Saturday, November 27, 2010

Some Critical Observations About Keats as a Poet

His Originality as a Poet
Among the formative influences in Keats’s work, Spenser stands first; but Chaucer and Milton influenced, only in a secondary degree, his poetic style and vocabulary; and lesser poets like Chapman, William Browne, and his friend Leigh Hunt affected him especially in his earlier work, in his choice of words and phrases, and in his search for colour. But the finest part of Keats’s work owes nothing to a derivative source. In the fragmentary Ode To Maia, with its purity of phrase and chastened beauty, there are no echoes, no obligations:

O, give me their old”vigour, and unheard   
                Save of the quiet primrose, and the span     
                                Of heaven, and few ears,  
                Rounded by thee, my song should die away
                                Content as theirs,              
                Rich in the simple worship of a day.
Concerned with Sensations Rather Than with Ideas
Perhaps his most notable divergence as a poet, from his contemporary Shelley, is that he elects, as a rule, to deal with sensations rather than with ideas, with concrete life than with abstract imaginings. The metaphysical power, that charges with intellectual fire the visions of Shelley, is outside of his scope. Not that he eschews ideas; the Odes eloquently refute such a suggestion; but when he elects to deal with ideas, he chooses such human things as love, sorrow and beauty, and presents them in concrete shape:
(i)            The moving waters at their priest-like task 
                                Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores.
(ii)           She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss        
                                For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair.
Thus’ do his ideas become incarnate with the shaping splendour of the consummate artist; and thus does he help us to realise, as no other poet has done since Shakespeare, the oneness of Truth and Beauty.
His Poetic Faith: Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty
Keats once wrote, ‘I have loved the principle of beauty in all things’. This principle came to him through three main channels: through external Nature, which he paints with Shakespearean felicity; through the luxuriant richness of thought seen in Elizabethan poets and playwrights: and through the severe grandeur of Greek art. If judged by quantity; he cannot claim a position in the first rank, though no other poet would stand higher if he had died at twenty-five; but if judged by quality, Keats must rank with the greatest moulders and creators of verse. The essential mark of his genius is that he unites the ideals of old Greece and modern romanticism. His poetic faith is summed up in the close of the Ode On a Grecian Urn.
The Magic of His Use of Words
Keats was the most literary of great poets in his day in the sense that he used his words with a keen awareness of the magic they had held for his predecessors. He was also the poet for whom the world of beauty was an asylum, an escape from the dreary and painful effects of ordinary experience. The beauties he has to offer are drawn, by selection, from familiar native scenery, and they have great appeal for poetry lovers of all kinds.
His Felicities of Word and Phrase
Keats’s felicities of phrase and his sensitive insight into Nature are already seen in I Stood Tiptoe:
Here are sweet peas, on tip-toe for a flight:
With wings of gentle flush o’er delicate white,
And taper fingers catching at all things,
To bind them all about with tiny rings.
His Challenge to Neo-Classic Poets
In Sleep and Poetry, the writer throws a challenge at the whole army of the neo-classical critics. In Endymion, Keats’s art is still immature, but shows a great advance. The narrative is confused, the allegory is dim, but there are many passages of exquisite verse, wonderful gleams of landscape, fine philosophic ideals. While Keats was under the spell of Hunt in the Poems of 1817, the predominant influences now are Spenser, Wordsworth and Shakespeare. His best work at this time, particularly the great Ode To Sorrow, has a vigorous morning freshness hardly to be found again in him. He does write about Sorrow, but there is no real sadness in this ode which is an outpouring of the joy of life. “It is a picture glowing with colour, instinct with animation—the-work of a young bold mind which has neither regret for the past nor fear for the future.”
A Very Careful Artist
Keats was a very careful artist. He revised and remodelled his poems and took the utmost pains in polishing them. He uses the choicest and most appropriate diction. There are many jewelled phrases in his poems. A beautiful phrase delighted him with a sense of intoxication. The extraordinary appeal of Keats’s poetry depends not only on his rich sensuousness, his lush imagery, and the passionate exaltation of his feelings, but also on his gift of phrase. The beauty of his phrases, the subtleties of rhythm in the combination of words and their evocative power compel the imagination of the reader to the mood which the poet seeks to produce in the reader. In some cases, this effect is achieved by the use of the simplest words, as in the concluding lines of the sonnet, On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer, where the reaction of the sailors of Cortez to the discovery of the Pacific is visualised:
and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent, upon apeak in Darien...
The same is true of the wonderfully cadenced lines describing the song of the nightingale:
The same that oft times hath
Charm’d magic casements, opening on the foam
Of perilous seas, in faerylands forlorn.
In other cases, there is a very skilful and intricate use of figurative expressions and epithets:
When I behold, upon night’s starr’d face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance...
Thou still unravished bride of quietness,
Thou foster-child of silence and slow time,
Sylvan historian...
In each of these cases, the meaning is enriched by a number of emotional associations and by an appeal to the imagination.
The Sheer Music of His Verse
Keats excels, too, in the quality of sheer music. This quality appears even in his early works; the Hymn to Apollo, for instance, moves with a springing vigour and a fullness of tone. In the great Odes, we find musical effects that are unsurpassed in English lyric poetry. To a Nightingale, On a Grecian Urn, To Psyche, and To Autumn are a series of rich and melancholy strains like those that a great master obtains from the varying forces of an orchestra—raging bow high now low, from unearthly sweetness to solemn undertones.
His Influence on Other Poets
Keats’s influence on the poets who came after him was operative in two ways. First, he influenced the subject-matter of poetry in arousing in other writers the poetic love of Nature for her own sake, and the love both of classic fable and of romance. Secondly, he set before poets a certain standard of execution, and an example of “loading every rift of a subject with ore”. He endeavoured after a continual poetic richness and felicity of phrase. A typical example is to be found in the lines that tell us of the trembling hopes of Madeline in The Eve of St. Agnes:
But to her heart her heart was voluble,        
                Paining with eloquence her balmy side.
The beauty of these lines is not merely a beauty of fancy or of sound; it is the beauty which dwells in truth only, every word being chosen by a careful exercise of the imagination. “The first line describes in perfection the quality of consciousness in such a moment of suspense, the second makes us realise at once the physical effect of the emotion on the heroine, and the spell of her imagined presence on ourselves.”
The Poets Who Fell Under His Influence
The first considerable writer among Keats’s successors on whom his example took effect was Hood in the fairy and romance poems of his earlier time. Tennyson was profoundly influenced by it both in the form and the matter of his work, and is indeed the heir of Keats and of Wordsworth in almost equal measure. After or together with Coleridge, Keats has also contributed most to the poetic method and ideal of Rossetti. He himself, alike by gifts and training, a true child of the Elizabethans, stands in the most direct line of descent between the great poets of that age and those of subsequent times.
Cazamian’s View of Him as a Poet
“Keats, when he died, gave promise of becoming of greatest poet of his generation; and one who, better than any other, would have united the free inspiration of romanticism with the formal principle of the schools of the past. Some hundreds of lines raise him to the level of the highest. His influence has never ceased to grow; all those schools which claim as their principles a plastic notion of art have seen in him their master; the Pre-Raphaelites, just as the English aesthetes, originate in part from him. Despite the concentrated and difficult quality of his language, the finer artists, in every nation, have felt the magnetic power of his example.”
W.H. Hudson’s View of Him
Thus W.H. Hudson: “Historically, Keats is important for three reasons. First, on the side of form and style he is the most romantic of the romantic poets, handling even his Greek themes with a luxuriance of language and a wealth of detail as far as possible removed from the temperance and restraint of Hellenic art. Here, in particular, we note his entire rejection of the classic couplet, for which, following the lead of his friend Leigh Hunt, he substituted the couplets of the loose romantic type. Secondly, more than any other great poet of his time, he represents the exhaustion of the impulses generated by the social upheaval and the humanitarian enthusiasms of the Revolution. With him poetry breaks away from the interests of contemporary life, returns to the past, and devotes itself to the service of beauty. It is for this reason that he seems to stand definitely at the end of his age. Finally, his influence was none the less very strong upon the poets of the succeeding generation.”
Some Observations by Douglas Bush
Here are some observations by Douglas Bush: Keats’s attack on Augustan verse in Sleep and Poetry carried echoes of Wordsworth and Hazlitt. In the same poem the young poet’s view of his present and future recalls the stages of Wordsworth’s development outlined in Tmtern Abbey, but with characteristic differences. The rock and cataract of Wordsworth’s youthful passion become in Keats the realm of Flora and old Pan; and, while Wordsworth had already arrived at his third stage, of human sympathy, the young Keats felt that he must force himself to leave the sensuous luxuries of Nature for “the agonies, the strife/Of human hearts”. A similar sequence is described in the letter (May 3, 1818) on the mansions of life in poetry, where Tmtern Abbey is cited. Shakespeare, Keats finds is the supreme example of “negative capability”, and Keats would have him as his tutelary genius. But he is also powerfully drawn to .Milton and Wordsworth. While Keats is the finer artist, Wordsworth has seen further into the human heart, into common and tragic experience. On the other hand, Keats dislikes at times Wordsworth’s poetry because it has “a palpable design upon us”.
The Heart’s Affections; and the Importance of the Imagination
Keats’s desire for “a life of sensations rather than of thoughts” is a plea for the intuitive life of the artist. In the same letter (November 22, 1817), written when Endymion was finished, Keats gives his first clear statement on life and poetry: “I am certain of nothing but of the holiness of the Heart’s affections and the truth of Imagination. What the Imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth—whether it existed before or not—for I have the same idea of all our Passions as of Love; they are all in their sublime, creative of essential beauty.”
Poetry Versus Humanitarian Action
Yet the proclaimer of such a creed is deeply troubled, in his last long poem, The fait of Hyperion, by the question whether poetry is a justifiable activity, as compared with simple goodness and humanitarian action.
His Tribute to Medievalism
There are several poems that are relatively lacking in “ideas”. Isabella (1818), though it has some fine bits, is as a whole a tissue of romantic pathos that has long been popular with school-girls. The Eve of St. Agnes (1819) is incomparably better, so rich in pictorial and verbal beauty that we are made to forget the romantic thinness of the human emotions. La Belle Dame Sans Merci, whether or not it has any personal character, may be called both an anti-romantic reply to The Eve of St. Agnes and a piece of romantic magic. The disastrous love of a faery for a mortal had been a theme of old ballads, but this blend of love and beauty and evil is closer to Christabel. With these poems, and the unfinished The Eve of St. Mark, which is distinguished by its precise, restrained detail, Keats paid his tribute to medievalism.
The Nature and Problems of a Poet
(From the sonnet on Chapman’s Homer to The Fall of Hyperion almost all of his major and many minor poems deal with the nature and problems of the poet. That in itself is a remarkable fact.)
His Rank as a Poet
As a poet, Keats ranks with the highest. “Much that he wrote is immature and inferior certainly; but the gold left after sifting is so pure—the verse so noble alike in spirit and in form—and the influence so wide and durable—that he takes his stand with Wordsworth and with Shelley, above Byron or Coleridge.” Matthew Arnold said of Keats: “He is with Shakespeare”.

All His Great Poetry, Written During Three Years
It is believed that if Keats had lived longer he would have attained, Shakespearean height in poetry. His poetry is very rich in promise. William J. Long writes: When we remember that all his work was published in three short years, from 1817 to 1820, and that he died when only twenty-five years’ old, we must judge him to be the most promising figure of the early nineteenth century. But even judging him by work actually done by him, he is a poet of no mean order. Like Spenser, he is a poets’ poet. He greatly influenced Tennyson, Rossetti, Morris, and Swinburne.
His Enrichment of the Romantic Movement in Poetry
“Keats’s work was bitterly and unjustly condemned by the critics of his day. He belonged to what was derisively called the Cockney school of poetry. Not even from Wordsworth and Byron, who were ready enough to” recommend far less gifted writers, did Keats receive the slightest encouragement. Shelley, with his sincerity and generosity, was the first to recognise the young genius and in his noble Adonais he spoke the first true word of appreciation, and placed Keats, where he unquestionably belongs, among our greatest poets. The fame denied him in his sad life was granted freely after his death. Most fitly does he close the list of poets of the romantic revival, because in many respects he is the best workman of them all. He seems to have studied words more carefully than did his contemporaries, and so his poetic expression or the harmony of word and thought, is generally more perfect than theirs. More than any other he lived for poetry, as the noblest of the arts. More than any other he emphasised beauty, because to him beauty and truth were one and inseparable. And he enriched the whole romantic movement by adding to its interest in common life, the spirit rather than the letter of the classics and of Elizabethan poetry.”
The Most Shakespearean of All Poets
By power, as well as by temperament and aim, he was the most Shakespearean spirit that lived after Shakespeare. In his premature death English literature sustained its greatest loss. In the work actually left by him, the master-chord of humanity had not been fully struck. “When we sum up in our minds the total effect of his poetry, we can think, indeed, of the pathos of Isabella, but of that alone, as equally powerful in its kind with the Nature-magic of the Hymn to Pan and the Ode To a Nightingale, with the glow of romance colour in St. Agnes’ Eve, the weirdness of romance sentiment in La Belle Dame Sans Merci, the conflict of elemental force with fate in Hyperion, the revelation of the soul of ancient life and art in the Ode On a Grecian Urn and the fragment of an Ode to Maia.”—(Sidney Colvin)
The View of Robert Bridges About His Work as a Poet
“To speculate upon the unrealised possibility of his genius would indeed be waste of time. But when we note the immense development shown in the few years of his activity, and further remember that, as his letters prove, his mind was ripening rapidly at the end, we cannot but recognise the greatness of the loss which literature sustained in his untimely death. ‘If one English poet might be recalled today from the dead to continue the work which he left unfinished on earth, it is probable that the crown of his country’s desire would be set on the head of John Keats’—(Robert Bridges). Even as it is, through his direct influence on Tennyson, Swinburne, Rossetti, and Morris, he has left a deep mark on the later English poetry.”

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