Keats’s Inner Conflicts Expressed in His Odes
The Odes of Keats deal basically with some of the conflicts that troubled Keats. These conflicts give to his odes a dramatic quality. The principal conflict, of course, is between the real world and the ideal world. Keats is always trying to escape to the world of imagination, the world of beauty, the world of perfection, such as, the world of the nightingale or the Grecian urn. But his escape is always obstructed or thwarted by a painful realisation of the actualities of life. Almost each of the great odes of Keats reveals this conflict in one form or the other.
Keats’s Glorification of the Imagination in the “Ode to Psyche”
The Ode to Psyche may be considered first. Psyche symbolises for Keats the soul in the old sense of the word: the sum-total of human consciousness. For Keats a most important ingredient of that consciousness was the imagination. In promising to worship Psyche, he was announcing his intention of glorifying the imagination but at the same time his intention of becoming a psychological poet and of analysing the human mind in order to show how an awareness of its complexity could enrich human experience. Keats chose Psyche as his object of worship, because for him the best means of approaching the immortal world was through the use of the most active component of the human soul, namely, the imagination. A man might still employ the imagination to break through the bonds of the mortal and the finite. Psyche was an excellent symbol for the imagination as an instrument to bridge the gap between the mortal and the immortal because she stood between both: she had been a mortal and she then became a goddess. Thus there is a duality in Keats’s very concept of Psyche. In the last stanza, the poet declares that the paradise for the soul is to be built by the imagination within the poet’s own consciousness. The temple to Psyche will be built in “some untrodden region” of Keats’s mind. To build Psyche’s temple is to widen the consciousness. But the increase in consciousness carries with it the dual capacity for pleasure and for pain.
The Central Idea of the “Ode to a Nightingale”
The Ode to a Nightingale has as one of its central ideas, the contrast between the happiness and immortality of the bird and the misery and mortality of human life. Through wine or through the exercise of his imagination, the poet would like to escape from the world of reality. He would like to “fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget the weariness, the fever, and the fret”. He would like to leave this world “where men sit and hear each other groan”, “where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hair”, “where youth grows pale, spectre-thin, and dies”, where beauty and love are fleeting and transient, and “where but to think is to be full of sorrow”. Accordingly, the poet is carried into the forest on the wings of Poesy and in the midst of the flowers and under the moon he listens to the nightingale’s song and thinks of the bird’s immortality:
Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!
No hungry generations tread thee down.
No hungry generations tread thee down.
The use of the word “forlorn”, however, summons him back from the world of beauty and romance to the everyday world. The poet discovers that his imagination cannot provide him with a lasting escape from the actual world. The conflict introduces several tensions in the poem, making it highly dramatic. The desire to escape to a world of eternal beauty and joy ends in failure.
The Idea of the Immortality of Art in the “Grecian Urn”
The Ode on a Grecian Urn also begins with a symbol, in this case an inanimate object, namely the urn which-has survived through many centuries and which therefore represents the immortality of art. On the urn are depicted young people in a moment of sensuous ecstasy, men pursuing women amid the music of pipes and timbrels; and there is the repeated question: Are they deities or mortals, men or gods? But the question shifts to the central contrast between the unending happiness arrested in art and the brevity of happiness in mortal life. This contrast is developed in the second and third stanzas. To the crowded scene of amorous pursuit (in the first stanza), is now added the piper beneath the trees, and in both stanzas the happiness of the piper and the leafy trees is perfect: the piper on the urn will pipe songs for ever new without feeling tired, and the trees on the urn will never shed their leaves. But the theme of love brings in frustration and negation. The poet thinks first of the perpetual non-fulfilment of love on the urn: “Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss”, although there is the consolation that the beloved cannot fade and that he will love her always: “For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair”. Love depicted on the urn has an ideal quality: it has all the joy and none of the suffering that goes with actual human passion and satiety. Thus the first three stanzas interpret the scenes on the urn in terms of the contrast between its happy and permanent world and the human world of mortality, change, and suffering. But the poet finds refuge in the world of beauty and imagination (as represented by the urn) only temporarily. In the fourth stanza, he realises that the little town depicted on the urn will always remain empty and silent. Thus the eternity of joy and beauty (of the town on the urn) becomes an eternity of silence and desolation. The illusion created by the imagination fails, as it fails, in the Ode to a Nightingale. The message of the final stanza is that beauty is the criterion and proof of truth and that truth is the criterion and proof of beauty. (‘Truth” should here be interpreted as “reality”). Thus Keats, after escaping into the world of beauty and permanence, finds himself compelled to return to the real world of impermanence and suffering and to reach the conclusion that true beauty consists not in an escape from this world but in an acceptance of it. This ode certainly celebrates the immortal beauty of art as contrasted with the fleeting human life and love. But the poet cannot forget that a flesh-and-blood experience, with all its pains, is more satisfying than the cold, remote perfection of the marble urn.
The World of Realities as Depicted in the “Ode on Melancholy”
The Ode on Melancholy is not a poem of escape. Here the poet concentrates on the world of realities. The poem offers a paradox. True melancholy, we are told, is to be found in everything that is beautiful and joyful:
She dwells with Beauty, Beauty that must die;
And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips
And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips
But the paradox is easily resolved. True melancholy lives with beauty and joy, because in the very act of our apprehending beauty and joy, we realise that both beauty and joy are short-lived, and because such a realisation produces the truest sadness in our hearts. The poem thus expresses Keats’s experience of the habitual interchange and alternation of the emotions of joy and pain. In this poem Keats is unable to escape into any ideal world. The haunting thought of the transitoriness of beauty and joy makes any flight to remote ideal world impossible.
No Escape from Reality Even in the “Ode to Autumn”
To Autumn may at first seem a poem of untroubled serenity. It seems to be an unquestioning surrender to sensuous luxury. But that is not so. The first two stanzas build up, or seem to build up, a wholly happy picture of warmth and bursting ripeness in everything, of vines and trees and fruits and nuts and bees. But there is, even in these stanzas, the overshadowing fact of impermanence. The summer has done its work and is departing; and if autumn comes, winter cannot be far behind. Indeed, we cannot escape the melancholy implications of exuberant ripeness. In the final stanza, the poet describes the music of autumn against the songs of spring and we have, though in a subdued form, the return from vision to actuality. (It is the kind of return which we find in the concluding stanza of the Nightingale ode.) Whereas in the first stanza fruits as well as bees seemed almost conscious of fulfilment, in the last stanza every item carries an elegiac note. In To Autumn, Keats does not evade or challenge actuality; he achieves the power to see and accept life as it is, a perpetual process of ripening, decay, and death.
Q.5. What are the qualities of Keats’s poetry that account for its continued appeal to the modern reader?
The Essential Keats
The story of Keats is the story of a poet’s rise from the status of a very minor writer, in orthodox circles, a despised minor writer, to a major rank. It did seem at first as if Keats’s name had been “writ in water”. One reason for this was that his best poetry required more sophisticated taste and insight than most early readers possessed. Roughly, it may be said that, during the first decades after 1821, his general reputation grew very slowly, but that it did grow. But Milnes’s Life Letters and Literary Remains (1848) changed the climate, though even Milnes said that Keats would never be a popular poet, because he could be enjoyed only by the few who possessed the poetic faculty. Milnes’s biography of Keats expressly rejected the common image of Keats as a sensuous or sensual weakling who was killed by hostile reviews. This biography did much to establish Keats’s real character and literary stature. Matthew Arnold, in an essay (1880), strongly emphasised Keats’s strength of character, the “flint and iron” in him, as well as his Shakespearean gift of “natural magic” and “rounded perfection and felicity of loneliness”.
also wrote that, although Keats was not ripe for Shakespeare’s “faculty of moral interpretation”, his passion for beauty was not that of “the sensuous or sentimental poet” but that it was “an intellectual and spiritual passion”. Arnold
Keats’s Poetry, Not Divorced from the Cares of Life
It is this picture of Keats, as defined by Matthew Arnold, that appeals to the modern mind. Cazamian, for instance, has pointed out that 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. Keats’s letters show how closely the cult of Shakespeare was interwoven with his thinking. From various sources, besides that of life, Keats had built for himself a personal store of reflections and ideas. It was not Keats’s aim, says Sidney Colvin, merely to create a paradise of an and beauty divorced from the cares and interests of the world. His conception of poetry covered the whole range of life and imagination. It is true that, because he did not live long enough, he was not able fully to illustrate the vast range of his conception of poetry. But his best work has the stamp of poetic greatness. In the modern age the view of Keats as wholly or mainly a poet of the senses has had few champions (H.W. Garrod being one). The modern view of Keats is overwhelmingly that of a poet of philosophic reach and depth. (It is a view to which his letters have also contributed much.) This view was first fully expounded in C.D. Thorpe’s book, The Mind of John Keats (1926), and supported by the successive writings of John Middleton Murry. During the last fifty years, the scope and seriousness, the dimensions and tensions of Keats’s mind and major poems have thoroughly been appreciated. Indeed, the temptation of the modern critic has been to confuse the actual performance of Keats with what he was potentially capable of. It would not be unfair to say that Keats’s chief poems and letters have been assimilated by all serious modern poets. (One eloquent testimony is the final discourse in Archibald MacLeish’s Poetry and Experience, 1961). His influence may be traced by conventional literary techniques through a line of poets, from G.M. Hopkins through W.B. Yeats and T.S. Eliot to the American, Wallace Stevens, much of whose fine poetry seems like an attempt to develop some of Keats’s intentions, moral, and poetic, to their further limits.
The First Truly Modern Poet, Besides Wordsworth
Shakespeare’s name occurs time and again in talk about Keats. Of course, Keats is not as great as Shakespeare, nor as great as many other English poets. But he has, to a remarkable degree, that same power of self-absorption, that wonderful sympathy and identification with all things, that “Negative Capability” which he saw as essential to the creation of great poetry and which Shakespeare possessed so abundantly. Keats’s tremendous value for literary and moral experience in the modern time is the example he sets, the allegory he is. Here, he says to us, is a way of learning to face life, and to create art. In this brave attitude, he is with Wordsworth the first truly modern poet.
The Core of Keats’s Work and its Intellectual Appeal
The portion of Keats’s work that has its appeal and value for modern readers consists of the original version of Hyperion, La Belle Dame Sans Merci, some of the sonnets and, above all, the odes. Here we find no superfluities, no surplusage, no decorativeness for its own sake, no swooning sensuousness or sensuality. This work is characterised by 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 found in romanticism. Keats brings here a strong force of selection, order, and harmony to bear on an unlimited range of intensely felt sensations and emotions. And this accounts for the appeal of this body of work for our times.
The Symbolic Elements in Keats’s Poetry
Symbolism has been much valued in the modern age. There is symbolism in much of Keats’s poetry. Even Endymion has an allegorical and mystical significance. Hyperion symbolically conveys to us the idea of evolutionary development, the supersession of what has become obsolete and useless by new knowledge and new modes of life. The nightingale and the Grecian urn serve as valuable symbols for Keats. La Belle Dame Sans Merci, a masterpiece of sheer “magic” and a precious poem by virtue of that alone, is also capable of an allegorical interpretation.
Shakespearean Heights Touched by Keats in His Odes
But it, is the Odes which mark the highest development of Keats’s poetic genius and give promise of the Shakespearean heights that might have been achieved by our poet had he lived longer.
A Central Theme of Modern Poetry, Also the Basic Themes of Keats’s Odes
The basic theme of the great Odes of Keats is a central theme of modern poetry. This theme is the tension between our painful sense of transience and our intuitions of the eternal, or the relationship between the pain of life and the delight of poetry, or the relationship between life, art and death. Yeats’s Sailing to Byzantium and ByzatJium, for instance, can be read as modern variations on the themes of Keats’s odes and, though these poems by Yeats are great, they are not greater than Keats’s odes. The odes are also modern, as has already been said above, in being symbolic poems: they show, rather than say. They are modern in finding “objective correlatives” for intimate and painful states of personal feeling. We get away in them from the too “personal touch”, that faintly cloying note which flaws so much of Keats’s other work.
The Construction and Structure of Keats’s Odes
The Odes of Keats are constructed with harmonious skill. They deal with the favourite themes in Keats’s romanticism—the artistic quality of a Greek urn which gives us the message that beauty and truth are one, the charming myths of Hellas (Ode to Psyche), the painful craving of the soul to find a beauty which endures and the fascination of death (Ode To a Nightingale), the changing seasons and the joys of the earth (To Autumn). 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 impression. That exactly is the taste of the modern literary reader who demands an intellectual discipline but is not averse to a highly imaginative handling of a theme or an emotional treatment of it.
The Notable Sonnets of Keats
Among the sonnets the most notable are On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer, When I Have Fears That I May Cease To Be, and Bright Star, Would I Were Steadfast As Thou Art. The first of these is an expression of the ecstatic joy and wonder at the opening out of a new, rich world of beauty and poetic experience of Keats.
A Critic’s View of Keats’s Modernity
Douglas Bush looks upon Keats as almost a contemporary poet. Keats’s Shakespearean or humanitarian ambition, 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)—these are the factors which make Keats more a poet of our times than a poet of his own age. His romantic preoccupation with beauty did somewhat limit and weaken his poetry, but his finest writing is not merely beautiful. His finest work is solid and weighty and significant because he had seen not only the glory of his universe but also “the boredom and the horror” of human life.
Another Critic’s View
We might conclude by quoting the opinion of another critic (Bernard Blackstone): “No other verse, outside Shakespeare and Blake, rewards minute scrutiny as Keats’s. Its texture is truly organic, we can put it under the microscope, and it doesn’t degenerate into a blur of dots like a photographic reproduction, it opens out into new patterns like a piece of living tissue. It is full poetry.” This richness, this complexity and depth, this “ore” cannot fail to appeal to the thoughtful modern reader.