Sunday, November 28, 2010

“With the great Odes, we are probably at the apex of Keats’s poetic powers”. Trace the evolution of Keats’s art till the achievement in the Odes.

Keats, a Conscious and Hard-Working 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. As we peruse his work, we become aware of a constant effort on his part to correct faults in technique and emotional tone. He constantly rejects harmful models and chooses better ones. Above all, he is always thinking out the essentials of his own kind of poetry to the exclusion of everything else.

Keats’s First Volume of Poems
Keats’s first volume of poems appeared in 1817. The best pieces in this volume are the introductory I Stood Tip-toe Upon a Little Hill, the concluding Sleep and Poetry, and the famous sonnet, On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer. There is in this early experimental and immature work an extravagance of speech and excess of emotion. These poems are overcharged with Spenserian imagery and Elizabethan conceits. But even in his early experiments, there is an individual note. In I Stood Tip-toe, there are 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.

We find felicities of phrase and a sensitive insight into Nature in this poem:
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.
In Sleep and Poetry, the writer throws a challenge at the whole army of the neo-classical critics. This poem 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 poetic stammerings, etc. But the soul of a poet is already there. Surely, we can expect splendid things from a young man of nineteen who could write On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer which is certainly deserving of high praise.
The Poem Entitled “Endymion”
The next to appear was Endymion (1818). It is a long narrative poem based upon the Greek myth of the love of the shepherd-prince Endymion for the moon-goddess, Cynthia. It is rambling and confused, broken by episodes, and in its descriptive passages overloaded with detail. In style it is diffuse and florid. In its loose romantic couplets, Keats followed the lead of Leigh Hunt’s Story of Rimini. But he carried freedom to excess, and his verse is at times almost formless. He himself afterwards spoke of the “slipshod” Endymion, adding: “I have written independently and without judgment—I may write independently, and with judgment, hereafter. I was never afraid of failure; for I would sooner fail than not be among the greatest.” It is undoubtedly an immature poem and has its faults. But if contains many passages of great poetical beauty. It is based, too, upon a remarkable view of love and life. This view is the key to the plot of the story which is otherwise fantastic and unintelligible. Endymion is man, the poet; the Moon is poetry or the principle of Beauty in all things; and Cynthia, the moon-goddess is the ideal beauty or love of woman. Man, seeing ideal beauty in his desire, mingles with it his longing for excellence, fame, and immortality. Endymion is a young man’s poem about a central experience of young manhood. Inevitably, it has been compared to Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis. Endymion lacks the verbal control and dramatic power of Shakespeare’s poem; but Shakespeare was twenty-eight when he wrote the poem, and Keats was only twenty-one. The poem was ruthlessly criticised by reviewers. The chief fault of the poem, Keats himself realised, was the inexperience of life underlying the original conception. But writing it was a major factor in Keats’s creative development. Endymion made Keats a poet, whatever Keats made of Endymion.
Several Great Poems in Keats’s Next Publication
The next publication bore the title Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes, and Other Poems (1820). Isabella was written in April, 1818, Hyperion in September-December, 1818, and The Eve of St. Agnes in January, 1819. Isabella is more or less a failure. About this poem we might say: “It requires more than a willing suspension of disbelief to read. It requires a willing suspension of intelligence.” The poem is based upon a story from Boccaccio telling of the love of a damsel for a young man in the service of her merchant-brothers, with its tragic end and pathetic sequel. Keats amplifies and adorns the original story, enriching it, with tones of sentiment and colours of romance, and dwelling over every image of beauty or passion. His adornments and embellishments are, however, not excessive as they were in the case of Endymion. His powers of imagination and of expression have now gained strength and discipline. His characters make themselves seen and felt in living shape, action and motive. But the language of Isabella is still occasionally slipshod.
“The Eve of St. Agnes”, a Series of Gorgeous Pictures
The Eve of St. Agnes is a romantic story based on a medieval superstition. The poem, however, is less a story than a series of gorgeous pictures, outdoing in splendour even the work of Spenser in whose stanza it is written. It is chiefly remarkable for its atmosphere, imagery, and diction. It is also characterised by a complete unity of structure. It has a unique charm which lies in, apart from its atmosphere, its glow of passionate colour and music, its decorative images (especially the picture of the triple-arched Gothic window), its ornamental style, and its beautiful phrases (like “azure-lidded sleep”, “warmed jewels”, “fragrant bodice”). In this poem Keats shows a marked advance over his previous work. The rhythm is more supple and more subtly related to syntax and meaning than in Isabella. The high point of this poem is the celebrated group of stanzas describing the events in Madeline’s chamber. Keats shows himself capable of a new firmness in outline and form, of new flexibility of attitude and expression.

The Two Versions of the Poem “Hyperion”
Of Hyperion (which is a fragment dealing with the Greek myth of the overthrow of the dynasty of god Saturn), there are two drafts. The first is in majestic blank verse which testifies to a careful study of Milton. The poem remains unfinished but, in spite of its fragmentary condition, it is Keats’s most imposing piece of work. According to Keats himself, he gave it up because of the excessive Miltonism of the style. However, some of the most beautiful images in their delicacy and precision are utterly unlike Milton’s generalised verbal grandeur, and indeed could be by nobody but Keats. Here is an example:
No stir of air was there,    
Not so much life as on a summer’s day         
Robs not one light seed from the feather’d grass,      
But where the dead leaf fell, there did it rest.
Keats attains great success in conceiving and animating the colossal shapes of the gods. “With a few slips and inequalities, and one or two instances of verbal incorrectness, Hyperion is indeed one of the grandest poems in the English language, and in its grandeur seems one of the easiest and most spontaneous”. The poem contains some admirable poetry and a number of lovely lines, and its failure is principally due to its conception. Subsequently Keats re-cast Hyperion into the shape of a vision, which remains equally unfinished. The imagery and description in this second version are freed of redundancies, and are far finer for being kept within bounds. There is also an enormous gain of dignity and force in the presentation of emotion. This second version is, after the odes, surely Keats’s greatest verse.
The Poem Called “Lamia
Lamia is in some parts too feverish and in others too unequal. It contains descriptions not entirely successful as, for instance, that of the palace built by Lamia’s magic. In certain reflective passages, Keats relapses into his early strain of affected ease and fireside trivialities. Besides, there is a weakness in the moral of the story:
Do not all charms fly        
At the mere touch of cold philosophy?
But Lamia is a more polished poem and more unified in tone than The Eve of St. Agnes. The description of the death of Lamia is a very controlled, modulated affair. The technical advance over Endymion is also here noteworthy.
The Incomplete Poem “The Eve of St. Mark”
The Eve of St. Mark is incomplete. But the scene is set consummately, and the atmosphere is suggested most successfully. 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 Ripeness and Maturity of Keats’s Poetic Powers in the Odes
But it is in the odes that we see the ripeness and maturity of Keats’s poetic powers. The odes not only reveal Keats’s highly thoughtful and intensely reflective nature but also possess musical effects that are unsurpassed in English lyric poetry. In the odes, Keats gives us most of his inmost self, and he does so with the sure hand of a great artist. Most of these odes arise from inner conflicts and have as their theme the contrast between joy and suffering, transience and permanence, the actual and the ideal. 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.
“Ode to a Nightingale”, Voluptuous and Passionate
To a Nightingale is the most voluptuous and passionate in its emotion. But for the most part the passion, for all its intensity, is focused ‘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 expresses a desire to “fade far away dissolve, and quite forget…….”
The Unity of Truth and Beauty
On a Grecian Urn expresses with perfect poetic felicity and insight the vital differences between life, which pays for its unique prerogative of reality by satiety and decay, and art, which in forfeiting reality gains in exchange permanence of beauty, and the power to charm by imagined experience even richer than the real: “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard/Are sweeter……”and:
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave  
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare.

The central thought of this ode is the unity of truth and beauty: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.”
The Transitoriness of Beauty and Joy
On Melancholy expresses the transitoriness of beauty and joy, and the idea that true melancholy lies in the ache at the heart of felicity:
She dwells with Beauty, Beauty that must die;           
And joy, whose hand is ever at his lips        
Bidding adieu……
An Acceptance of Impermanence
To Autumn is one of the most nearly perfect poems. The different parts of it contribute directly to the whole, with nothing left dangling or independent. While On Melancholy accepts the impermanence of beauty and joy as inevitable, To Autumn also accepts impermanence and accepts it without the least trace of sadness because Keats is able to see it as part of a larger and richer permanence.
The Odes at the Apex of Keats’s Poetic Achievement
The odes mark the highest development of Keats’s poetic genius and stand at the apex of his poetic achievement. 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 with what is greatest 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.

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