Originally Published at the InterVarsity Fellowship’s Emerging Scholars Network Blog blog.emergingscholars.org
So spacious is [Christ], so roomy, that everything of God finds its proper place in him without crowding. Not only that, but all the broken and dislocated pieces of the universe—people and things, animals and atoms—get properly fixed and fit together in vibrant harmonies. – Colossians 1:19–20, The Message
I discovered my favorite subject during my sophomore year of college in Ms. Gaines’ survey of British literature class. I didn’t know why at the time, but Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, and Shelley pulled me in with a force of gravity so strong that I always knew I would write about Romantic poetry if I ever made it to graduate school. Eight years later I did, and the Romantics became something of an intellectual obsession. But it has taken almost a decade of teaching for me to understand the source of their appeal.
Romanticism is so much more complex than simply nature-worshipping and unbridled emotion, I say to my students, for it is an orientation towards reality that confronts the deepest ontological questions of life. It is a way of knowing that tolerates mystery, looking beyond the here and now with the hope of finding something more permanent and eternal. For Romantic thinkers, the creative imagination provided access to this spiritual realm and offered the best hope of connecting with the divine principle that exists outside of material reality.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge famously coined a phrase that captures the elusive quality of the creative imagination—he called it “esemplastic” from the Greek eh hen, meaning “into one.” In Biographia Literaria, he identifies the secondary imagination as that esemplastic quality of the mind which “dissolves, dissipates, in order to re-create; or where this process is rendered impossible, yet still, at all events, it struggles to idealize and to unify.” In other words, the imagination shapes and modifies the raw material of our consciousness into objects of beauty that contain eternal truths. And the imagination does so by unifying disparate things, reconciling self and other, subject and object, into one harmonious whole.
The Romantic preoccupation with the power of the poetic imagination reveals a longing for prelapsarian wholeness and unbrokenness that exists only in perfect communion with God. Their work reminds us that the imagination is that divine principle at work within us that ceaselessly strives for perfection despite the entropic universe to which we’re bound. We trigger it whenever we act upon the creative impulse, whether that’s writing, painting, gardening or even when we sculpt our bodies with exercise or succumb to plastic surgery. Every creative act, no matter the kind, is driven by a need to idealize and heal a lost union with our creator. Coleridge was often moved to despair over the fleeting and futile nature of imaginative fancy, and the hope he placed in the power of poetic genius might suggest an overweening confidence in the ability of the individual mind not only to engage with but to become divine. Never an end unto itself, creativity is merely a bridge to the eternal, of which our imaginative musings are but a shadow of the real thing.