Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Great Odes of Keats

The Greek Origin of the Ode
The ode is Greek in origin. It was first written by Pindar an ancient Greek poet. The Pindaric ode (or the regular Greek ode, as it may be called consists of a composition unit of three stanzas termed strophe, anti-strophe, and epode—this unity being repeated until the poem is complete. The pattern of the Pindaric ode is very complex and intricate. Another classical variety of the ode was originated by Horace, an ancient Roman poet. The Horatian ode uses a particular stanza throughout and there is no intricacy in this form of ode.

Some Famous Odes in English
Although both the Pindaric and Horatian odes have been written in English also, most of the English writers of the ode have ignored the patterns of Pindar and Horace so that their odes show a complete liberty of line, rhyme arid stanza. Indeed, any impassioned English poem of unsystematic rhyme, rhythm and metre may be called an ode. Under the control of genius, this kind of irregular ode has resulted in some of the finest poems in English. Dryden’s Alexander’s Feast and St. Cecilia’s Day, Wordsworth’s Ode on the Intimations of Immortality, and Tennyson’s Ode On the Death of the Duke Wellington are examples of irregular odes in which the poets follow unsystematic rhyme, rhythm and stanza. The regular odes in English, like Wordsworth’s Ode To Duty and some of the odes of Keats, follow the same stanza throughout without any variations.
The Subject-Matter of an Ode
The ode may be employed for “the expression of enthusiasm, of passion under control, of elevated, highly imaginative reflection, of panegyric, or elegy”. An ode usually has a single but dignified and exalted theme and is, therefore, of a stately character. It is in the nature of an address or apostrophe. For instance, in Keats’s Ode to Autumn, autumn has been addressed. Similarly in the Ode to a Nightingale, a nightingale has been addressed. The ode may be called a poetic oration. Being a sub-division of the lyric, the ode is lyrical in essence. It may be personal in inspiration like the Ode to a Nightingale, or it may be purely objective like the Ode to Autumn.
The Structure of Keats’s Odes
The structure of the odes of Keats is sometimes regular and simple as in To Fancy, and it sometimes represents a mean between this and the irregular variety. His most characteristic form consists of a group of stanzas of highly complex structure, but regular or nearly regular, in their resemblance to one another. None of Keats’s odes consists of a succession of absolutely dissimilar stanzas, as does Wordsworth’s Ode on the Intimations of Immortality (where the length of stanzas varies from 8 lines to 39).
A Note of Solemnity in the Great Odes of Keats
Through all the great odes of Keats is heard a note of solemnity, deepening now and then to poignant suffering. Through all runs also the same haunting sense of unreality. Indolence is better than ambition. The nightingale’s song is an illusion, and an illusion which soon fails, leaving the listener alone with his cares and griefs. The world’s truest sadness dwells with beauty and joy, for the pain of suffering is less keen than the pain of knowing that beauty and joy will fade. There is no refuge but in art, the serene, but immortal, and unchangeable: the temple of thought which the poet builds for himself in the Ode to Psyche, the marble world which lives for ever on the carved shape of a Grecian urn.
An Atmosphere of Sadness
This spirit of sadness is not the whole philosophy of Keats, but it is the side of his thought that predominates in the last year of his life: it strikes the keynote of the Odes.
H.W. Garrod on the Construction of Keats’s Odes
H.W. Garrod says, “Reckoning To Autumn with the odes, we have in that volume (of 1820), five odes in all, each exhibiting connections of metre and manner which deserve study…..We may swell the list of odes, if we care to do so, by including the posthumously published Ode to Fanny; and we must certainly include the Ode on Indolence. The Ode on Indolence has close affinities with the five great odes of the 1820 volume. Robert Bridges seems doubtful whether to rank it above or below the Grecian Urn. That is to depreciate the Urn, paradoxically, and to elevate Indolence above its merit. Yet its merit is sufficient to entitle it to be considered with the other five odes.”
“Ode to Psyche”, the Earliest of the Great Odes
Of these the earliest, it is now generally supposed, is the Ode To Psyche. The circumstances in which it was written reveal to us more clearly than anything else Keats’s technique of composition.
The Ode, Developed from the Sonnet-Form
The ode, as the six great odes illustrate it, develops with Keats, not from the ode or hymn of the eighteenth century, but from a species which the eighteenth century despised, the sonnet. The earlier odes look back, certainly, to that century—directly to that century, and indirectly to the Pindarics of Cowley. With the irregular ode, again, as it had been practised by Wordsworth and Coleridge Keats was familiar; and the influence of it may be discerned in some of the characters of the Ode to Psyche. That ode, however, is before all else interesting as marking decisively the transition to a type of quite different construction, a type built upon the sonnet.
An Analysis of the Structure of Keats’s Odes
Until the end of 1817, Keats composed sonnets upon the Petrarchian pattern exclusively—in obvious dependence on Milton and Wordsworth. In the last days of January, 1818, he for the first time essayed a sonnet on the English, or Shakespearean pattern; and followed it up in February by five others on a like model;, returning to the Petrarchian pattern thereafter only thrice. It was in May of this year that he began the unfinished Ode to Maia—which in its imperfect form has so much of the perfection of a Shakespearean sonnet. Of Keats’s Shakespearean sonnets all, save three, pursue the normal pattern—the pattern invented by Surrey, adopted by Spenser (1591), and by Watson (1593), and followed by Drayton, Daniel, and Shakespeare, but never used by Milton or Wordsworth; the pattern of which the formula is abab cdcd efefgg. The three divergences from this pattern all occur in a letter dated April 30, 1819; and the same letter contains the Ode to Psyche…..“I have been endeavouring”, Keats writes, “to discover a better sonnet stanza than we have. The legitimate (that is, the Petrarchian) does not-suit the language over well from the pouncing rhymes; the other kind appears too elegiac, and the couplet at the end of it seldom has a pleasing effect.” He propounds, accordingly, the rhyme-scheme abc abd cab cde de. In all three experiments, he has two objects; he desires (1) to get rid of the end couplet, which not even Shakespeare manages effectively; (2) to free the sonnet from the semblance of three alternate-rhyming quatrains followed by such a couplet—the alternate-rhyming quatrains are the source of the too elegiac character which he finds in the Shakespearean sonnet. ‘I do not pretend to have succeeded’, Keats writes of his experiments; and he seems, in fact, to have ceased the composition of sonnets from about this time. In any case, the month that followed, May, is the month of the great odes, and the letter containing these experiments in the sonneteering contains also the first draft of the Ode to Psyche. That ode, as the letter gives it, is divided into two stanzas, the first of 35, the second of 32 lines. The thirty-five lines of the first stanza should have been thirty-six; by an inadvertence a line is missing after line 16. The two stanzas of the letter are, in the edition of 1820, resolved into four. The first stanza becomes two stanzas of twenty-four lines and twelve lines respectively, the second two stanzas of 14 and 18 lines respectively. Of each stanza, the first eight lines are the octave of a Shakespearean sonnet, abab cdcd (save that the third stanza offers the variant abab cddc, and that the second reduces the number of feet in its sixth and eighth lines to three). Of the,1 first stanza, lines 1-14 make a Shakespearean sonnet, varying only in that the sestet takes the pattern, effe ef (that is to say, the octave is Shakespearean, the sestet Petrarchian), and that the twelfth line is reduced to three feet. The second stanza, save for the reduction of feet noted, is a normal Shakespearean sonnet, less the end-couplet. The first 14 lines of the fourth stanza, again, make a normal Shakespearean sonnet, save that the end-couplet follows the octave instead of following the sestet, Even so much suffices to show how this ode is in fact built up out of the sonnet.
The “Ode to Psyche”
The Ode To Psyche stands apart from the other odes by its much greater metrical variety. Its stanzas are longer than those of any other. The line-lengths are diversified: of no two stanzas is the scheme identical, and there is, in general, an approximation to the lyricism of the eighteenth century Pindarics. Only in one other ode of the great six do we find any variation in line-length—the Ode To a Nightingale.
The “Ode to a Nightingale”
The metrical pattern of that ode (To a Nightingale), if we disregard the isolated variation in the eighth line which is reduced to three feet, is the pattern of all the others (save that To Autumn). Each of them is built of stanzas of ten lines. These 10-line stanzas are in fact a kind of mutilated sonnet. Keats’s trouble with the Petrarchian sonnet was the trouble of the ‘pouncing rhymes’; a trouble that resides in the octave. His trouble with the Shakespearean sonnet was two-fold; its over-elegiac character, and the end-couplet. The odes subsequent to Psyche offer his solution of these troubles. Each stanza of each of them, save Autumn, consists of the first half of the octave of a Shakespearean sonnet (that is to say, one elegiac quatrain, instead of two), followed by a Petrarchian sestet. Of the Nightingale, Melancholy, and Indolence, the scheme is abab cde cde; that of the Grecian Urn differs only by substituting, in the sestet, cde dee.
The “Ode to Autumn”
The Ode To Autumn, the latest of the six great odes, differs from all of them in employing a stanza of eleven lines. The pattern, through the first seven lines, is that of the others: abab cde; then follows, in the first stanza dcce, in the other two stanzas cdde. The variation between the first stanza and the other two is probably due to mere inattention; the scheme designed being that of the other odes with the second line of the ‘sestet’ answered by two rhymes, a couplet, instead of by a single rhyme. Out of the sonnet, Keats builds in the odes, a stanza of which the repetition furnishes a metrical system more perfectly adjusted than any other in English poetry to elegiac reflection.
H.W. Garrod on the Themes of Keats’s Great Odes
There are close connections of thought between all of the six great odes with the exception of To Autumn (which was written towards the end of September, 1819). Just as each of these odes is something in the nature of a sonnet-sequence, so the odes, taken together, are a sequence; an ode-sequence of which the relations, not of time, but of mood, to some extent disclose themselves. Psyche was the first in time of these odes, and in mood also it begins them.
Keats has thrown a very individual sentiment about the legend of Psyche. The appeal of Psyche to him is not more her loveliness than her lateness. Of the faded Olympian hierarchy she was the latest-born; of divinities that have all passed into unreality, the least real, the most a “vision”. Too late for antique vows, for a poetry of faith, for the believing lyre,—her fascination for Keats is that he himself creates her. Not any substance in the deity herself, but his own eyes, supply his inspiration:
I see and sing, by my own eyes inspired.
To this deity, the poet promises a worship, melancholy and languorous enough. Keats will be the priest of Psyche, priest and choir and shrine and grove; she shall have a fane “in some untrodden region of the mind”, and shall enjoy:
all soft delight     
That shadowy thought can win.
There shall be a bright torch burning for her, and the casement shall be open to let her in at night. The open window and the lighted torch are to admit and attract a timorous moth-goddess, who symbolises melancholic love. Keats has in fact identified the Psyche who is the soul (love’s soul) with the Psyche which means moth.
It is a strange goddess whom he has thus brought from her native unrealities into the reality of the imagination. But her identity is certain—we meet her again, brought into darker shadow, in the Ode on Melancholy. The last stanza of Psyche—the moth stanza—should be read in close connection with the first stanza of this later ode.
There is a deeper melancholy than melancholy itself. Lethe and wolf’s-bane, and the deadly night-shade and the yew-berry—emblems of sadness obtained from the world of flowers—are emblems only meagre and inadequate. In the world of living creatures; the beetle, the owl, the moth, fall short of that for which we invoke their symbolism:
Nor let the beetle, nor the death-moth be   
Your mournful Psyche, nor the downy owl
A partner in your sorrow’s mysteries.
There is the same identification here of Psyche and the moth. This moth-godoess, this mournful Psyche, who typifies melancholic love, is no partner in the mysteries of that deeper and truer melancholy which the ode celebrates. It is the paradox of this deeper melancholy that she dwells with beauty, that she has her sovereign shrine in the very temple of Delight. The strenuous tongue of the poet, his courage of eloquence, alone can burst joy’s grape, and taste the heart of melancholy. Keats means to say not merely that the poet has a more delicate perception than common men of the beauty of the world of sense: and not merely that this delicate perception is intensified in him by the awareness that the perfections of sense are born and perish in the same moment; not merely that; but that the top of poetry, its supreme mood, is precisely that mood in which beauty is so apprehended that the awareness of it is anguish—a “wakeful anguish”, in comparison with which all other dark effects come together as “shade to shade”, “drowsily” and listlessly, mere melancholic fits of love-sick or repining men.
“Too drowsily”, Keats likes the word and the idea. The idea pervades the Psyche ode. Upon the word, the Ode to a Nightingale opens:
My heart aches, and a drowsy, numbness pains          
                My sense.
It is used twice in the Ode on Indolence:
(i)            Ripe was the drowsy hour:
(ii)           For Poesy!—no, she has not a joy,
                                At least for me, so sweet as
                                And evenings steeped in honied indolence.
The mood of this drowsy indolence Keats calls “my 1819 mood”. From it spring not only all the great odes, save Autumn, but The Eve of St. Agnes. The truth is that the drowsiness and indolence of Keats is the poetry of other men; indeed, the poetry of Keats himself, but that he will never be content in it. In the Ode on Melancholy, he conceives it as a kind of duty for the poet to keep alive in himself the anguished appreciation of beauty. If that “wakeful anguish” be drowned, his insight perishes.
Out of the luxury of sensation, which is his true effectiveness, Keats is for ever scheming himself into some unhappiness; now he runs from sense to thought, to metaphysical reflection, now from mere poetry to a poetry of social suffering; and yet again here, he is not happy till he can discover in the joy of the senses themselves not happiness merely but some immortal anguish. If he cannot flee from the pure enjoyment of the beautiful, he can yet perish in it.
An Analysis of the “Ode to a Grecian Urn”
The Grecian Urn we may suppose to have been written in a mood of strong revulsion from thesis of Melancholy. It presents, in fact, the same world, the world of beauty and human passion, only fixed by art. The lover whom the urn figures loves, not a beauty that must die, but that which, from the nature of art, “cannot fade”. The songs that he sings, he sings “not to the sensual ear”, but “to the spirit”.
The first four stanzas of this ode achieve a faultless harmonising of sentiment, thought and language. But the last stanza is neither worthy of the rest, nor, consistent with it. The theme of what has gone before is the arrest of beauty, the fixity given by art to forms which in life are fluid and impermanent, and the appeal of art from the senses to the spirit. The theme of the final stanza is the relation of beauty to truth, to thought. Nothing has prepared the transition to this. Besides, the figures of the urn become suddenly “cold Pastoral”, in comparison with the worm human world of actual life. The first half of this stanza seriously mars the effect of all that has preceded; the second half of the stanza seeks to allay the doubt set up; to allay it by the thesis that there is nothing real but the beautiful, and nothing beautiful but the real. The last stanza does not, either in thought or feeling, hang true with the rest of the ode. Down to the end of the fourth stanza there is a perfect development of the governing idea—the supremacy of ideal art over nature, because of its unchanging expression of perfection. Perhaps the fourth stanza is more beautiful than any of the others—and more true. The trouble is that it is little too true. In the last lines of the fourth stanza, especially the last three lines where the poet speaks of the permanent silence and desolation of the little town, there is an undertone of sadness, of disappointment. This pure and cold art makes, in fact, a less appeal to Keats than the ode as a whole would pretend.
The lines in this ode which speak of art as teasing us out of thought echo some lines of the Epistle To Reynolds:
Things cannot to the will
Be settled, but they tease us out of thought…….        
                It is a flaw            
In happiness, to see beyond our bourn;       
It forces us in summer skies to mourn,         
It spoils the singing of the nightingale.
The lines were a year old and more, when Keats wrote the Grecian Urn and the Ode to a Nightingale. The latter poem is written in the spirit of these lines. Into the Grecian Urn, that spirit has somewhat inappropriately intruded itself. There is that much connection between the two odes.
The Connection Between Two of the Odes
Between the Nightingale Ode and Melancholy, there is a closer connection. In the Ode on Melancholy, whatever is beautiful in the world is spoilt by something in the nature of our apprehension of it. In the Nightingale Ode, the singing of the nightingale is spoilt, not by any anguish which there is in its joy, but, as in the lines to Reynolds, by the intrusion of a human trouble. In the lines to Reynolds, it is the trouble of abstract thought; in the Ode to a Nightingale it is the trouble of suffering humanity.
It is interesting to observe in the Ode to a Nightingale the subtle shading off of mood into mood as the ode develops itself stanza by stanza.
In the case of this ode, again, the close is not wholly worthy of the rest, As in the Grecian Urn, here also the last stanza seems to lose hold of the main idea, and to suffer at the same time a deterioration of rhythmical effect.
The View of Robert Bridges About the “Ode to Autumn”
As for the Ode to Autumn, the judgment of Robert Bridges is very sound: “I do not know that any sort of fault can be found in it. But though this the best as a whole, it is yet left far behind by the splendour of the Nightingale, in which the mood is more intense, and the poetry vies in richness and variety with the subject”.

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