Opposition and Imagination

by Payal Fadnis

In his Biographia Literaria, Samuel Taylor Coleridge proposes a Romantic-era definition for imagination: a power that works to balance opposing forces. This essay seeks to apply that definition to Coleridge’s own poetry, as well as works by other prolific Romantic writers Charlotte Smith and William Blake. In addition to simply highlighting how each writer fulfills this definition of imagination, the essay emphasizes how the other writers expand beyond Coleridge to generate a more complex and transcendental understanding of imagination as a Romantic concept. The essay focuses on an in-depth analysis of Coleridge’s own work, “Kubla Khan,” William Blake’s “The Clod & The Pebble,” and Charlotte Smith’s “Sonnet #59.” In each poem, seemingly contradictory concepts—beauty and violence in “Kubla Khan,” innocence and experience in “The Clod & The Pebble,” and chaos and serenity in “Sonnet #59”—come together to create a unique harmony that satisfies Coleridge’s definition of imagination. However, Smith and Blake’s poems also transcend this definition which promotes the content of the poem over the form. The structure of their poetry reflects the balance achieved by placing two opposite forces together and extends the definition of imagination.

imagination, Romantic, Coleridge, Blake, Smith, balance

The Romantic Movement, also known as Romanticism, gained popularity in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. It focused on individuals and their emotions, placing emphasis on nature and transcendental abstract ideas, such as imagination. In fact, the concept of imagination was a defining characteristic of the Romantic era. It was known as “the creative power by which an individual [takes] the raw material of the physical world and transform[s] it into art” (Black et al. p.L1). Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a prominent era-defining writer, provides an explicit description of imagination. He presents his ideas in his Biographia Literaria which serves to expand on Coleridge’s literary opinions and sketches. In Biographia Literaria, Coleridge depicts imagination as a sort of “magical power”:

This power [the imagination]… reveals itself in the balance or reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities: of sameness, with difference; of the general, with the concrete; the idea, with the image; the individual, with the representative; the sense of novelty and freshness, with old and familiar objects; a more than usual state of emotions, with more than usual order; judgment ever awake and steady self-possession, with enthusiasm and feeling profound and vehement; and while it blends and harmonizes the natural and artificial, still subordinates art to nature; the manner to the matter; and our admiration of the poet to our sympathy with the poetry.

(Coleridge 341)

Essentially, Coleridge’s description of imagination involves bringing opposing forces together to balance each other. In his own “Kubla Khan,” Coleridge demonstrates his own idea of imagination as contradicting ideas by pitting the beautiful and peaceful palace against the violent and tenuous nature of the river and chasms. William Blake expresses many of the ideas of Coleridge’s description of imagination in his work. Blake was one of the earliest Romantic writers, also occasionally classified as pre-Romantic. His poem, “The Clod and the Pebble,” from his famous collection Songs of Innocence and Experience, focuses on contradiction, particularly in the clash between the differing perspectives of a clod of mud and a river pebble. Another prominent writer, Charlotte Smith, known for her melancholic and feminine poetry, also embodies the idea of balance between opposing forces in Coleridge’s imagination. Sonnet #59, in particular, addresses the contradiction between the tumultuous storm raging on earth and the moon solemnly keeping watch. The exploration of works by William Blake, Charlotte Smith, and Coleridge himself demonstrates how Coleridge’s ideas of imagination emerge in their poems.

Coleridge’s work, “Kubla Khan,” applies his description of imagination. The poem pits beauty and violence against each other. It presents “gardens bright with sinuous rills” and “sunny spots of greenery” (Coleridge lines 8, 11). Nature is beautiful and glorious, inspiring Kubla Khan’s construction of his “pleasure-dome” in a location of great magnificence. Here, nature is not just beautiful but elegant and elaborate with “forests ancient as the hills” (Coleridge line 10). However, the poem quickly takes a darker turn as the imagery pans to the chasm where the river becomes wider. The description of the location is no longer picturesque but:

A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover!

(Coleridge lines 14-16)

The inclusion of words like “savage,” “haunted,” and “demon” completely change the tone of the poem. They conjure up eerie images better suited for horror movies than for the sunny landscape at the beginning of the poem. The exclamation points further develop the urgent tone of the piece. They are not present in the first stanza, appearing only in the second, mimicking the shift towards darkness and violence. The words are no longer statements, but loud exclamations, reminiscent, perhaps, of screams. Whereas most of the verbs in the first stanza are passive, the verbs in the rest of the poem become active and, therefore, more violent: the fountain is “forced” and “huge fragments vaulted” (Coleridge lines 19, 21). The sweet “rills” of the river at the beginning are now forceful displays of nature’s destruction. The river in the chasm becomes otherworldly, sounding like “wailing for a demon-lover” and “ancestral voices prophesying war” (Coleridge 30). These phrases reference Heaven (“ancestral voices”) and Hell (“demon-lover”), revealing that the river itself is both good and evil. These descriptions of the river tie into the location of the palace. It isn’t in the pleasant part at the beginning of the river where everything is calm and picturesque. Neither is it in the dark supernatural chasm where the river roars. In fact, the poem states that the palace:

[Floats] midway on the waves;
Where was heard the mingled measure
From the fountain and the caves.

(Coleridge lines 32-34)

The pleasure dome occupies the middle space between the beautiful landscape and the treacherous caverns. The narrator’s claim that both the fountain and the caves can be heard from the palace suggests that it is not the separation, but the unity of these opposing forces and descriptions that brings pleasure to Kubla Khan. Although beauty and violence apparently occupy separate extremes, the combination of the two creates the sublime imagery and the pleasure that Kubla Khan gains in the poem. Thus, Coleridge’s poem follows his description of imagination as the balance between opposing forces by pitting beauty and violence against each other while simultaneously demonstrating the harmony between the two.

William Blake’s “The Clod & The Pebble” also demonstrates Coleridge’s imaginative opposition. The poem’s placement in the Songs of Innocence and Experience identifies and explores the relationship between the seemingly opposing forces of innocence and experience. The poem follows the perspective of a newly created clod of clay and switches to the viewpoint of a weathered pebble. Each talks about their perception of love based on their respective situations. In this poem, the clod is not yet formed and “trodden with the cattles feet” (Blake line 6). It’s in its nascent stage, being molded by external forces. In this manner, one could say that the clod symbolizes innocence. Like a child, it has no internal sense of self and relies on external influences to determine its trajectory and its emotions. As such, the clod relays a version of love that “seeketh not Itself to please” and “for another gives its ease” (Blake lines 1, 3). The clod views love as pure and selfless because its view of love aligns with its young and uncorrupted perception of the world.

The pebble, on the other hand, seems to represent experience. Where external forces shape the clod, the pebble holds its ground and makes the water move around it. The pebble’s version of love is one that “seeketh only Self to please / to bind another to its delight” (Blake lines 9-10). The pebble sees love as selfish and binding. Not only is the pebble fully formed, but it’s been weathered and worn down by the brook. Perhaps, this inspires the pebble’s cynical take on love as something that takes a toll and leaves a mark forever. Because the poem presents both of these assertions rather than just one, it suggests that both statements can be true. Innocence and experience, while opposing perspectives, come together to create a holistic understanding of love in this poem. Blake fulfills Coleridge’s description of imagination by balancing innocence and experience with each other while still highlighting their differences.

Sonnet #59 by Charlotte Smith further builds on Coleridge’s understanding of imagination. Smith’s sonnet places the thunderstorm of the earthly plane against the moon above it. In the thunderstorm, “terrific thunders burst, and lightnings fly” (Smith line 4). Explosive verbs, such as “burst” and “fly,” generate the image of a huge and forceful thunderstorm. The inclusion of the harsh dental sounds “t” and “th” in “terrific thunders” mimics the crack of thunder, placing the reader firmly within the poem alongside the speaker. The thunderstorm rages in a deeply chaotic manner, reminiscent more of a hurricane or tornado rather than a storm. Furthermore, the storm emerges from a “deep-embattled cloud” (Smith line 3). This destructive imagery creates violence and implies that the storm wages war against itself. Smith contrasts this with the demeanor of the moon. She describes the moon as “Night’s regent, of her calm pavilion proud” (Smith line 6). In the face of the destruction the storm wages on the earth below, the moon remains undisturbed and indifferent. The alliteration of “p” in “pavilion proud” is almost directly opposite to the dental sounds of the thunder. It is soft and light, using the lips rather than the teeth. The alliteration generates the sense of calm that the moon embodies, so that the reader also experiences the same composure. Furthermore, the poem ends with the moon “smil[ing] at the tumult of the troubled earth” (Smith line 14). This implies that the moon is so unbothered by the events unfolding on earth that she finds it almost amusing. The contrary experiences of the thunderstorm and the moon represent the struggle between chaos and order. This distinction appears in Coleridge’s description of imagination where he explicitly lists “a more than usual state of emotions, with more than usual order” as one of the particularly distinguishing reconciliations of opposing forces (Coleridge 341). Where the thunderstorm rages and destroys things in its path, the moon watches calmly. However, true to Coleridge’s description of imagination, chaos and order are not mutually exclusive. In fact, one cannot exist without the other. This creates a balance between order and chaos within the poem while still capturing the divergent natures of the thunderstorm and the moon.

However, both Blake and Smith diverge from Coleridge’s description of imagination regarding the poetic form. In his Biographia Literaria, Coleridge states that poetry should subordinate “the manner to the matter” (Coleridge 341). Essentially, he believes that the content of the poem is more important than the structure and format of the poem itself. In “The Clod & The Pebble,” Blake uses the structure of the poem to highlight the opposition between the clod and the pebble, and thus, innocence and experience. The first stanza and the last stanza share the same basic format but with a couple of differences to indicate the different perspectives of innocence and experience. The first and third lines of both stanzas rhyme “please” with “ease,” but the second and fourth lines for each are different (Blake lines 1, 3, 9, 11). Although the rhymes are different, they are still in parallel with each other. The first stanza rhymes “care” with “despair,” while the third stanza rhymes “delight” and “despite” (Blake lines 2, 4, 10, 12). The rhyme of the second line in each stanza contains a word associated with joy and happiness, while the fourth line in each stanza remains melancholy. In this way, Blake pits innocence and experience against each other while simultaneously revealing their parallel and, perhaps, intertwining natures. Furthermore, the last line of the first and third stanzas are inversions of each other. The first stanza, belonging to the clod, states that love “builds a Heaven in Hells despair” while the last stanza, belonging to the pebble, states that love “builds a Hell in Heavens despite” (Blake lines 4, 12). In both lines, heaven and hell are intricately intertwined. Neither truly exists without the other; they are both present in the clod’s statement as well as the pebble’s statement.

Smith also uses the structure of her poem to emphasize the harmonious entanglement of chaos and order. In the poem, Smith tempers the chaotic nature of the thunderstorm with the calm demeanor of the moon through the use of the sonnet form. The sonnet is a particularly strict poetic form, consisting of a rhyme scheme that remains constant and fourteen lines broken into a couplet at the end. In this sonnet, Smith changes the rhyme scheme ever so slightly. The first four lines follow an ABBA rhyme scheme:

What awful pageants crowd the evening sky!
The low horizon gathering vapours shroud;
Sudden, from many a deep-embattled cloud
Terrific thunders burst, and lightnings fly —

(Smith lines 1-4)

The typical sonnet rhyme scheme is ABAB, but these few lines break from it. However, the following stanzas revert to an ABAB rhyme scheme. This slight bending of the rules of the sonnet form shows the power of the thunderstorm. It feels as if the chaotic nature of the storm reaches through the page and affects the format of the poem in a meta way. The immediate correction of the rhyme scheme afterwards perhaps shows how the poem corrects itself by following the moon’s lead. The intensity of the storm shakes the poem briefly and then it composes itself, settling back into the typical sonnet form. The rigid nature of the poem mimics the moon’s stoicism, barely restraining the tumultuous storm within. In this way, both Smith and Blake use the manner of the poem to explore Coleridge’s ideas of imagination and opposition.

These three works each highlight different kinds of contradictory ideas: Coleridge discusses violence and beauty, Blake tackles innocence and experience, and Smith highlights chaos and serenity. Although these pairs differ from each other in meaning, they function in a similar fashion by fulfilling the ideas presented in Coleridge’s descriptions of imagination in his Biographia Literaria. Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” places violence and beauty at odds with each other, culminating in a combination of the two in the form of the pleasure-dome. William Blake’s “The Clod & The Pebble” pits innocence and experience against each other, revealed through opposing views of love presented by the clod and the pebble. However, the poem also reveals that both innocence and experience are important aspects of existence that build off each other to create a holistic understanding of what love can be. Charlotte Smith’s Sonnet #59 explores the opposition between chaos and order as exemplified by the raging thunderstorm and the unfazed moon. Although they occupy opposing ends of a spectrum, neither can exist without the presence of the other. Only together can chaos and order create harmony and temperance. Coleridge’s description of imagination stresses the importance of opposing forces coming together to create a balance. Each of these works binds contradictory ideas together to reach a sort of equilibrium. Blake and Smith do, however, diverge from Coleridge’s assertion that the form of the poem is less important than the content. Both use the structure of their poems to highlight the distinctions between opposing forces and unify them in harmony. All three of these authors follow Coleridge’s description of the power of imagination in their works and diverge only to add to his assertion. Interestingly, William Blake and Charlotte Smith wrote their poems before Coleridge published his Biographia Literaria, yet they share certain characteristics of his description of imagination. Although Coleridge posited an explicit description, it appears that other Romantic writers shared a collective understanding of the concept of opposition and harmony. This suggests that the idea of contradictory ideas coming together to create balance is not unique to Coleridge’s definition. Perhaps, imagination as opposition serves as an underlying thread throughout Romantic literature.

Works Cited

Black, Joseph et al., editors. The Broadview Anthology of British Literature: The Age of
. 4th ed., Broadview Press, 2006.

Blake, William. “The Clod & The Pebble.” Black et al., pp. 41.

Coleridge, Samuel T. “Biographia Literaria; or Biographical Sketches of my Literary Life and
Opinions.” Black et al., pp. 331-346.

Coleridge, Samuel T. “Kubla Khan Or, A Vision in a Dream. A Fragment.” Black et al., pp.

Smith, Charlotte. “Sonnet #59: Written September 1791, during a remarkable thunder storm, in
which the moon was perfectly clear, while the tempest gathered in various directions near
the earth.” Black et al., pp. 18-19.

Citation Style: MLA