Role of the Imagination for Romantic Poets Essay

The 19th century witnessed a shift in the perception of literary art, particularly poetry. The 18th century conception of art and literature was founded upon reason, logic and rationality. Tradition had valued art and literature for its ability to imitate human life. This however arguably took a step back and paved the way for the 19th century view that art and literature was to established on the grounds of pure emotion, imagination, external and internal experience. Or as William Wordsworth would say that ‘[… ] poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.

The poet therefore assumed the role of the mediator between man and nature. The role of the poet was arguably in place to showcase beauty, truth and the endless possibilities that tradition had previously encased. Within this new enlightened form of expression in literature, the imagination had been elevated to a primary position in regards to poetic composition. The imagination allowed poets to see beyond surface value, to create an external world of existence. It permitted them to see the truth beyond powers of reason and rationality.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge in particular was a poet fascinated with the potential and limitless possibilities of the imagination. Coleridge placed considerable emphasis upon the imagination as a focal element within his poetry. He categorised the imagination into two key sectors; the primary imagination and secondary imagination. As explained in Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria: ‘The primary imagination I hold to be the living power and prime agent of all human perception, and a repetition in the finite of the external act of creation of the infinite I AM.

The secondary I consider as an echo of the former, coexisting with the conscious will, yet still identical with the primary in the kind of its agency, and differing only in degree, and in the mode its operation. ’ Coleridge also talked of fancy, which he regarded as a substandard form of the imagination. He felt that with the use of fancy there was no new imaginative creation involved. He thought that it was merely the reassembling of already existing ideas. Coleridge considered fancy as having ‘[… ] no other counters to play with but fixities and definites. He was said to see fancy as simply a ‘mode of memory’. Coleridge heavily employed the use of the ‘primary imagination’ within his work.

His poetic imagination is exemplified within his poem the Kubla Khan. The vivid, mysterious and sensual imagery of ‘deep romantic chasms’(12) and ‘dancing rocks’(23) almost creates a utopian image for the reader, one that is arguably beyond human comprehension. Such use of imagery could be said to plunge the reader into a mystical place, firmly in the world of imagination, a world unobtainable in the grasps of reality. The imposition of ‘A stately pleasure-dome[… ’(2) upon natures ‘[… ]fertile ground’(6) suggests a conflict with nature is imminent. All of which could only possibly exist within the sphere of imagination. The notion that nature is rebelling the intrusion of Kubla Khan by the burst of ‘A mighty fountain [… ]’(19) and the eruption of the ‘[… ]sacred river. ’(24) could arguably only be a result of the imagination. Coleridge considered the imagination as the primary power for the production of literary art. Imagination was seen as a mediator between reason and feeling, thus allowing the harmonising of the opposites.

The collaboration of the opposites was an important aspect for poets such as Coleridge. The motion of the imagination, instinct and feelings was seen as complement to logic and reason. In Kubla Khan the juxtaposition of opposing imagery such as things like ‘A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice’ arguably highlights the improbable nature of the poem. The coexistence and fusion of sun and ‘caves of ice’(35) present an unlikely image to the reader but at the same time illuminates the poetic creativity of Coleridge. The exotic imagery of ‘sacred river’(3), ‘gardens bright’(8) and ‘[… forests ancient as the hills’(10) all evoke creativity and imagination within the reader. All of the former mentioned demonstrate that the imagination has the ability to create a paradise with lavish magnificent ‘[… ]pleasure-dome[s]’(36). As the poem Kubla Khan prevails, the extensive capability of the imagination is shown when the poet suggests that if one has trouble maintaining such a beautiful vision of paradise that he could ‘[… ]build that dome in air’(46). That through the means of poetic imagination he could create a more lasting image within his head.

For Coleridge, imaginative suggestion extended further to the fascination with the supernatural and the realms of existence. This is showcased within Coleridge’s poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. In reference to The Rime of the Ancient Mariner it is almost as though Coleridge held the view that the imagination was an instinct within individuals that related to the natural world. This is seen when the Mariner’s lack of insight or imagination leads to his impulsive error of when he ‘[… ]shot the albatross’(82). As a consequent of his action a conflict with nature was ignited.

Only when the Mariner appreciates the natural world that surrounds him showing humility does his punishment alleviate. The employment of primary imagination is evident within The Rime of the Ancient Mariner . The fact that he is able to captivate individuals and hold them ‘[… ]with his glittering eye’(13) suggests supernatural elements. This sense of the supernatural is heightened when the Mariners says: ‘I pass, like the night, from land to land, I have strange power of speech; The moment that his face I see, I know the man that must hear me-

To him my tale I teach. ’(585-590) It is almost as though the wedding guest is a predetermined student for listening to the Mariner’s tale and ‘He cannot choose but hear’(18). Another supernatural entity witnessed by the Mariner was of a woman, ‘Her lips were red, her looks were free[…. ]’ and ‘[… ] her skin was white as leprosy[… ]’(97-98). This vision holds connotations of the supernatural possibility of it being a ghostly vision. Such visions are result of Coleridge’s poetic imagination and his exploration beyond superficial possibilities.

Again Coleridge uses the combination of imagination or in the case of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner the supernatural with nature. Coleridge personifies nature into aspects of the supernatural which makes the imagery easily accessible to the reader. Thus creating a journey from the real to the surreal. Through the Mariner’s thoughtless act that has placed himself at opposition with nature. He shows the discontent with nature in reference to the ‘slimy things’(122) that crawl ‘Upon the slimy sea”(123). This shows that he is destined to a life of solitude and conflict due to his lack of imagination.

Coleridge believed that the key element for poetic composition was the due to the employment of the imagination. The formulation of new creative ideas that pushed the boundaries beyond human comprehension was something he felt was a necessity in the expression of individualism and in the creation of good poetic verse. This is somewhat of a stark contrast to the view of Immanuel Kant. Kant expressed in his Critique of Practical Reason, that knowledge is stemmed from experience and not derived from the senses. Kant believed that rationality and application of pure reason is what makes us human.

Unlike Coleridge, Kant does not account for the creation of new ideas which could be deemed ironic as Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason could be regarded as a collection of new imaginative ideas. Much like Kant, Aristotle too acknowledged that the imagination to be far inferior against the powers of intellect. This is seen in Aristotle’s On The Soul where he says that ‘[… ]perceptions are always true, while imaginings are for the most part false[… ]’ thus implying that reason, perception and knowledge gain favour over the imagination.

The likes of Kant and Aristotle do not allow for the synthesising of the power of the imagination and the use of reason and rationality. To the likes of Coleridge the role of the imagination was not just some temporary drug induced state of mind, as said to be in Coleridge’s Kubla Khan: A Vision; The Pains of Sleep (1816). The imagination was not some fantastical ideal to which poets like himself explores and different intervals in their live. But the role of the imagination was in fact them, and their world. The imagination moulded and defined them spiritually, literally and emotionally.


Wu, Duncan, Romanticism An Anthology Third Edition, Blackwell Publishing, (2006). SparkNotes Editors. “SparkNote on Immanuel Kant (1724–1804). ” SparkNotes LLC. 2005. http://www. sparknotes. com/philosophy/kant/ (accessed December 1, 2010). Truth and Error in Aristotle’s Theory of Sense PerceptionIrving BlockThe Philosophical Quarterly Vol. 11, No. 42 (Jan. , 1961), pp. 1-9 (article consists of 9 pages) Published by: Blackwell Publishing for The Philosophical QuarterlyStable URL: http://www. jstor. org/stable/2216674

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