The theme of escape has long been regarded as a powerful and timeless one in various works of literature, and in poetry more specifically. Escapism is a dominant and prevailing topic in poetry as it reveals an alternative existence to living a life of struggle, hardship, and sadness. Escapism can be sought through dreams where the reality of day to day life can temporarily be evaded, through nature where peace and solace can be found, or even through belief in religion where trusting in faith can help one surpass current challenges. Poets Philip Freneau, William Cullen Bryant, and Edgar Allan Poe all seem to address the enduring theme of escape in their own poetry as they examine the ways in which life can present situations that require one to indulge in escapism as dark and harsh realities become too much to endure. Freneau uses fancy and imagination to describe the power of escape, Bryant utilizes nature as a means of escape as harmony and stillness can be found among it, and Poe focuses on dreaming as a way to escape the harshness of one’s daily existence.
In Philip Freneau’s poem, “The Power of Fancy,” the poet centers on the theme of escapism through the celebration of fancy and the power of imagination. Freneau opens the poem with addressing the reader as a “wakeful, vagrant, restless thing,/Ever wandering on the wing,/Who thy wondrous source can find,/fancy, regent of the mind” (Freneau). The speaker of the poem is aware that life can become monotonous and exhausting at times, and that fancy is a faculty of the mind that allows for escape from it. Freneau goes on to write that “these suns and stars that round us roll!/What are they all, where’er they shine,/But Fancies of the Power Divine!” (Freneau). The capacity of one to engage in fancy seems to be likened to a divine force, as it has the power to allow the mind to escape. Freneau’s poem continually expresses the speaker’s desire to go to some faraway and seemingly magical place through the power of imagination as the “song of angels hears;/Sees this earth a distant star,/Pendant, floating in the air;/Leads me to some lonely dome,/Where Religion loves to come” (Freneau). Fancy is further compared to the divine as it is described as a religion. Religion is a belief that can offer faith and hope in times of struggle, just as the escape of the mind through imagining something better can. In order to seek escapism, the mind continuously “Wanders to some desert deep,/Or some dark, enchanted steep,/By the full moon light doth shew/Forests of a dusky blue,/Where, upon some mossy bed,/Innocence reclines her head” (Freneau). Fancy and imagination seem to be associated with incorruptibility and purity as they can allow your mind to escape from a dark and harsh reality, almost reaching some state of naivete and simplicity. The speaker of the poem constantly wishes to go somewhere else to be taken away from his current state of reality while asking for imagination to “Waft [him] far to southern isles/Where the soften’d winter smiles,/To Bermuda’s orange shades,/Or Demarara’s lovely glades” (Freneau). Imagination and “fancy, lead [him] wandering still” and able to seek escapism (Freneau). The speaker of the poem constantly wishes to wander to other places, and the fancy in his mind is a sufficient means of doing so. The speaker asks, “who doth here so soundly sleep?/Shall we break this prison deep?” (Freneau). Freneau views sleep as being a way in which to be overcome by one’s own imagination as the power of the mind can create an alternate reality if even for only a few hours. Normal day to day life seems to be likened to prison, as it is hardly as free and peaceful as we may feel when lost in one’s own imagination. Freneau completes his poem with thanking “fancy, to thy power I owe/Half my happiness below” (Freneau). Fancy and imagination are celebrated in Freneau’s poem, “The Power of Fancy,” as both states of the mind allow one to seek happiness, peace, and solace, and wander to blissful places as reality is temporarily blocked out.
In William Cullen Bryant’s poem, “An Inscription for the Entrance to a Wood,” escapism is expressed through the power and peacefulness of nature. Bryant begins the poem by admitting that it requires “no school of long experience, [to know] that the world/Is full of guilt and misery” (Bryant). The speaker encourages those who “hast seen/Enough of all its sorrows, crimes, and cares,/To tire thee of it, enter this wild wood” (Bryant). This poem makes it apparent that life is hard as it can sometimes be full of disappointments and sadness, but offers hope in the fact that nature is a place where one can escape from all of that. Being surrounded by “the calm shade/Shall bring a kindred calm, and the sweet breeze/That makes the green leaves dance, shall waft a balm/To thy sick heart” (Bryant). No matter what one may be going through and currently experiencing, nature can help to heal a heart that is in pain. Nature has the power to offer escape through its vast beauty and the fact that the sublimity of it allows one to feel small in comparison, as the day’s trials become diminished in the company of it. The speaker explains that if escape is needed “thou wilt find nothing here/Of all that pained thee in the haunts of men/And made thee loathe thy life” (Bryant). Nature is void of the pains of reality as the serenity and bliss that it offers can make one enjoy life again, even if just momentarily. Just as many insects and animals find their inhabitance and life to be dependent on nature, the speaker expresses that nature can bring people back to life, too as “throngs of insects in the shade/Try their thin wings and dance in the warm beam/That waked them into life” (Bryant). As the toils of reality begin to dull a person’s spirit, escaping to nature can reawaken one to the beauty and wonder of life. Nature can allow one to “breathe fixed tranquility,” and find peace apart from the demands of everyday life (Bryant). Nature can be calm and has the power to soothe sadness as it is a place to escape to that is not demanding anything in return. Listening to a gentle stream as it “sends forth glad sounds, and tripping o’er its bed/Of pebbly sands, or leaping down the rocks,/Seems, with continuous laughter, to rejoice In its own being,” it is clear that nature is a place that one can go to seek refuge from pain and struggle, and where one can be separated from reality (Bryant). Bryant’s poem examines the need for escape and the power of nature as a means of escapism as it offers a serene and peaceful place for one to remember that life is still as beautiful as the innocent and naïve versions of ourselves once thought it to be.
Edgar Allan Poe’s poem, “Dreams,” focuses on the potential of dreams to serve as a necessary escape from an unfulfilling or unhappy existence. The speaker of the poem regards dreams as being “better than the cold reality of waking life, to him whose heart must be,/And hath been still, upon the lovely earth,/A chaos of deep passion, from his birth” (Poe). Poe is a writer who continuously focuses on themes that have little to no place in actual reality, as he experienced his own hardships in life that he preferred to not express in his works. Poe must have found his own value in dreams, as he faced a hard life immediately after the innocence of his childhood. While sleeping and allowing the mind to escape to a dream, “’twere folly still to hope for higher Heaven./For I have revell’d when the sun was bright/I’ the summer sky, in dreams of living light” (Poe). In a dream, anything is possible as one can feel completely removed from current struggles. Sleeping and dreaming are a means of escape as the mind takes itself to someplace else. The speaker of Poe’s poem expresses that “I have been happy, tho’ [but] in a dream./I have been happy—and I love the theme” (Poe). This line in the poem seems to reveal that happiness is not attained, nor a known feeling in his daily life, as pain of loss and the sorrow associated with continuous struggle can prevent it. While dreaming, however, the speaker escapes to a place where happiness can be found, where reality temporarily has no bearing. Being awake is being subjected to harsh realities, but “dreams! in their vivid colouring of life/As in that fleeting, shadowy, misty strife” are an alternative to that (Poe). The knowledge of being able to dream makes life much more bearable as there is a place where one can momentarily escape to. Dreams bring “to the delirious eye, more lovely things/Of Paradise and Love—and all our own!” (Poe). Poe’s poem seems to celebrate the wonderful capacity of dreams to carry one’s mind away from a dark reality that can sometimes seem inevitable, to a place where none of that seems to exist. In a dream, escapism is possible as the mind can take itself anywhere, and a deep sleep is a temporary time of peace amid struggle.
Escapism has long been a powerful topic in literature as it provides a space for one to find freedom from the pains of reality. Philip Freneau, William Cullen Bryant, and Edgar Allan Poe are three poets that all seem to find value in a poetry of escape. Literature and poetry inherently are a means of escape as the minds of readers are brought to another world and another place as they read them. But in their various poems, these writers further examine the nature of escape through writing about ways that one can momentarily find solace even during times of immense challenges. Reality can be dark, harsh, and full of sorrow, and Freneau, Bryant, and Poe all seem to address this in their poems. Although they each focus on different ways to find an escape from the lack of fulfillment offered from daily life, they thoroughly express the beauty and importance in it. In his poem, “The Power of Fancy,” Freneau centers his poem on the ability of the mind to escape from pain and sadness through fancy and imagination. Freneau views these two faculties of the mind as being modes in which one can wander to happier places, and be faraway from reality, even if just temporarily. Bryant’s poem, “An Inscription for the Entrance to a Wood,” emphasizes the power of nature as a means of escape. According to his poem, escapism can be found through nature as it offers solace, peace, serenity, and tranquility, a desired change of pace from a demanding, exhausting reality. In Poe’s poem, “Dreams” he regards sleeping and dreaming as being an escape from an existence of discontent. Poe reveals in his poem that happiness can be found while dreaming as the mind can allow one to wander to a better place, and to better times.