Sunday, November 28, 2010

Keats’s Development as a Poet

The Flaws in His Apprentice Work
Keats was not only a deeply thoughtful poet he was also the most studious and inspired artist among the romantics. He took a long time to work free of both his own erratic taste and bad influences, and even his mature poems were not always flawless. The massive sonnet on Chapman’s Homer, the spontaneous product of an exciting experience, stands out from a great deal of poor apprentice work. And in the longer poems up through Isabella, momentary felicities stand out from, thin, wayward, and often meretricious lushness and a general lack of style and form. Hyperion (1818-19) was the first long poem in which, with no fumbling or bathos, Keats displayed sure taste and sustained control—and not only that but a majesty of style and movement that even the hostile Byron pronounced as sublime.

The Mature Work
The first mature poem in his natural manner was The Eve of St. Agnes. Keats’s minute revisions in this and the first Hyperion, and in other works, provide an education in poetry. They show him replacing relatively flat or feeble words with suggestive and forcible ones, especially in the way of epithets and verbs, in general obtaining heightened intensity, and accomplishing parallel effects in rhythm. The Ode to a Nightingale was an astonishing extempore production, though the complex stanzas of this and the other odes apparently grew out of Keats’s prolonged experiment with the sonnet and his recent use of the Spenserian stanza in The Eve of St. Agnes. While he returned in Lamia (1819) to the long narrative, he wrote, not with the straggling looseness and prodigality of Endymion, but in the strong, compact, forward-moving couplets of Dryden’s Fables; here Keats’s technical and verbal brilliance seems to cover an uncertain attitude towards his theme. In his valediction, To Autumn (1819), the least ambitious and most perfect of the great odes, poetry comes as naturally as the leaves to a tree, and surprises by a fine excess.—(Douglas Bush)
A Conscious Artist
Keats was a conscious artist, anxious to load his poetry as fully as possible with its own special kind of excellence. We see the result of it in the devoted critical care he gives to his own poetical development, the constant effort to correct faults in technique and emotional tone, to abandon harmful models and choose better ones, above all to think out the essentials of his own kind of poetry to the exclusion of everything else.
The Stages of His Development as a Poet
During his short career, Keats’s work is always changing and developing. At his death he seems to have been on the edge of a further stage of growth. We feel of him that there was much to come that would have been new and different. The relation of art, his own kind of art, to human life as a whole, was a question that perplexed him from the beginning.
The Volume of 1820, and His Ripe Work in it
In the volume of 1820, all his perfect work appeared. His mind ripened early, and his work shows an extraordinary advance in both creative and critical power. Endymion, in which Endymion’s pursuit of Diana typifies the poet’s pursuit of beauty, is weak, diffuse, and full of mere prettinesses of diction. Lamia, the tale of a youth who marries a serpent in the guise of a beautiful woman, and Isabella, show the growth of human feeling and artistic restraint. Hyperion, a Greek fragment, is a triumph of Miltonic severity. In The Eve of St. Agnes, and still more in the six great odes and the pick of the sonnets, Keats reaches the height and ideal of his art, and founds the Tennysonian school of flawless workmanship which was to influence much of the best verse of the nineteenth century.
His Earlier Volume of Poems (1817)
His early work is immature and experimental. “His genius was ripening steadily at the time of his premature death, and we can measure his moral and spiritual as well as his artistic growth during the few years of his manhood by comparing his first little volume of verse published in 1817, or Endymion which appeared the next year, with the contents of his third and last volume—the volume of 1819—and especially with the great odes: To Autumn, To a Nightingale, and On a Grecian Urn. But, even as it is, his place is assured as Shelley prophesied, ‘with the enduring dead’.”
His Precocious Maturity
This is how Cazamian describes Keats’s poetic development: The work of Keats bears the mark of a miraculous youth, cut short by death just when it had attained a precocious maturity. He lived a little longer than twenty-five years, and he passed with surprisingly rapid progress from early efforts full of promise to masterpieces. His speedy development as a poet is, indeed, one of the most wonderful phenomena in the history of English poetry.
The Flaws of the Poem “Endymion”
In the beginning he had nearly all the defects of his qualities. Endymion has admirable passages, but it represents the error of an undisciplined genius. The poet is here dazzled by his own ardour. As a result, his attention is diffused over mere details, and he shows no sense of an organised whole. The contours of the landscape, as those of the action, are confused and blurred. The poet’s overwealthy imagination multiplies the descriptive features. The language is often artificial, loaded with elaborate ornaments, with rare, archaic, or affected, epithets. The poem is at the same time characterised by over-refinement, profusion, the strain of an ever-present intensity, and somewhat of morbidness. One feels in it an uncertain taste, and the effort of a literary endeavour heroically carried through against an inspiration that is at times rebellious. On the whole, the poem is tiring and disappointing, and yet there radiates out from it a youthful enthusiasm so genuine and contagious as to leave a lasting impression upon the reader.
Everything Not on the Same Level in His Masterpieces
This exuberance, however, is of short duration, and the uncertainty of the poet in his art soon gives place to the confidence of self-mastery. There is certainly a transition from the immaturities of Endymion to the ripeness of poetic powers in the poet’s best work. Lamia, for example, is not free from the failings which marked the first manner. Again, among the masterpieces, everything is not on the same level. The delightful story of The Eve of St. Agnes is too ornate, and somewhat decadent in style. In the pathos of Isabella, all the notes are not of equal sureness, and elements of too great a diversity are unsatisfactorily blended.
His Best Work as a Poet
The best work of Keats is to be found in the original version of Hyperion, the Odes, La Belle Dame Sans Merci, and the most beautiful of the sonnets. Here we find a perfect fusion of sobriety with the force of touch and the wealth of expression. Here we find a rare union of classical discipline, guided by the example of the ancients, with the more precious matter which Keats finds in romanticism. This work has all the positive substance of which English poetry had long since been emptied by a school of correctness based upon reason. Keats brings here a strong force of selection, order and harmony to bear on an unlimited range of intensely felt sensations and emotions. Nothing could be more truly romantic than this work, nor could the very figure of antiquity be animated with more concrete life.
The Poem “Hyperion”
Hyperion is an epic poem which challenges comparison with Milton. It set out to relate the celestial revolutions of pagan mythology, as did Milton the Christian cycle of a Paradise Lost and Regained. Though incomplete, the poem is already arresting by the vastness of conception which it promises, and by its visions of a gigantic and primitive world. This poem stands out in wondrous majesty.
The Themes and the Style of His Great Odes
The Odes of Keats are constructed with harmonious skill. These poems deal with the favourite themes in Keats’s romanticism—the sculptural beauty and grace of a Greek urn, the charming myths of Hellas, the changing seasons and the joys of the earth, the painful craving of the soul to find a beauty which endures, the fascination of death and the bitter-sweet voluptuousness with which the poet meditates upon it. Everything here co­operates to enchant a sensual and dreamy contemplation—the outlines, the colour, the emotion and the melody. The tone is smooth and yet free from any excess of softness or ease; indeed it is constantly relieved by notes of vigour. Each epithet is extra-ordinarily rich in suggestion. Each image opens up to our view a far-reaching perception. The language in these poems sparkles with all the gems of speech, without their brilliance predominating over the conciseness and exactness of the whole. The rhythms are perfectly adapted to the supreme unity of an impression.
Arthur Compton-Rickett’s View of His Poems
Arthur Compton-Rickett thus puts the case of Keats’s development: There is, in his early work, an extravagance of speech and excess of emotion. Calidore, Sleep and Poetry, and even Endymion, are overcharged with Spenserian imagery, and Elizabethan conceits. But even in his early experiments there is an individual note. In / Stood Tiptoe, there tie touches that no other poet than Keats could have given us:
A little noiseless noise among the leaves.    
                Born of the very sigh that silence heaves.
Sleep and Poetry is faulty in execution, but the point of view of the young Keats is unmistakable:
Beauty was awake:             
Why were ye not awake?
We cannot ignore in his early efforts the ornate extravagance, the abuse of double rhymes, the faulty emphasis, the ugly vulgarities, the stammerings of a great poet. But the soul of a poet is already there. Surely, we can expect splendid things from a youth of nineteen who could write On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer.
There is the glorious promise and immature fulfilment of Endymion. The old myth is, no doubt, indifferently told, and much of the descriptive writing is weak and diffuse. But there are songs by the way which no lover of poetry would forego—the lovely “roundelay” to Sorrow, and the splendid Bacchanalian Ode.
No one could strike the note of “fine excess” more triumphantly than Keats. Yet in his most perfect work, in the Odes, La Belle Dame Sans Merci, and The Eve of St. Mark, he shows that the greatness of Poetry depends no less on the fine restraint. It is the lack of this restraint that troubles us in the rarely imaginative version of the Italian tale, Isabella; in the glowing diction of Lamia; in the tapestried beauty of The Eve of St. Agnes.
Of these, perhaps, Isabella, despite its morbid sensibility, alone achieves its purpose. Lamia certainly fails to grip the imagination in the way intended. The atmosphere of mystery has imperfectly been realised here. The Eve of St. Agnes is a piece of richly decorative verse, and is pleasant enough with its “lucent syrops, tinct with cinnamon”. But the “lucent syrops” are too generously supplied, and there are times in the poem when we would gladly welcome the romantic vigour and directness of Scott to give life and zest to the story.
In these poems, medievalism serves as the inspiration, and though it gave him ample opportunities for the richness of colouring that was at once his merit and his failing, it did not appeal to the strongest side of his nature.
The Incomplete Poem “The Eve of St Mark”
The Eve of St. Mark is incomplete. We have here only the Prologue to the poem, and the subject of the poem is not reached. But the scene is set consummately, and the atmosphere is suggested most successfully—the quaint old-world town with its leisurely quietude; the girl brooding intently on the legend, half-fascinated, half-afraid; the chilly sunset tremulous with premonition. The picture is perfectly visualised, and the details make the whole thing amazingly actual. The restraint, the balance, the simplicity, the ease, are beyond praise; with rare economy of effort, the poet arrests the reader and makes him feel the impending tragedy.
The Odes
In the Odes, Keats gives us most of his inmost self, and he does so with the sure hand of a great artist. Not all the odes stand on an equal footing. The Odes to Indolence faithfully depicts a passing mood, but it has no high beauty to recommend it. The Ode to Psyche which deals with mythological lovers shows too clearly the too-mark of the craftsman. But the Ode to a Nightingale, the Ode on a Grecian Urn, the Ode on Melancholy, and the Ode to Autumn are among the mightiest of achievements of English poetry. The note of sadness sounds through them all; and the vivid joy of the perceptive life, the ideal permanence of art, the glamour of romance, the benison of Nature’s varying moods, are contrasted with the mutability of life and the short duration of pleasure.
The “Ode to a Nightingale”
“The Ode to a Nightingale, embodying the very spirit of old romance, is the most voluptuous and passionate in its emotion. At points the emotion threatens to overpower the writer, and a hysterical euphuism here and there jars on the reader. But for the most part the passion, for all its intensity, is focussed and controlled, as for instance, in such inspired felicities as
…..magic casements, opening on the foam 
                Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn:
in the lovely image of Ruth
... when, sick for home,    
                She stood in tears amid the alien corn:
and above all, in the wistful beauty of the stanza where the poet cries out to
Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget, etc. etc.
Passages such as these are among his choicest and best.”
The View Expressed by H.W. Garrod
H.W. Garrod says: “The whole of Keats’s work, be it remembered, was done in a space of less than four years, the best of it within the limit of a single year. At all points the rapidity of his development is amazing. He ends, save for the Odes, still a conscious imitator of the manner of other poets. That he could never have rested there, the Odes make certain. Inevitably, in some other species, he must have found, before long, a manner as individual as that which he has attained in the Odes. That he could have carried this individual manner to success in compositions of a large compass in the narrative or heroic species, I do not feel certain.”

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