This stanza taken from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Nights Dream delightfully describes the romantic concept of imagination held by both Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and John Keats. For many Romantic writers imagination is creation: “… The living power and prime agent of all human perception, and is a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I am”.
According to this statement from Coleridge’s, Biographia Literaria, the human imagination, at its highest level, inherits and maintains the divine creative endeavors of the Great I am of the Old Testament. Referenced by St. John makes in his gospel as the logos or Word, which he tells us was the common origin of human language and consciousness, as well as the world that contains them.
Thus implying that the creative imagination can be applied not only to the creation and meditation of works of art, but also to the consideration of nature herself. For Coleridge the imagination is just as poignant as a religious concept as a purely literary one. The same may be said of John Keats. In a letter to Benjamin Bailey he writes of imagination; “I am certain of nothing but of the holiness of the Heart’s affections and the truth of the Imagination – what the imagination seizes as Beauty must be Truth – whether it existed before or not…
The imagination may be compared to Adam’s dream – he awoke and found it truth. ” This being a reference to the deep sleep that comes over Adam in which he dreams about Eve and awakes to find her created. Keats too references the bible in the existence of the imagination and its role as a creative power. He continues to say, “that it Colderidge makes further reference to the divinity of the imagination in his poem Kubla Kahn:
“His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread:
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drank the milk of Paradise.” (7.50-54)
Here we see Coleridge making reference to the Classical Mythology in which one who feds upon the honey dew, and drinks the milk of Paradise is essentially received into a god status. So in essence at the end of the poem Kubla Khan, whom has through his imagination created a unique pleasure dome, actually becomes a god. This embodies the concept of imagination for Colderidge, it is the power of (a) god: creation.
It is interesting to note, however, that in his poem Kubla Khan Colderidge makes inferences that perhaps all is not well in Kubla Khan’s pleasure dome, with phrases such as “a savage place/haunted by woman wailing for her demon-lover/turmoil seething/a sunny pleasure dome of caves of ice” (4-5. 14-36). Coleridge leads us to understand that perhaps the creative power of imagination has an inherently dark side to it. This darker creative concept of the imagination is further developed by Keats.
Most notably in his portraying of The Eve of St. Agnes in which he uses darker elements, such as the opening stanza with the words “bitter, chill, cold, frozen, numb,” and the passage from the 14th stanza lines 1st and 2nd: “St. Agnes, Ah it is St. Agnes Eve- yet men will murder upon holy days” and many other tools such as Porphyro being in the closet, the ensuing storm outside and of course the very descriptive final stanzas in which we find that all the players in the poem are dead.
This is done to give a decisively dark undertone to an otherwise almost Romeo and Juliet seeming romance. In The Eve of St. Agnes, Keats uses his idea of dreaming something only to wake and find its actual creation. Madeline awakens from a dream of Porphyro to find him there. This, mixed with the decidedly dark undertone, casts a shadow of a disturbing nature upon the poem, and leads the reader to ponder upon the darker possibilities of the creative power found in the imagination.
In La Belle Dame sans Mercy Keats relates a story of a knight who encounters a lady – enticing, beautiful, and enchanting – who ultimately leads the knight away into a realm from which he cannot or will not return. Thus suggesting that perhaps imagination is the same: It is an alluring, tantalizing, subliminal thing but once we leave the real for the unreal, we may not be unable to return. We may get stuck out there. We may become lost, crippled and lose our purpose in life, becoming in a way dead.
Coleridge experienced this feeling of despair and despondency in his battle with his opium addiction, and his portrayal of it isi??prevalent in his Odes. As did Keats, knowing that his life would be cut short, and perhaps he would not have time to fulfill his dreams of becoming an acclaimed poet. To these men the imagination was not some abstract frivolous ideal. It is not some subjective realm, some distant far away fantasy, but the world itself. It drove them. It defined them. It shaped them. It ultimately made them. Litserally.