Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 729
Dreams and Visions
Perhaps the most notable example of the emphasis on dreams and visions in romantic literature is Coleridge’s poem “Kubla Khan” (1816), which he claimed to have “written” during a dream while deeply asleep. While transcribing the lines from his dream, he was interrupted by a visitor, and later claimed that if this interruption had not occurred, the poem would have been much longer. The idea that a person could compose poetry while asleep was commonplace among romantics. Although critics at the time were not particularly enthusiastic about “Kubla Khan,” no one thought to question whether it was possible for someone to dream such a long poem.
Coleridge was not the only poetic dreamer in his time. John Milton also claimed to have received inspired verses while sleeping, and Keats, like others, believed that poets were endowed with a special gift to translate dreams into words. In addition, opium was cheap and widely available, and its use was not yet considered harmful, so some writers— notably Thomas De Quincey, who wrote Confessions of an Opium Eater—used it to gain access to what they considered to be a higher, more visionary faculty of the mind.
Pantheism, which is the belief that there is no difference between the creator and creation, holds that God is not separate from the world, but manifested in it. This idea was popular among romantics. For example, Wordsworth writes in his poem “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour, July 13, 1798”:
And I have felt A presence that disturbs me with the joy Of elevated thoughts, a sense sublime Of something far more deeply interfused, Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns, And the round ocean, and the living air, And the blue sky, and in the mind of man.
This sensation of a divine “presence” in all things marked a shift in public perceptions of nature. Until this period, most people were busy struggling to eke out a living, largely through farming, and viewed nature as simply a resource that could be used and harvested, not as a place of renewal and purity. However, with the rise of the Industrial Revolution, cities became more crowded and dirty. To the growing urban middle class, the green countryside became more attractive as a place of recreation and an escape from the ever-increasing filth and disorder that industry brought to towns. The romantics likewise viewed nature as a place of spiritual purity and peace, where people could be redeemed by contact with the divine force immanent in the natural world.
During the romantic period, for the first time in history, people became aware that there were parts of each individual’s personality beyond the access of ordinary consciousness. This idea was further developed during the twentieth century as part of modern psychological theory, but at the time of the romantics it was a novelty. The romantics were fascinated with self-exploration and with the particulars of the individual’s experience in the world. Previous writers had focused on politics, business, trade, and the lives of royalty or other famous people. The lives of ordinary people had been deemed unworthy of general interest. However, the romantics were influenced by the events of the American and French revolutions and their underlying political theories, and like the revolutionaries, they believed the ordinary individual had the same rights and worth as any leader. This sociopolitical theory inspired writers to consider the worth of the individual in their work and to focus more on the experiences of ordinary people.
Emotion and Feeling
In keeping with an emphasis on the individual self, the romantics valued emotion, intuition, and feeling over logical abstraction. They sought “the sublime,” a state of being in which a person was simultaneously awed, frightened, and filled with a sense of majesty and wonder. A poet’s response to a wild, remote, and grandiose spot in nature often invoked the sublime, as did the immense night sky, gigantic geological upheavals, and vast castles. Romantics also relied on their intuitive sense of things—as opposed to physical facts—to interpret the world. If a writer sensed the presence of the divine in a natural spot, for example, the reality of this presence was not questioned, but accepted as a given because the person had felt it.
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