The Odes, a Product of Keats’s Inner Conflicts
It would be true to say that the odes of Keats are the product of certain inner struggles or conflicts. The principal stress in the most important of these odes is a struggle between ideal and actual. They also imply the opposition between pleasure and pain, imagination and reason, fullness and privation, permanence and change, Nature and the human, art and life, freedom and bondage, waking and dream.
The “Ode to a Nightingale”: Keats’s Desire to Escape from Reality
Let us first consider the Ode to a Nightingale. In this poem the draught of vintage symbolises an imaginative escape from reality. The longing to fade away into the forest dim results from a desire to avoid another kind of fading away, namely, the melancholy dissolution of change and physical decay. In the third stanza, the actual world of distress and privation is described. The actual world, as depicted in this stanza, is the world of weariness, fever, and fret, a world where palsy shakes a few sad last grey hairs, and where youth, beauty, and love are transient. This picture of the actual world is in direct opposition to the ecstasy of the nightingale and the golden world of Flora, “Provencal song”, and the nightingale’s forest as described in the second stanza. Both the ideal abundance of the second stanza and the privation of the third stanza are vividly depicted. The poet in this ode affirms the value of the ideal, but he also recognises the power of the actual. He feels agonised by the inescapable discrepancy between them. He reconciles them by a prior imaginative acceptance of the unity of experience, by means of which he invests them with a common extremity and intensity of feeling.
The Mortalilty of Man, and the Immortality of the Nightingale
The poem also contrasts the mortality of human beings with the immortality of the nightingale. Of course, Keats here thinks of the race of nightingales, and not the individual nightingale, though in the case of mankind he thinks not of the race but of the individual human being. The bird here represents a universal and undying voice: the voice of Nature, of imaginative sympathy, and therefore of an ideal romantic poetry, infinitely powerful and profuse. As sympathy, the voice of the nightingale resolves all differences: it speaks to high and low (emperor and clown): it comforts the human home-sickness of Ruth and frees her from bitter isolation; and equally it opens the casements of the remote and magical. The “magic casements” are the climax of the imaginative experience. In the final stanza, the word “forlorn” is like a bell which tolls the death of the imagination. The poet realises that fancy cannot cheat so well.
The Human World Versus the World of Nature
This is a poem about man’s world as contrasted, with the world of Nature or death contrasted with deathlessness. The bird shares in the immortality of Nature which remains, through all its changes, unwearied and beautiful. The bird is in harmony with its environment, unlike man who is in competition with his (“No hungry generations tread thee down”); and the bird cannot conceive of its separation from the world which it expresses and of which’it is a part. It is in this sense that the nightingale is immortal. Man knows that he is born to die, knows “What thou among the leaves hast never known”; and this knowledge overshadows man’s life and all his songs. Such knowledge overshadows this poem and gives it its special poignancy.
The “Ode on a Grecian Urn”: Its Duality of Theme
In the Ode on a Grecian Urn, the duality of the theme is indicated in the very opening stanza where Keats gives us a contrast between something unchanging (the urn) because it is dead, and something transient because it is alive. This equipoise is continued in the second stanza, but the poet continues to toy with his dual matter without asserting or implying that lifeless permanence is superior or transient reality. Nor does he indicate any preference in the third stanza, though the emphasis here, as in the second stanza, is upon the warmth and the turbulence of life. We have not been made to feel that Keats has any distinct preference for an unrealised but permanent love over an actually experienced but transient but actual passion. In the fourth stanza, we are carried into a world (the little town) that is permanent, but permanently empty, just as the figures on the urn are permanent but permanently lifeless. In the final stanza, the poet ends his dual game. Here he emphatically addresses this thing of beauty as just what it is a Grecian urn. This work of art, he says, has “teased” us out of thought, that is, out of the actual world into an ideal world where we can momentarily and imaginatively enjoy the life that is free from the imperfections of our lot here. But this ideal world is not free of all imperfections: it has very grave deficiencies because it is lifeless, motionless, cold, unreal (“silent form”, “cold pastoral”, etc).
Keats’s Treatment of Two Kinds of Experience in this Poem
Keeping in mind the duality of the theme in the poem, it is clear that Keats deals with two kinds of experience: (1) human life in actuality and (2) the appreciation of an imaginary representation of several human activities (love, music, community life, and religious ritual). The two kinds of experience are related. Art alone can never satisfy us completely (because the urn is a “cold pastoral”); it is only an imitation of reality. But this work of art can, tell us something important about the real or actual experience, the love passion that is fleeting and transient. That is, the essence of physical love is participation in the life-force and the continuing life-process; only the individual experience is transient and short-lived. “Beauty is truth”, then, means that beauty is total reality properly understood; that is, beauty is the true significance of things in our world and in the ideal world.
The “Ode on Melancholy”, Also a Poem of Contrasts
The Ode on Melancholy is another poem of contrasts. The general idea of this poem is that true melancholy is to be found not in the sad and ugly things of life, such as wolf’s-bane, nightshade, yew-berries, the beetle, and death-moth, but in the beauty and pleasures of the world. The world’s true sadness dwells with beauty and joy, for the pain of suffering is less acute than the pain of knowing that beauty and joy will soon fade. The poem expresses Keats’s experience of the habitual interchange and alteration of the emotions of joy and pain.
The Dwelling-Place of Melancholy
True melancholy, says Keats, lies in the ache at the heart of felicity. It comes to a man suddenly even as rain may suddenly begin to fall from a cloud above. In that state a man can have his fill of sorrow by gazing at the beauty of a morning rose or by feeding deep upon the peerless eyes of one’s mistress when she “some rich anger shows”.
The Transience of Beauty and Joy
The idea of the transitoriness of beauty and joy is vividly conveyed by means of a concrete picture. Melancholy, we are told, dwells with Beauty, Beauty that must die, and Joy whose hand is ever at his lips bidding adieu. Pleasure, we are told, turns to poison, in the very process of being enjoyed. True melancholy can be experienced only by him who has a capacity for enjoying the keenest pleasures. “In the very
, veiled Melancholy has her sovereign shrine.” temple of Delight
A Most Explicit Statement in the Final Stanza
Thus this poem too has a dual theme. It shows the inseparability of pain and pleasure, joy and sorrow, transience and permanence. The poem is about the inter-relations of beauty that must die, passing joy, aching pleasure. The final stanza is Keats’s most explicit statement about one of his central themes. A full involvement in joy leads inevitably to intense melancholy, a melancholy which becomes recurrent and incurable. Also, the intensity of the melancholy lends it a queer pleasure, because intensity is part of full living.