Book Review – The Romantic Imagination

The Romantic Imagination by Cecil Maurice Bowra is a very insightful study of the poets of the Romantic movement. You may wonder why a playwright would read a book on poets. One of my key interests is exceptional states of inspiration and the Romantics were known for being exceptionally inspired poets. Unfortunately the theater does not seem to have much interest in inspiration. Or maybe they are unable to address the subject. I cannot think of any plays that feature a character professing to be especially inspired by anything. An exception might be Eugene O’Neill’s Long Days Journey Into Night in which Edmund describes an mystical experience he had while serving as a sailor:

“When I was on the Squarehead square rigger, bound for Buenos Aires. Full moon in the Trades. The old hooker driving fourteen knots. I lay on the bowsprit, facing astern, with the water foaming into spume under me, the masts with every sail white in the moonlight, towering high above me. I became drunk with the beauty and singing rhythm of it, and for a moment I lost myself—actually lost my life. I was set free! I dissolved in the sea, became white sails and flying spray, became beauty and rhythm, became moonlight and the ship and the high dim-starred sky! I belonged, without past or future, within peace and unity and a wild joy, within something greater than my own life, or the life of Man, to Life itself. To God, if you want to put it that way. […] Like a saint’s vision of beatitude. Like the veil of things as they seem drawn back by an unseen hand. For a second you see—and seeing the secret, are the secret. For a second there is meaning! Then the hand lets the veil fall and you are alone, lost in the fog again, and you stumble on toward nowhere, for no good reason!”

This is exactly the sort of experience the Romantics celebrated. On Page 271 the author states “In it live major poets, Blake, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Shelley, and Keats, despite many differences, agreed on one vital point: that the creative imagination is closely connected with a peculiar insight into an unseen order behind visible things.” And on page 286 “It purges from our inward sight the film of familiarity, which obscures us from the wonder of our being. It compels us to feel that which we perceive, and to imagine that which we know. it creates anew the universe after it has been annihilated in our minds by the recurrence of impressions blunted by reiteration.” The poet sees the world through the eyes of the soul and not through the lens of reason and intellect. The poet sees the world spiritualized through the power of his imagination and this restores a sense of wonder. This exalted sense of the world is expressed on page 92, “The imagination creates reality by absorbing the given into the world of spirit. This is the only reality for Coleridge, but it is not what Wordsworth sought or found. There were moments when by some mysterious and magnificent process he passed beyond the visible world into some other order of being, vaster and more wonderful.”

The Romantic Imagination
The Romantic Imagination

Poets have been associated with the highly inspired individual since the ancient days of Greek so it is not surprising that Western culture continues to regard inspiration as the special province of the poet. However, I’m not convinced that inspiration is always meant to be put into words. The words of a poet may be inspired by it does not follow that all inspiration has no other purpose than to be put into words. In my opinion inspiration’s real purpose is to bubble up something from the unconscious mind, the spirit if you will, to bring the conscious mind’s attention to higher concerns than the immediate business. The concept of the daimon is useful here. According to Wikipedia:

The Ancient Greek: daimon or daemon (meaning “god”, “godlike”, “power”, “fate”), originally referred to a lesser deity or guiding spirit such as the daimons of ancient Greek religion and mythology and of later Hellenistic religion and philosophy. Daimons were possibly seen as the souls of men of the golden age acting as tutelary deities. See also daimonic: a religious, philosophical, literary and psychological concept. The idea of the daimonic typically means quite a few things: from befitting a demon and fiendish, to be motivated by a spiritual force or genius and inspired.

Since the soul or inner spirit guiding us is more properly understood to be the unconscious mind in our modern age, inspiration must be the guidance of the unconscious mind. It is the inner genius of the greater part of the mind, the mind that is not so narrowly concentrating on the immediate situation. In other words, I would argue that the narrow focus of the conscious mind is lesser than the broader awareness of the unconscious mind. It makes sense that important insights arrived at in the unconscious mind will appear in the conscious mind as a miraculous gift of inexplicable insight. Often these insights are even considered to be the thoughts or voice of the gods, but this is just the conscious mind’s failure to know its own potential. It is the failure of the conscious mind to identify with what issues from the unconscious mind, because it is not a familiar thought or habitual product of the imagination.

For most people, rapturous inspiration seems to be very rare. For example, Cecil Maurice Bowra was unsure if Edgar Allan Poe had ever experienced anything like this, page 196, “Perhaps he knew some moments which so far transcended words that he kept silent about them. Or perhaps, after all, though he desired such moments with all his being, he never knew them.” Given these doubts, I not sure why he was even included in the book.

Both William Wordsworth and Coleridge seemed to have eventually lost their inspiration or their imaginations waned.  For example on page 52 “In 1797, being then twenty-five years old, Coleridge suddenly found the full scope of his genius. The outburst of creation lasted for about two years and then began to fail, but not before he had written the first part of “Christabel”, “The Ancient Mariner”, and “Kubla Khan”. He had already composed good poetry, and in the long years afterwards he was to compose it again. But in 1797 and 1798 he wrote three poems which no one else could have written and which he himself was never again to equal or approach. At this time something set all his powers to work and brought to the surface all the hidden resources of his conscious and unconscious self. The dreamer was able to give a concrete for to his dreams, the omnivorous reader to fuse the heterogeneous elements of his reading into magical combinations, and the critic to satisfy his own exacting ideas of what a poem ought to be. In his later years Coleridge too often wrote with only a part of himself and was unable to speak from his full experience or to use the whole range of his powers, but into the three great poems he put all that he had.”

I would speculate that their genius abandoned them because they set their souls to the yoke of a desperate effort to reach the heights of high artistic achievement. No doubt they sacrificed too much towards these efforts. In other words, they put their souls at the service of their high ambition. But one’s inner genius does not wish to be put to the service of all mankind to make this a better world, or some other high ideal. The real aim of a daimon is the betterment of the individual. The present situation is accessed and the unconscious mind makes a suggestion, in the form of imagination, a hint of a vague possibility. The purpose of this inspiration is to lead the individual to better circumstances. When this process does not lead to better circumstances but instead causes one’s life to be blighted by the pursuit of an impossible task, it makes sense to stop providing the inspiration. In other words, the higher self prompted these gentlemen to be a little too selfless. They became distracted by lofty goals and abstract ambitions and neglected life. Or so I suspect. I intend to read some biographies of the Romantic poets.

Now I must reveal that I do not have an academic interest in exceptional states of inspiration. I am easily inspired and often profoundly inspired. I do not consider this to be a rare state. It is possible that being deeply inspired is not a rare state and only receives special notice from people for whom it is a rare or unexpected emotional high. In any event, I like reading about literary figures who make much of being divinely inspired. I enjoy considering myself to be in on the mysteries of the soul that they have been granted. Also, they do provide me with some interesting thoughts and considerations. Some of the Romantic poets put things in just the right words. They express beautifully how I feel at times and this is invaluable. I am no stranger to their exalted states.

It must be said that I don’t actually find poetry to be very inspiring. I do not get inspiration directly from poetry. No clever or perfect use of words is going to make much of an impression on me. I get my inspiration from nature, the theater, major motion pictures, a lot of music, and all the wonders of our culture. I must admit that a lot of this does not reach the level of the profound, so I miss that and require high culture to provide the right depth. I am entranced by the glamor of theater but the enchantment if inspires goes beyond anything it could ever contain.



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