Imagination, Perception and the Experience of Nature

Allison McNaughton

I am a psychology student with an English minor. While the combination seems odd at first glance, the two studies actually compliment each other quite nicely. I have always been fascinated by the way in which writing can reflect the inner workings of an author's mind, by the way it effects the reader in such a profound, defamiliarizing way, as well as by the way that it can be used to explore the many facets of human nature in a much more effective way than any research study. Because of this thought process I have been particularly interested in several of the poets that we have looked at and their exploration of the effects of the forces of imagination and sensual perception on their perception of nature. The debate over how much of our personal experience is based upon what we see and hear and how much is based on what we feel and believe is long standing and crosses many fields of study, psychology being only one of them. William Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey", Percy Shelley's "Mont Blanc" and to an extent Samuel Coleridge's "Chamouny: the Hour Before Sunrise" all represent different stances on the issue and therefore aid the reader in exploring the effects of perception and of imagination on experience.

In Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey", the poet explores the experience of nature as collaboration between imagination and sensual perception. He reflects on how the Wye valley has existed for him in his imagination in the years since he first visited the valley, and how now that he has returned to the same site "with gleams of half-extinguished thought, / With many recognitions dim and faint / And somewhat of a sad perplexity, / The picture of the mind revives again" (Tintern Abbey, ll.59-62). He goes on to explain the ways in which his experience of the valley in the present have changed from the experience that he had 5 years before and the experience that he has held in his memory ever since. He also notes however that he does not mourn the change. While the "aching joys" (l.85) that the scene evoked in the past are gone, they have been replaced by "other gifts" (l.87) that Wordsworth holds more valuable. He explains that he has "learned / To look on nature not as in the hour / Of thoughtless youth, but hearing oftentimes / The still, sad music of humanity" (ll.89-92). And it is due to the discrepancy in the way that he perceives the scene of the Wye valley that he is able to reflect on, and consider his progress.

Wordsworth's exploration of the agent of change in his experience of the Wye valley over time leads him to recognition of the roles of both the imagination (or the human mind) and the physical senses in perception. Wordsworth recognizes that the perception of nature that he had as a young man has changed and he is able to connect this change with his own maturation. He recognizes the role of "eye and ear (both what they half-create / And what they perceive)" (Tintern Abbey, ll.107-108) in this experience. He also recognizes the interplay between the senses and the mind in stating that nature "can so inform / The mind that is within us" (ll.126-127) resulting in his "cheerful faith that all which we behold is full of blessings" (ll.134-135). In turn, this faith has the power to make it possible for him to maintain "lofty thoughts, that neither evil tongues, / Rash judgments, nor the sneers of selfish men, / Nor greetings where no kindness is, nor all / The dreary intercourse of daily life, / Shall ever prevail against us" (ll.129-134). He depicts the relationship between the mind and the senses as being cyclic, one influencing and reinforcing the other, and vice versa.

Shelley's "Mont Blanc" on the other hand depicts a much different experience of nature. Gone is the benevolent scenery of Wordsworth's poem, replaced in stead with the cold, indifferent and powerful scenery of Shelley's mountain. Gone also is Wordsworth's faith "that all which we behold / is full of blessings" (Tintern Abbey, ll.134-135), replaced by insecurity and "awful doubt" (Mont Blanc, l.77). How much of this change of tone is due to difference in scenery, and how much is due to difference in attitude? Shelley's poem is a response to Wordsworth's view of the forces of both sensual perception and the imagination on the experience of nature. According to Shelley the experience of nature is much more passive on the part of the viewer. While he does recognize that the human mind both "renders and receives fast influencings / holding an unremitting interchange / With the clear universe of things around" (Mont Blanc, ll.38-40) the mind's role in Shelley's view is one of reception. Shelley emphasizes the passivity of this role by comparing the revelations that the mountain incurs to those that dreams give to the dreamer during sleep. In this comparison the dreamer does not have to actively engage in the process of revelation; rather, he must only be in the right state of mind in order to receive it. Despite the fact that one can see Shelley's imagination at work on his perception of nature in the imaginative pictures he paints of creation, he seems to believe that the mountain evokes "awful doubt" (l.77) and "hast a great voice… to repeal / Large codes of fraud and woe" (ll.80-81) without collaborating with human imagination. To Shelley perception is based on an open mind rather than an active one as he goes on to say that the mountains voice is "not understood / By all, but which the wise, and the great, and good / Interpret, or make felt, or deeply feel" (ll.81-83). In Shelley's view perception of nature is based upon an open mind rather than one's individual experiences. He implies that the lessons that "these primeval mountains / Teach the adverting mind" (ll.99-100) are the same from person to person but it is only the degree to which one is open to receiving them that they are understood.

Coleridge's view of Mont Blanc is, on the other hand, based entirely on his imagination. The poet never actually saw the mountain first hand, however writes a description of the experience of the mountain based upon what he read on the subject and based on an experience that he had in a different setting. In this way Coleridge does not address the issues of perception and imagination directly, however, his poem does so indirectly in the criticism that it has garnered as to the authenticity of what the poet describes. Is authenticity based upon sensual perception or upon emotion? And to what extent do our preconceived ideas affect the way in which we experience and view the world? There is nothing to say that if Coleridge did visit Chamounix he would not feel the same way that he describes in his experience of the valley in his imagination. Despite the differences in their stances, both Coleridge and Shelley are writing with preconceived notions about God and religion, and it is impossible to say how much of their experience of nature is affected by their attitudes and the degree to which their attitudes are in place because of their experiences with nature. Wordsworth seems to hold back from committing himself to any one view of the relationship between experience and attitude, sensual perception and imagination. He seems to best appreciate the two way street that the aspects of unified perception operate on.

While there can be no conclusions drawn as to the degree to which our experience of anything is based upon sensual perception or upon our imagination, I think that it is safe to say that our unified perception of the world around us is based upon interplay between the two. Exploration of the nature of experience by the poets discussed in the previous paragraphs further highlights the relationship between psychology and literature and helps to explain my fascination with both.