George Bernard Shaw was a man whose work was compared to humorous and clever authors who were well-known at the time:
But by the turn of the century, Shaw’s smart, funny voice had emerged—a unique intersection of styles typified by writers like Oscar Wilde and Anton Chekhov.
It is for this reason that Shaw's "Imagination" is something of an oddity. It is almost trite or juvenile. Since Shaw was an author who was not known for constructing anything so inconsequential, it might be assumed the simplistic nature of the poem has a deeper meaning—much more than the words imply.
Throughout the poem, the speaker notes that (as a youngster) he had an active imagination and alludes to childhood images of adventure similar to those of Mark Twain's character Tom Sawyer and Harper Lee's Jem, Scout and Dill in To Kill a Mockingbird. Pretending was a daily staple of these characters' young lives.
The things the speaker pretended to be are clichés—the games little boys have played throughout numerous generations (during Shaw's time and still today), including a pirate and a cowboy. These roles were not sophisticated in nature, but the speaker says, "These simple things did please me."
In the second stanza, the speaker describes an abundance of time spent in magical worlds that he imagined; he then discovered reading, and in these ways he "escaped the daily grind." The use of daily grind is interesting because it is very different than the lifestyle and imaginings of a child.
In the next stanza, the speaker describes living with Eskimos in northern climates; the following stanza reports that he "went off to the moon" after reading Jules Verne (a popular science fiction writer of the day). The voice the speaker adopts is child-like, as seen in Shaw's use of a bare-bones, simplistic style.
And went off to the moon,
It was just to take a look,
Then it was time to return.
Consider the definition of voice:
[Voice] is a convention in poetry that the speaker is not the same individual as the historical [actual] author of the poem. . . Many students (and literary critics) attempt to decipher clues about the author’s own attitudes, beliefs, feelings, or biographical details through the words in a poem.
The voice Shaw adopts is important to the poem's theme, especially in that such simplistic ideas and style of writing contrast with Shaw's superior stylistic capabilities in his other literary works.
In the fifth stanza, the speaker alludes to the famous explorer, Dr. Livingstone, and also speaks of Twain's character Huck Finn—the epitome of an adventuresome boy. The speaker is out of touch with reality as he becomes caught up in his imagined exploits during some especially dangerous and controversial situations.
Shaw also structures the poem's rhyme scheme with simple end-rhyme. The rhyme scheme of "Imagination" is singsong and unimaginative. For instance, he uses a, b, a, b in the fifth stanza. These simple kinds of rhyme, along with a basic syntax, also add to the child-like mood of the poem.
Toward the conclusion, the speaker notes,
In my world of fantasy and imagination,
I performed such wonderful deeds.
In this statement, the speaker notes he was capable of doing more than is normal for most people, but only in his imagination. Perhaps this speaks to the difficulty of leaving a childhood where anything is possible and turning to adulthood, which is replete what is not possible.
The poem's last stanza provides a pivotal moment when the speaker turns away from the make-believe days of his youth:
Then I grew up my childish world at an end.
I had become serious it nearly drove me around the bend.
I still do like the mysterious,
This is the message I am trying to send.
In order to give this masterful writer his due, we must look to a deeper meaning as opposed to the literal presentation of this poem. First, the last stanza is very much like 1 Corinthians 13:11:
When I was a child, I spoke and thought and reasoned as a child. But when I grew up, I put away childish things (NLT).
We know that "by the turn of the century, Shaw’s smart, funny [literary] voice" had emerged. We also know his work "enumerated various social and political concerns." With these details in mind, we can infer Shaw was making a statement, something beyond sharing details of the speaker's childhood imagination. When the speaker was a child, he behaved like one. When he grew up, he changed. Shaw's wit might well expose his personal political or social ideas by noting that, while the speaker almost went crazy, he still made the transition. Perhaps his inference is that many people of his day did not, instead choosing to live in a dream world rather than facing the realities of the modern day.
While he put away the imaginings of childhood, however, Shaw's speaker also notes he is still curious about the mysteries in life. Shaw might be telling his audience that just because life requires one to stop pretending, a life need not be one of drudgery or boredom if one can shift his or her attention away from things imagined, and search, instead, for meaning and excitement in those things yet to be understood.
Shaw's poem "Imagination" should never be taken at face value. The writer's mastery of the language itself must prove to the reader that there is more here than meets the eye.