Sunday, November 28, 2010

“Keats as a poet is abundantly and enchantingly sensuous; the question with some people will be whether he is anything else.” Discuss.

Keats’s Love of Beauty in Nature, in Woman, in Art
There is no doubt that Keats was a passionate lover of beauty, beauty in all its forms, shapes, and manifestations. He loved the principle of beauty in all things. Beauty, indeed, was his polestar, beauty in Nature, in woman, and in art. “A thing of beauty is a joy for ever”, he writes, and again: “With a great poet the sense of beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all considerations”.

The Sensuousness Resulting From His Love of Beauty
It is this love of beauty which introduces the element of sensuousness in his poetry. His poetry is richly, abundantly, and enchantingly sensuous. This is true especially of his early poetry till the time of the writing of Hyperion and the great odes, but even the odes contain ample sensuous imagery. However, it will be wrong to say that Keats is merely sensuous and nothing more. It would be incorrect to say that he luxuriates in the expression of sensations only and has no thoughts to express. It would be unfair to say that his passion for beauty is purely sensuous or sentimental, without an intellectual or spiritual basis.
Sensuous Imagery in “The Eve of St. Agnes”
Let us first take stock of the sensuous element in some of his major poems. The Eve of St. Agnes is replete with sensuous pictures. The description of the feast spread by Porphyro by the side of his sleeping mistress is richly sensuous. Candied apple quince, plum, jelly, manna, dates, appeal to our senses of taste, smell, and Sight not only by their own natural richness but the associations of the distant countries from which they come. The picture of the windowpane with its splendid colours is perfect in its beauty of visual appeal. Even more sensuous are the pictures of the moonlight falling on Madeline’s fair breast and on other parts of her glorious body. As Madeline removes the pearls from her hair, “unclasps the jewels” one by one, and “loosens her bodice”, she looks like “a mermaid in seaweed”. The stanza in which the poet describes the passionate love-making of Porphyro and Madeline in the bed-chamber has a richly sensuous appeal. Here sensuousness takes the form of sensuality which we find in certain other poems also (for instance, in Endymion, and in the sonnet Bright Star). It is passages like these that gave rise to the notion of Keats as a poet of sensuous luxury and as a voluptuary of sensation.
Sensuousness in the “Ode to Psyche”
In the Ode to Psyche, we have the picture of Cupid and Psyche lying in an embrace in deep grass in the midst of flowers of varied colours. Besides this touch of sensuality, we get one of the most exquisite pictures in the following two lines with their admirable felicity of word and phrase:
Mid hush’d, cool-rooted flowers fragrant-eyed,          
Blue, silver-white, and budded Tyrian         
Sensuous Pictures in the “Ode on a Grecian Urn”
The sensuous appeal of this ode is one of its principal charms. In the Ode on a Grecian Urn, we have the sensuous pictures of passionate men and gods chasing maidens, flute-players playing ecstatic music, a handsome young man advancing to kiss his beloved, and so on. The ecstasy of the sensations of youthful love is depicted in the following lines:
More happy love! more happy, happy love!
For ever warm and still to be enjoyed          
For ever panting and for ever young.
Sensuous Pictures in the Other Odes
The Ode to a Nightingale contains lines expressing an intense desire for a red wine, lines containing a magnificent picture of the moon shining in the sky with the stars around her, and lines offering a rich feast of flowers:
White hawthorn, and the pastoral eglantine;             
Fast-fading violets covered up in leaves;     
And mid-May’s eldest child,           
The coming musk-rose, full of dewy wine.
In the Ode on Melancholy, we have a delightfully sensuous picture of the mistress showing “some rich anger” and raving, while the lover holds her hand in his tight grip and feeds deep upon her peerless eyes. The Ode to Autumn, makes our mouths water with its delicious fruits in the first stanza.
The Intellectual Side of Keats’s Aestheticism
Critics and readers have, however, not been slow to recognise the substantiality and the depth of the major poems of Keats. Cazamian has pointed out mat the aestheticism of Keats has also an intellectual side. No one has ever reaped such a rich harvest of thoughts out of the suggestions which life had to offer. Through reading and a thirst for knowledge, Keats became acquinted with Greece, paganism, and ancient art. He read the writers of the Renaissance, loved and cultivated Spenser, Chapman, Fletcher, and Milton. His letters show how closely the cult of Shakespeare was interwoven with his thinking. From all these element Keats built for himself a personal store of reflections and ideas. Keats’s love of beauty is sensuous but it is also idealistic and spiritual. Even in Endymion, there is a nc4e of mysticism, a sustained allegory; some of its passages have an obvious symbolic meaning. Endymion’s union with Cynthia represents the poet’s attainment of the goal of ideal beauty. Furthermore, Keats did not try to create a paradise of art and beauty divorced from the cares and interests of the world. His conception of poetry covered the whole range of life and imagination.
The Human Appeal of “The Eve of St Agnes”
The Eve of St. Agnes, famous chiefly for its aesthetic qualities, is not without its human appeal. The figure of the ancient Beadsman is finely touched. The old nurse Angela, a “poor, weak, palsy-stricken, churchyard thing”, is still more successfully drawn. Her debate with Porphyro in her little room is admirably conveyed to us. Madeline, too, is realistically, though briefly, drawn whether in her meeting with the nurse on the staircase or when she closes her chamber-door, “panting” with the candle gone out, or when she wakes up to find her lover beside her.
The Intellectual Aspect of “Hyperion”
Hyperion was intended to be a poem of evolution. It aimed at expressing the valuable and incontrovertible idea that lower forms of life are superseded by higher ones. The subject of this poem is the dethronement of an older and ruder worship by one more advanced and humane, in which ideas of ethics and of arts hold a larger place beside ideas of Nature and her brute powers. In the revised version of this poem, there are lines which show Keats’s realisation that poetry must have a realistic and social context:
“None can usurp this height”, returned that shade,  
“But those to whom the miseries of the world           
Are misery, and will not let them rest.”
Almost from the beginning, Keats had looked beyond the mere sweets of poetry towards
a nobler life         
Where I may find the agonies, the strife      
Of human hearts.
The Kernel of Keats’s Thinking in the Great Odes of Keats
The great odes contain the kernel of Keats’s thinking. These odes clearly show that if there is in his work a pre-occupation with sensuous beauty, there is also a preoccupation with stark reality. In fact, the greatest of these odes represent the conflict that was, always going on in Keats between the world of beauty and the world of realty. If he tries to escape into the world of beauty and reality, it is only to realise that the claims of real life are so strong, as to hinder the escape. In the Ode to a Nightingale, the poet is keenly aware of “the weariness, the fever, and the fret” or real life where youth, hearty, and love are short-lived. In the Ode on a Grecian Urn, the poet cannot ignore the warmth, passion, vigour, and the turbulence of real life as compared with the artistic carvings on the urn. The superiority of art over real life is therefore questionable. The conclusion of the poet is that “beauty is truth, truth beauty”. In other words, beauty lies in the real world of men, not merely in art or in the fairyland of fancy. (Of course there are also other interpretations of this famous line.) In the Ode on Melancholy, the theme of transiency and permanence and the poet’s conflicting attitudes are open and central. True melancholy, says the poet, can be tasted only by him who has a capacity for experiencing the keenest pleasures. Like the rest of Keats’s odes, this poem is tragic: ‘True melancholy is the ache at the heart of felicity”. In the Ode to Autumn, Keats again accepts impermanence, but here he does so without any sadness. Death is recognised in the final stanza of this poem as something inherent in the course of things, the condition and price of all fulfilment.
A Combination of the Aesthetic and the Intellectual Sides
A critic has neatly summed up Keats’s poetic achievement. This summing up takes note of both the aesthetic and the intellectual aspects of his poetry. Says this critic: “Keats’s Shakespearean or, humanitarian ambitions, his critical and self-critical insights, his acute awareness of the conditions enveloping the modern poet, his struggles toward a vision that would comprehend all experience, joy and suffering, the natural and the ideal, the transient and the eternal—all this made him capable of greater poetry than he actually wrote, and makes him, more than his fellow romantics, our contemporary. Though his poetry in general was is some measure limited and even weakened by the romantic preoccupation with beauty, his finest writing is not merely beautiful, because he had seen the boredom and the horror as well as the glory.”

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