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The Timelessness of Romantic Poetry

An essay on how the Romantic poets will forever inspire the imaginations of humanity by writing on that which can exist only in the imagination itself, with reference to Keats and Shelley

The Romantic Poets speak even though their time is past. A poem may reflect the period in which it is written, but the Romantic poets will forever inspire the imaginations of humanity by writing on that which can exist only in the imagination itself ? a poem ensures it perpetuity by inspiring thought in those people who read it, even if only one.

The Romantic era of poetry was from the late 1700s through to the mid 1800s, and saw the likes of Blake, Keats, Wordsworth and Coleridge. At that time the world was rife with revolution, and battles fought in America and France were a main topic of conversation among all. Turmoil and passion were in the air, and just as there was uprising in countries, there was uprising in the poetic world. Poets across the globe began to write with emotion, in response to a century of neoclassicism, a form abundant with rigid structures and restrained feelings.

These seditious works emphasized the poets? passion rather than reason, and imagination and intuition rather than logic. They favoured full and unrestricted expression of emotion, and free, spontaneous action, rather than restraint and order. The Romantics saw nature as a living spirit, attuned to human feelings of love and compassion; and they yearned for the unreachable infinite.

The Romantics believed that even though humanity knew only a small part of reality though our five senses, we still concerned ourselves almost entirely with scientific ?truth? and materialistic values gained through our senses. They postulated that we would not understand the vast reality beyond our senses and achieve full control of ourselves until we learned to trust our instincts, energies and imaginations.

The Romantics? fiery passion for life and nature is embodied in Shelley?s ?Ode to the West Wind?, an earnest invocation of a surging wind; and a poem about the Romantic spirit. The force of this passionate, revolutionary wind is so great that even nature is bent before it ? ??know thy voice, and suddenly go grey with fear?. ?Ode to the West Wind? also expresses the hungering for imagination, a quality held high among the Romantic poets. Not only does Shelly want the force to make him the ?trumpet of a prophecy?, but for the wind to ?make me thy lyre? ? the lyre being a frequent symbol for the artist being played by inspiration.

The main reason for this poem is that Shelley was a visionary of a change that he believed had to come to earth, where something good might somehow come out of the evil and waste that the world had become for him. He invokes the powerful West Wind, a force he identifies with evil, his ever-changing world, and his own subconscious, to work through him to bring about the change that he so badly wants for the world, and believes could be possible. Shelley?s poem is his passionate attempt to let the West Wind work through him.

This unbridled passion in himself and other Romantic poets led to literature that depicted emotional matter in an imaginative form, with passion for nature, life and the abstractions; the greatest of which are love, beauty, truth and God. Blake shows his longing for an understanding of the infinite, another abstraction, when he states ?to see a World in a grain of sand, and a Heaven in a wild flower, hold Infinity in the palm of your hand, and Eternity in an hour?. Within four lines Blake mentions four immense concepts, all involving abstractions.

These passionate writings on abstractions are also plentiful with ekphrastic descriptions. Images that the mind creates from these are much more powerful than any descriptive words that could ever attempt to describe the same picture. With the description in the poem, readers can take the experience to another level by creating their own image ? and with the passionate tone and style of the writing of the Romantics, leave an ?immortal wound? upon their imaginations, such that they will forever have a remembrance of the text.

No poet, Romantic or otherwise, could ever know what meanings readers would derive from their work; since each reader is an individual, and a poem is like a picture that we colour in with our own lives. However, because a reader will apply their own meaning upon a poem, the poem will have a staying power within their minds.

Poetry is a significant part of human endeavour, and was considered by the Romantics to be the greatest form of art due to its ability to tell a story and still include a visual description of the imagined work of art. We grow up with nursery rhymes in childhood, music in adolescence and poetry in adulthood; humanity seems to be defunct without rhythm and poetry, and the mental imagery that accompanies it in the mind.

The mind?s eye, and the poetic ekphrasis that accompanies its invocation, is the main tool of the imagination. Coleridge, one of the Romantics, divided the imagination into two. The primary imagination makes knowledge and perception possible; and the secondary imagination, which is the poetic imagination, is what brings the fusion of perceiving mind and perceived object out into the world. The poetic imagination is a faculty of the mind, involving ?deep feeling and profound thought? which interprets, shapes and recreates experiences. It was because Coleridge?s secondary imagination was so closely analogous to the primary creative acts of the universe that its possession in a poet was so important to him, and its loss, in ?Dejection: an Ode?, so grievous.

In the mind and the human psyche, there are several main desires, which by Freud?s definition lie within the Id. Freud?s Id operates on the pleasure principle and is the person?s desire to have their basic social drives (food, family, sex, etc.) met. The Id is also the source of all creativity and, much like Coleridge?s secondary imagination, is the source of all response to creativity. It is this area ? be it the secondary imagination or the id ? where the secret to the permanence of poetry lies.

It is also this secondary poetic imagination / Id that helps create meanings and responses to a poem ? for it is not the poet who gives the meaning of a poem to the reader, moreover, it is the reader themselves who creates the meaning. Depending on the context and social background of the reader, infinite readings can be elicited from a text, with some more prominent than others.

But it is not the meanings, responses and criticisms created by this area that instill permanence in a poem. It is the fact that meanings, responses and criticisms are being made. The permanence of poetry lies not in whether it rhymes well, but in whether it inspires well. Keats stated that ?Poetry should be great and unobtrusive, a thing which enters into one?s soul, and does not startle it or amaze it with itself, but with its subject?.

And it is the subject of the Romantic works which inspires such tremendous thoughts in humans ? for the main subject of nearly all Romantic poetry is the abstract. Whether it be truth, beauty, love, or even a combination of abstractions, almost all the works of the Romantics is subjected squarely on the conceptual. And being conceptual ? born of concept ? the only place in which it can exist is the mind itself ? and in existing, even for only a few moments of deliberation after the reading of a poem, it ensures its perpetuity forevermore.

One such example of a poem that inspires thought about its subject is Keats? ?Ode on a Grecian Urn?. It begins by speaking of a beautiful and ancient urn, with Dionysian scenes painted upon the sides. By the end of the first four stanzas, with its melodic and beautifully flowing words and intensely passionate ekphrasises, an amazing picture is formed within the imagination of the reader. Already this beautiful urn enraptures the reader, and in the fifth and final stanza, Keats springs upon us one of the most discussed and intense statements in all of Romantic poetry:
??Beauty is truth, truth beauty,? ? that is all
Ye know on earth, and al ye need to know.?
T. S. Eliot claims to have read over twenty-five completely different and yet detailed analyses of just these two lines.

The urn can be seen as beauty (as is the scene), and also as art. Truth, on a superficial level, is the answers to Keats? questions about the scene on the urn, but truth is also the truth about all big questions, questions about life and eternity (which he mentions throughout the poem) ? basically it is Truth with a big ?T?. The pursuit of Truth does ?tease us out of thought?, just like poetry, but usually without satisfaction. However the emotions that beauty, art and poetry evoke and the heights to which they stimulate our emotions are very real. Beauty, whether it is of art or nature, and our emotions and imaginative reaction to them are all we can know on earth, and all we need to know.

Apart from being an example of a poem that inspires thought, ?Ode on a Grecian Urn? also has many themes about the abstractions and their relationship with poetry; one example of this is the things that are physically painted on the urn are a series of abstract concepts (such as escape and ecstasy). If the urn was to represent art and poetry, then Keats himself states ?When old age shall this generation waste; thou shalt remain? ? that the urn (art and poetry) shall outlast Keats, the reader, and all readers to come.

Keats also believed in a concept he called ?negative capability?. He said that ?nothing in this world is provable?. Therefore, ?man must be capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact and reason?. What he was saying is that we must reach a sort of acceptance and satisfaction with uncertainty. We cannot be sure of the truth of words, but we can be sure of the truth of emotions and the abstract, as they are in our mind, and what is in our mind is the only thing we can claim to know to be true. Thus, beauty is truth, and truth beauty.

But perhaps the greatest proof that Romantic poetry ensures its perpetuity through inspiring thought in all who study it is front of you now, dear reader. More discussion can and has been written on poetry than any other art form, and ? including the critique that you now read ? has been written by people inspired by poetry. Romantic poetry perpetuates itself through its passion and concepts, and will continue to do so forever.

Through their unbridled passion and the use of abstractions, the Romantic poets are still able to inspire thought in the mind of their readers, sometimes even intense contemplation and reflection. This thought-inspiration, even if in only one person, perpetuates the poem, the poet, and poetry itself.

?One thought fills immensity.?
William Blake

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