(Critical essay in celebration of literary imagination)
By Kayode Taiwo Olla
The mystery of the power of creativity in literature (and even in art and music) will, I daresay, forever remain (at least, in part) an inscrutable marvelous aspect of the arts to the judgment of the rational mind. However, as John Keats, one of the greatest proponents of English Romanticism which privileges emotion and imagination over reason—as he wrote: ‘I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the heart’s affections, and the truth of imagination’; I may also want to presume, that despite the inexplicable nature of the question of the creative impulse in literature, the mind of man may still grasp or at least appreciate the marvelous power of inspiration. I will love to take an especial mention on the Romantic poets in this essay; or in another sense, look on this question using the Romantics as a case study—as, in my own opinion, Romantic imagination is one of the literary traditions best privileging imaginative creativity, even in its Gothic story traditions, in fact. Although, today the contemporary genre and tradition of modern science fiction very much engages imaginative creativity a great deal today!
Irish novelist and songwriter Samuel Lover said in Andy Anny: ‘When once the itch of literature comes over man, nothing can cure it but the scratching of a pen.’ Often times have creative writers been asked, ‘How did you write this?’ My sincerest answer to questions like these when I am asked as one (and, I could tell, are so many other literary writers’ answer) is simply: ‘I don’t know. Really dear, I don’t know.’ Someone else might say, ‘Teach me how to write this?’ But how could I best teach him or her that it cannot really be taught, as it were? Now if then this inspiration is in some way intrinsic, can man not comprehend how it came by? Inspiration in literature—is it a marvelous working of spiritus mundi (‘the human spirit’); or of a divine spirit say, a god or God?
To aptly delineate the concept of inspiration in literature is too tedious a task and the topic too controversial, to have a definite result—and, I may daresay, too wondrous a concept to be placed in syllabi! In my own view, creative imagination may naturally involve an awesome working interplay of man’s high faculties, taking in the miraculous workings of perception (the senses), reception (the spiritus), conception (the mind) and artistic ability—and the height of the literariness of the resultant work is left a function of the writer’s level of competence and mastery through experience. However, with some extremists, inspiration sometimes transcends the workings of the body system into an unanalysable psychologicalor (perhaps supposed) mystical realm.
The following statement was attributed to U.S. rock singer and songwriter Jim Morrison (1943 – 1971): ‘These first songs I wrote, I was just taking notes at a fantastic rock theatre that was going on inside my head.’ To analyse the processes of the inspiration, then, we must have to, perhaps, take an empirical test of the electronic activities going on in his head at the time! True, we possibly may, of course; perhaps through such medical-scientific processes as neuroimaging. Then perhaps, we might only catch a glimpse into the inscrutable sublime of that ‘fantastic rock theatre… inside my head’!
On the other hand, Charles Brown, a friend with whom John Keats was living when he composed his poem ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, [only] had this to say about Keats’ own composition of the ode:
In the spring of 1819 a nightingale had built her nest near my house. Keats felt a tranquil and continual joy in her song; and one morning he took his chair from the breakfast table to the grass-plot under a plum-tree, where he sat for two or three hours. When he came into the house, I perceived he had some scraps of paper in his hand, and these he was quietly thrusting behind the books. On inquiry, I found those scraps, four or five in number, contained his poetic feeling on the song of our nightingale.
Thus, the nightingale was an inspiration for the poem, I can safely say, and by gazing at its nest Keats’ creative impulse flowed into writing; but then, the process that went on in his head penning that impulse into poetic lines, how can you comprehend? The natural environment thus worked with the genius of the poet to produce the great ‘Ode to a Nightingale’! At this point, I can safely designate his inspiration, in the context on this essay, as sheer working of the spiritus mundi, as opposed to being aided in his fantasy by hemlock, alcohol or any stimulating liquor, as did many poets in the Romantic era; for he himself says—addressing the nightingale:
Away! Away! For I will fly to thee
Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards
But on the viewless wings of poesy.
However, extremists do go beyond to compose under the influence of mind-bending substances such as drugs. P.B. Shelley, one of the leading poets of Romanticism, did compose, at least, some of his poems under the influence of such mind-bending substances as hemlock. The disadvantageous effect of this on him is not a point to analyse here. Now, in this case and such like, I presume that a psycho-neurotic approach will delineate or analyse the inspiration of psychedelic literature, art or music. The spiritus mundi here does not function in its normal state and the inspiration is simply hallucinatory, rather than natural.
Moreover, ancient Greek poets believed that they were inspired by Muse, a goddess of poetry. (Muses, nine, were the daughters of the god Zeus in Greek mythology, each muse believed to preside over a particular art.) For instance, Homer’s great epic ILLIAD, that recounts the legend of the Trojan War, began thus:
‘Sing, goddess, the wrath of Achilles’ Peleus’ son, the ruinous war that brought on the Achaians woes innumerable….’
Now, how realistic the Muse’s inspiration power by which the classical poets claim to write was, might be argued by skeptics and even discounted by scientists. However, in my own opinion, I suppose those poets actually created, or perhaps only performed, under the powers of those spirits, whether termed mystical or real; for they did worship and conjured such powers. And so also might have been with the oral poets in the theatre of ritual during religious festivals in traditional Africa a few centuries ago. On the other hand, Neoclassical poets who patterned their works after ancient Greek and Roman Classism, did not necessarily imitate the worship of the classical Muses, but did make reference to, pay homage to, or even conjured them. William Shakespeare, for instance, makes mention on many occasion as of being inspired by Muse in his love Sonnets. For instance, in ‘Sonnet LXXXV’:
My tongue-tied Muse in manners holds her still,
While comments of your praise richly compil’d,
Reserve their character with golden quill,
And precious phrase by all the Muses fil’d.
Whether he only wanted to pattern his work after the Classics or he is actually inspired by them, might be a vague debate. But I daresay he was merely imitating the tradition of Classical literature, as did also many other Neoclassicists.
Moreover, William Wordsworth, one of the most influential proponents of English Romanticism and whose theories and style created the literary tradition, did not only get inspiration from nature but also sees and reverence Nature as god, integrating pantheism into Romanticism. On the other hand, Keats, his contemporary a major proponent of Romanticism as well, did not incorporate pantheism in his literary engagement in Romanticism.
Furthermore, John Milton, a contemporary of Shakespeare, in his poem ‘On the Incarnation Morning’, celebrating the Virgin birth of Christ, prays to the Holy Spirit of God and asks this ‘Heavenly Muse’ to give him lines for this Holy God born on this Christmas morning. He chose to call, or have, the Holy Spirit as his ‘Muse’.
All said and done, my summation therefore is: Every good literary writer in literature must have got at least some little measure of an intrinsic capability of literary imagination; two, each literary writer chooses what inspiration flows through him/her or what spirit he/she allows to rule his/her creative mind. And as a literary writer myself, this is my submission: “There is a spirit in man: and the inspiration of the Almighty gives [me] understanding” (The Bible, Job XXXII.8)—for I can only speak for myself!