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Imagination in Romantic Poetry Essay

A large part of those extracts on Romantic imagination – which are contained in the fascicule on pages D64 and D65 – are strictly related to an ancient theory about Art and Reality’s imitation, the Theory of Forms concieved by a Classical Greek philosopher, mathematician Plato – in Greek: Πλάτων, Plátōn, “broad”; from 424/423 BC to 348/347 BC. The Theory of Forms – in Greek: ἰδέαι – typically refers to the belief expressed by Socrates in some of Plato’s dialogues, that the material world as it seems to us is not the real world, but only an image or copy of the real world. Socrates spoke of forms in formulating a solution to the problem of universals. The forms, according to Socrates, are roughly speaking archetypes or abstract representations of the many types of things, and properties we feel and see around us, that can only be perceived by reason – in Greek: λογική – that is, they are universals.

In other words, Socrates sometimes seems to recognise two worlds: the Apparent world, which constantly changes, and an unchanging and unseen world of forms, which may be a cause of what is apparent. This theory is proposed in different ways in Blake’s, Coleridge’s Shelley’s extracts. The former says that “This world of Imagination is the world of Eternity” (A Vision of the Last Judgement, 1810) a place which resembles to a sort of otherworldly realm where “Exist […] the Permanent Realities of Every Thing (the Form) which we see reflected in this Vegetable Glass of Nature (the Apparent world)”. A similar thing is exposed by Samuel Coleridge an english romantic poet who divides Imagination in Primary and Secondary. The former is “the living Power and prime Agent of all human Perception, and as a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite”, the latter is an echo of the former who “dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to re-create” (Biographia Literaria, 1817) a thing which is totally different from Fancy.

Even in Shelley the poetry is presented as “something of divine […] not like reasoning” (A Defence of Poetry, 1821) which beholds as the poet, the present, the past, and the future. In Keats and Wordsworth the poetry became “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings [originating] from emotion recollected in tranquillity” (Preface to Lyrical Ballads) and the poet “the most unpoetical of any thing in existence; because he has no Identity” (A Letter to Richard Woodhouse, October 27th 1818). So Art is imitation, a feature of both of Plato’s theories. In the Republic, Plato says that art imitates the objects and events of ordinary life. In other words, a work of art is a copy of a copy of a Form. It is even more of an illusion than is ordinary experience. On this theory, works of art are at best entertainment, and at worst a delusion. This theory actually appears in Plato’s short early dialogue,

the Ion. Socrates is questioning a poet named Ion, who recites Homer’s poetry brilliantly but is no good at reciting anything else. Socrates is puzzled by this; it seems to him that if Ion has an art, or skill, of reciting poetry he should be able to apply his skilled knowledge to other poets as well. He concludes that Ion doesn’t really possess skilled knowledge. Rather, when he recites Homer, he must be inspired by a god. The Ion drips with sarcasm. Plato didn’t take the “art by divine inspiration” theory very seriously. But many ancient, medieval, and modern artists and aestheticians have found it irresistible.


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