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Keats's <i>Secret</i>: Exploring the Real Power of the Imagination

In fact, long before Byrne had ever been thought up, the English poet John Keats was exploring the power of the imagination.
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If you live under a rock like I do, you may have missed out on the phenomenon that is The Secret, an uber-popular film (turned book) by Australian writer and producer Rhonda Byrne. I know, I know. How could I resist opening one of those faux-parchment paperbacks with the "secret" emanating toward me in glossy beams of light? Well, curiosity finally got the better of me this week. If you don't know already, The Secret claims that "people's feelings and thoughts attract real events in the world into their lives; from the workings of the cosmos to interactions among individuals in their physical, emotional, and professional affairs." More simply: if you imagine something you want hard enough, it happens.

In a materialistic twist, the film actually encourages people to use this imaginative power to get rich and collect stuff they want. As Reason's Greg Beato put it, for Secret believers, "The universe is a giant vibrating ATM, ready to shower you with new cars, fine jewelry, unexpected checks in the mail, and magical sunsets." Byrne herself admitted that her inspiration for the film came from a book called The Science of Getting Rich Quick.

No, this is not your daddy's New Age philosophy. I miss those days. When I was in college, a girl approached me at a coffee shop convinced that I had something to tell her. I tried to laugh it off, but she insisted that I was supposed to be some sort of guide. You see, she'd been reading The Celestine Prophecy. I could have given her a dead-serious look and told her to go to Machu Picchu and wait for Miguel, but I ended up offering advice so banal I can't even remember what it was.

Some guru I would be.

Anyway, according to Byrne, the Secret isn't something she invented. It has been known to certain highly successful people throughout history. Her list of "keepers" includes Plato, Einstein and Alexander Graham Bell(!) but is surprisingly bereft of great writers. Honestly, if the guy who may have invented the telephone made the list, how about a poet or two?

In fact, long before Byrne had ever been thought up, the English poet John Keats was exploring the power of the imagination. In a letter to a friend, Keats famously wrote: "I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the heart's affection and the truth of Imagination--what the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth--whether it existed before or not..." Keats didn't think that the imagination could create, say, money or a woman, but it could create beauty--and he was certain that beauty, even when imagined, is real.

Whether you agree or not, the beauty you imagine can certainly spill into and impact your reality. I experienced this idea firsthand a few years back when I had a dream about a friend of mine. I'd never been attracted to her before, but in the dream I was, and when I woke up I was still attracted. The beauty I'd imagined had changed the way I really felt. We even ended up dating. How'd it go? Let's just say that was the last time I let my imagination set me up.

Keats explores this phenomenon in some of his poems. In "The Eve of St. Agnes," Madeline, a young heroine, is dreaming of her lover Porphyro when the real Porphyro wakes her up. Madeline finds that her imagination has changed the way she feels about the real Porphyro, who's now a little disappointing:

"Ah Porphyro! said she, "but even now

Thy voice was at sweet tremble in mine ear...

How changed thou art! how pallid, chill, and drear!"

She implores him to act more like the man she'd been dreaming of:

"Give me that voice again, my Porphyro,

Those looks immortal, those complainings dear!"

In Keats's ballad "La Belle Dame Sans Merci," a traveler comes across a "haggard" and "woe begone" knight, whose reality has been shattered by a beautiful woman who lures men in and traps them. She seems to exist somewhere between reality and a dream:

"I saw pale kings, and princes too,

Pale warriors, death pale were they all;

they cried--La belle dame sans merci

Hath thee in thrall.

I saw their starved lips in the gloam,

With horrid warning gaped wide,

And I awoke and found me here,

On the cold hill's side."

Why is this important? When we explore how the imagination impacts real life, we explore the potential power of art. Because instead of coming from a dream, couldn't the imaginative spark come from a novel, a poem, or even a movie? It's something to think about. That is, when you're not thinking really hard about the promotion and the Jaguar you want.

For more on Keats, take a look at John Lundberg's Poem of the Week blog