Allegory in English Romantic Poetry


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Wonder is a special attribute that is innate in a human being, it leads him to discover something or create something beautiful. Wonder is intense or gradual in terms of feeling. It is a feeling which is extra-ordinary, or brings ordinary to extra-ordinary. The question of why, what, whence is unclear, a vague conception that intrigues the man to explore the universe. When one wonders, his/her emotions try to invoke a meaning, this stimulates the “cognitive sense of possibility”. But this possibility is vague and when emotions are added, it has romantic sense to it (Parsons 88-89).

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Through wonder comes Imagination which is a vague concept as well as it deals with human knowledge and understanding. David Hume and Aristotle believed that imagination was one’s perception and reasoning of a certain imagery. It had a mimetic role in philosophy as well as in poetry. Kant regarded imagination as “schematization” that is “hidden art in the depths of human soul” (Rastovic 11). These philosophers regarded imagination as mediation role. Furthermore, they regarded metaphor and myth as cognitive act of objective reality and that the subject’s ability to recreate that reality. This became the basis for romantic poets like William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Keats and Percy B. Shelley. Coleridge and Shelley were more interested in extraordinary power of imagination while Wordsworth, Keats and Shelley as well, were interested in the phenomena of metaphor and myth which was important for the imagination (Karadas 9).

In the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century, Romantic English poets highlighted the role of imagination in creativity through their works. The reason why imagination became central was due to the emphasis on individuality that was the main debate due to the effects of French Revolution in English society as well as in England’s politics.

Romanticism was the marking of man shifting from collectivity to individuality. Urbanization in England caused the people to have identity crisis which made them self-conscious about their own existence in the world. Previously, the art was written for the elite class, with no care about the working class. Romanticism emphasized that common man should be the center, because a common man was close to the realities of life. The urbanization distanced man from himself, but a common country man was close to himself and nature. Furthermore, the common man had this attribute of wonder and imagination that was absent in an urban man because he was too busy with the world.

Romanticism was the reaction against the Age of Enlightenment from the French Revolution, in fact, the word “romantic” is derived from a French word romaunt which means a romantic story told in a verse (The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica 2019). Romantic in a sense that appreciating the beauty of nature, trusting emotions than intellect and conquest to find one’s self through wonder. This was a movement that challenged the idealized traditions of neoclassical poetry as well as the rationalism which was prominent in the 18th century. The real movement began at the end of the 18th century that originated when the two great poetic minds, namely William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, came together.

Wordsworth’s poetry became influenced due to this interaction, his poetic style changed from long poems to short and dramatic poems which became very popular among the readers. These poems were written in a form that broke the traditional writings of neoclassicism and became the characteristic of romantic poetry as well. He wrote a collection of short poems Lyrical Ballads with the collaboration of Coleridge that highlighted the characteristics of romantic poetry. Most of the poems in this collection were experimental as they were mostly conversational and more focused on the middle and lower class of the society which is called “diction”.

Lucy Gray, an excerpt from the book, is conversational and simple poem that depicts the death of a little girl. Wordsworth style of writing poetry was mostly narrated from the life of a child, a simple and colloquial language. Lucy was a girl who got lost after snowstorm. Her mother and father searched for her everywhere, at daybreak her mother say Lucy’s footsteps on the snow that end near her house. She is a lost child with no trace, she gets immersed in the nature, never to be found. Lucy represent “light” which is the world of imagination. According to Bercovitch, Wordsworth grieves over Lucy is a symbolized presentation of him grieving over losing his creative powers. Lucy is a hope of light that together with nature can bring back the beauty of wonder in him (11).

For Wordsworth, Childhood was the main topic around which his poems would center. Because he believed that a child creates his own world of imagination as it has the attribute of wonder in him. When he/she sees something which is not known to them, or something that feels magical to them, they wonder about it. Wonder then leads to them creating an imaginative world which is full of all good things that the world has. Childhood fascinated Wordsworth, in his book The Prelude at the beginning, he is nostalgic about his own childhood experience which was full of wonder. He used to wander around and wonder about the world, and that’s how he developed his perception about the world. For him childhood was the true source of inspiration that would bring back the light of imagination in him. He explores into his own childhood memory which was accompanied by Nature.

His imaginative world opens up when he remembers his childhood. He at first wanders around the nature, he feels that as an adult he cannot seem to connect with the imagination. He is empty and he knows that his life has become different as an adult. He says:

To none more grateful than to me; escaped

From the vast city, where I long had pined

A discontented sojourner, now free,

He remembers the beauty and joys of life that was “drinking in pure.” A child is free from the shackles of societal values and expectations, Wordsworth has escaped from the city life to reminisce about his childhood. He remembers how he had playful conversations with nature that were pure enjoyment for him. He, as a child, wondered about life and his world of imagination was full of joys. The beauty of nature makes him excited that he can unburden from his “own unnatural self” He can wonder about his life and fill his mind with imagination. As he says in Book II that childhood is the “Great birthright of our being” because the perception of a child about everything in this world is pure and magical. The reason why imagination and wonder is emphasized in his poetry is because he wants to find himself through it. Similarly, in Ode: Imitation of Immortality is a nostalgia of his past when “The things which I have seen I now can see no more” He admits of being self-conscious of losing the ability to imagine and throughout the poem tries to revive that relationship with nature, to give him a peace of mind. According to Bercovitch, these three poems showed the development of Wordsworth towards imagination, he first expresses his concern in Lucy Gray, then he searches for the light in the Ode: Imitation of Immortality and finally, he reaches the conclusion in The Prelude (12). Thus, Wordsworth’s poetry depicted the spiritual development of a man which lacked in the mechanical society during French Revolution.

Coleridge’s perception of romantic poetry was quite influenced by Wordsworth’s point of view. In his book called Biographia Literaria, he reviewed about The Prelude through which he built his own idea about imagination. For him, imagination is “a growth of a critic’s mind” (Wallace 216). His progress in writing romantic poetry was reflected in his book, in fact, all his philosophies about life were presented in the form of biographies of other well-known literary people; he himself considered this book as personal. He wrote poems that were mostly related to supernatural or mystery. He emphasized that mind had more power than nature, thus, imagination came from within, therefore, union of emotion and thought are important aspects of imagination (Taylor 76).

There were three supernatural poems that he wrote that are considered to be “imaginative trio”, namely Christabel, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Kubla Khan that highlighted the transitional change from pre-supernatural to supernatural (Bloom et. al 185). The final poem that he wrote based on this genre was The Ballad of the Dark Ladie which is an inspired poem that reflects Coleridge’s world of imaginative speech by showing the dark lady who is taken from Shakespeare’s sonnets. In fact, the dark lady shows the concept of oriental imagination which he became interested in after writing other poems (Sadiq 7).

Coleridge’s approach to writing a ballad was different from Wordsworth, in fact the characteristics were distinct as well. His philosophy of writing poetry was “art for art’s sake”. Wordsworth mostly wrote in the perception of himself, which Coleridge didn’t agree to it. He treated ballad as “an assortment of poetic devices” (Stork 314). Dark Ladie is a poem about a maid who was seduced and left alone by the Knight. Now, she waits for him and expresses her desire to be the bride of the Knight. This poem determines the transitional change that took place in poet’s style of ballad writing. Through this poem, critics believe, his interest and understanding of imagination was shifted towards Orient from the supernatural (Sadiq 12). His interest in poetic form changed with time, as he grew up he wrote more sophisticated poems that were based on his personal experience.

Dejection: An Ode was remarkable piece that hinted the tragedy of his life. For him, loss of dream meant loss of imagination because his poetry was mostly written through daydream in which his conscious and unconscious mind power merged together. This ode was “the death of imagination” and showed his “personal demoralization” as a poet. Imagination was an important part of his poetry, losing it, meant losing his ability to write poetry (Bloom et. al 188) He begins the poem by quoting Ballad of Sir Patrick Spence

Late, late yestreen I saw the new Moon,

With the old Moon in her arms;

And I fear, I fear, my Master dear!

We shall have a deadly storm.

This poem is about how the narrator is in a desperate search of inspiration despite being surrounded by nature. He begins the poem by appreciating the beauty of nature, he is accosted towards a Lady and complains that he can see the nature but cannot feel it. He expresses his concerns by saying that no “outward forms” can invoke inspirations except his own emotions. There was a time when “fancy made me dreams of happiness” but now he has lost all the joy. Even the wind is “worse than wintry song”, that nature has no power over his imagination. Throughout the poem, there is a sense of dejection that shows that his mind is disconnected with the world, and so his imagination has nothing to do with. In a way, he believes that he has dominance over nature through language, therefore, for him “imaginative speech” is the supernatural (Taylor 78).

The work of Wordsworth and Coleridge marked the beginning of the Romanticism in poetic form. Dejection: An Ode was written in the contrast of Ode: Intimations of Immortality in terms of language, tone and imagery. As both had different perspective in terms of imagination it affected their style of writing. Coleridge emphasized that poetry should be written with fancy words because the mind of the uneducated man isn’t developed enough to understand poetry while Wordsworth wrote for the common man to understand through nature. Wordsworth grew up with nature and Coleridge imagined it (Cathy). Despite difference of opinions on wonder and imagination, their poetry brought out important characteristics of Romantic poetry. The romantic poems were simple yet subjective, melancholic but imaginative, and emphasized more on individuality and personal emotions; which means they had no formal rules. Therefore, the form of poetry differed for every romantic poet. But most importantly, Nature was seen as the celebration of individuality that highlighted the revolutionary way of appreciating art, through individuality the man could wonder and create a new world of imagination.

Keats’ idea of imagination was influenced by Wordsworth’s poetry. Like Wordsworth, he believed that imagination is the result of natural phenomenon. For him creativity was “that which is creative must create itself.” His most famous theory of “Negative Capability” which emphasized that man should be free of all constraints of logic and science in order to achieve imagination and creativity. In his poem, I Stood Tip-Toe upon a Hill, he sees nature as a beautiful goddess, just as Wordsworth did in his poetry. He sets the guidelines in this poem of how nature can be brought to life if they are seen in terms of mythology and imagination. He says:

“For what has made the sage or poet write

But the fair paradise of Nature’s light

In the calm grandeur of a sober line,

We see the waving of the mountain’s pine;

And when a tale is beautifully staid,

We feel the safety of a hawthorn glade:”

Through this poem he conveyed the message that understanding and seeing mythology can only be acquired if there is a poetic imagination. His poetry did mentioned few Greek and Roman myths because he considered them imaginative.

He had “lingering imagination” that could be seen in every line, rich with beauty and aesthetics which makes one wonder and be lost in his imaginative world (Mulcahy 239). Ode to Autumn is the best example, and it can be considered similar to Wordsworth’s Ode to Imitation but has more imagery. His imaginative world is mostly nature brought to life. In his ode, he explains Autumn with the surroundings “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness/ Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun,” “winnowing wind” “barred clouds bloom the soft dying day,/and touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue.” Commonly, autumn is seen as something sad and melancholic, but this poem describes the beauty and aesthetic of autumn because “thou hast music too” This ode is more about observing nature and appreciating its beauty of everyday life. Just as he loved writing about myths, this ode is a connection of mythological world with the everyday world, he uses the words like “Thee sitting careless on a granary floor, Thy hair soft lifted by the winnowing wind…” Furthermore, there is a sense of calmness and acceptance of life in the following lines:

Or by a cider-press, with patient look,

Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours,

There are no complicated ideologies in this Ode, in fact, it is a slow poem that relaxes the mind of the reader. Negative capability, when the poet loses sense over his own personal identity, was achieved through this poem, in fact, he wrote this poem when he was going through his worst times in life (Lovell 214).

There was a time in life when he fell into depression because he couldn’t understand love and loss, his brother Tom died due to Tuberculosis and his relationship with his fiancée Fanny Brawne was complicated. During this time he wrote La Belle Dame Sans Merci, a ballad which was inspired from the Lyrical Ballads. This folk ballad which is surrealistic in form is about romance between a lady and a knight. It begins abruptly with expression of loss and bereavement “the sedge has withered from the lake, and no birds to sing,” the knight is confused about how he ended up alone beside the lake. He then remembers “I met a lady in the meads” whom he fell in love with “I set her on my pacing steed” and she “took me to her Elfin grot” but he saw a frightening dream which contained “pale kings and princes too” who cried “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” finally he wakes up alone in a “cold hill’s side”. He repeats the first five lines again to show how he was deceived by the lady. This was an imaginative poem which emphasized that temptation could bring anyone to despair like the “knight in arms.” Unlike his odes, this poem focused more on the escape into the world of imagination which brought despair to the reality. The lady is a supernatural being who bewitches him towards herself, the knight is lonely, and so he follows her. This hints that too much imagination can lead someone to despair, this is the moral that Keats tried to convey through this poem. Keats was at the peak of being the greatest poet in England, he had this agitation and fear in himself which reflected in this poem. His obsession with the loitering imagination worked up his mind to create a magic in his lines of poetry which brought him to fame, but when he fell ill, it consumed him with sadness, thus, the knight can be considered an allegory of himself.

During his hard times, Percy B. Shelley was the one who encouraged him and appreciated his poems. He could be considered an admirer of Keats because most of his was inspired by Keats’ works. Percy B. Shelley was one of those romantic poets who had certain philosophies of understanding poetry and poets. In his article “Defense of Poetry” he emphasized that imagination and reason were important for a person to appreciate beauty. He considered poets as prophets because they described the beauty from their observations and experiences through poetry. Language is an important element for maintaining unity and harmony among the civilization. He said “Poetry is a mirror which makes beautiful that which is 

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