The relationship between imagination and creativity

The transcendent imagination

For Keats, the human imagination, by creating art of beauty and permanence, allowed the individual to transcend the fleeting experiences of this world. However, the human imagination can only exist within time and within the human brain – which is itself subject to death and decay.

Ode to a Nightingale

The speaker in Ode to a Nightingale imagines joining the bird ‘on the viewless wings of Poesy’, as if the imaginative vision which poetry entails is something magical that can transcend the human condition.  Indeed it can break free of time itself:

The voice I heard this passing night was heard
In ancient days by emperor and clown:
Perhaps the self-same song that found a path
Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,
She stood in tears amid the alien corn.

Keats suggests that imagination tantalises us with a desire to experience the eternity of the beauty we create – even though no real experience is possible for us apart from time and change.

Imagination is central to being a poet but, as well as revealing truth, it also seems to do the opposite: it seems to falsify. That is, the more the poet endows the nightingale with symbolism, the more questionable this imaginative projection becomes. The bird may be a potent symbol but it is also a very transitory example of ephemeral nature. Keats is aware that his impatience for truth actually obscures it. The idea of ‘faery lands forlorn’ suggests that imagination may be a means to run away from the real world and that imaginative transformation could be seen as a sort of deception.

Other odes

In Ode on a Grecian Urn this theme is explored from the perspective not of a natural and fleeting experience (the bird’s song) but of a work of pictorial art, a timeless rendering of a human pageant.

Keats’ concept of imagination as the gardener ‘Fancy’ in his Ode to Psyche further suggests Keats’ belief in the powers of human invention. Here the human power to imagine and to create art is seen as something which aids and improves nature. The flowers ‘will never breed the same’ because the imagination is infinite and can create endlessly and without repetition.

Generally in the Odes Keats is conscious that art may be beautiful and exercise a powerful hold over the emotions and imagination, but he is also sensitive to the way in which it confronts human beings with their deepest selves, forcing them to aprehend their own mortality, if only by comparing human transience with the permanence of art and its values.


Lamia is all about the creative processes of inventing a luxurious haven away from the harsh truths of society. The house to which Lycius and Lamia retire is a place of fantasy (‘Sounds Aeolian / Breathed from the hinges’ etc.) and a place remote from everyday concerns: ‘a place unknown / Some time to any, but those two alone,’ ‘Shut from the busy world’.

The Eve of St Agnes

In an early letter Keats likened the imagination ‘to Adam’s dream – he awoke and found it truth’. In other words the imagination is the means by which one can bring about change – just as Madeline’s dreams of a future lover become real in The Eve of St Agnes.

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