Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Fancy's Eye: Poetic Vision and the Romantic Air Balloon

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Fancy's Eye: Poetic Vision and the Romantic Air Balloon

Article excerpt

The element ignored by any psychology of imagination which concerns itself solely with the constitution of images is an essential one, evident and known to all: it is the mobility of images. --Gaston Bachelard, On Poetic Imagination and Reverie

AFTER A SUCCESSFUL AIR BALLOON LAUNCH IN LIVERPOOL IN JULY OF 1785, Vincent Lunardi, the first man in England to achieve human flight, received an anonymous dedicatory poem from a female fan. As one might imagine Lunardi got quite a bit of fan mail, some of which took the form of verse. In a gesture of self-promotion, the balloonist included the poem titled Ode; Addresst to Vincent Lunardi, Esq. On his Ascension into the Atmosphere as an appendix to his aerial account. In her ode the nameless bard summons "fancy" to praise the aeronaut:

Swift airy FANCY, swift pursue;
Behold the GOD-LIKE HERO soar
To distant Realms of boundless View,
And Regions unexplor'd before!
Unerring Truth shall boldly dare to paint
Prospects, where Fancy's colors prove too faint ...
My spirit rose along with you!
I saw the grand, the glorious View!
For, soaring high, the freer Mind
May mount upon the fleetest Wind;
May visit Regions yet unknown;
And, darting from Zone to Zone,
Leave Matters Dross and Earthly Cares Behind. (1)

Tracing the balloonist's ascent, the poet establishes a curious continuity between "fancy" and "truth" as she endeavors to share his expansive prospect. Fancy is both visual and mobile here, but also works according to the powers of sympathy. "My spirit rose along with you!" remarks the enraptured fan as she intercepts Lunardi's view while he glides over Liverpool. From this ecstatic place above the clouds, the poet makes a claim to direct experience when all she has access to is fantasy. Indeed, it is the medium of fancy that allows her to picture the aerial vista.

This poem, and the role fancy plays in it, is representative of the flurry of balloon writings published in England during the Romantic period following Lunardi's historic ascent over London in 1784. In the busy public discourse about the air balloon, fancy frequently intervenes to relay vision between the balloonist and his public. Not only did aeronauts like Lunardi and Jean-Pierre Blanchard share their aerial journeys with adoring fans in detailed narratives, the English public also produced scores of poems, travelogues, and drawings that imagined their way into the atmosphere. The strong presence of fancy in this popular culture begs analysis because it is at this very moment that poets and philosophers begin coding the faculty as "wandering." While fancy had in some ways always "wandered" as an indulgence in reverie, a study of it in context over the course of the eighteenth century reveals that it increasingly exhibits geographic mobility tied to forms like the prospect poem. Julie Ellison has been especially attentive to fancy's itinerant tendencies in late eighteenth century poetry, locating its mobility in a gendered discourse of sensibility that works on a global scale. For Ellison, fancy "represents subjectivity that is at once ungrounded--liberated from or deprived of territory--and mobile, committed to ambitious itineraries through international space and historical time." (2) What we find in the poetics of fancy, then, is a desire to experience worlds beyond one's own through networks of intersubjectivity. (3) As Lunardi's fan reveals, fancy functions as a technology of dynamic centrifugal vision in addition to a window into psychological territories. In the age of the air balloon, fancy realized its mobile potential and expanded its visual powers by fusing itself to the aerial machine.

Balloon writings often invite fancy to "paint" or "pencil" the view of the balloonist for an audience with no material perception of what his eye beholds. These artistic cues traditionally underscore the falseness of fancy's representations. Indeed, fancy is at once the recorder and collector of mental images and the source of delusion. …

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