Politics and poetry: the Romantic Imagination
‘Man is all Imagination. God is Man and exists in us and we in him’ (William Blake)
The romantics are well known for their elevation – almost to the point of worship – of the imagination, viewing it as an innate, internal, fundamentally human spark that creatively shapes the world and our perception of it. William Blake, for example, saw the imagination as a divine, transformative, human faculty: ‘Nature has no outline; but Imagination has, Nature has no tune; but Imagination has!”
The romantics challenged the Enlightenment’s emphasis on reason, as in Shelley’s opening lines to The Defence of Poetry: ‘According to one mode of regarding those two classes of mental action, which are called reason and imagination, the former may be regarded as mind contemplating relations borne by one thought to another, however produced, and the latter as mind acting upon those thoughts as to colour them with its own light, and composing from them, as from elements, other thoughts, each containing within itself the principle of its own integrity.’
However, do the romantics deserve their reputation for turning away from the external world and indulging in their own imaginings?
The defining years of romanticism, 1770 – 1830, produced ideas and ideals that have a persistent and indelible influence on modern thinking about creativity and the individual. These years also saw the French revolution and the industrial revolution, the defining political, social and economic events of the modern age. Shelley’s Mask of Anarchy and Prometheus Unbound, Hazlitt’s essays, Wordsworth’s Prelude and Coleridge’s Fears in Solitude could be seen as testament to their interest and involvement in these events.
How did the romantics use poetry to express and give shape to political ideas? How should we understand the influence of the romantic idea of the imagination in shaping the world and shaping the arts, up to the present day?
Dr Shirley Dent (co-author of Radical Blake: afterlife and influence from 1827)
No need to prepare for this session, but you might like to dip into any of the following works:
Keats, J (2007) Selected poems Penguin Classics
Shelley, PB (1994) Selected Poetry and Prose, Wordsworth Poetry Library
Wordsworth, W(2008) The Major Works: including The Prelude, Oxford
Wordsworth, W and Coleridge S T (2006) Lyrical Ballads: With a Few Other Poems, Penguin Classics