The Greek Spirit in Keats’s Poetry
Shelley expressed the opinion that “Keats was a Greek”. Indeed, Keats was unmistakably a representative of Greek thought, in a sense in which Wordsworth and Coleridge and even Shelley were not. The Greek spirit came to Keats through literature, through sculpture, and through an innate tendency, and it is under Hellenic influence as a rule that he gives of his best.
Keats’s Inborn, Temperamental “Greekness”
The inborn, temperamental “Greekness” of Keats’s mind is to be seen in his love of beauty. To him, as to the Greeks, the expression of beauty is the ideal of all art. And for him, as for them, beauty is not exclusively material nor spiritual, nor intellectual, but is the fullest development of all that goes to make up human perfection.
His Personification of the Forces of Nature
Keats is a Greek, too, in his manner of personifying the forces of Nature. His Autumn is a divinity in human shape: she does all kinds of work, and directs every operation of harvest. This is a typical attitude of the Greek. The Pan of Greek myth was more than half human. Whoever wandered into the lonely places of the wood might expect to hear his pipe or even to catch a glimpse of his hairy hands and puck-nosed face; and the Pan of Keats’s ode is half-human, too, as he sits by the riverside or wanders in the evenings in the meadows. Keats has “contrived to talk about the gods much as they might have been supposed to speak”. The world of Greek paganism lives again in his verse, with all its frank sensuousness and joy of life, and with all its mysticism. Keats looks back and lives again in the time
When holy were the haunted forest boughs,
Holy the air, the water, and the fire. (Ode to Psyche)
His Interest in Greek Mythology
Towards the creations of Greek mythology Keats was attracted by an overmastering delight in their beauty, and a natural sympathy with the phase of imagination that created them. “He possessed the Greek instinct for personifying the powers of Nature in clearly defined imaginary shapes endowed with human beauty and half-human faculties. Especially he shows himself possessed and fancy-bound by the mythology, as well as by the physical enchantment, of the moon. Never was bard in youth/so literally moon-struck. Not only had the charm of the myth of the love of the moon-goddess for Endymion interwoven itself in his being with his natural sensibility to the physical and spiritual spell of moonlight; hut deeper and more abstract meanings than its own had gathered about the story in his mind. The divine vision which haunts Endymion in dreams is for Keats symbolical of Beauty itself, and it is the passion of the human soul for beauty which he attempts, more or less consciously, to shadow forth in the quest of the shepherd-prince after his love.”
His Main Themes Drawn from Greek Myths, Art, and Literature
Greek myth, and to a smaller extent Greek art and literature, provide either his main themes or numerous allusions. Keats’s boyish enthusiasm had been nourished by his Elizabethan reading, by Leigh Hunt, by the Elgin Marbles, and by Wordsworth. One reason for Keats’s high regard for The Excursion would be the account in the fourth book of the Greek religion of Nature and its imaginative expression in myth. Classical myth had been a very rich element in Renaissance poetry from Spenser to
, but had been blighted by Augustan rationalism. It revived with the romantic religion of Nature and the imagination. Wordsworth’s sonnet “The World Is Too Much With Us” shows the attraction of classical myth for Wordsworth. Wordsworth here points out that the Greeks, who saw Proteus rising from the sea and heard old Triton blow his horn, were nearer religion than Christian Englishmen bent upon making money and with no eye or ear for Nature. Keats’s Sleep and Poetry contains echoes of Wordsworth’s sonnet. Milton
No First Hand Knowledge of Greek Literature
Keats had no first-hand knowledge of Greek literature. He derived his knowledge of the Greek classics from translations and books of reference like Chapman’s translation of Homer, and Lempriere’s Classical Dictionary. His sonnet on Seeing the Elgin Marbles reveals the important influence exerted on him by Greek sculpture. According to a critic, Hyperion is in poetry what the Elgin Marbles are in sculpture. The calm grandeur of Greek art, its majesty and symmetry and simplicity, its economy of ornament and subordination of parts to the whole, came to Keats through his knowledge of these marbles. This influence is most obvious in the two odes, On Indolence and On a Grecian Urn.
His Limitations as a “Greek”
But Keats has his limitations as a Greek. He does not write of Greek things in a Greek manner. Something indeed in Hyperion—at least in its first two books—he caught from Paradise Lost of the high restraint and calm which was common to the Greeks and Milton. But his
, with its vague, far-dazzling pomps and phantom-terrors of coming doom, shows how far he is in workmanship from the Greek purity and precision of outline, and firm definition of individual images. Similarly one of the most characteristic images of Nature from this poem shows not the simplicity of the Greek, but the complexity of the modern, sentiment of Nature, with its concourse of metaphors and epithets. Keats produces here every effect which a forest-scene by starlight can have upon the mind: the pre-eminence of the oaks among the other trees, their aspect of human venerableness, their verdure unseen in the darkness, the sense of their stillness and suspended life, etc. palace of Hyperion
The Absence of Certain Greek Elements from His Poetry
The rooted artistic instincts of the Greeks were absent from Keats’s nature and temperament. He did not have the Greek instinct of selection and simplification, or of a rejection of all beauties except the vital and the essential. He did not have the capacity to deal with his material in such a way that the main masses might stand out unconfused, in just proportions and with outlines perfectly clear. And like his aims and his gifts, he was in his workmanship essentially romantic, Gothic, English. At the time when he wrote Endymion, he believed that poetry should surprise by a fine excess, and the manner in which Keats deals with the Greek story of Endymion, is as far from being a Greek or classical manner as possible.
Sidney Colvin’s Analysis of Keats’s Hellenism
“But though Keats sees the Greek world from afar, he sees it truly. The Greek touch is not his, but in his own rich and decorated English way he writes with a sure insight into the vital meaning of Greek ideas. For the story of the war of Titans and Olympians he had nothing to guide him except the information that he got from classical dictionaries. But as to the essential meaning of that warfare and its result, it could not possibly be understood more truly, or illustrated with more beauty and force, than by Keats in the speech of Oceanus in the Second Book. In the dethronement of an older and ruder worship by one more advanced and humane, in which idea of ethics and of arts held a larger place beside ideas of Nature and her brute powers—this idea has fully been brought out. Again, in conceiving and animating the colossal shapes of early gods, Keats shows a masterly instinct. This is clear from his choice of comparisons, drawn from the vast inarticulate sounds of Nature, by widen he seeks to make us realise their voices.