Keats develops a strong of yearning for the passion of inspiration with an increasing urgency. Juxtaposing the mortality of humanity, “the weariness, the fever, the fret” with the “immortal” renewal of the nightingales fluid music, reflecting the tension between enchantment and disenchantment in human capability that arose with the souring of the French Revolution by the end of the eighteen century. This disillusionment is emphasised by the desperate exclamation of “Away! Away!” where the poet longs to escape the earthly world, recognising this as only possible in the “wings of poesy”. The fervour in Keats’ words is evidently an internalisation of the political hopes sparked by the prospect of revolution. Romantics sought to realise these hopes for social change in the imaginative world, as opposed to the Enlightenment mode of social reform through the application of reason to all spheres of humanity.
However, there is an acknowledgement of the fleeting nature of imagination and its limited ability to alleviate the misery of the Earthly world. Keats personifies fancy, naming it a “deceiving elf” that beguiles the speaker into forgetting the human predicament, only to “toil” him from the experience to the reality of his “sole self”. The pursuit of the bird leads to a full recognition of the impossibility of achieving its state of eternal liberty, a condition arising from having “never known” the “sorrow” of human understanding. Without the experience of temporal morality, Keats suggests a lack of awareness in the bird that results in the ignorant “ecstasy” of its song.
The duality of imagination which results in its ephemeral nature is also explored in the poem La Belle Dame sans Merci. The poems central theme revolves around the extremities of the intangible world manifested in imagination, and its ability to both elevate and weaken the individual. Embodied in the figure of the femme fatale, Keats immediately alters the reader to the debilitating effects of the supernatural on the individual, conveyed by the knight “palely loitering” in the barren imagery where life has “withered” and “no birds sing”. Keats raises in particular, the notion of the role of the poet, who is deemed as possessing a heightened sensitivity in order to use language to synthesise opposing principles such as the imagination and the corporeal. The use of pathetic fallacy conveys the emotional desolation felt by the knight. The story is narrated from the perspective of a passerby, with who the reader identifies as distanced from the knight’s experience, and so too are prompted by Keats to question the nature of what has caused him such “anguish”.
The description of “La Belle” identifies her as a symbol of the alluring yet intangible nature of imagination. She is depicted as other worldly, a “faery’s child” with “wild, wild eyes” who entraps the knight with the temptation of her beauty. This is reminiscent of the theory of the sublime which re-emerged in the eighteenth century with the increasing exploration of the impact of the powers of the imagination on the workings of the mind. The theory concerns the magnitude of nature and the supernatural which has the ability to dissipate one’s cognition and rationality, while maintaining a magnetism. Immanuel Kant called this theory “negative pleasure”, which is reflected in the intensity of the poems eight stanza which conveys Keats’ recurring theme of the fine line between pleasure and pain within imagination. There is a suggestion of the lady’s danger, thus that of the spiritual, as she “lulled” the knight to sleep, and consequently depletes his humanity, which is recognised in the exclamation “woe betide!” By expressing the dangers of entrapment in the intangible world, Keats conveys the necessity of returning to the physical world.
The painting, Liberty Leading the People by Eugene Delacroix us one other text that encapsulates the transformative powers of the imaginative world. The painting was a response to the political upheaval that arose as a result of the overthrow of Charles X. At the time of its creation, the artwork was highly controversial for its provocative political message in a time when art was purely aesthetic. Artworks such as Delacroix’s challenged the role of art as validating the social world and began to perceive art as a vessel to comment on social and political context. Delacroix’s use of dynamic, lively lines in the waving flag and actions of the figures creates a sense of the restless energy of a changing political climate. The passion of revolution is encapsulated in the figure of Lady Liberty, deified by Delacroix’s use of divine light and the figure’s large proportion in the painting. The idolisation of liberty expresses the fervent desire for a new social vision. However the light, bright hues in the top background contrast to the dark foreground depicting dead bodies in the pathway of liberty, which conveys the reality of such dramatic revolution, and Delacroix alerts the viewer to the dangerous potential of revolution, identified in Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France.
The value art as a means of dissolving traditional perceptions and revolutionising the self and society is illustrated in William Wordsworth’s Preface to Lyrical Ballads, in which Wordsworth examines the role of the imagination through poetry as propagating the shifting importance of not only the creative faculties, but “the essential passions” of humanity within society. While Wordsworth esteems the ability of imagination to present “ordinary things...in an unusual aspect”, the Preface advocates for “a plainer and more emphatic language” in the poetic quest to express truths of “human nature”. Wordsworth challenges the role of the poet as “separate from the sympathies of men”, proposing that real “experience and regular feelings” allow for a more enduring philosophy. In writing poetry, Wordsworth aims to “interest mankind permanently”, which realises the Romantic desire for longevity. Wordsworth recognises the poet as one who essentially allows for the continuity of “general nature” by synthesising “passion and knowledge” through the faculty of imagination.
It is this value for imagination that ultimately defines Romanticism in A.S. Byatt’s novel Possession. Byatt too, esteems the poet as exemplifying Romantic thought, illustrating its continuity by characterising the poets as Victorian. Yet there is an evident theme of the past holding more inspiration than contemporary society; Byatt portrays the academics as essentially misguided Romantics, seeking truth and certainty in the science of art, rather than as an expression of creativity. The scholars are individually parodied representations of the failings of contemporary academic life. However, while peripheral characters such as Blackadder and Leonora Stern remain “discouraged” and “single-minded”, Byatt allows Roland and Maud to rediscover their passionate selves through vicariously exploring the love affair of the Victorian poets. The novel is pervaded by the all encompassing theme of Romantic love; the “urgency” of the Victorian poets affair and the gradual development of love between Roland and Maud. Love in the novel is a harmonising force, made “eternal” through poetry as a “cry of generalised love”.
However Byatt goes further than to simply allow Maud and Roland to glean voyeuristic passion from “the young vitality of the past”, she highlights the need for the rediscovery of a creative self by characterising Maud and Roland as essentially limited individuals. While Maud fragments her identity to maintain “self-possession”, preoccupied with the “thresholds” of Christabel’s poetry, Roland must liberate himself from the rigid conventions of “stringent” scholarship to “relume” the fire of his creative drive. The characters tensions parallel the pathway of imaginative vision, which from a Romantic viewpoint must begin with a sense of discord. The prompt for the artistic journey is a recognition of the value for imagination, which is found through engaging with history, thus the novel merges künstleroman with the quest genre, where history illuminates the artistic journey to creative discovery.
In order to facilitate change within her characters, Byatt dislocates them from the norm; Maud from her isolating “Tennyson Tower” and Roland from the dispiriting flat and Val. The setting of “Seal Court” where the letters are discovered connotes the Romantic value for nature as a locus for creativity. Nature seems to overwhelm the ruined castle and surrounds, with “villages...buried in the valleys”, conveying the necessity of shedding society’s constructs to reshape one’s consciousness. The physical journey to Yorkshire is another venture into nature that mirrors the emotional journeys of Maud and Roland. They imitate Randolph Henry Ash’s quest for knowledge which caused a “shift” in his poetry, incidentally redefining their own identities. What distinguishes Maud and Roland from Cropper’s tracing of the journey is that while Cropper aims to experience strictly through Ash’s eyes, they glean “something new” which informs their own creative processes, illustrating the Romantic value for individual experience in order to express the creative self.