John Keats Poetry: British Analysis
To love and to work are, psychologists say, the principal concerns of early adulthood. In John Keats’s case, they became, as well, the dominant themes of his most important poetry. The work theme includes both the effort and the love of creating beauty and the immortality Keats longed for as recompense. Once, perhaps exaggerating, Keats wrote that “the mere yearning and fondness” he had “for the Beautiful” would keep him writing “even if [his] night’s labours should be burnt every morning and no eye ever shine upon them.” Not passing, however, was the tenacity of his ambition: “I would sooner fail than not to be among the greatest.” Keats’s quest for immortality takes several forms: It appears openly, especially in the sonnets and in “Ode on Indolence” and “Ode to Psyche” as the anxieties of ambition—being afforded the time, maintaining the will and energy, and, not least, determining the topic, or territory, for achievement. It includes a metamorphosis fantasy, whereby the young poet becomes deified or capable of immortal poetry through absorption of divinely granted knowledge. The ambition/work theme also takes a self-conscious turn in The Fall of Hyperion, questioning the value to a suffering humankind of the dreamer-poet’s life and work.
The love theme explores dreams of heterosexual bliss, but it also moves into the appropriate relationships to be had with art and nature. The imagination is the ally of love’s desires; reality and reason are their nemeses. In “The Eve of St. Agnes,” a better lover, in Lamia, a better place, are dreams that dissipate in the light of reality and reason. “Ode to a Nightingale” attempts a flight from reality through identification with beautiful song rather than through dream, but the result is an intensification of distress. “Ode on Melancholy,” “To Autumn,” and “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” however, suggest perspectives on the human condition, nature, and art that can be maintained with honesty and deeply valued without recourse to dream. One could say that Keats’s love theme moves toward the understanding and acceptance of what is.
Concomitant with the maturation of theme and perspective is Keats’s stylistic development. Like most poets, Keats went through phases of imitation during which he adapted the styles and themes he loved to his own work and ambitions.Leigh Hunt, Edmund Spenser, John Milton, and always Shakespeare provided inspiration, stylistic direction, and a community of tradition. Regardless of origin, the principal traits of Keats’s style are these: a line very rich with sound pattern, as in “with brede/ of marble men and maidens overwrought,” which also includes puns on “brede” (“breed”) and “overwrought” (as “delicately formed on” and as “overly excited”); synesthetic imagery, or imagery that mingles the senses (“soft incense,” “smoothest silence”); deeply empathic imagery (“warmed jewels,” “all their limbs/ Locked up like veins of metal, crampt and screwed”); stationing or positioning of characters to represent their dramatic condition (so Saturn after losing his realm, “Upon the sodden ground/ His old right hand lay nerveless, listless, dead,/ Unsceptered; and his realmless eyes were closed”); the use of the past participle in epithets (“purple-stained mouth,” “green-recessed woods”); and, of course, as with every great writer, that quality that one can only describe as Je ne sais quoi—I know not what—as in the lines from the sonnet “Bright Star”: “The moving waters at their priest-like task/ Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores.”
Themes of ambition and accomplishment inform many of Keats’s sonnets. The claiming of territory for achievement is the focus of “How Many Bards Gild the Lapses of Time,” “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer,” “Great Spirits Now on Earth Are Sojourning,” and the great “Ode to Psyche.” In “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer,” for example, Keats recounts the discovery of Homer’s “demesne.” The extended metaphor of the sonnet is narrator-reader as traveler, poet as ruler, poem as place. The narrator, much-traveled “in the realms of gold,” has heard that Homer rules over “one wide expanse,” yet he has never “breath[ed] its pure serene.” During the oration of Chapman’s translation, however, he is as taken as an astronomer “When a new planet swims into his ken” or as an explorer, such as “stout Cortez,” when “He stared at the Pacific—and all his men/ Looked at each other with a wild surmise—/ Silent, upon a peak in Darien.” The complementary images of the distant planet and the immense ocean suggest both the distance the narrator is from Homeric achievement and its epic proportions. His reaction, though, represented through the response of Cortez, is heartening: while lesser beings look to each other for cues on what to think, how to react, the greater explorer stares at the challenge, with “eagle eyes,” to measure the farthest reaches of this new standard for achievement.
Following the lead of his contemporary William Wordsworth, though with a completely original emphasis, Keats’s territory for development and conquest became the interior world of mental landscape and its imaginings. Wordsworth had defined his territory in his “Prospectus” to The Recluse (1798) as “the Mind of Man—/ My haunt, and the main region of my song.” Whereas Wordsworth believed that mind, “When wedded to this goodly universe/ In love and holy passion,” could create a vision of a new heaven and a new earth, Keats initially sought to transcend reality, rather than to transform it, with the power of the imagination to dream. “Ode to Psyche” explores Keats’s region and its goddess, who was conceived too late in antiquity for fervid belief. While Wordsworth asserts in “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey” (1798) that “something far more deeply interfused” could sanctify our experience with nature, Keats locates days of “holy . . . haunted forest boughs” back in a past that precedes even his goddess of mind. The only region left for her worship must be imagined, interior. As priest, not to nature, but to mind, the poet says he will be Psyche’s “choir” to “make delicious moan/ Upon the midnight hours,” her voice, lute, pipe, incense, shrine, grove, oracle, her “heat/ Of pale-mouthed prophet” dreaming in “some untrodden region of [his] mind.” In the “wide quietness” of this sacred microcosm, “branchèd thoughts, . . ./ Instead of pines shall murmur in the wind”; a “wreathed trellis of working brain” will dress “its rosy sanctuary”; the goddess’s “soft delight” will be all that “shadowy thought can win.” In keeping with the legend of Cupid as lover of Psyche, a casement will remain open at night “To let the warm Love in!” Keats’s topic becomes, then, how the mind is stimulated by desire to create imagined worlds, or dreams, rather than, as in Wordsworth’s case, how the mind is moved by love to re-create its perception of the real world.
Besides finding his territory for achievement, Keats struggled as well with the existential issues of the artist’s life—developing the talent and maintaining the heart to live up to immense ambitions. It is to be doubted whether poets will ever be able to look to Shakespeare or to Milton as models without living in distress that deepens with every passing work. The “writing of a few fine Plays,” meaning Shakespearean drama, remained Keats’s greatest ambition to the end. Yet the achievement of Paradise Lost (1667, 1674) haunted him as well, and Hyperion was an attempt in its mold. Keats became more critical of Milton’s achievement during the course of composing Hyperion, however, for it was, “though so fine in itself,” a “curruption [sic] of our Language,” too much in “the vein of art,” rather than the “true voice of feeling.” In fact, Keats gave up Hyperion because Milton’s influence weighed so heavily that he could not distinguish the poem’s excessively self-conscious artistry from its true beauty derived from accurate feeling.
Aesthetic considerations aside, a recurring theme in Keats’s works of epic scope was the fantasy of poetic metamorphosis. The sonnet “On Sitting Down to Read King Lear Once Again” introduces the wish for transformation that will enable the poet to reach Shakespearean achievement. The metaphor is consumption and rebirth through fire, as adapted from the Egyptian legend of the phoenix bird, which was said to immolate itself on a burning pile of aromatic wood every five hundred years to engender a new phoenix from its ashes. The narrator-poet lays down his pen for a day so that he might “burn through” Shakespeare’s “fierce dispute/ Betwixt damnation and impassion’d clay.” To “burn through” must be read two ways in the light of the phoenix metaphor—as reading passionately through the work and as being burned through that reading. He prays to Shakespeare and the “clouds of Albion” not to let him “wander in a barren dream” when his long romance, Endymion, is concluded, but that “when . . . consumed in the fire” of reading King Lear, he may be given “new phoenix wings to fly at [his] desire.” Out of the self-immolating achievement of reading will arise a poet better empowered to reach his quest.
The transformation theme of Hyperion exceeds the passionate wishfulness of “On Sitting Down to Read King Lear Once Again” by stressing the need for “knowledge enormous,” as befits the poem’s epic ambitions. Hyperion is a tale of succession in which the Titans are supplanted by the Olympians as the reigning monarchs of the universe, with focus upon Hyperion the sun god being replaced by Apollo, the new god of poetry and light. It has been suggested that Hyperion becomes Keats’s allegory for his own relationship with his poetic contemporaries, especially Wordsworth. Keats had said that Wordsworth was Milton’s superior in understanding, but this was not owing to “individual greatness of Mind” as much as to “the general and gregarious advance of intellect.” Hyperion embodies this hypothesis of progress in its succession and transformation themes.
The poem opens with Saturn, who was the supreme god of the Titans, in a position of perfect stasis—the stationing referred to above—stupefied by his loss of power—“His old right hand lay nerveless, listless, dead,/ Unsceptered.” Thea, the bewildered wife of the as-yet-undeposed Hyperion, visits to commiserate. She informs Saturn that the new gods are wholly incompetent; Saturn’s “sharp lightning in unpracticed hands/ Scorches and burns our once serene domain.” The question is: Why, with the world running perfectly, was there a need for change? Saturn, an image of pomposity and egotism, perhaps inspired by Wordsworth’s character, knows only of his personal loss:
I have leftMy strong identity, my real self,Somewhere between the throne, and where I sitHere on this spot of earth.
“Thea, Thea! Thea!” he moans, “where is Saturn?” Meanwhile, Hyperion is pacing his domain in the region of the sun, wondering: “Saturn is fallen, am I too to fall?” In his anxiety he overreacts, attempting to wield more power than he ever possessed by making the sun rise early. “He might not,” which dismays him tremendously. The first book of this unfinished three-book epic ends with Hyperion sailing to earth to be with his fallen peers.
At the same time, Saturn and Thea also reach those “regions of laborious breath” where the gods sit
Dungeoned in opaque element, . . .Without a motion, save of their big heartsHeaving in pain, and horribly convulsedWith . . . boiling gurge of pulse.
The Titans receive their deposed king with mixed response—some groan, some jump to their feet out of old respect, some wail, some weep. Saturn, being unable to satisfy their need to know why and how they have fallen, calls on Oceanus, the former god of the sea, for not only does he “Ponderest high and deep,” but he also looks content! Oceanus then reveals a law of succession particularly appropriate for the early nineteenth century: “We fall,” he says, “by course of Nature’s law, not force/ Of thunder, or of Jove.” Blinded by sheer supremacy, Saturn has not realized that, as he was not the first ruler, so he will not be the last. Nature’s law is the law of beauty. Just as heaven and earth are more beautiful than chaos and darkness, and the Titans superior in shape and will to heaven and earth, so the new gods signal another significant advance in being; “a fresh perfection treads,/ A power more strong in beauty, born of us/ And fated to excel us,” Oceanus explains, “as we pass/ In glory that old Darkness.” In short, the eternal law is that “first in beauty should be first in might.”
On Apollo’s isle, the important transformation is about to begin. Apollo, as a good Keatsian poet, can make stars throb brighter when he empathizes with their glory in his poetry; yet he is inexplicably sad. Mnemosyne the muse seeks to assist her favorite child, who aches with ignorance. She emits what he needs to know and he flushes with
Names, deeds, gray legends, dire events, rebellions,Majesties, sovran voices, agoniesCreations and destroyings, all at oncePour[ing] into the wide hollows of [his] brain.
Apollo shouts, “knowledge enormous makes a God of me” and “wild commotions shook him, and made flush/ All the immortal fairness of his limbs.” It is like a death pang, but it is the reverse, a dying into life and immortal power. The poem ends incomplete with Apollo shrieking, Mnemosyne arms in air, and the truncated line—“and lo! from all his limbs/ Celestial * * *.” No one has been able to conjecture to the satisfaction of anyone else where the poem might have gone from there, although the result of Apollo’s transformation seems inevitable. He would replace Hyperion, effortlessly, in this pre-Darwinian, pre-Freudian, universe where sons, like evolving species, acquire power over the earth without conscious competition with their fathers. As Oceanus indicates, the Titans are like the
forest-trees, and our fair boughsHave bred forth . . .. . . eagles golden-feathered, who do towerAbove us in their beauty, and must reignIn right thereof.
However timorously, it would follow that Keats, bred on Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton, and Wordsworth, would have to live up to, if not exceed, their accomplishments.
This myth of progress would necessarily still require the superior poem to be written to support its prophetic validity. Keats knew that he needed deeper knowledge to surpass Wordsworth, but there was not much he could do about it. Though it was an attractive imagining, no god was likely to pour knowledge into the wide hollows of his brain. “I am . . . young writing at random—straining at particles of light in the midst of a great darkness,” he wrote with characteristic honesty, “without knowing the bearing of any one assertion of any one opinion.” Ironically, his dilemma brought out the strength his modern readers prize most highly, his courageous battling with, to use his favorite phrase of Wordsworth’s, “the Burthen of the mystery.” Caught in this impasse between noble ambition and youthful limitation, Keats’s spirit understandably failed in weaker moments. His self-questioning was exacerbated when he reflected on the frailty of earthly achievement. Such is the torment in “On Seeing the Elgin Marbles,” the Grecian ruins brought to England by Lord Elgin.
The narrator opens feeling “Like a sick eagle looking at the sky” in the face of the magnificent architectural ruins. Ironically, they are only the “shadow of a magnitude” that once was, an insubstantial image emphasizing how much has been lost rather than how much was once achieved. Human achievement wasted by time brings the narrator a “most dizzy pain” born of tension between body and soul over committing one’s life to mortal achievement. In “Ode on Indolence,” Keats enjoys a temporary respite from his demons—love, ambition, and poetry—in a state of torpor in which the body temporarily overpowers spirit. One morning the shadows come to him: love the “fair Maid”; “Ambition, pale of cheek,/ And ever watchful with fatiguèd eye”; and, “the demon Poesy.” At first he burns to follow and aches for wings, but body prevails: even poetry “has not a joy—/ . . . so sweet as drowsy noons,/ And evenings steeped in honeyed indolence.” The victory is transitory outside the poem; within it, a respite from...
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