The Chronology of Keats’s Odes
It is generally believed that the Ode on Indolence was chronologically the first among the great Odes of Keats. The germ of this ode is to be found in one of his letters that he had written a month or two earlier, a letter in which he had said that neither Poetry nor Ambition nor Love had much meaning for him, thus giving expression to the mood which forms the basis of the Ode on Indolence. Keats excluded this ode from the 1820 volume perhaps because it is less highly wrought than the others. This ode combines a praise of indolence with a rejection of Poetry, Ambition, and Love though this rejection is expressed satirically:
For I would not be dieted with praise,
A pet-lamb in a sentimental farce.
A pet-lamb in a sentimental farce.
Several turns of phrase or thought in this ode re-appear in the others. Of these, the drowsy indolence is one; so is the idea that ambition is worthless. The indolent mood which is the source of this poem and which somehow mingles sleeping and waking, is not lethary but in some sense a visionary state. On Indolence seems at first to reject poetry, but it is really a poem about the mood from which Keats’s poetry at that time sprang. In the weeks before the writing of the odes, Keats was gradually realising the creative function of indolence. He was anxious to achieve a state of non-attachment, and he was filled with a desire to find a meaning in human suffering so that not only his own but other people’s suffering could in some way be justified. He was torn between his continuing passion for Fancy Brawne and a wish to escape from the nets of ambition and love.
The Similarities Between Some of the Odes
The Ode to Psyche clarifies the situation. Keats’s mood here is much like the mood of On Indolence: “Surely I dreamt today…..” Here is the same inertia and oblivion, and a mixture of sleeping and waking. When he finds Cupid and Psyche in “soft-handed slumber” together, it is almost like his own condition in On Indolence; and the interaction between Keats’s own emotions, and the emotions of the subject he is dealing with, will prove later to be an important aspect of the Ode to a Nightingale. As the poem proceeds, drowsy numbness is raised to a higher power of itself: “I see, and sing, by my own eyes inspired”. Keats desires to serve Psyche in a mood whose expression is more complex, more impassioned, and indeed more intellectual, than anything in the Ode on Indolence. His mood tends towards activity; is a balanced tension of excitement; and here it has something of an intellectual insight, a fuller understanding. The stress falls largely on the melancholic aspects of Psyche, the love-goddess. (She is called “mournful Psyche” in the Ode on Melancholy.)
The Nightingale Ode, an Expression of a Series of Moods
The Ode to a Nightingale begins with a description of the poet falling into a drugged sleep, and then the poet feeling too happy in the happiness of the bird. This paradox is resolved in the sixth stanza in which Keats tells us that he has often been “half in love with easeful death” and that in listening to the nightingale “more than ever seems it rich to die”. (In the third stanza, Keats’s account of the miseries of life is coloured by thoughts of the death of his brother Tom.) Keats dreams of escaping from the miseries of the world, first by drinking wine, and then on the wings of Poesy. He would like to leave the world unseen, and even in the richly sensuous description of the surrounding darkness we are reminded again of death in the phrase “embalmed darkness”. It is no use complaining about the so-called illogicality of Keats’s pretending that he is listening to the same bird as the one that sang to Ruth. Symbolically interpreted the song of the tyrd is the song’ of the poet. Keats is contrasting the immortality of poetry ‘with the mortality of the poet. This is the climax of the poem and the point where the different themes are harmonised—the beauty of the nightingale’s song, the loveliness of the Spring night, the miseries of the world, and the desire to escape from those miseries by wine, or by poetry, or by death. The nightingale’s song acquires a greater poignancy from the miseries of the world. This ode is not the expression of a single mood, but of a series of moods. From being too happy in the happiness of the bird’s song, Keats becomes aware of the contrast between the bird’s joy and the misery of human life, from the thought of which he can only momentarily escape by wine, by poetry, by the beauty of Nature, or by the thought of death. In the seventh stanza, the contrast is sharpened: the immortal bird, representing natural beauty as well as poetry, is set against the “hungry generations” of mankind. The contrast is followed by the poet’s going back to history and legend, to Ruth in tears, and the “magic casements opening on the foam of perilous seas”. But the “faery lands” are “forlorn”. Reality now breaks in on the poetic dream and tolls the poet back to his self. Fancy, the Muse of escapist poetry, is “deceiving elf. Keats expresses with a maximum of intensity the desire to escape from reality and yet he recognises that no escape is possible.
The Close Connection Between the Nightingale and the Grecian Urn Odes
In the Ode to a Nightingale, we are left thinking that neither beauty of Nature (the nightingale’s song) nor the beauty of art (the flights of Poesy) can console us for the miseries of life. In the Ode on a Grecian Urn, Keats makes another effort in the same direction. The life of the figures depicted on the urn possesses the beauty, the significance, and the externality of art; and this is contrasted (some times implicitly and sometimes explicitly) with the transitoriness, the meaninglessness, and the unpoetic nature of actual life. The “unwearied” melodist “for ever piping songs, for ever new”, and the uncloying love of the imaginary world of the artist are contrasted with the inevitable imperfections of human existence. In the last stanza, Keats proclaims that the sorrows and the meaninglessness of life can be transcended if we learn the lesson that “beauty is truth, truth beauty”. The poet recognises the proposition that beauty is an image of truth and that, therefore, if we see life steadily and see it whole, the disagreeables of life will evaporate as they do in a great work of art. Thus art points to the fact that life can be as meaningful as art. Keats is fully aware of the limitation of art. Even when he is congratulating the lover on the permanence of his unsatisfied love, he hankers after “breathing human passion”. When he is describing the scene of sacrifice which will remain for ever beautiful, he thinks of the desolate town, emptied for ever of its inhabitants. Art is invaded by human suffering. The “cold pastoral”, although perfect, is lacking in the warmth of reality.
The Link Between the Melancholy Ode and Several Other Odes
The Ode on Melancholy has links with several of the other odes. The song of the nightingale had made the poet too happy, his heart aching, and his senses pained by a “drowsy numbness”. There is a strain of melancholy in the scene of desolation in the Ode on a Grecian Urn. Now in the Ode on Melancholy, Keats introduces “Lethe”, “nightshade” and “Yew” but rejects them as being unsuitable means of arousing melancholy. These, and even the “beetle”, “death-moth”, and the “owl” are all to be avoided because they drown “the wakeful anguish of the soul” and prevent us from experiencing to the full the subtler melancholy of which Keats is writing. Melancholy is to be sought in beauty and joy—in a rose, a rainbow, or the anger of a beloved. Because beauty is transient, because love and joy fade, the enjoyment of them must be accompanied with melancholy. Beauty is lovely because it dies and impermanence is the essence of joy; so that only those who are exquisitely sensuous and able to relish the finest joys can taste true sadness. Keats is here writing really about the poetical character. The fine sensitivity necessary for the writing of poetry makes the poet susceptible both to joy and sorrow. The realisation that love and beauty are short-lived intensifies his joy in them. In fact, the relationship between beauty and melancholy works both ways. That is, either joy or sadness is most intensely felt when it is attended by a consciousness of the experience which is opposite and yet so closely related to it. The theme is thus more complex and subtle than the aspect of it which appears on the surface in this poem.
The Mood in the Ode to Autumn, Related to the Mood in Other Odes
To Autumn opens with a description of the sensuous abundance of the season—fruits, flowers, bees, etc. But in the final lines of the opening stanza, slight implications about the passage of time begin to operate. The flowers are called “later”; the bees are imagined as thinking that warm days will never cease; and there is a reference to the summer which has already passed. In the second stanza, we get a personification of the season in several appropriate postures and settings. The whole stanza presents the paradoxical qualities of autumn, its aspects both of lingering and passing. This is specially true of the last two lines in the stanza where we see autumn as the season of dying as well as of fulfilling. It is with a patten; look that Autumn watches the last oozings hours by hours. Oozing, or a steady dripping, is of course, well-known as a symbol of the passage of time. But it is in the last stanza that the theme emerges in a most striking manner: “Where are the songs of Spring?” This opening question implies that the season of youth and re-birth, with its beauties of sight and sound, has passed, and that the season of autumn is passing. The earlier imagery (of the first stanza) is that of ripeness which means ageing and ending as well as ripening. The final imagery is more truly autumnal. The music of autumn is “wailful” and “mournful”. Also, we have in the last stanza the “soft-dying day” after the passing of “hours and hours” (of the second stanza); the imagery is that of sunset and deepening twilight when the clouds impact their glow to the day and the plains. Thus the poem’s latent theme of transitoriness and mortality is symbolically dramatised by the passing course of the day. (The opening stanza suggested the height of day when the sun was strong.) All these characteristics of the poem are to be found in its final image: “And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.” Birds habitually gather in flocks toward nightfall. This means that the day is coming to a close. Also, birds gather particularly when they are preparing to fly southwards at the approach of winter. This means that the season too is drawing to a close. A feeling of melancholy is inevitable because of these suggestions. Thus the theme and mood of the Ode to Autumn are connected with the theme and mood of the preceding odes, though the connection may not seem to be very intimate.