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  • Visions in Verse:Writing the Visual in Romantic Dream Visions
  • Anita O’Connell (bio)

In Immanuel Kant’s Anthropology the criterion for distinguishing dreams from reality is rational communication (Schlutz 113). Quoting Heraclitus’s dictum, “when we are awake we have a world in common, but when we are asleep each has his own world,” Kant argues that the faculty of fantasy blurs this distinction (Kant, Anthropology 63; see Schlutz 113). Inspiration and original genius are the “involuntary and hence dream-like products of fantasy” (Schlutz 115, see Kant 50–51). Inspired poetry and art sit uneasily, for Kant, between sleep and waking as they rise up out of the world of dreams to communicate their visions within the waking world. For Romantic poets, it follows that art and poetry could also act as an essential bridge between the two worlds, as a means of communicating the dreams and visions of the creative mind with the outside world. They were a representation for the outside world of what lies inside that otherwise exclusive state of the dreaming mind. Some of the best-known Romantic dream visions, among them Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan,” John Keats’s The Fall of Hyperion, and Percy Bysshe Shelley’s The Triumph of Life, as discussed here, attempt to take up this challenge and seek to communicate the inspired visions that lie at the heart of the original creative idea. In The Fall of Hyperion, Keats embraces this role for the poet, claiming “poesy alone can tell her dreams” (8). However, like many Romantic dream visions that reflect on their own creation, the poem is keenly aware of one crucial problem inherent in this process: language. Before the twentieth century, ideas, thoughts, and inspired moments were all thought to be visual, not linguistic. To take creative ideas from the imaginative mind and communicate them with the world through poetry involved a transformation from the visual to the linguistic, from visions into verse.

In the Romantic period the creative vision in the mind could refer to the inner experience of any of a range of imaginative states, from thoughts and ideas to the vision that is imagined when reading, composing poetry, daydreaming, in reverie, madness, or sleeping dreams. This is what Alan Richardson refers to in “Reimagining the Romantic Imagination,” borrowing neuroscience’s current terminology, as “the default mode.” [End Page 35] For Richardson, memory, prospective “future thinking,” daydreaming, nocturnal dreaming, and theory of mind or mind reading are linked in Romantic brain science as what scientists might now call defaulting, but which was understood in the Romantic period as various ways of imagining (389). When Romantic poets explore these states of mind, they understand them as a spectrum of liminal imaginative states. Shelley and Coleridge both argue that the imaginative states in this spectrum differ only in degree, not in kind.1 In Speculations on Metaphysics, Shelley claims that:

Thoughts, or ideas, or notions … differ from each other, not in kind, but in force. It has commonly been supposed that those distinct thoughts … which are called real … are totally different in kind from those … such as hallucinations, dreams and the ideas of madness. No essential distinction between any one of these ideas, or any class of them, is founded on a correct observation of the nature of things.


Shelley here claims a similar cognitive process for dreams and hallucinations as for thoughts or ideas, varying only in the degree to which the waking reason has control over the imaginative state. Though they differ in degree or force, they are similar in kind because in each the mind imagines a mental image.

A vision in the mind was at the heart of all of these states because the imagination was, in essence, the image-making faculty. From the time of Aristotle one of the primary roles of the imagination was to create and store images within the mind. As Alexander Schlutz explains in Mind’s World: Imagination and Subjectivity from Descartes to Romanticism, for Aristotle the role of the “phantasia” (which would later become the imagination) was to allow

a mediation between aesthesis (sense-perception) and dianoia (discursive thought). As the ability to...


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pp. 35-54
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