Role of the Imagination for Romantic Poets

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Discuss the role of the imagination in the work of one or more Romantic poets.

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...
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