Romanticism, creative imagination and nature

The wanderer above the sea of fog


Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog (1818) by Caspar David Friedrich
(from Wikipedia Commons) 

 

This essay was written towards the end of my HSC year in 2010. I was passionate about my english studies and thoroughly enjoyed learning about the Romantic era. The following essay explores creative imagination and the significance of nature in relation to the work of Romantics including poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Lord Byron, novelist Emily Bronte and essayist William Hazlitt.

 


For Rousseau, “The world of reality has its limits; the world of imagination is boundless.” Romantics valued imagination as a creative power and thought it was at its most effective amongst the natural world. This way of thinking is evident in Coleridge’s conversation poems ‘This Lime-Tree Bower my Prison’ and ‘Kubla Khan’ both which explore the creative imagination in connection to natural scenes. William Hazlitt’s essay, ‘My First Acquaintance with Poets’ depicts the inspiration that poets, in particular Coleridge and Wordsworth, drew from their surroundings in the creative process. The novel Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte explores the powers of the natural world and how it allows characters an escape from opressive society. Lord Byron’s poem ‘The Dream’ explores powers of the mind by weaving an intricate story, set out as a dream sequence, showing the power of the imagination even in sleep. These texts all illustrate Romanticism’s focus on the imagination as a creative process and nature’s influence on this process.

Romanticism was an era which founded a new appreciation for natural scenes, ironically at a time when large tracts of land were being cleared for the Industrial Revolution. Coleridge’s poem ‘This Lime-Tree Bower my Prison’ reveals the Romantic belief that only amongst scenes of nature can man achieve harmony with himself. The persona begins in a petulant mood as his friends leave to traverse across nature without him. The initial tone of irritation is emphasised by the hyperbole in the line “Friends, whom I never more may meet again”. However, the persona’s imagination frees him from his physical confines. Imagery is used to depict sublime scenes of nature; the “roaring dell”, “wide wide Heaven”, and “hilly fields and meadows”. He loses his tone of childish irritation and instead begins to appreciate the simplistic beauty of the “little lime-tree bower” which “sooth’d him” and “lift[ed] the soul”. The use of an exalted tone emphasises the how his imagination, used in conjunction with introspection and reflection in nature has freed the persona and allowed him to achieve an altered mood and deepened understanding of the world around him.

Another of Coleridge’s conversation poems, ‘Kubla Khan’, depicts the imagination as the gateway to creativity and insight through the creation of an exotic world of contrasts. The subtitle, ‘A Vision in a Dream, A Fragment’ depicts the idealistic nature of the Romantics; the dream is one of perfection, power and beauty. The structure of the poem consists of three main segments. The first stanza reveals the tranquil and ordered nature of the world above, with the light imagery used to describe the “stately pleasure-dome”, “gardens bright with sinuous rills” and “sunny spots of greenery”. The use of sibilence in these descriptions create a lightness which is juxtaposed with the subtle darkness of the “caverns measureless to man”, “sunless sea” and “forests ancient as the hill.” The second stanza goes on to reveal the more violent and chaotic world hidden in the “deep romantic chasm”, described as “A savage place!” This emotive exclamation contrasts the order and tranquility of the world above the chasm. The duality of the world, its seeming peaceful exterior and hidden chaotic nature is an example of the ability of the imagination to convey the power of the natural world.

The Romantic depiction of nature as something ultimately untamable is also revealed in the second stanza. The last stanza seems disjointed in its depictions of “A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!”, “an Abyssian maid”, “symphony and song” but the lyrical quality of these descriptions, powerful metrical qualities and the exotic nature of the setting make it a memorable poem. The lack of reasoned order in the poem is an example of how Romantics appreciated raw expression and beauty above strict literary forms structured by reason and intellect. Rather, they viewed poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”, guided by the imagination as influenced by natural scenes.

Cathy and Heathcliff from Emily Bronte’s novel Wuthering Heights are prone to this excess of emotion. Like Coleridge, Bronte reveals the necessity for freedom of expression, aided by a free spirit and a sense of unity with nature; views which mirror the way of thinking that is Romanticism. The influence of nature on the mind is evident through the deep connection Catherine feels with the moors. Her fiery nature is reflected by the wild setting of her home and when subdued at Thrushcross Grange she feels a sense of entrapment, similar to that felt by the persona in ‘This Lime-Tree Bower my Prison’. While the persona was only physically confined to the bower, Catherine is trapped by her gender, her choice, the threat of poverty and society’s values. Only when half-starved and hallucinating is her dependence on the moors fully revealed. “I wish I were out of doors again…I’m sure I would be myself were I once among the heather on those hills…” The wistful, pained tone of her words illustrates how at one she feels with the wild settings and how keenly she feels her loss. The Romantic tendency towards feeling of nostalgia regarding childhood is revealed here, as she longs for a past ideal when she was with Heathcliff and “half savage and hardy and free”. However, unlike the persona in Coleridge’s poem, her deepened understanding of her loss does not bring any relief – instead her imagination has recreated a scene from her childhood only to torment her.

Heathcliff and Cathy’s relationship is affirmed by the natural world. When confined at Thrushcross Grange, which is representative of Victorian values and the materialism, their relationship is threatened. Twenty years after Catherine’s death, the two are spiritually reunited, finally at peace in the environment they played in as children. The Gothic nature of the novel is emphasised by the little shepherd boy’s claim to having seen “Heathcliff and a woman, yonder, under t’Nab.” This sighting illustrates how Heathcliff and Cathy have metaphysically transcended the confines of the Victorian society and been freed through nature. Though Nelly, representing the reason and rationalism of the Enlightenment Era, claims the boy probably “raised the phantoms from thinking,” the reader is left pondering whether this is the case. Clearly, Bronte used the Romantic preoccupation with the relationship between creative imagination and nature in order to reinforce the power of love.

Lord Byron’s poem ‘The Dream’, like Wuthering Heights, maps out the tragic lives of two lovers, but as a sort of versified reverie. The intricate tale of the pair’s lives is mapped out in dream sequence to emphasise the power of the imagination, even in sleep. As stated in the opening stanza, “dreams in their development have breath, / And tears, and torture, and the touch of joy”. Here not only is the imagination shown to be a powerful trait, emotions are shown to have great impact, greater than rationality and reason, as humans innately long to attach sentiment and meaning to incidences through life.

This Romantic belief in expression and imagination is portrayed through the incidences of the poem, simply described by Marchand as a sentimentalised self-history, “from youthful idealism through disillusionment to sad resignation and melancholy despair.” The youth in question is rather similar to Heathcliff – his love is never fulfilled and he becomes the classic dark, melancholy Byronic hero. The use of hyperbole describing his infatuation, “he had ceased/ To live within himself; she was his life” also seems highly reminiscent of Heathcliff’s monomania on Catherine. His love, like Catherine, marries a wealthy man and the youth escapes to “the wilds”, making his home in “fiery climes” where he finds some comfort under the “blue sky, / So cloudless, clear, and purely beautiful, / That God alone was to be seen in Heaven.” This Pantheistic depiction of nature is also Romantic as nature is shown to comfort the mind once again. Further parallels can be drawn between Wuthering Heights and ‘The Dream’ as the youth marries “a gentle bride” whose “face is fair”, but like Heathcliff he seems to show no appreciation for her. The dream then shifts back to his childhood love who is “changed / As by sickness of the soul”. The “look which is not of the earth” seems to echo Catherine in her last days. The audience is constantly reminded that this intricate tragic tale is merely a dream by the repetition of the line “A change came o’er the spirit of my dream” at the beginning of each new stanza. Byron’s appreciation of the imagination also seems akin to that of Coleridge. Early in the poem, he acknowledges:

“…The mind can make
Substance, and people planets of its own
With beings that are brighter than have been, and give
A breath to forms which can outlive all flesh.”

This personification of the mind serves to emphasise the creative power of the imagination and is characteristic of Romanticism.

Romantics also believed in free expression and imagination as a trait that was inspired by nature. William Hazlitt’s essay “My First Acquaintance with Poets” is an individualised account of his memories of the great poets Coleridge and Wordsworth. He describes the power of the mind through anecdotes and recollections of his personal memories. In one instance he describes the artistic inspiration Coleridge and Wordsworth gained amongst nature, and the personalised manner in which each perceived nature.

“Coleridge has told me that he himself liked to compose walking on uneven ground, or breaking through the straggling branches of a copse-wood, whereas Wordsworth always wrote walking up and down a straight gravel-walk…”

The individual self is also exalted in this essay. Each poet is shown as unique, with his own creative powers through the symbolic representation of their personalities in the way each creates using imagination amongst nature.

The Romantics are shown as rebelling against constraint, using their imaginations and insight to forge new artistic ideals. The human wish to strive for depth and meaning in life drove them to find an innovative way of expression. The world of imagination was for them “boundless”, and their new appreciation for nature assisted them in creating art forms which expressed their perception of the world.

 


 

Please note: I am happy for people to  use ideas expressed in this essay in their own works provided that there is adequate referencing.

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One comment

  1. Great analysis! Romanticism is likely my favorite literary movement. It certainly places a heavy emphasis on the importance of nature, but to my mind its writers were also trying to illustrate just how powerless we are to shape our own destinies. I think that’s partly what Stevenson was referring to when he spoke of romance as “the poetry of circumstance,” which I’ve tried to write about here.

    Anyway, thanks for the thought-provoking read!

    Like

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