The Romantic Context
For some critics the defining feature of Romanticism is the belief in the mind's active perception of truth and reality which is, in effect, the process of the creative imagination. Rather than seeing the mind as separate and distinct from the outside world, able to analyse it and dissect it through the proceesses of reason, the Romantic poets perceived a potential harmony between the human mind and the outside world based on an undersanding of the 'one life' which ran though both nature and humanity. Unlike reason the imagination is a synthesising not an analytical power.
For Wordsworth this expressed itself in a belief in the perception of the absolute through nature, that the poet's imagination or 'creative sensibility' enabled him to 'see into the life of things' and through his creative vision understand and apprehend the spiritual unity of the universe which included all humanity, nature and God. Such an imaginative vision was schooled by life's experience of nature and 'the still sad music of humanity'.
For Coleridge, the imagination is 'the living power and prime agent of all human perception... a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM.' The imaginative perception of the world is a part of the divine act of creation: reality is not dead or fixed, but is dynamic, alive and changing and is being continually re-made in the creative act of the perceiver. The imagination perceived unity in the diversity of experience.
For the Romantic poets the artist or poet does not imitate or passively reflect reality: that is an inert, restrictive art. The romantic poet expresses the vision of his mind which sheds light upon the world. M. H. Abrams compared two views of the artist through the images of the mirror and the lamp. He argued that Pre-Romantic conceptions of the poet saw the artist as like a mirror, reflecting truth and reality. For the Romantic artist the poet's mind is like a lamp, illuminating a greater spiritual reality beyond the images of the material world and transcending nature.
Keats and the imagination
1) His ideas as expressed in his letters:
To his friend Benjamin Bailey 22nd November 1817
'I am certain of nothing save 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' (my italics)
and later in the same letter:
'The imagination may be compared to Adam's dream -he awoke and found it truth.'
To J.H.Reynolds on 3rd may 1818
Comparing human life to a mansion of large apartments he describes the 'chamber of maiden thought' in which 'we become intoxicated with the light and the atmosphere. We see nothing but pleasant wonders, and think of delaying there for ever in delight.'
However, Keats argues that one must move on to the next phase 'of convincing ones nerves that the World is full of misery and heartbreak, pain, sickness and oppression - whereby this chamber of maiden thought becomes gradually darkened - , many doors... all leading to dark passages - we see not the balance of good and ill.'
How do these quotations help us understand Keats' view of the imagination?
1. The chamber of maiden thought represents the poet's early desire to use the imagination to create a world of delight and wonder, a world of 'Flora and Old Pan'
2. But this is not where the poet can rest. The poet's imagination can enable a perception of truth which is immortal and transcendent (whose beauty 'obliterates all other consideration').
3. However, the most sophisticated view of the imagination conceives of it as a power which enables the poet to perceive a truth and a beauty which does not reject or attempt to escape from reality but explores those 'dark passages and creates a complex vision of reality: the balance of good and ill. It takes account of the 'agony and strife of human hearts.'
I think we can understand the imagination operating in Keats' poetry in three fundamental ways:
1) As the inventions of 'Fancy' offering escape.
2) As a power to create a vision of a transcendent or ideal beauty
3) As a power which takes account of reality but transforms it into a more complex and inclusive vision of beauty: a kind of theodicy, or belief which takes account of the role of suffering and ill in human experience.
It seems to me that 'Fancy' (The poem and the concept) represents the capacity of the imagination to create and invent pleasures which are currently absent from experience; in other words an imaginary world of delight and wonder. It is the nearest we get in the poems set for study of an essentially escapist vision created by the poetic imagination. It was this desire to escape that led to Keats writing in 'The Fall of Hyperion; that the 'dreamer envenoms all his days'. However, the sub-text of poem 'Fancy' warns of the dangers and contradictions of such a desire to escape.
In 'Fancy' Keats complains that 'Pleasure never is at home', and that 'Pleasure melteth'. However, the pleasures of the various stages of nature celebrated are inextricably bound to a world of transience and fleeting pleasure. One can only appreciate the pleasure of Spring, Summer, Autumn if one pleasure gives way to the other. Note also that Keats has dispelled all discordant elements from this vision. And one has to ask how satisfying is the imagined image of a maiden 'unkirtling'; a problem of unfulfilled desire Keats explores directly in 'Ode on a Grecian Urn'. In 'Lamia', Keats explores the dangers of withdrawal from reality through Lamia's seductive powers, whilst at the same time recognising the power of the imagination to enrich and celebrate experience of this world: love, wine, the rainbow etc. Note how she is presented as a contradictory figure.
Many of Keats poems do explore the power of the imagination to create a transcendent vision of immortal beauty, a beauty which 'obliterates all consideration'. An imaginatively perceived reality which transcends the transience of this world: the love of Hermes and the nymph in 'Lamia', the grecian urn, the nightingale's song. And of course in 'Psyche' he celebrates the power of the imagination to immortalise Psyche.
But the value and truth of an ideal world apprehended by the imagination is increasingly problematised in Keats' work: Although immortalised, Psyche was an image of how the soul could only achieve dignity through suffering in this 'vale of soul-making'; the grecian urn immortalises and inspires but it also a 'cold pastoral' and the nightingale is a 'deceiving elf' and Keats challenges whether he has imaginatively perceived a 'vision' of truth or has been deceived by 'a waking dream'.
So how can the imagination apprehend truth and beauty in a way which is not a flight from reality?
It seems to me that 'The Eve of St Agnes' is key here, written in January 1819. The central stanzas from 34 -36 are a poetic realisation of Keats's idea of 'Adam's Dream'. For rather than offering an escape from reality, or even conceiving of a transcendent reality, the imagination of Madeleine fuses with the reality of Porphyro, so that the spiritual and physical, the real and the created, are united in the imagination and the act of love making is enriched and celebrated as an act of passionate union.
In 'Hyperion' Keats explores how the imagination can conceive of the birth of the poet (Apollo) as more beautiful than the Titans because of the experience of sorrow and of the knowledge of 'creations and destroyings' and 'agonies' perceived by Apollo in the face of Mnemosyne (Memory).
'Ode on a Grecian Urn' and 'Ode to a Nightingale' explore the unstable relationship between imagination and reality, celebrating the value of art and glimpses of immortality while acknowledging the necessity of the poet's imagination to explore and come to terms with the contradictions of this world. Of course, they are themselves products of the imagination which have transcended the death of Keats (perhaps as foreseen in 'Bards of Passion and Mirth'). They exist to stimulate the imaginations of generation of readers to feel and reflect on the truths of their feelings and uncertainties as they explore the frustrations and 'dark passages' of experience.
'Ode on Melancholy' deprecates the allure of escape and oblivion and acknowledges the inextricable link between melancholy and beauty, joy and sadness. And, of course, 'To Autumn' is an example of Keats using his imagination to celebrate the pleasures of this world. But 'To Autumn' also presents both an acceptance and an imaginative apprehension of the role of change, transience and growth, including the oncoming of winter and death as a way of understanding the 'balance of good and ill' in a real world which is 'a vale of soul making'.
For Keats the imagination is a creative power which:
i) As 'fancy', can invent pleasures and provide an escape from this world into a mental world of delight and pleasure which is ultimately unsatisfying and an abrogation of the responsibility of the poet.
ii) Can conceive of a transcendent beauty, immortal and ideal.
iii) Can restore the wonder, enrich and celebrate the experiences of this world and re-create such sensations and feelings for the reader in words.
iv) Can explore the contradictions and frustrations of experience and create a vision of a more complex beauty, of the balance of good and ill, of dying into life like Apollo or Psyche.