To Yield Yourself to a Dream
Essay (Part 2) | The Lost Language of the Imagination in the British Romantic Era
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As I mentioned last week, I am currently writing a collection of essays on the imagination. I’m honing in on the worldviews and schools of thought that both understood its importance and the consequence of its dismissal. My inquiry is based on my study of the Poetics of Imagination for my master’s last year, and is helping me integrate a body of work that was highly discombobulating. To offer an image for the experience, it was like simmering in the pot of the old woman who lives at the edge of the world and stirs her soup over a fire that never goes out, mixing the things of this world and the other until she has cooked up an utterly new thing from what she began with. I find writing about the ingredients that I was churned by helps me to integrate them and find a way to articulate the new shape that I find myself in. This is really the basic premise behind ancient rites of regeneration and the council we often find at the heart of myths that speak of renewal and transformation. A time in the cauldron, the Underworld, the cave where grape becomes wine is essential for any possibility of resurrection into a truer expression of who we are.
Today I’m writing to you from one of the last two remaining private libraries in Britain. Nestled in a botanical garden in Cornwall for the greater part of a century, this library becomes my writing den when I visit my folks who live a stone’s throw away. Each room is divided by genre, and I was humoured today when the only unoccupied room was that of the Contemporary Romantics. Quite by chance, I found myself sitting in the circus maximus of Blake, Wordsworth, Keats and Coleridge, each saluting from their gleaming chariot on their respective shelves.
This is significant because the piece I want to share with you today is on the imagination within Contemporary Romanticism. The chance appearance of the Romantics around me feels like a nod from them to do so.
And so what follows is the approach to the imagination within the Romantic Movement of eighteenth and nineteenth-century Britain.
The Imagination in Contemporary Romanticism
The poet does not require us to be awake and believe; he solicits us only to yield ourselves to a dream; and this too with our eyes open, and with our judgment perdue behind the curtain, ready to awaken us at the first motion of our will: and in the meantime, only, not to disbelieve.
Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, II 217-18
The Contemporary Romantics preserved the imagination in a socio-political climate that inclined evermore towards literal conceptualism. They fought for an inner revolution in the life of the individual, and believed that the retrieval of the imagination was at the heart of this battle. M. H. Abrams describes Romanticism as, ‘the shift to a spiritual and moral revolution which will transform our experience of the old world.’The Movement was focused on the importance of the imagination, individual experience, the celebration of the natural world and the common man, and essentially arose out of a rejection of the state and the state Church, along with Church ritual. In his mysterious poem Jerusalem, William Blake’s mythological character Los can be understood to represent the divine aspect of the imagination. He is a prophetic poet who stands outside of religious institutionalism. In the poem,
Los urges men to
overthrow their cup,
Their bread, their altar-table, their increase and their oath:
Their marriage and their baptism; their burial and consecration.
Maurice Bowra wrote that, ‘If we wish to distinguish a single characteristic which differentiates the English Romantics from the poets of the eighteenth century, it is to be found in the importance which they attached to the imagination and in the special view which they held of it.’And Coleridge wrote, ‘I devote myself […] to elevate the imagination & set the affections in right tune by the beauty of the inanimate impregnated, as with a living soul, by the presence of Life’. This belief in a living universe no doubt contains traces of the animistic, shamanic worldview that pre-dates institutional religion. Coleridge emphasises this when he continued to exclaim, ‘I love fields & woods & mounta[ins] with almost a visionary fondness.'
So what was the imagination for the eighteenth and nineteenth-century British Romantics? John Keats saw the imagination as the holiness of the heart. In a letter he wrote to a friend concerning the authenticity of the imagination, Keats said: ‘I am certain of nothing but the Heart’s affections and the truth of the Imagination.’William Wordsworth so valued the imagination that he described it as the vision of the faculty divine. He saw it as inherent to human nature, and because of this ability to imagine, he linked humanity with divinity. Similarly, for William Blake the imagination was a form of spiritual sensation that allowed access to a realm of inspiration which he called the "divine imagination." He held that humanity is divine because we can imagine, and that the purpose of the imagination is to kindle something within us and, as a result, rouse the inner faculties. Coleridge also aspired to produce an active fascination in his readers that would rouse the faculties. He saw the role of the poet as one that brings the whole soul into activity, and he too acknowledged the existence of another realm that was accessible through what he called "imaginative vision." This notion of the imagination being the bridge through which we can access divinity was at the heart of the world's oldest religion: shamanism.
Interestingly, Coleridge was one of the first to employ the term shamanism in the European world. The term first appeared in Britain during the Romantic period of the eighteenth century. In his lyrical poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Coleridge creates an allegorical tale of redemption replete with vivid otherworldly imagery. He uses the shamanic motif of an initiatory journey, one that Ted Hughes describes as emulating a progression from a loathsome "dead" universe to a blessed "living" one that results from a sudden shift in the Mariner’s outlook.This inner transformation could be understood as symbolic of a breakthrough to a greater spiritual meaning. And as is common within shamanic journeys, the Mariner returns from his voyage with a gift, one that is internal and results from a particular labour the psyche must endure in order to refine and better itself.
In his essay The Snake and the Oak, Ted Hughes describes the Mariner's gift to be ‘a strange power of speech’ on those who hear him.Hughes calls this a ‘uniquely Coleridgean effect’ that is ‘a characteristic style of simple but hypnagogic imaginative encapsulation, not easy to describe but instantly recognizable.’ The rhythm of his writing is similar to the monotonous sound used within shamanic methodologies to enter into an altered state. Altering consciousness in this way is believed to aid the individual and the shaman alike to access the subtle realms beyond sensual experience, otherwise known as the divine.
Coleridge's Mariner is able to retrieve his gift of "sacred speech" – as Hughes calls it – because he accesses the shamanic, divine, or Imaginal plane, and ‘plunges himself in [its] healing wholeness.'This brings to mind the gods bestowing ancient Greek mystics and poets with the gifts of "sweet speech" or "poetic tongue", often as a result of the individual's inner spiritual labour.
The historian Mircea Eliade drew a connection between lyrical poetry and shamanic states of consciousness, and furthered the idea that both draw from an Imaginal Realm. He puts it this way: ‘The shaman’s adventures in the other world, the ordeals that he undergoes in his ecstatic descents below and ascents to the sky, suggest the adventures of the figures in popular tales and the heroes of epic literature.’And in a manner reminiscent of the lost language, Eliade goes on to say that ‘lyric was from its inception a term used to describe a music that could no longer be heard, an idea of poetry characterised by a lost collective experience.’
I find this acknowledged link between the Romantics and shamanism very exciting. It tells us that the shamanic worldview survived well into nineteenth-century Europe, and that the Romantic thinkers of that time were very much influenced by this ancient worldview that maintained the existence of an invisible realm that informs and influences the physical one. Hughes wrote,
…the initiation dreams, the general schema of the shamanic flight, and the figure and adventures they encounter, are not a shaman monopoly: they are, in fact, the basic experience of the poetic temperament we call “romantic”. In a shamanizing society, Venus and Adonis, some of Keats’s longer poems, The Wanderings of Oisin, Ash Wednesday, would all qualify their authors for the magic drum.
The Romantic vision sought to rouse the West to another order of things. “Romanticism” is perhaps best understood not as a historical period, but as a tendency of the soul; one that continues well into our era and is alive for anyone who seeks to transform - to re-quote Ted Hughes - the dead universe into a blessed living one.
The imagination as a bridge that leads to the Imaginal Realm, where a rich and sometimes arduous personal journey can take place to retrieve a gift that eventually leads to a hopeful re-emergence in a renewed shape is at the heart of the Romantic Movement, and finds its roots in the shamanic worldview. This suggests a continuity in pre-Christian religious practice in Europe, as well as its miraculous survival through hundreds of years of systematic suppression. Another day I will share a piece on the invisible realm, or Otherworld, for those who would like to explore it a little deeper.
I’ll pause for this week with some closing words from the vagabond in Blake’s Song of Experience not unlike the character of his unruly yet holy Los, who represents the divine aspect of the imagination. The vagabond says,
…the Church is cold,
But the Ale-house is healthy & pleasant & warm…
But if at the Church they would give us some Ale,
And a pleasant fire our souls to regale;
We’d sing and we’d pray all the live-long day,
And never once wish from the Church to stray.'
M.H. Abrams, ‘English Romanticism: the Spirit of the Age’ (1963), in The Correspondent Breeze: Essays on English Romanticism (New York and London: W.W. Norton, 1984), p. 66-7
William Blake quoted in G. E. Bentley Jr. ‘The Stranger from Paradise: A Biography of William Blake’, p. 10
Maurice Bowra, The Romantic Imagination (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1950), p. 1
Coleridge, letter to George Coleridge, c. 10 March 1798
The Letters of John Keats, p. 52 https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=nyp.33433043972813&view=1up&seq=100
It is worth mentioning that Wordsworthian Romanticism unfortunately eventually contributed to the Western world approaching the imagination as something personal, illusory, and associated with fantasy.
Ted Hughes, ‘Regenerations’, Winter Pollen, p. 409
Ibid p. 452
Ibid p. 433
Ibid p. 435
Ibid p. 453
Mircea Eliade, ‘Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy’, p. 510
A. M. V. Monagas, p. 5
Ted Hughes, ‘Regenerations’, Winter Pollen, p. 58
Quoted in ‘The Stranger from Paradise: A Biography of William Blake’, G. E. Bentley Jr. p. 10
I remember when studying the English romantic poets in university I was very impressed by Coleridge, both his rhymes and his theory. What a pleasure to know he was indeed conscious about shamanism and what he was doing with words on a deeper level. Thank you for bringing that in. The romantics still live, it’s an attitude 💙
As always an absolute pleasure to both mind and heart to witness the depth of vision in your work Gabriela.