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P R A E S I D I U M
A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis
14.3 (Summer 2014)
courtesy of artrenewal.org
Wordsworth’s View of Imagination: The Essential Building-Block of Morality
Wesley Ross Harris
Perhaps more than artists of other literary periods, Romantic poets emphasized the power of the imagination. Forsaking the model of didactic poems, Romantics turned to imagination in order to teach and develop moral sentiments within their readers. By encouraging a vibrant imagination in the individual, they believed, one would create a more profound decision-maker who would be more attuned to truth and beauty. Through enhanced moral sensibility, one becomes capable of wholeheartedly fulfilling life’s responsibilities. Percy Bysshe Shelley summarizes the romantic emphasis on imagination in his work entitled Defence of Poetry: “poetry produces man’s ‘moral improvement’ not by teaching moral doctrine but by enlarging the power of imagination by which man puts himself ‘in the place of another’” (Preminger and Brogan 1086). William Wordsworth became perhaps the most influential proponent of using imagination for moral development. As one critic summarizes, “Wordsworth… believes that the best poetry is poetry which not only moves us, but moves us towards the right social ends” (Gustafson 824). Wordsworth, in short, utilizes imagination in his poetry in order to strengthen his reader’s morals.
Even in scenes with few or no humans, Romantic landscape-painters like John Constable awakened the imagination to the peace and harmony that surround us but often escape our notice. The cathedral in the second painting is framed by trees as if it fully belongs among their arching boughs.
The power of the imagination to enrich the ethics of readers is a distinguishing trait of Romanticism. The German theorist Gotthold Lessing perceived Romantic poetry as “unequaled” in its “power…to free the mind through ‘imagination’” (Preminger and Brogan 1080), thereby implying a crucial link between creativity and decision-making. Percy Bysshe Shelley likewise emphasized that poetry edifies one’s morals by “enlarging the power of imagination” (Preminger and Brogan 1086). Samuel Taylor Coleridge maintained that “the imagination…is a ‘shaping and modifying power’ that blends, fuses and harmonises the ‘thoughts and passions of man into everything which is the object of his contemplation… stamping them into unity in the mould of a moral idea’” (Halpin 67). The conviction that poetic awakening has the power to construct a magnanimous, principle-driven individual is a hallmark of Romanticism.
William Wordsworth, in his short poem “She Dwelt Among the Untrodden Ways,” enriches the ethics of his reader by compelling him or her to picture a rustic maiden as a violet and to admire her quiet, unique beauty hidden to the world. Wordsworth almost immediately makes the reader feel the poignant injustice of the girl’s isolation by presenting her as “A Maid whom there were none to praise / And very few to love” (i, 3-4). Instantly the reader tries to imagine the appearance of the “girl-flower.” Is she downcast? Is she attractive? Why do people fail to stray from the beaten path to her rural lane? Wordsworth then describes the “Maid,” enabling the reader to picture her: “Fair as a star,” yet still isolated from the eyes of men (ii, 7). The reader’s sympathy shifts in the last stanza from the “violet” to the narrator as the focus of this latter turns inward to feelings of grief: “But she is in her grave, and, oh, / The difference to me” (iii, 11-12).
Due to the reader’s mental image of the violet’s beauty, he or she empathizes with the bereaved narrator. The reader has gazed upon the isolated violet-maiden and has an affinity for her. Since the reader has come to view the violet from the narrator’s perspective, he or she, like the narrator, is overcome with sorrow. Through the reader’s imagining the isolated yet beautiful young woman, he or she is easily able to experience grief similar to that of the narrator when the violet dies.
Wordsworth’s poem enables one, through the means of “enlarging the power of imagination,” to “put himself ‘in the place of another’” (Preminger and Brogan 1086). In this way, the reader becomes capable of understanding that many extraordinary beings inhabit life’s backwaters and will never become “discovered” so as to enjoy the world’s esteem. The sensitive reader will thus grow more alert to those “nobodies” who pass within our sight every day—the clerks, the attendants, the mere pedestrians—without directly crossing our path. They are worthy human destinations, too, yet they disappear into the distant landscape of our daily hustle and bustle.
“A violet by a mossy stone”? John Hanson Walker’s Country Lass might have been a facsimile of Wordsworth’s Lucy. Yet perhaps the most famous image of the “flower under a rock” over the past half-century is this haunting photo of a nameless Afghan girl. Featured on the cover of the June 1985 National Geographic, the shot became instantly famous. The Romantics recognized the moral worth, and even the sanctity, of each individual, no matter how humble.
In his poem “The Prelude,” Wordsworth emphasizes his belief that imagination, not didacticism, strengthens one’s moral sentiments. Bruce Graver believes that Wordsworth, like Virgil in his Georgics, possesses the “urge to write philosophical verse…. But, like Virgil, he shrinks back from such a task” (Graver 349). Instead, Wordsworth focuses on “fields and rural walks,” and as Graver maintains, “The poetry of rural life thus stands as a substitute for ‘philosophic Song’” (349). Poetic descriptions of rural life, which force the reader to exercise his or her imagination in order to picture the poems’ idyllic scenes, are used, as Graver states, in lieu of moral poetry. By reading rich, descriptive verse, one receives moral instruction equal or at least similar to that of ancient maxims. Nature, fresh from the Creator’s hand, is good; and the intimations of an awakened heart, unclouded by the dreary artifice of city living, are also good.
Ethical instruction and the exercise of the imagination, then, are inextricably connected. If one wishes to adhere to honorable principles, then he or she must read poetry in order to be able to appreciate the aesthetic beauty of creation, the related harmony and directness of conscience, and the value of hard work. Moreover, the poetic experience of nature often partakes of the sublime. Graver maintains that a “gentle breeze,” which is “identified as Wordsworth’s muse (imagination),” becomes a creative storm that brings “hope / Of active days, of dignity and thought… / ’Tis a power / That does not come unrecogniz’d, a storm, / Which, breaking up a long continued frost / Brings with it vernal promises, the hope / Of active days, of dignity and thought, / Of prowess in an honorable field” (351). Wordsworth, by describing his personal moments of inspiration, implicitly states that exercising one’s imagination culminates in developing magnanimous sentiments. Such feelings, as indeterminable in their origin and immeasurable in their reach as a great cloudbank, were known to the Romantics by the word “sublime” and constituted the human being’s strongest claim to being greater than a lump of flesh.
Immanuel Kant, in his Critique of Judgment (a work well known to Wordsworth, Coleridge, and other English Romantics), maintains that sublimity produces feelings of reverent awe and even (initially) terror in its spectators. According to Kant, the imaginative exercise of considering the greatness and majesty of that which is materially expansive allows us humans to understand in metaphor that our spirits, too, escape the circumstances in which all bodies are confined. No matter how small and frail our frame, we reflect a higher power and partake of it like the mightiest forces of nature:
Bold, overhanging, and as it were threatening, rocks; clouds piled up in the sky, moving with lightning flashes and thunder peals; volcanoes in all their violence of destruction; hurricanes with their track of devastation; the boundless ocean in a state of tumult; the lofty waterfall of a mighty river, and such like; these exhibit our faculty of resistance as insignificantly small in comparison with their might. But the sight of them is the more attractive, the more fearful it is, provided only that we are in security; and we readily call these objects sublime, because they raise the energies of the soul above their accustomed height, and discover in us a faculty of resistance of a quite different kind, which gives us courage to measure ourselves against the apparent almightiness of nature. (Critique of Judgment Part I, Book II, B)
Like Wordsworth, Kant paints a picture in which all human beings, despite being physically small in comparison with nature and the heavens, are indwelt with a spiritual sense of beauty, wonder, amazement, and purpose. Every person, no matter how humble, is able to witness the majesty of creation and know that he or she is part of a universe that points to a power even greater than the galaxies themselves. This is what Kant calls sublimity. An object in and of itself is not sublime, but rather it can take on characteristics of the sublime if it directs one’s imagination to that which is even greater than nature. The role of the human perceiver’s imagination is key:
Now the sublime in the aesthetical judging of an immeasurable whole like this lies not so much in the greatness of the number [of units], as in the fact that in our progress we ever arrive at yet greater units. To this the systematic division of the universe contributes, which represents every magnitude in nature as small in its turn; and represents our Imagination with its entire freedom from bounds, and with it Nature, as a mere nothing in comparison with the Ideas of Reason, if it is sought to furnish a presentation which shall be adequate to them. (Critique of Judgment Part I, Book II, A)
Romantic poetry, especially, often consists of the sublime, and it therefore possesses the ability to make one realize that he or she—and the seemingly insignificant little girl on the street corner, and the flower hidden by the stone in the woods, and the man living in desolation—are all infinitely more valuable than a chunk of dull matter.
Caspar David Friedrich and J.M.W. Turner were two Romantic painters who aptly captured the Wordsworthian sense of sublime majesty to be found in nature’s unfettered winds, waves, and clouds.
Although he did not stand as the only Romantic poet to advocate the power of the human mind, Wordsworth distinguished himself by reconciling personal duty with imagination. According to Jacob Risinger, “Wordsworth saw imagination and duty as essentially connected” (Risinger 207). Many scholars have insisted that “Wordsworth’s affirmation of duty… [is] at variance with his faith in nature and the natural world.” However, as Risinger elegantly rebuts, “I… argue for a notion of duty grounded in what Wordsworth described as ‘an ennobling interchange’ between mind and the world” (207). Wordsworth, in his poem “Ode to Duty,” suggests that duty manifests itself in two ways: by acting as “a rod / To check the erring, and reprove” (i, 3-4); and by acting as a guide to those who adhere to “love and truth” (ii, 10). From this loving adherence to truth, and not from some petty bourgeois code, comes the rod that chastens. The devotion to right conduct is thus a passionate one—and is so from its very inspiration. As imaginative poetry, which enhances one’s moral sensibility, draws an individual to become more attuned to “love and truth,” it makes him or her more responsive to duty in both senses.
Risinger summarizes this point: “Duty, for all its emphasis of obligatory action, can also suggest an external ‘expression’ necessitated by an internal sense of ‘submission, deference, or respect’” (208). Duty, in this view, is a righteous responsibility compelled by one’s moral character, which, Wordsworth maintains, is enlarged by a robust imagination. Risinger then comments on the prevalence of the interconnecting themes of duty, reverence, and imagination in Wordworth’s work: “It is certainly an injustice to isolate a definition of duty that excludes the importance of reverence, a quality that is so characteristic of and omnipresent in the poetry Wordsworth wrote during the first decade of the nineteenth-century” (208). Wordsworth, therefore, emphasized that the fulfilling of one’s duty is an expression of an internal sense of responsibility and humility.
Painters like Jean-François Millet are the intellectual heirs of Wordsworth’s reverence for the common person and his conviction that simplicity enjoys a direct path to basic truth.
William Wordsworth’s emphasis on imagination and his concern with ethical issues made him unique among romantic poets. He advocated for “plainer, more emphatic language.” As Fiona Stafford writes, “he too saw his work as a counter to the ‘degrading thirst after outrageous stimulation’ that had led to the contemporary surfeit of ‘sickly and stupid German Tragedies, and deluges of idle and extravagant stories in verse’” (Stafford 119). Wordsworth likely believed that a simpler form of language in poetry would invite readers to expand their imagination and enhance their moral sensibility. While complex terms and philosophical abstractions can of course challenge the mind, they can also become the refuge of pedants, creating an unwarranted attitude of superiority and stifling honest wonder. Simplicity of expression, far from dulling the mind, calls men and women forth from the narrow cells of habit where they tend to live. In fact, in a letter to Charles James Fox, Wordsworth declares that the poems of Lyrical Ballads were “written with a view to shew that men who do not wear fine clothes can feel deeply” (119), thereby revealing his desire, as Shelley asserts, to “enlarge the power of imagination by which man puts himself ‘in the place of another’” (Preminger and Brogan 1086). In short, the fear that society would stifle imagination stood as one of Wordsworth’s biggest concerns, for if imagination disintegrates then morality does, as well.
Like many other Romantic poets, William Wordsworth stressed the importance of imagination in developing strong moral principles. His poems often place the reader in a certain character’s position in order to create a communion with that character’s experience, or else elicit from all readers a renunciation of their circumstantial limits to stand, honest and child-like, before nature. Wordsworth references the mind’s role in bringing integrity to the individual’s life. He stood apart from his poetic contemporaries by emphasizing duty and its connection with nature and the life of the mind. Though the seeds of such ideas lay in Kantian philosophy, it was Wordsworth who nourished them until they bore poetic fruit. According to him, imagination could not be divorced from ethics; therefore, he advocated enriching the ordinary man’s life with the imaginative experiences of art. William Wordsworth remains one of the most influential proponents of enriching the imagination on the ground that, when creative thought is stifled, morality stifles with it.
Graver, Bruce E. “Honorable Toil”: The Georgic Ethic Of Prelude I.” Studies In Philology 92.3 (1995): 346. Academic Search Complete. Web. 4 Nov. 2011.
Gustafson, Andrew. “Mill’s Poet-Philosopher, And The Instrumental-Social Importance Of Poetry For Moral Sentiments.” British Journal For The History Of Philosophy 17.4 (2009): 821-847. Academic Search Complete. Web. 4 Nov. 2011.
Halpin, David. “Pedagogy And The Romantic Imagination.” British Journal Of Educational Studies 56.1 (2008): 59-75. Academic Search Complete. Web. 4 Nov. 2011.
Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Judgment published at “Online Library of Liberty,” http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/1217. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 June 2014.
Preminger, Alex, and T. V. F. Brogan. The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. Princeton, NF: Princeton UP, 1993. 1086.
Risinger, Jacob. “Wordsworth’s Imaginative Duty.” Romanticism 14.3 (2008): 207-218. Academic Search Complete. Web. 4 Nov. 2011.
Stafford, Fiona. “Plain Living and Ungarnish’d Stories: Wordsworth and the Survival of Pastoral.” Oxford Journals.Org. Review of English Studies, 21 Mar. 2007. Web. 3 Nov. 2011.
Wesley Ross Harris is completing his B.A. in English at the University of Texas at Austin. [N.B. Wesley is not related to the editor of this journal, though he is a former student.)