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02 Oct

The Romantic Mind: Imagination, Self and Creative Power

The Romantic Mind: Imagination, Self and Creative Power

 The term ‘romantic’ has been a cause of deep pondering and historical delving in academic circles, especially towards the middle of the twentieth century. Even when the everyday senses implied by the term may be sidelined, the variety of meanings embodied in the literary sense of the term ‘romantic’ still remains profuse, and hence problematic. Literary scholars of the twentieth century have expressed their predicament in conceptualizing romanticism, which they attribute to the “complexity and multiplicity of European romanticism” (Cuddon).

The word romantic has a multifarious and interesting history. In the Middle Ages 'romance' denoted the new vernacular languages derived from Latin, which was the language of learning. The romance languages were considered to be of inferior stature than Latin. The terms enromancierromancarromanz meant to compose or translate books in the vernacular. Such a literary work was then called by the name romanzromanromanzo or  romance. A roman or romant came to be known as an imaginative work and a 'courtly romance'. The terms were also used to also signify a 'popular book'.

In Britain and France, by the seventeenth century 'romance' had acquired the derogatory connotations of fanciful, bizarre and exaggerated. In France, a distinction was made between romanesque (in a derogatory sense) and romantique (which meant tender, gentle and sentimental). It was used in the English form in these latter senses in the eighteenth century. Clearly, the most widespread use of the term romantic in academia is pertaining to the Period of romantic revival in Britain in the early eighteenth century. The Period of romantic revival emphasized on poetic imagination and creative expression of the individual. This paper aims to throw light upon the close knit relationship between the individual creative genius and the Romantic Movement.

It would be useful to see how the period of romantic revival differed from the preceding age, the Enlightenment era. The great minds and geniuses of the Enlightenment Era valued rationality, objectivity, tradition, hierarchy, craftsmanship and ornate, controlled literature and ornate, cultivated nature. However, what appealed to the romantic mind and what found natural expression in its literature was imagination, subjectivity, spontaneity, rebellion, individualism and wild, uncultivated nature.

Quite unlike other literary and artistic movements, the poets and theoreticians of the period never knew themselves as romantics. It is probable that they never thought of their works as falling under the romantic genre. Paradoxically, one can think of the English Romantic Movement as a construct of twentieth century critics, who in retrospection identified some unifying characteristics in literary works and literary figures that make them essentially romantic.

There are certain characteristic features of the period of romantic revival that deserve special focus in this paper. Firstly, the romantic mind valued subjective experience and individual emotional life as of supreme importance in one’s perception of the world. The romantics generally exhibited a strong inclination for strong emotion – emotions of fervent passion, awe and sometimes even horror as that connected with the dark and gothic. Such intense aesthetic experiences were of vital significance to the romantic mind. Secondly, the Romantics conceived individual imagination as the supreme critical authority. Consequently, such an autonomy given by one’s imagination, freed the romantic mind from the classical notions of form in art as well as overturning of earlier social conventions. Thirdly, the romantic vision of the world had the artist, the self, in the centre. The self was, as in many cases, a larger than life figure, an extraordinary person, a visionary, a prophet.

In Classic, Romantic and the Modern (1961) Barzun cites the example of synonymous usages for romantic which shows that it is perhaps the most remarkable example of a term which can mean many things according to personal and individual needs. It is to be noted that a term so adaptive to individual discretion, stands for a phenomenon whose central principle is individualism - and a bold, sometimes revolutionary, expression of the individual’s creative and imaginative faculties.

In the period of romantic revival - generally considered to have begun in 1790s and subsided in the early 1830s, there was a radical shift from mimetic mode to a more creative mode. M. H. Abrams in The Mirror and Lamp (1953) discusses the romantic tendency of cutting loose, the classical restraints and rules, enforced upon the artistic mind. Coleridge has stated in a one of his lectures: “The poet is one who carries the simplicity of childhood into the powers of manhood; who with a soul unsubdued by habit, unshackled by custom, and contemplates all things with the freshness and the wonder of a child” (104).

The romantic mind is one that is freed from the burden of custom. It gives rise to imagination, wild and free. The supremacy of reason gave way to imagination, which can be considered the supreme faculty of a creative mind. The romantics tended to define and present imagination as the ultimate creative power, the “shaping power”, as Coleridge calls it, the approximate human equivalent of the creative powers of nature or even God. It is dynamic - an active, rather than passive power, with many functions. Imagination is the primary faculty for creating all art. On a broader scale, it is also the faculty that helps humans to constitute reality,- as Wordsworth suggested, we not only perceive the world around us, but also in part, create it.

The romantics sought to define their goals through systematic contrast with the norms of neoclassicism. In their critical manifestoes - the Preface to Lyrical Ballads(1800) and the critical studies of the Schlegel brothers in Germany - they self consciously asserted their differences from the previous age and declared their freedom from the mechanical rules. The shift from the mimetic to an expressive orientation for poetry also materialized the replacement of reason by the imagination as supreme among the human faculties. While neoclassicism had prescribed for art the idea that the general or universal characteristics of human behavior were more suitable themes than the peculiarly individual manifestations of human activity, the romantic self tended to be subjective in art. The opening statement of Rousseau's Confessions, first published in 1781 clearly asserts it--"I am not made like anyone I have seen; I dare believe that I am not made like anyone in existence. If I am not superior, at least I am different."

The romantic mind has a deep interest in a cluster of specific subjects including nature ,dreams and fairytales, the Gothic world of enchantment and magic and above all - the self, the subject of endless enquiry. Experience, whether it be the personal, political or social is shaped by the perceiving self and in turn experience shapes that self. The romantics asserted the importance of the individual, the unique, even the eccentric. Consequently they opposed the character typology of neoclassical drama.

In romantic theory, art was valuable not so much as a mirror of the external world, but as a source of illumination of the world within. Among other things, this led to a prominence for first-person lyric poetry with the “I” often referring directly to the poet.(Coleridge’s “Dejection: An Ode”, Wordsworth’s “The Daffodils” , Byron’s “To the Po” are a few). Moreover, the development of the Self became a major theme of romantic poetry. Wordsworth's Prelude is a successful experiment to depict the growth of the poet's mind. Confessional prose narratives such as Goethe's Sorrows of Young Werther (1774) and disguised autobiographical verse narratives such as Byron's Childe Harold (1818), are related phenomena. The interior journey and the development of the self recurred everywhere as subject material for the romantic artist. The artist-as-hero is a specifically romantic type.

In his book Romanticism, Aidan Day describes several critical studies that see romanticism as essentially individual centred. One, for instance is, Harold Bloom’s essay “The Internalization of Quest Romance” first published in 1969 in The Yale Review. Bloom describes in it, the inwardness of the British romantics in terms of the genre of quest romance.

English romanticism legitimately can be called, as traditionally it has been, a revival of romance. More than revival, it is an internalization of romance, particularly of the quest variety…The Romantic Movement is from nature to the imagination’s freedom…and the imagination’s freedom is frequently purgatorial, redemptive in direction but destructive of the social self.

Bloom goes on to suggest that “the hero of internalized quest is the poet himself, the antagonists of quest are everything in the self that blocks imaginative work” (104) .This increasing consideration and focus on the internal world and specifically its creative powers sustains the romantic fixation on imagination. Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, and Keats all write with differing levels of clarity and coherence 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 art. Through allusions 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. He suggests that the imagination is a creative force which generates the substance which reason merely 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.

William Blake saw the human imagination as essential to human understanding of the world; he saw reality as a "mental construction." According to Blake when the energy of imagination is used effectively to form the connection between man and nature, the individual gains freedom from the restrictive bonds of unimaginative thought. William Blake expressed his belief in the importance of the imagination by attacking what he called the "mind-forg'd manacles", the unimaginative thoughts.

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. 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.

The romantics attempted to discover the hidden unity between man and nature. Imagination is a force, or energy, that allows such a connection to be made. The realization of this interdependent relationship carries with it a kind of freedom for the individual. Nature is important to the romantic mind, “as it manifests the same transcendental energy as informs the human mind and at the same time provides an objective, material barrier which allows the individual subject to recognize transcendence without being overwhelmed by it” ( Aidan Day, 45)

A motion and a spirit, that impels

All thinking things, all objects of all thought

                                    (Wordsworth, Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey)

The romantics felt that imagination was essential to individual happiness because it allowed the individual to, as Wordsworth stated, "half-create" the world. The individual shapes the reality he perceives because he brings certain a priori knowledge to every experience. The imagination also provides a common human bond; it provides a means of sympathy, of identification. However, the absence of imagination, the romantics felt, would lead people to apathy and a false sense of being.

The deep rooted belief in imagination was part of the contemporary belief in the individual self. “The poets were aware of the wonderful capacity to create imaginary realms, and they could not believe that this was idle or false. On the contrary, they thought that to curb it was to deny something vitally necessary to the whole being” (Bowra, 2).

A number of romantic writers passionately upheld that the mind possesses a faculty which enables it to see through the forms of the material world to a greater, spiritual reality behind it. In an 1800 commentary on his painting A Vision of the Last Judgement William Blake spoke of the visionary faculty as something distinct from the mechanisms of ordinary perception.For the romantic poet, the most vital activity of the human mind is the imagination. Since for them it is the very source of spiritual energy, they cannot but believe that it is divine, and that, when they exercise it, they in some way partake of the activity of God. Blake says proudly and prophetically in A Vision of the Last Judgement:       

This world of imagination is the world of eternity; it is the divine bosom into which we shall go after the death of the Vegetated body…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 imagination in nothing less than God as He operates in the human soul. It follows that any act of creation performed by the imagination is divine and that in the imagination man’s spiritual matter is fully and finally realized. Coleridge in Biographia Literaria does not speak with such fierce conviction, but his view is not very different either: “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." Shelley in Defence of Poetry articulates that “Poetry…creates anew the universe after it has been annihilated in our minds by the recurrence of impressions blunted by reiteration.”

He also discusses secondary imagination, which is "an echo of the former, co-existing with the conscious will"; it "dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to re-create." This view of imagination is clearly similar to Schelling's: primary imagination is the faculty by which all human beings shape their experience of the world into meaningful perception; secondary imagination is the artist's ability to create new shapes and meaning out of existing material. It is also similar in its strong affirmation of the relationship between the human and divine imaginations: the human creative act participates in the infinite creative act of God, from which it derives its power.

            The English romantics believed that imagination could reveal an important kind of truth and that it is closely related with a special insight or intuition, the “visionary power” that Wordsworth eulogizes. It was fervently deemed that poetic imagination sees things to which the ordinary intelligence is blind. The German romanticists too held imagination high, but their belief was not so extreme as to consider imagination to be essentially related to truth and reality. Their apprehension of the veracity of imagination is poignantly voiced by Novalis in his letter to Caroline Schlegel:

I know that imagination is most attracted by what is most immoral, most animal; but I also know how like a dream all imagination is, how it loves night, meaninglessness and solitude.

Though Shelley was more passionate a reactionary than other romantic poets, he too attached a special importance to imagination. He saw the creative dimension of poetry and the lines from “Prometheus Unbound” when he describes a poet, underscore the same:

He will watch from dawn to gloom

The lake – reflected sun illume

The yellow bees in the ivy-bloom,

Nor heed nor see, what things they be;

But from these create he can,

Forms more real than living man,

Nurslings of immortality!                                ("On a Poet's lips I slept" ,7 – 13)

In his Defence of Poetry Shelley claims that the poet has a special kind of knowledge.

He not only beholds intensely the present as it is, and discovers those laws according to which present things ought to be ordered, but he beholds the future in the present, and his thoughts are the germs of the flower and fruit of latest time…A poet participates in the eternal, the infinite and the one.

John Keats is most famously a poet of sensuousness, but he also believed that the works of imagination was closely linked to ultimate reality, upon which they shed their light. Like Coleridge, he had disappointing spells where he felt his imaginative powers weakened that he couldn’t write poetry. In “Sleep and Poetry” he wonders why imagination has lost its old power and scope.

…is there so small a range

In the preset strength of manhood, that the high

Imagination cannot freely fly

As she was wont of old?


In his celebrated essay English Romanticism: The Spirit of the Age (1963) M.H. Abrams spoke of the way in which romantic hope is centred on the “mind of the single individual”. As the romantic outlook sets so high a value on the individual self, it may lead to men living in their private universes without paying sufficient attention to what happens outside them. The major part of the criticism that romantics receive, stems from this; many critics hold that romantics were blind to the real issues that plagued their times.

Thus we see that romantics generally rejected absolute systems, whether of philosophy or religion, in favor of the idea that each person must create the system by which to live. Each romantic poet celebrates his own specific understanding of the world and his place in it, his insight into his own self and its relation to others, his reaction to the social and political realities of his time, and his awareness of the natural world around him.

“It is a poetry which is based, essentially, upon individual experience”(Watson,7)

Each of the romantic poets struggles to formulate answers to questions on Life and Man in his own way, using the poetic imagination which is ultimately an expression of his deepest self. Like the creatures in Gerrard Manley Hopkins’ poem, titled What I do is me, each romantic mind calls out, “what I do is me: for that I came”. This self – expression, this authenticity, leads towards the conclusion that the main feature which the romantic poets have in common is their individuality and staunch faith in poetic imagination.

Works Cited

Bowra, C. Maurice. The Romantic Imagination. Oxford: Oxford UP 1984.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Lectures and Notes on Shakespeare and Other English Poets. Montana: Kessinger, 2005.

Cuddon, J. A. The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory. London: Penguin, 1999.

Day, Aidan. Romanticism. New York: Routledge, 1996.

Watson, John Richard. English Poetry of the Romantic Period. London: Longman, 1992.


Copyright @ Neethu Tessa Baby

Assistant Professor, Department of English, Assumption College Changanassery


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