Topic: Romanticism and the Power of Art (2010) by Debbie McCauley

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This article on how both Goethe and Byron inspired the power of the romantic imagination in their literary texts: Faust and Chile Harold’s Pilgrimage, was written by Debbie McCauley on 27 September 2010 as part of a BA in Humanities and Information & Library Studies.

This essay will discuss the work of two literary figures from the Romantic period, Germany’s Johann Wolfgang Goethe (1749-1832) and England’s George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788-1824). It will explore how both Goethe’s Faust, Part One (published 1808) and Byron’s Chile Harold’s Pilgrimage III (published 1816) inspired the power of the Romantic imagination as exemplified in this quote by German poet Novalis (Friedrich von Hardenberg 1772-1801), “The imagination is the marvellous sense that can replace all senses for us” (quoted in Open University, 2005, p. 40).

Romanticism (approximately 1770-1870) itself thwarts straightforward definition and instead one needs to take into account various factors occurring in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, primarily in England and Germany, and their effect on the arts. Early influences include the rebellious pre-Romantic Sturm und Drang (‘storm and stress’) movement in 1770s Germany of which Goethe was a leading figure, and the ‘age of revolution’ which includes the American Revolution (1776) and the French Revolution (1789). Other factors were: the Napoleonic era; the search for a German national identity; the challenge to the church and monarchy; political turmoil; the start of the industrial revolution and the rise and urbanisation of the population. These political, economic and social upheavals established a tumultuous background, setting the scene for arts which reflected a longing for a simpler, closer relationship with nature. 

To be a Romantic was to have a heightened sensitivity to and be fascinated by the mystical power, freedom and rawness of nature surrounding oneself and have the senses and imagination to perceive it. Emotion could take over and be freely expressed, suffering and adversity were almost expected and the gaining of experience was said to be more beneficial than learning. This constituted a major shift from the ordered and rational Enlightenment to a rise in the ‘cult of sensibility’ or value placed on human emotion, the focus on the self and, in particular, the power of the imagination. As the Open University (2005) explains, “the imagination is a truly formative, creative power” (p. 43).

In addition to its impact on creativity, the imagination is the sense through which meaning is made of the world. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (2010), the imagination is defined as:

The power or capacity to form internal images or ideas of objects and situations not actually present to the senses, including remembered objects and situations, and those constructed by mentally combining or projecting images of previously experienced qualities, objects, and situations.

The imagination, which had been applied in an industrial sense by Enlightenment reason, was seen by the Romantics as one of the mind’s greatest attributes, whereby a closer relationship with nature, and therefore the divine, could be constantly strived for because, “the imagination supplants reason as the faculty by means of which we can be acquainted with reality, and the imagination, uniquely among the things of this world, does not obey conventional causal laws” (Open University, 2005, p. 41). The legacy of the Romantic attitude to the imagination even influenced Scientist Albert Einstein (1879-1955) who in 1929 said that “Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.”

On a level with the creative power of nature, the imagination would allow human creativity to blossom in the arts like never before, leading to the rise in the concept of the artist-genius who had a heightened gift of imagination and was therefore closer to ultimate truths. As the Open University (2005) explains, “The Romantics conceived of the artist-genius as the person endowed with a powerful imagination. The imagination is a spiritual and creative power that shapes realities of its own. Since this power is akin to the creative power of God, the artist and the priest are one and the same” (p. 45).

Goethe has taken the imaginative Faust myth of the scholar selling his soul to the devil and paying the price with damnation and transformed it into a characteristically Romantic eternal quest for moral development. Faust’s salvation is not guaranteed in Marlowe’s 17th century version, Doctor Faustus, but Goethe recreates him as a Romantic hero, winning salvation as he continuously strives for the unattainable. The play contains elements of both Enlightenment reason and Romantic imagination. According to The Open University (2005), the shift from Enlightenment to Romantic thinking is a “move away from the Enlightenment reliance on reason alone to recognition of the value of the sensual and the imagination” (p. 132).

Goethe’s play contains a bewildering synthesis of different styles, timescales and characters, reflecting the fact that Part One took Goethe around thirty years to write and was firstly published as various fragments. The scenes are loosely woven together in rhymed verse, free verse and prose with various poetic metres and styles such as epic narrative, lyrical, meditative, dramatic, satirical and even the absurd. The various timescales, such as magical, mythological, biblical and reality have a disruptive bearing on the senses. There is a, “combination of genres, in the ironies and alternatives with which they overlay one another” (Open University, 2005, p. 130).

In a similar fashion to Milton’s Paradise Lost, the prologue recounts a bet made in Heaven between God and Mephistopheles that Faust cannot be led astray. Mephistopheles declares that Faust is, “ranging the realm of knowledge near and far,/finding no harbour for his restless mind” (Goethe, Prologue, lines 65-66, p. 35), but God has more faith in Faust, “The gardener knows, by looking at the tree,/What flowers and fruit lie ripening out of sight” (Goethe, Prologue, lines 69-70, p. 36).

Our intellectual scholar, Dr. Heinrich Faust, has reached the limits of the Enlightenments academic and scientific knowledge. His melancholy is revealed when, in his gloomy Gothic study, he laments, “All my laborious studies only show/that Nothing is the most we ever know” (Goethe, Scene 1, lines 10-11, p. 39). He is the product of Enlightenment learning and yet, that learning is not enough, “I cannot boast my teaching will ever find/a way to improve or to convert Mankind” (Goethe, Scene 1, lines 15-16), it is a, “valueless inheritance” (Goethe, Scene 1, line 40), and, “I feel as if I’d drummed into my brain/the wealth of human knowledge all in vain” (Goethe, Scene 3, lines 413-414, p. 62).

Faust is overwhelmed by passion as he struggles to comprehend, “the force that binds all Nature’s energies” (Goethe, Scene 1, line 22, p. 39) and the sense of the sublime, “Infinite Nature, where can I grasp you?” (Goethe, Scene 1, line 72, p. 41). He conjures up an Earth Spirit who appears and then rejects him, “The great Earth-Spirit threw me down, denied/me, Nature slammed her door, left me outside” (Goethe, Scene 3, lines 382-383, p. 62). He then contemplates suicide before the sound of the Easter bells, symbols of traditional Christianity, turn him from this path as, “the Easter hymn brings childhood flooding back to me” (Goethe, Scene 1, line 46, p. 46).

Faust’s inner torment is further revealed when, whilst walking outside the city gates with his student Wagner, he laments, “Two souls within me wrestle for possession/and neither will surrender to his brother./One is of the senses, sensual,/slaking his appetites like an animal:/The other strives for purity of mind,/To leave the world and all its works behind” (Goethe, Scene 2, lines 137-42, p.49-50).

In Scene 3 Mephistopheles appears, firstly as a black poodle in Faust’s study, then transforming into the ‘daemon’ of romantic imagination. The poodle’s appearance is an illusion; the guise disrupts the empirical view and serves to cultivate Faust’s imagination. After a spell by Faust, Mephistopheles appears more conventionally dressed as a travelling scholar and states, “I am part of a part that, at the start, was All,” (Goethe, Scene 3, line 118, p. 54). Faust wagers with Mephistopheles that he will not be satisfied with however much of human life the Devil will show him and will be forever striving towards a moment of absolute fulfilment, “If ever, as Time flows by us, I should say:/’This moment is so beautiful – let it stay!’,/that is the moment when you will have won” (Goethe, Scene 3, line 351-353, p. 61).

Mephistopheles takes Faust to a Witch's Kitchen, where he is magically transformed into a young man. The dramatic irony of the pact that binds Faust and the voyeuristic Mephistopheles together is clarified by The Open University (2005), “Faust, after the pact, can never be alone any more. Mephistopheles becomes an alter ego” (p. 120).

The audience must use their imagination to add coherence to the play as several events take place off-stage over a fairly large timescale. This includes the ‘Gretchen tragedy’ which is loosely based on a folk-ballad. With Mephistopheles help, Faust firstly seduces the naive Gretchen then subsequently abandons her. The off-stage events include: her resulting pregnancy, the death of Gretchen’s mother and baby and her trial and imprisonment for infanticide.

Gretchen’s brother Valentine’s murder by Faust takes place on-stage in Scene 18 after which Faust and Mephistopheles flee into the wildly imaginative otherworldly Walpurgis Night, complete with witches and wizards. Gretchen atones for the murder of their baby by refusing to be rescued by Faust as she is about to be executed. Against her nature she has been tempted into a life of immortality by Faust, just as he has been tempted by Mephistopheles.

The character of Faust is a symbol of all humanity with his monologues showing a man without the satisfaction of inner peace but constantly striving for more knowledge, power and experience. This is the overarching theme of the play: man's life on earth and his quest for knowledge and power. If Faust is ever tempted to stop reaching for something new, he will forfeit his soul, but he doesn't lose it, because he is never satisfied, emotionally, spiritually, or intellectually.

Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage effectively tells the story of Byron’s own passage, physical and spiritual, across Belgium, down the Rhine, and into Switzerland. The figure of Harold, the ‘Childe,’ exits the poem at the ‘Drachenfels lyric’ where four individually numbered stanza’s make a sudden departure from the Spenserian, as an extra line is added and the lines become shorter (Lavin & Donnachie, 2004, pp. 279-280). The wandering minstrel, the poet-narrator, then emerges as the ‘Byronic hero’. The preceding pattern of Harold’s gloomy isolation changes tempo, morphing into a rebellion against society and a celebration of the romantic genius with allusion to personal torment.

The ‘Byronic hero’ is an adaptation of a tragic Greek figure, a hero with flaws. Byron’s epic narrative elevated the character of the Byronic hero, the, “heroic individual who defies a seemingly overwhelming and indifferent fate by sheer power of the will” (Open University, 2005, p. 37), and in doing so captured the imagination of the Romantic generation. The figure is gifted, but usually a misunderstood loner who follows where their inspiration leads rather than the dictates of society. He is, “The wandering outlaw of his own dark mind” (quoted in Lavin & Donnachie, 2004, Stanza 3, line 20, p. 261).

Canto III focuses on the aftermath of the battle of Waterloo and the sheer beauty of the natural surroundings. Waterloo leads Byron to expand on a range of themes, such as: the variability of earthly existence, the fleetingness of happiness, the evils of injustice and the pointlessness of war, “How that red rain hath made the harvest grow!/ And is this all the world has gained by thee” (Lavin & Donnachie, 2004, Stanza 17, pp. 266).

The poem is written using the epic narrative technique. There is, for the most part, an ABA-BBC-BCC rhyme-scheme in iambic pentameter, although this tends to deviate unexpectedly, becoming romantically ironic because of this fracturing and resulting instability. This serves to reflect the cultural changes and general state of mind of this tumultuous post-Napoleonic time as it deviates between the techniques of the first-person poetic narrative, conversation, description, and meditative confession.

The lines comprise Spenserian stanza’s (eight lines of iambic pentameter) and a concluding Alexandrine (verse line of twelve syllables) harking back to Edmund Spenser’s ‘The Faerie Queene’ (published 1590). The lengthy explanatory footnotes distract the reader from the flow of the poem, hence creating another romantic irony.

Byron’s view of the imagination and how it allows humankind to create and be lost within the intensity of the act of creation is captured within this line: “’Tis to create, and in creating live/A being more intense, that we endow/With form our fancy, gaining as we give/The life we imagine, even as I do now/What am I? Nothing; but so art thou,” (quoted in Lavin & Donnachie, 2004, Stanza 6, lines 46-50, p. 262).

The poem echoes Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther and the autobiographical journey of French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) as he introspectively searches for meaning and validation in his Confessions (published 1782). The world-weary wander, disillusioned with a life of self-gratification and carousing, seeking inner fulfilment in foreign lands and isolation and solace in his imagination is reflected in the lines describing the sublime as “loftiest peaks most wrapt in clouds and snow;” (Lavin & Donnachie, 2004, Stanza 45, pp. 275) and in Stanza 5 with its, “lone caves, yet rife/With airy images, and shapes which dwell/Still unimpair’d, though old, in the soul’s haunted cell.” (quoted in Lavin & Donnachie, 2004, Stanza 5, lines 43-45, p. 262).

Both Faust and Childe Harold are a product of their time. As well as functioning as cultural commentaries, the texts are a reflection of the melancholic discontent felt by an entire generation worn down by the constant wars of the post-Revolutionary and post-Napoleonic era. As with Faust, Byron’s poem is “preoccupied with the idea of ruins, monuments, and destruction, with the sense of the end of an era and with the failure of Enlightenment optimism and purpose” (Open University, 2005, p. 249). More Romantic ironies are Childe Harold’s quest which is never fulfilled as well as Faust’s striving which is also never fulfilled but in the end saves him from his pact with Mephistopheles.

Byron’s merging of the romantic and poetic travelogue topographical poem and autobiographical confession allows readers who had been unable to travel due to the cost as well as the instability of Europe during this period to do so within the realms of their own imagination. As Novalis states: “We dream of travelling through the universe – but is not the universe within ourselves? The depths of our spirit are unknown to us - the mysterious way leads inwards” (Stoljar, 1997, p. 25).

For the Romantic audience, the imagination was a retreat, a way to escape from the reality of the troubling times they were living in. Works which stimulate the viewer’s imagination were seen to lead them into a closer unity with the divine and infinite. “The artist-genius forms a work which will stimulate the imagination of the spectator in such a way that the latter is brought into closer touch with reality” (Open University, 2005, p. 48).

The interest that the Romantics had in the inaccessible times and places of myths and legends can be seen in Goethe’s retelling of the Faust legend as “for the Romantics they all embodied valuable imaginative truths” (Open University, 2005, p. 55). Faust is a metaphor for the changes and intellectual conflict of the period. Both Faust and Childe Harold embody the figure of the romantic with their dedicated pursuit of personal advancement of the imagination.

This essay has examined the literary works formed by the creative imaginations of both Goethe and Byron to see how Faust and Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage inspired the power of the Romantic imagination. It has found that the idea that the imagination could replace all other senses is convincingly evident in both texts. Romanticism itself defies accurate definition but the ‘Romantic imagination’ is one which seeks to bring humanity into a closer relationship with nature and the divine, and also provides the impetus behind the creative works of this period which sought to stimulate the imagination of the audience.



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