
Why look’st thou so?’ – With my cross-bow
I shot the Albatross.
Symbolically, this not only refers to the bond that man, as the steward of creation, has to nature, but also to the chaos that ensues when that bond is broken. That the deed is motiveless serves to emphasise the fallen nature of the mariner – his deed is an act of pure rebellion, and is one that results in his separation from God:
O Weddding-Guest! This soul hath been
Alone on a wide wide sea:
So lonely ‘twas, that God himself
Scarce seemed there to be.
The Mariner’s separation from God is further emphasised by the period of drought:
Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.
This dryness, asserts Brett, symbolises spiritual barrenness, and is a poetic representation of Ezekiel’s Valley of Dry Bones. However, God – the I AM of Coleridge’s exposition on the primary imagination – is the redeemer, and at the core of this poem is the poet’s unswerving Christian faith and the belief that God’s grace and limitless love can reconcile man to Him.
He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.
The mariner who returns is a changed man from the one who left to journey across the seas, and, through him, the imagination takes on a new spiritual significance as Coleridge takes his reader on a spiritual journey through sin and separation to reconciliation and redemption.
For Coleridge, poetic journeys are spiritually uplifting experiences that can transform the reader from despair to joy. In ‘This Lime Tree Bower My Prison’ – a conversation poem ‘that is partly a letter, partly an inner meditation, partly a form of prayer’ – the poet celebrates the beauty of nature and the power of the imagination when it is open to its majesty. The prologue offers a background to the poem:
In the June of 1797, some long-expected friends paid a visit to the author’s cottage; and on the morning of their arrival, he met with an accident, which disabled him from walking during the whole time of their stay. One evening, when they had left him for a few hours, he composed the following lines in the garden-bower. 
Written in a colloquial and conversational diction, the poet here transports himself spiritually, emotionally and mentally from monosyllabic despair (‘Well, they are gone’) to joy. Furthermore, through his concrete imagery and appeal to the senses, he takes his reader on a parallel and educative journey:
The roaring dell, o’erwooded, narrow, deep,
And only speckled by the mid-day sun;
Where its slim trunk the ash from rock to rock
Flings arching like a bridge; – that branchless ash,
Unsunn’d and damp, whose few poor yellow leaves
Ne’er tremble in the gale, yet tremble still,
Fann’d by the waterfall! And there my friends
Behold the dark green file of long lank weeds,
That all at once (a most fantastic sight!)
Still nod and drip beneath the dropping edge
Of the blue clay-stone.
Coleridge uses the imaginative journey as an escape from the restriction imposed upon him by dint of his accident. Since poetic images are also the agents of reason, the expression of ideas, the narrator is metaphorically limited by the confines of his lime-tree bower; however, his imagination transcends his physical limitations, so demonstrating its power to alter perception. Furthermore, as he builds the image of a physical landscape unsullied by the industrial progress that was smiting the city, he comes to realise that he is not imprisoned at all.
The poem begins in a childish, petulant manner, with an exaggeration of the narrator’s circumstances, which is emphasised by Coleridge’s use of blank verse.
…I have lost
Beauties and feelings, such as would have been
Most sweet to my remembrance even when age
Had dimmed mine eyes to blindness! They, meanwhile,
Friends, whom I never more may meet again
On springy heath, along the hill-top edge,
Wander in gladness…
Each stanza reveals a different state of mind, moving from petulance to acceptance to delight. The resonance of the conversational tone reinforces the notion of growth that has been inspired by the poet’s imagination and reflects the transformative power of nature, climatically stating: ‘No sound is dissonant which tells of Life.’
In the earliest printed text, the poem’s title is followed by ‘Addressed to Charles Lamb, of the India-House, London.’ This endorsement of their friendship is further evidenced throughout the poem. As the narrator reflects on the piteous state of Charles who ‘has pined/And hungered after Nature, many a year/In the great city pent’ he comes to the realisation that, although he cannot join his friends on their walk, he is surrounded by the beauty of nature, even in his lime-tree bower, and this lifts him up into a state of emotional and spiritual delight.
That spiritual and emotional delight is evidenced nowhere greater than in Kubla Khan. Coleridge himself annotated a manuscript copy of his poem:
This fragment, with a good deal more, not recoverable, composed, in a sort of reverie brought on by two grains of opium, taken to check a dysentery…in the fall of the year, 1797.
Coleridge had apparently fallen asleep whilst reading an article in Purchas his Pilgrimage’ (1613) about the stately palace of Cublai Can in Xanadu. During the three hours of his profound sleep he had a vision,
in which all the images rose up before him as things, with a parallel production of the corresponding expressions, without any sensation or consciousness of effort.
On waking, he distinctly recollected the whole and immediately wrote down the words that have been restored, but was then interrupted. Upon his return ‘all the rest had passed away like the images on the surface of a stream into which a stone had been cast.’ Who the visitor was, is unknown, but he is alluded to in the final stanza, where a magic ritual protects the inspired poet from intrusion to ‘weave a circle round him thrice.’
The fragment that remains is the product of Coleridge’s primary imagination and it is in the form of an irregular ode in two parts. In the first part, the poet is an architect who vividly describes the grounds in Xanadu where Kubla Khan has decreed the pleasure-dome to be built, and in the second part he is the artist struggling with the limits of the imagination in the creative process.
The first stanza immediately pulls the reader into the realm of the imagination by reference to a mystical place: ‘In Xanadu did Kula Khan/A stately pleasure-dome decree.’ The manifestation of a drug-induced vision, the poet’s imaginative journey is a voluptuous feast of sensuous descriptions and concrete imagery that depict the grounds surrounding the pleasure-dome:
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round:
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree:
And here were forests ancient as the hills
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.
Thus, the fertile world of Xanadu is both liberated and bounded by the walls and forests of the poet’s imagination. The notion of fertility is furthered in the image of the sacred River Alph, that ‘ran/through caverns measureless to man.’ An elaborate metaphor, the river thus flows into Coleridge’s world of the imagination and meanders through his hallucinatory vision.
In his Biographia Literaria, Coleridge himself writes that poetry ‘reveals itself in the balance or reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities.’ Through the juxtaposition of opposites – the sunless sea; a stately pleasure-dome; a sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice – he speculates on perfection. Even the subject of the poem is a contradiction, since Kubla Khan, the leader of the Mongols, was not renowned for his warmth and generosity. These conflicts allude to an underlying darkness and suggest that, despite its splendour, perfection is not to be found in the pleasure-dome.
For Coleridge, however, the imagination was less about the opium-fuelled sojourns of a ravaged mind and more about the active ‘living power’ that came from God. As such it was superior to the ‘synthetic’ reasoning that came from the scientific minds of man. In contrast, for John Keats, the imagination was a relatively passive mechanism, similar to dreaming yet of greater value than the reason and argument preferred by his literary predecessors for whom ‘imagination cannot freely fly/as she was wont…’
Keats was born in 1795, during that abundant first wave of Romanticism. Orphaned by the age of fourteen, the trust fund set up by his grandmother was tied up in Chancery for his entire life, forcing him to live in poverty. In 1810 he was apprenticed to Thomas Hammond, a surgeon and apothecary at Edmonton, and later carried on his studies at Guys Hospital, where he qualified in 1816. Influenced by his friendship with Leigh Hunt, the editor of The Examiner, he almost immediately abandoned medicine for poetry, his first poems being published the following year.
As early as 1816 Keats had begun to explore the relationship between dreams and insight in ‘Sleep and Poetry.’ He continued these speculations in ‘Endymion’ and,
his letters show his ceaseless effort to assimilate his enlarging experience, his sharpening sense of suffering humanity and his search for some equivalent of the ‘salvation’ offered by a religious creed he could not accept into his theory and program of poetry.
However, the zenith of his poetic career came in 1819, during a period of acute personal distress and turmoil. Between January and September of that year he wrote his ‘Great Odes’, ‘The Eve of St Agnes,’ ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci,’ ‘Lamia’ and a number of sonnets. M H Abrams asserts that:
All of these poems possess the distinctive qualities of the work of Keats’s maturity: a slow-paced, gracious movement; a concreteness of description in which all the senses – tactile, gustatory, kinetic, visceral, as well as visual and auditory – combine to give the total apprehension of an experience; a delight at the sheer existence of things outside himself, the poet seeming to lose his own identity in a total identification with the object he contemplates.
Indeed, the odes convey Keats’s concept of negative capability, ‘that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.’ This merging of the poet’s imagination with the mystery of nature, creates a perspective from which he can begin to understand it. Keats also looks beyond the immediate reality of the physical into what he called the ‘truth of imagination,’ claiming, ‘I describe what I imagine.’ In a letter to Benjamin Bailey of 22 November 1817, he asserts that:
I am certain of nothing but of the holiness of the Heart’s affections and the truth of the imagination – what the imagination seizes as beauty must be truth – whether it existed before or not…The imagination can be compared to Adam’s dream – he awoke and found it truth.
Dreams, then, provided an adjunct to the imagination in their exploration of the relationship between the ideal and reality. This point is reflected in ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’: ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty, – that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’ Indeed, the odes are a full and deep exploration of the themes of creative expression, the mortality of human life and the relationship between imagination and creativity. They also offer a response of the passions to beauty, suffering, and the transience of human life. Their sumptuous language, their idealistic concern for beauty and truth, and their expressive agony in the face of death are all Romantic preoccupations – though they are also uniquely Keatsian.
The Ode form appealed to Keats as the supreme test of his poetic skills – a highly formal lyric of intricate stanza structure, elevated in tone, expressing personal reflections on profound themes:
‘Traditionally dedicated to the celebration of an external object, the ode and its characteristic figures, apostrophe and personification, were frequently read self-reflexively, as bravura displays of visionary imagination.’
However, he effectively invented his own kind of Ode – a transfigured sonnet of ten-line stanzas consisting of the opening quartet of a Shakespearean sonnet (rhyme scheme ABAB) followed by the sestet of a Petrarchan sonnet (rhyme scheme CDECDE). This stanza form, written in iambic pentameter, was long enough to allow the internal development of thought and feeling, yet offered a complexity which could contain the dignified and exalted tone necessary for an Ode. This type of Ode undergoes many minor individual variations, though all adhere to the strict disciplines of the traditional form. In ‘Ode to Autumn,’ for example, the anomaly comes in its stanza length of eleven lines as opposed to the standard ten. The Keatsian Ode therefore permits the full scope of a poetic paragraph and the challenging constraints of an intricate rhyme structure. Using a rich, elevated language, Keats draws on elements of Neo-Classicism, but, where the older form neglects key areas of human interest, Keats ‘makes it new’ by applying it to nature to draw out hidden emotions and powers of moral education, thus allowing the mysteries of the outer world to be explored and united through the emotions.
Keats composed ‘Ode to Autumn’ during a trip to Winchester in the autumn of 1819. After an evening walk, he wrote to his friend, John Reynolds:
How beautiful the season is now – how fine the air. A temperate sharpness about it. Really, without joking, chaste weather – Dian skies – I never liked stubble fields so much as now – Aye better than the chilly green of Spring. Somehow a stubble-plain looks warm – This struck me so much in my Sunday’s walk that I composed upon it.
In ‘Ode to Autumn,’ Keats demonstrates the development of his thoughts over three stanzas, from the ‘fruitfulness’ of the harvest to the ‘stubble-plains’ of the reaped fields. As ‘barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,’ the poet’s attention shifts towards the close of the season and beyond. However, ‘To Autumn’ is ‘not another conventional nature poem stock full of agreeable scenery and colour,’ but an energetic manifestation of man’s harmony with nature.
The poem begins in a tranquil mood, with the ‘season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’ described as a close friend of the maturing sun; but that tranquility is disturbed by the conspiring nature of their relationship and the flourishing of the harvest that runs, bends, fills, swells, plumps and o’er-brims. In, perhaps, an early reference to global warming, summer has threatened to ‘never cease’. However, it can also be read as a metaphor for the burgeoning imagination, ripe with the burden of its creative impulse and rhythmical in its cycle of sow-reap-glean-sow. Just as Autumn’s ‘last oozings’ is almost over, so too will the imagination be unburdened, but, after a necessary time of fallow, life will inevitably return.
Throughout the entire collection of Keats’s poetry, beauty, the emotions and imagination are the mainstays of his writing. The principle of ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’ was later echoed by Oscar Wilde as he sought to assert the modernity of beauty in his own writing. In The Picture of Dorian Gray Dorian’s obsession explores the paradox between beauty and morality. Keats, however, was firmly rooted in the worldly, and was never tempted to go all the way down the road of ‘art for art’s sake’.
What Keats would have achieved had he lived, is beyond conjecture. However, when he stopped writing at the age of 24 years, his achievement far outweighed that of Chaucer, Milton and Shakespeare at the same age. His musings on the unconscious and the imagination precede Freud, and the value he placed on beauty precedes that of Oscar Wilde and the aesthetes. He was also clearly concerned with the sense of ‘making it new’ – taking a traditional art form and revolutionising it into something different – and he was continually experimenting and developing right up to the end of his writing life. His excitement, curiosity and interest in writing communicates itself to the modern reader even where his expression falls short of his intention, and fulfils his own prophetic judgement that he would be ‘amongst the English poets when he died.’
The English Romantic Poets, then, agreed that:
their task was to find through the imagination some transcendental order which explains the world of appearances and accounts not merely for the existence of visible things but for the effect which they have on us, for the sudden, unpredictable beating of the heart in the presence of beauty, for the conviction that what then moves us cannot be a cheat or an illusion, but must derive its authority from the power which moves the universe.
Certainly, the works of Blake, Coleridge and Keats affirm Wordsworth’s observation that ‘poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.’ Their ‘new poetry for a new age’ vindicates their argument that imagination is superior to reason for where reason has a tendency towards preclusion, the imagination is available to everybody, regardless of their age, class and colour. Furthermore, since the ‘imagination is the quality that distinguishes the poet from the uninspired,’ it can be argued that, despite Locke’s contention that the mind was a tabula rasa, or blank sheet, and that we get all our ideas from experience, it is the mainstay of scientific theses of reason. Without it, ‘the incomparable Mr Newton’ would not have been inspired to pursue his scientific treatises, and the great inventors of the Industrial Revolution would not have been prompted to challenge the established notions of feudalism. Indeed, the omnipotent power of the imagination informed and transformed a nation in the throes of scientific revolution, and its legacy survives in the revolutionary, egalitarian and ecological nature of much contemporary poetry.
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1. CM Bowra, The Romantic Imagination, p 3