The Individual Imagination of Nature.
The Romantic Period in British literature stretched from roughly the year 1785 to the year 1830 and is marked by the three primary themes of Nature, Individualism, and Imagination. However to say that the Romantics wrote poetry about nature is to grossly simplify and largely obliterate the true accomplishments of the period. Romantic authors such as William Wordsworth or Samuel Coleridge in many ways created the modern definition of a Nature poem such that the poetic view of field and wood has never been the same. Similarly Lord Byron did not merely write self-centered characters, or semi-biographical, works but largely redefined the relationship between the individual and society as well as the relationship between heroism and virtue. Both of these revolutions in thought and writing though are the byproduct of a much larger reworking of Imagination itself. The Romantics, especially Percy Shelley, are instrumental in the communication and formation of a new more inclusive conception of the Imagination that persists to this day.
This kindling of the imagination occurs against the backdrop of the industrial revolution and it is in response to this increasing mechanization that Wordsworth embraces nature poetry as a main motif. Indeed Wordsworth was as interested in the natural as in Nature the abstract which led him to the state in his Preface to Lyrical Ballads “that there is no necessity to trick out or to elevate nature” (265). Wordsworth’s concept was that poetry should, to a degree, mirror the common language of the day not merely to be accessible but also because it better replicated nature which for him was near synonymous with truth. Wordsworth seems to have been influenced by the natural law philosophy being developed at the time and ultimately uses its principles to justify his writing a new kind of verse. His aesthetic principle is essentially that “man and nature as essentially adapted to each other, and the mind of man [is] as naturally the mirror of the fairest and most interesting properties of nature”(265). However his verse itself does contain meter and rhyme which are logical contrivances which Wordsworth utilizes to rarify his naturalistic diction and subject. His idea of natural language did not lead him as it might in the modern era to write in idiom or free verse but rather to apply rhyme and meter to the natural and his own internal world. While Wordsworth provides the aesthetic appeal of Nature, Coleridge provides the most cogent revelation as to the importance this idea plays in Romantic writing and, more generally, in an industrial society. Coleridge defines organic or natural form as “innate; it shapes as it develops itself from within,” which is distinguished from the mechanical which is “any given material we impress a predetermined form, not necessarily arising out of the properties of the material itself” (488). This distinction of form plays a central role in the metaphorical dichotomy of society as machine or society as ecosystem which remains a conflict of a mechanized world. Ultimately humanity itself is at stake since in the former each individual is replaceable whereas in the later the individual is essential.
The idea of the individual is embraced and perfected by Lord Byron in his creation of the Byronic hero who is the archetype of all the dark and brooding antiheros of subsequent fiction. Byron’s Manfred is one of the earliest incarnations of this character and possesses many of the archetypes overarching features including: a sinister power, a solipsistic world view, intense forbidden erotic love, and fierce independence. Modeled on various parts Milton’s Satan and the emerging idea of the “Satanic hero” with influence from Gothic novels and Napoleon as well as Byron’s own character and biography, the Byronic hero has rebellion and tragedy at its heart. However the true Byronic hero is distinguished as being “more isolated, darker, more complex in his history and inner conflict, and therefore more frightening and more compelling to the reader” (Satanic). Indeed the Byronic hero is always in some respects at a point of existential crisis and is defined by interior conflict rather than contention with the material world. This level of characterization reflects lack of societal unity inherent in the growing industrialism of the nineteenth-century and allows Byron to begin to grapple with the problems of alienation and societal dominion. Byron’s characters are hero’s in that they stride through society unconcerned and are the neurotic masters of their universe while the common man is dominated by mechanical society, necessity, and responsibility. While Wordsworth looks on this emerging society and longs for a return to the pastoral and older societal forms Byron and the Byronic hero embraces rebellion and holds individualism as the highest good and embraces the wildness and vivacity of nature not as the natural setting for man but as the natural state of man’s soul.
This increasing consideration and focus on the internal world and specifically its creative powers engenders the Romantic fixation on the Imagination and specifically on giving it a distinct existence beyond mere fancy. Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, and Keats all write with differing levels of clarity and coherency on the subject but the general Romantic trend is to elevate the nature of the imagination and explicitly state its role in the creation of ideas and especially art. Coleridge and Shelley write most completely on the subject however ultimately Keats is the best example of the application of their principles. Shelley writes on imagination that “Reason is to Imagination as the instrument to the agent, as the body to the spirit, as the shadow to the substance” (838). Alluding to Plato’s cave analogy Shelley distinguishes the realm of the imagination as being more real and essential than the realm of rationality and analytic reason. Here he makes clear that the Imagination is a creative force which generates the substance which Reason only analyzes. Coleridge coins the term “esemplastic” meaning to mold into unity as a description of the nature of the imagination and more explicitly says that “it dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to recreate” which within his cosmology of the imagination means that the imagination is responsible for the generation of ideas (Coleridge 477). Both these authors though while clear on a concept of the imagination write poetry with some level of clear reference to the world and to that extent their poems bear a level of the contrived mechanical form. Conversely Keats’ poetry generally takes place in an internal world of fantastic supposition with only a passing reference to the material world. Keats writes in this internal world with a rawness and vigor that other Romantics simply do not achieve. In ode on a Grecian urn he writes “what little town by river or sea shore, Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel, Is emptied of this folk this pious morn?” describing a town existing only in his mind (905). The beauty of Keats lies in that his poetic vision dictates the aspects of the world he incorporates in verse rather than the reverse. He can write from his own psychological universe and communicates not in specifics but in forms and figures. Keats is truly the epitome of the Romantic imaginative poets and contributes as meaningfully as Shelley or Coleridge does to the modern Imagination by his example of what the imagination can do.
These themes of Nature, Individualism, and Imagination bear increasing importance today as industrialism and paratactic atomism hold sway culturally and mentally. Romantic yearnings for a realm beyond materialism and collective responsibility have returned or perhaps have persisted to this day only couched in more existential metaphor and angst. The modern era is one where people increasingly focus purely on the routine of daily life and become increasingly irrelevant individually. Society treats people as individual cogs in a complex machine for a many headed economic monster bent on the extinction of the internal world of Imagination. The imagination is the true prisoner in Blake’s “mind forg’d manacles” which still drag at the ankles of creativity. The imagination is of paramount importance and requires individualism and a close bond to the reality of Nature to function and grow and Imagination is what the world needs today. Otherwise life will become the horror of a routine accomplished merely out of habit and duty.
Wordsworth, William. “Preface to Lyrical Ballads.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Volume D The Romantic Period. 8th ed. Vol. D. New York: W. W. Norton, 2005. 263-74. Print.
Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. “Mechanic vs. Organic Form.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Volume D The Romantic Period. 8th ed. Vol. D. New York: W. W. Norton, 2005. 487-88. Print.
“The Satanic and Byronic Hero: Overview.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature Online. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Web. 24 Feb. 2010.
Shelley, Percy Bysehe. “A Defence of Poetry.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Volume D The Romantic Period. 8th ed. Vol. D. New York: W. W. Norton, 2005. 838-49. Print.
Keats, John. “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Volume D The Romantic Period. 8th ed. Vol. D. New York: W. W. Norton, 2005. 905. Print.