The Romantic Era: Imagination as a Rebellion Against Rationalism
In an era driven by rationalism and logic, the poets and authors of the Romantic era sought to defend what they understood as a more natural system of values. Among the themes prevalent throughout the era, the theme of the imagination’s power is definitely central, for not only is the context of the literature rich with the theme, but the works themselves serve as products of the authors’ imaginative vision. William Blake’s series of philosophical aphorisms, “All Religions Are One” and, “There Is No Natural Religion”, exemplify the common belief imagination shall prevail over reason which is also found throughout Romantic literature such as William Wordsworth’s, “The Crossing of the Alps”. Furthermore, the literature can also serve as tools to provide insight to the historical and cultural state of their time.
Both, “All Religions Are One” and, “There Is No Natural Religion” are written with the goal of defending imagination over reason. In, “There Is No Natural Religion” Blake begins his defense in part [b], “Man’s perceptions are not bounded by organs of perception” (117). In a reference to positions of philosophers such as John Locke, Blake takes the stance similar to many Romantic writers and believes people are not limited to sense perceptions, for imagination also offers a way to interpret and perceive the world. In part [a] Blake points out, “The desires & perceptions of man, untaught by any thing but organs of sense, must be limited to objects of sense” (117,) that is, because we can conceptualize and desire things that can not be understood through the senses alone, there must be other components (such as imagination, intuition, and feelings) which allow for such experiences. Complementing this idea in, “All Religions Are One” the first principal begins, “The Poetic Genius is the true Man” (116). Not only does Blake argue that people also perceive reality through imaginative vision (named the Poetic Genius), but that this quality is the truest part of people. Despite being a common theme, the concept of imagination is described in indefinite terms throughout Romantic literature. However, throughout the literature a common reverence for the concept of imagination manifests itself similar to the way Blake has described the Poetic Genius: it is an intuitive way of experiencing life from a higher self which differs from the rational and logical mind.
Wordsworth understands the abstract quality of imagination and begins the 1850 version of, “The Crossing of the Alps”, “Imagination—here the power so called/ Through sad incompetence of human speech” (1-2). It is as if the power of imagination is so profound and obscure that it can not be properly put into worlds. Perhaps this is why the poets of the Romantic era felt so compelled to encompass the common theme; to try and capture the obscurity of imagination. Wordsworth recognizes imagination as a source of escape as well as disappointment, and acknowledges the power in both. His experience in the Alps was not as he had pre-imagined it would be, yet in retrospect he is able to recollect his experience in his mind in a way that leads him to appreciation:
‘I recognize thy glory’. In such strength
Of usurpation, in in such visitings
Of awful promise, when the light of sense
Goes out in flashes that have shewn to us
The invisible world, doth greatness make abode, (532-536)
Here, Wordsworth also points out that in the lack of the senses, one can better connect to the, “invisible world”. This concept is particularly similar to Blake’s philosophy in, “All Religions Are One”: “As none by traveling over known lands can find out the unknown, So from already acquired knowledge Man could not acquire more. Therefore the Universal Poetic Genius exists” (116). That is, one can not study the known to find the unknown, therefore a universal imagination must exists. In the final stanza of book sixth of The Prelude, Wordsworth finds ultimate peace and enlightenment in the coincidence between imagination and the natural world, “Tumult and peace, the darkness and light,/ were all like workings of one mind, the features/ Of the same face, blossoms upon one tree” (567-569). Here, imagination has integrated into the everyday experience of nature in a manner that the natural world and imagination begin to mirror each other; they become one of the same. Again, Blake also acknowledges the same relationship between imagination and reality as the final notes of, “There is No Natural Religion” encompass the idea that God is only a reflection of our own ability to imagine, and those with imagination are the creator. In other words, he is making the point that our perceptions as a product of our imagination create our reality.
On a final note, the selections from the Romantic Era themselves are products of imaginative vision. The poems themselves serve for their audience at the time as an example of mankind’s imaginative and creative capacity. As possessors of such visionary minds, it is only understandable that the writers of the time would want to express and defend their world of imagination–a world that they believe all humans naturally have–during an Era that is obsessed with rationalism and the controlled order of things. Through the heavy use of imaginative themes and defense on the matter, a correlation can be drawn between the works and their historical context. The Enlightenment surely had a strong effect on the writers of the Romantic era, as the works of the Romantic era can be seen as a rebellion of philosophers of the time such as John Locke who’s theories are clearly argued by William Blake.
In Blake’s, “All Religions Are One” and, “There Is No Natural Religion” imagination is described through the concept of the, “Poetic Genius” in his reaction against rationalism. In Wordsworth’s, “The Prelude” imagination is revered, analyzed, and even acknowledge for its undefinable nature in, “The Crossing of the Alps”. Despite the variety in their works, the use of an abstract idea of imagination or the higher self seems to be an underlining theme throughout many of the works in the Romantic Era.
Blake, William. “All Religions Are One” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Gen. ed. Stephen Greenblatt. 9th ed. Vol. D. New York: Norton, 2012. 116. Print.
—. “There is no Natural Religion” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Gen. ed. Stephen Greenblatt. 9th ed. Vol. D. New York: Norton, 2012. 116-117. Print. Wordsworth, William. “Crossing of the Alps” The Norton Anthology of English Literature.Gen. ed. Stephen Greenblatt. 9th ed. Vol. D. New York: Norton, 2012. 352-353. Print.
—. “From Book Sixth” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Gen. ed. Stephen Greenblatt. 9th ed. Vol. D. New York: Norton, 2012. 386-387. Print.
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