The Romantic Poets: What They Missed

The Romantic Poets: What They Missed

The Athenaeum, by Thomas Cole

Even though they did not complete the work, the Romantic poets brought about great advancement in the consciousness of Imagination. The poets (except for William Blake, perhaps) fell short of grasping the conclusions of what they were experiencing. One could point to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, as an example. In his Biographia Literaria, Chapter 13, he begins to explain the philosophical nature of Imagination, only to be interrupted by a letter from a friend, whom he felt deserved his attention more than these crucial ideas. The interruption caused him to leave the explication of Imagination incomplete, except for a terse summary after a description of his friend’s letter:

The Imagination then I consider either as primary, or secondary. The primary Imagination I hold to be 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 I AM. The secondary Imagination I consider as an echo of the former, co-existing with the conscious will, yet still as identical with the primary in the kind of its agency, and differing only in degree, and in the mode of its operation. It dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to recreate: or where this process is rendered impossible, yet still at all events it struggles to idealize and to unify. It is essentially vital, even as all objects (as objects) are essentially fixed and dead.1

This distinction between primary and secondary Imagination is basically the same as that of Henry Corbin’s differentiation of “imaginal” and the “imaginary” (see my article, Imagination Takes Us Beyond the Mountain of Qaf. Coleridge comes close to Blake when he equates the “primary” Imagination to the infinite I AM, “the living power and prime agent of all human perception.” The secondary imagination is merely the human ability to fantasize, although it, too, has a place in the human makeup.

Owen Barfield points out that Coleridge’s friend “symbolizes . . . the tragic destiny of the Romantic Movement. . .”2 Barfield is of the opinion that, for all their defenses of and advocacy for Imagination, they did not ask the most important question, “In what way is Imagination true?”3 This question remains for us to ask.

By not inquiring how Imagination is the primary vehicle of truth, Romanticism doomed itself to wither away under the weight of a materialistic worldview. Barfield claims it left Romanticism “without roots,”4 and therefore the movement fell by the wayside.

Barfield is intent to go beyond the poets and ask these crucial questions:

What then is the really characteristic thing about this ‘creative imagination’ for which the Romantics claimed so much? How does it differ from any other human faculty and experience?5

His answer involves the absorption of subject and object into one living reality: “Imagination involves a certain disappearance of the sense of ‘I’ and ‘Not-I.’ It stands before the object and feels ‘I am that.'”6 Of course, this is the same as the Hindu idea, Tat tvam Asi, “I am That.” Furthermore, Barfield links this with the Socratic maxim, “Know thyself,” which means fundamentally the same as “to make the unconscious conscious.”7 Just as Jung admonished us to do, if we are to be complete as humans, we must come to know the unconscious parts of ourselves via Imagination.

Poet and William Blake scholar, Kathleen Raine, wrote:

To Blake the radical error of Western civilization lies in the separation, originating perhaps with Aristotle and now universally accepted within modern secular societies, between mind and its object, nature. Blake’s inspired but uncomprehended message was neither more nor less than to declare and demonstrate the disastrous human consequences of this separation, and to call for a restoration of the original unity of being in which outer and inner worlds are one.8

Both Barfield and Raine agree with Blake and many others that the Cartesian dichotomy is the major error in Western thought that has wreaked so much havoc and destroyed so many lives. There is a chance for us to recover that which we have lost, and to go further in our spiritual development than at any other time in human history. But we must, somehow, repair the breach. I have written about it on this blog since 2006. It is the major challenge of our day.

Why didn’t Blake or Goethe go far enough? They knew what the problem was. They offered ways to correct it, but yet failed to convince the masses of their message. Goethe invented a different and better way to do science that merged subject and object. Blake showed a way through art and poetry to enter the Mundus Imaginalis, but many thought he was insane.

Barfield thinks Rudolf Steiner holds the key. Steiner is very interesting, but hard to read sometimes. In the next installment, I will attempt to crack the shell of Steiner’s view on Imagination.

Works Cited

Barfield, Owen. Romanticism Comes of Age. Anthroposophical Publishing: London, 1944.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Biographia Literaria. Kindle Edition.

Raine, Kathleen. Golgonooza, City of Imagination. Lindisfarne Books. Kindle Edition.


  1. Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, 98
  2. Barfield, Romanticism Comes of Age, 18
  3. ibid.
  4. Barfield, Romanticism Comes of Age, 19
  5. ibid.
  6. ibid.
  7. Barfield, Romanticism Comes of Age, 20
  8. Golgonooza, 9

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