Sunday, November 28, 2010

Keats’s Sensuousness

Keats, Pre-eminently the Poet of the Senses
Sensuousness is the paramount quality of Keats’s poetical genius. Keats is pre-eminently the poet of the senses and their delights. No one has catered to and gratified the five human senses (touch, taste, smell, sight and hearing) to the same extent as Keats. He is a great lover of beauty in the concrete. His religion is the adoration of the beautiful. In this respect he is a follower of Spenser. “I have loved the principle of Beauty in all things”, he said. His Endymion begins with the famous line:

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever.
Sensuousness of the Poems in the Volume of 1817
The Sensuousness of Keats is a striking characteristic of his entire poetry. In the volume of 1817, we have an abundance of sensuous imagery. Characteristic of his temperament are the following lines in I Stood Tiptoe:
So I straightway began to pluck a posey       
                Of luxuries bright, milky soft and rosy.
We have more lines in that poem in the same strain:
A tuft of evening primroses,            
O’er which the mind may hover till it dozes;             
O’er which it well might take a pleasant sleep,           
But that’ tis ever startled by the leap             
Of buds into ripe flowers;…..          
Or by the moon lifting her silver rim           
Above a cloud, and with a gradual swim      
Coming into the blue with all her light.
In The Eve of St. Agnes, the description of the Gothic window is famous for its rich sensuous appeal. Keats describes the rich colours of the window-panes of “quaint device”, on which were “stains and splendid dyes as the tiger-moth’s deep-damask’d wing”. The reference to the music of the instruments in the same poem appeals to our sense of hearing:
The boisterous, mid-night, festive clarion, 
                The kettle-drum, and far-heard clarionet:
Again, the description of the feast arranged by Prophyro is highly sensuous:
While he from forth the closet brought a heap          
Of candied apple, quince, and plum, and gourd;       
With jellies soother than the creamy curd, 
And lucent syrops, tinct with cinnamon;    
Manna and dates,…..
The apple, quince, plum, gourd, jellies and dates make our mouths water. This passage of the spread feast of dainties is, indeed, sumptuous and inviting.
The Moonlight on Madeline’s Fair Breast
Our senses of sight and smell are also gratified when the poet describes the wintry moon throwing its light on Madeline’s fair breast and the rose-bloom falling on her hands. We have a delightful combination of colours in these lines, as in the stanza describing the Gothic window:
Full on this casement shone the wintry moon,         
                And threw warm gules on Madeline’s fair breast,      
                As down she knelt for heaven’s grace and boon;       
                Rose-bloom fell on her hands, together prest,            
                And on her silver cross soft amethyst,          
                And on her hair a glory, like a saint.
Madeline Undressing Herself
Even more sensuous is the picture of Madeline undressing herself. As Madeline removes the pearls from her hair, unclasps the jewels one by one, and loosens her fragrant bodice, she looks like a mermaid in sea-weed, and Porphyro thinks himself to be in paradise. The phrases “warmed jewels”, “fragrant bodice”, and “rich attire” are particularly noteworthy here. The stanza in which the poet describes the passionate love-making of Porphyro and Madeline, again, has a richly sensuous appeal. Porphyro is represented as “beyond a mortal man impassioned far”; he is like “a throbbing star seen mid the sapphire heaven’s deep repose”; and he melts into Madeline’s dream, as the rose blends its odour with the violet—”solution sweet”.
The Sensuous Appeal of “La Belle Dame”
The short masterpiece, La Belle Dame Sans Merci, has its own sensuous appeal. The lady is described as “full beautiful, a fairy’s child”, with long hair, light foot, and wild eyes. The knight makes “a garland for her head, and bracelets too, and fragrant zone”. She finds him roots of sweet relish, wild honey, and manna dew. And then
She took me to .her elfin grot,        
And there she wept and sigh’d full sore,      
And there I shut her wild wild eyes               
With kisses four.
Sensuous Imagery of the Great Odes
The odes, which represent the highest poetic achievement of Keats, are replete with sensuous pictures. The Ode to Psyche contains a lovely picture of Cupid and Psyche lying in an embrace in the deep grass, in the midst of flowers of varied colours:
“Mid hush’d, cool-rooted flowers, fragrant-eyed.”
The lovers lie with lips that touch not but which have not at the same time bidden farewell. We have more sensuous imagery when Keats describes the superior beauty of Psyche as compared with Venus and Vesper. Venus and Vesper are themselves described in sensuous phrases: “Phoebe’s sapphire region’d star”, and “Vesper, amorous glow-worm of the sky”. A little later in the poem we are given pictures of a forest, mountains, streams, birds, breezes, and Dryads lulled to sleep on the moss. One of the most exquisitely sensuous pictures comes at the end where we see a bright torch burning in the casement to make it possible for Cupid[1] to enter the temple in order to make love to Psyche.
A bright torch, and a casement ope at night,              
                To let the warm Love in!
In the Ode on Melancholy, again, we have several sensuous pictures. There is the rain failing from a cloud above and reviving the drooping flowers below and covering the green hill in an “April shroud”. There is the morning rose; there are the colours produced by the sunlight playing on wet sand; and there is the wealth of “globed peonies”. And then there is another exquisitely sensuous picture.
Or if thy mistress some rich anger shows,   
Emprison her soft hand, and let her rave,   
And feed deep, deep upon her peerless eyes.
The Ode on a Grecian Urn contains a series of sensuous pictures—passionate men and gods chasing reluctant maidens, the flute-players playing their ecstatic music, the fair youth trying to kiss his beloved, the happy branches of the tree enjoying an everlasting spring, etc. The ecstasy of the passion of love and of youth is beautifully depicted in the following lines:
More happy love! more happy happy love! 
For ever warm and still to be enjoy’d,          
For ever panting, and for ever young.
The Ode to a Nightingale is one of the finest examples of Keats’s rich sensuousness. The lines in which the poet expresses of passionate desire for some Provencal wine or the red wine from the fountain of the Muses appeal to both our senses of smell and taste:
O, for a draught of vintage! that hath been 
                Cool’d a long age in the deep-delved earth,
                Tasting of Flora and the country green,      
                Dance, and Provencal song, and sunburnt mirth!    
                O for a beaker full of the warm South,          
                Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene…….
These lines bring before us a delightful picture of Provence with its fun and frolic, merry-making, drinking and dancing. Similarly the beaker full of the sparkling, blushful Hippocrene is highly pleasing. Then there is the magnificent picture of the moon shining in the sky and surrounded by stars. The rich feast of flowers described in the stanza that follows is one of the outstanding beauties of the poem. Flowers, soft incense, the fruit trees, the white hawthorn, the eglantine, the fast-fading violets, the coming musk-rose—all this is a delight for our senses.
In the Ode to Fancy, we have a series of pictures which please our senses. The fruits of autumn, buds and bells of May, the sweet singing of the birds, the various flowers—the daisy, the marigold, the lily, the primrose-are a kind of feast which we enjoy as we go through the poem.
In the Ode to Autumn, the bounty of the season has been described with all its sensuous appeal. The whole landscape is made to appear fresh and scented. There is great concentration in each line of the opening stanza. Each line is like the branch of a fruit tree laden with fruit to the breaking point. The vines suggesting grapes, the apples, the gourds, the hazels with their sweet kernel, the bees suggesting honey—all these appeal to our senses of taste and smell.
Sensuality Rather Than Sensuousness in Some of the Poems
Thus Keats always selects the objects of his description and imagery with a keen eye on their sensuous appeal. This sensuousness is the principal charm of his poetry. Sometimes this sensuousness deteriorates into sensuality. In other words, Keats often shows a tendency to dwell too much upon the charms of the feminine body and refers to the lips, checks, and breasts a little more than is necessary. In Sleep and Poetry, he describes that stage in his poetic career when he will catch the beautiful nymphs in shady places and make love to them:
Catch the white-handed nymphs in shady places,    
                To woo sweet kisses from averted faces,—  
                Play with their fingers, touch their shoulders white  Into a pretty shrinking with a bite 
                As hard as lips can make it.
In the Ode to Fancy, he gives us a picture of Hebe whose skirt falls to, the ground and on seeing whose naked beauty Jove is filled with passion:
With a waist and with a side           
                White as Hebe’s, when her zone   
                Slipt its golden clasp, and down     
                Fell her kirtle to her feet,
                While she held the goblet sweet,   
                And Jove grew languid.
In The Eve of St. Agnes, Porphyro almost swoons with passion. When he melts into the dream of Madeline, there is “solution sweet”. This phrase is generally taken to mean the sexual love-making of Porphyro and Madeline.
Sensuousness in the Sonnets
In a sonnet, I Cry Your Mercy, Keats, addressing a sweet-heart, says that he would like to possess her wholly and completely:
O! let me have thee whole, all, all be mine!        
That shape, that fairness, that sweet minor zest 
Of love, your kiss; those hands, those eyes divine,            
That warm, white, lucent, million-pleasured breast:
In another sonnet, he expresses a desire to spend his life with his head resting upon the bosom of his beloved:
Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast,             
To feel for ever its soft swell and fall,           
And so live ever—or else swoon to death.
Thus sometimes Keats’s imagination runs riot.

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