Keats was a poet, and it is in his poetry that he gave the fullest expression to his genius. Yet before turning to the poetry, it may be useful first to address some of the central concerns of the poet, as expressed in his various letters to family and friends. It is in these letters, for example, that he tried to articulate his philosophies of art and life, asking and answering such questions as, What is the true character of a poet? What is the proper role of the poet in society? What is the relationship between art and life? and What is the function of the imagination?
In his letter of October 27, 1818, to Richard Woodhouse, a friend and supporter, Keats offers one of his earliest attempts to define what a poet is. Keats begins by declaring that a poet has no self or identity. A poet, like a chameleon, absorbs the colorations of the outside world, becoming one with the things seen, heard, and touched. Keats’s point is that, for poets to comprehend their subjects fully, to enter into the life of things around them, they must free themselves from their own limited experiences of the world—their own biases, emotions, and points of view—and merge with that which they hope to understand and describe. This sympathetic understanding, as opposed to a reasoned understanding, depends not upon logic or even intellect but rather upon imagination. Through the imagination, then, the poet is projected into the subject and lives according to its essential qualities. From this notion of the poet comes one of Keats’s most significant contributions to poetic theory, the idea of Negative Capability. This idea extends the above beliefs about escaping the self to form a philosophy about the poetic character and its proper relationship to the world. In his December 21, 1817, letter to his brothers, George and Tom, Keats defined Negative Capability quite simply as “when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” For Keats, in other words, poetic knowledge comes from accepting the inexplicable mysteries of the world. The poet should not force the world to make sense, for to do that is to reduce and simplify the world and to equate that reduction and simplification with a true understanding. A more profound understanding comes when the poet lives in conjunction with doubt and uncertainty. Again, Keats rejects reason and logic as suitable agents of truth, preferring instead to rely upon imagination and feeling. This preference may help to explain what Keats means when he writes at the end of his important poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn” that “’Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’—that is all/ Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” The truth that Keats finds in beauty is not the truth that the scientist or historian seeks to discover and document. For Keats, the essential truth of something, a sunset, for example, can be grasped only through a full appreciation of its beauty. As Keats explains in his letter to George and Tom: “with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.”
This notion of the poet and what constitutes true knowledge goes a long way toward explaining why Keats wrote the kind of poetry that he did. Keats’s purpose as a poet is not to teach the reader the so-called truths of this world, in any conventional sense of that word. Nor, Keats argues, is it the poet’s business to bully the reader into accepting a ready-made set of conclusions. Poetry, in other words, should “proclaim” nothing. Instead, the ambition of the poet is to arouse the readers’ imaginative faculties so that they may participate in the larger existence of creation. As exercises in imagination, Keats’s poems seek to lift their readers out of their contracted worlds and raise them to a level of awareness and understanding that is at peace with complexity, ambiguity, contradiction, and mystery. That is the stuff of life; or at least it was the stuff of Keats’s difficult life. All attempts to escape that condition through “an irritable reaching after fact and reason” can only result in a sorry self-deception and a diminishment of human experience.
Endymion: A Poetic Romance
First published: 1818
Type of work: Poem
Taken from Greek mythology, this poem is the story of a mortal shepherd’s quest for immortality through his ideal love, the goddess Diana.
Endymion: A Poetic Romance, Keats’s first major work, represents the poet’s first sustained attempt to explore the relationship between the real world of human experience and the ethereal world of an idealized existence. Divided into four books, the poem traces Endymion’s progress from his initial desire to rise above his earthly existence by cultivating his love for Diana, the goddess of the moon, who represents ideal love, to his gradual reconciliation, in the end, to his mortal condition and the love that he feels for an Indian maiden whom he meets during his quest. Upon realizing the dangers of trying to deny his own human nature, Endymion suddenly discovers that the Indian maiden, his mortal counterpart, is really Diana, his immortal desire, in disguise. In the end, Endymion learns that he can only rise above his mortal nature and achieve some kind of idealized existence if he first accepts “his natural sphere.” Keats’s point, as in other poems, is that any attempt to achieve an abstract ideal must begin with an acceptance of concrete human experience.
Book 1, which opens with the often-quoted line, “A thing of beauty is a joy for ever,” describes the source of Endymion’s discontent with his life as a local chieftain. His life as a man of action and worldly concerns is disrupted by a dream in which he imagines himself carried through the skies by a goddess. When she finally returns him to earth, he suddenly finds that his surroundings no longer seem beautiful or satisfying. Having experienced the ethereal world of abstract beauty, Endymion is unable to appreciate the physical beauty of the world around him.
Books 2, 3, and 4, which take place under the earth, at the bottom of the sea, and in the sky, trace Endymion’s quest for the goddess of his dream. During his journey, he encounters various characters, the last of whom is Glaucus, who is chained to the bottom of the sea. Glaucus, like Endymion, had once been satisfied with his existence as a mortal, but, aroused by “distemper’d longings,” he had transformed himself into a sea-god. When he rejected the seductions of the sea witch, Circe, she chained him to the bottom of the sea for a thousand years. One condition of Glaucus’s release is that he and Endymion must locate the bodies of all the lovers who have drowned at sea and restore them to life. Only by engaging once again in the world of mortal actions can Glaucus escape the dreadful consequences of trying to escape his own mortality.
In book 4, Endymion reenacts the lesson of Glaucus. Having met an Indian maiden, Endymion is torn between his love for this mortal woman and his idealized love for his immortal goddess. Eventually, he admonishes himself for rejecting his own concrete humanity in favor of “his first soft poppy dream.” In the end, he learns the essential lesson of his life—that to reject his own humanity is to reject all humanity and the things of this earth.
When Endymion discovers in the end that the Indian maiden is really Diana in disguise, he achieves through this synthesis of these two figures the final wisdom of his life and of Keats’s poem: that any desire to achieve the ideal must begin not with a rejection of the mortal world but rather with an acceptance of the human condition. It is through an intense appreciation for the concrete and common things of this world that one penetrates the ethereal and idealized world within and beyond.
“Ode to a Nightingale”
First published: 1819 (collected in “Lamia,” “Isabella,” “The Eve of St. Agnes,” and Other Poems, 1820)
Type of work: Poem
In this meditation on the song of the nightingale, Keats explores the power of the imagination to free him from the human condition.
“Ode to a Nightingale,” along with “Ode on Indolence,” “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” “Ode on Melancholy,” and “To Autumn,” all of which were written between March and September of 1819, document Keats’s ongoing struggle to reconcile himself to his own mortality. The deaths of his father (1804) and mother (1810), combined with the imminent death of his brother, Tom, who was in the last stages of tuberculosis, as well as the recent diagnosis of his own contraction of tuberculosis, brought the poet to consider the transient nature of human existence and to search for some form of permanence in nature or in art. The song of the nightingale, which is seen as a kind of natural poet, offers Keats such a symbol of permanence. The poem records Keats’s struggle to merge his life with the immortal song of that bird and thereby escape, at least temporarily, his own mortality.
The poem can be divided into three movements or parts. The first part, stanzas 1 to 3, describes the narrator’s anguish upon hearing the immortal song of the bird in the distance. The “full-throated ease” with which it sings completely captures the poet’s attention, causing him to forget, temporarily, his own mortality. That happiness, however, is short lived, for it quickly becomes the occasion for the poet to remember his own temporary existence.
The pain of that recognition is what generates the desire for escape through wine in the second stanza. Through wine, the poet may find some release from the pain invoked by the bird’s song. Clearly, the poet sees the wine as an agent of nature, which further suggests that he sees nature as a source of escape from his own mortality, a common notion among many Romantic poets. The poet reasons that if he can forget his impending death, he will be able to join the bird and subsequently escape what the bird has never known: “The weariness, the fever, and the fret/ Here, where men sit and hear each other groan.”
In stanza 4, which begins the second movement, the poet rejects wine and turns instead to “the viewless wings of Poesy.” Wine enables him to forget, but it dulls the senses and obstructs vision. Poetry, on the other hand, engages the imagination, enlivens the senses, and empowers the poet to transcend himself and become one with the bird. “Already with thee!” the poet announces his imaginative oneness with the bird.
Stanzas 5, 6, and 7 describe the poet’s close union with the bird. The poet “cannot see” what flowers are at his feet, but his imagination can create the scene unavailable to his eyes, including such minute and hidden details as the “Fast fading violets cover’d up in leaves.” As his imagination works to re-create the bird’s world, the poet’s attention is temporarily diverted from “The weariness, the fever, and the fret” of human existence.
Vision gives way to sound in stanza 6, where the poet reveals that he has long been “half in love with easeful Death.” The transcendental experience of the previous stanza leads him to recall past times when he had wanted to escape his mortal condition. “To cease upon the midnight with no pain” now seems particularly inviting. Yet, as the poet notes at the end of stanza 6, were he to die, he would be surrendering to the very thing that he hopes to escape—mortality. Moreover, to die is to become deaf to the song of the bird, “To thy high requiem become a sod.” There the poet discovers the painful paradox of human existence: Life is a source of great pain and anguish, and yet, oddly enough, to escape the pain and anguish through death is to lose the very thing that makes death desirable. To die is to forfeit all access to beauty and joy.
The final turn comes in the last stanza where the spell is broken, the poet is imaginatively disengaged from the bird, and he returns to the mortal world “Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs,/ Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies.” The poet concedes that “the fancy cannot cheat so well/ As she is fam’d to do” and is left to wonder if what he has experienced was in fact a visionary moment of transcendence or only a “waking dream.” In either case, the poem ends on the ironic note that, although the poet believes that he is trapped within the mortal world of death and change, in fact, like the nightingale whose immortal song is heard by succeeding generations, the poet, through his poetry, has achieved a kind of immortality after all. The poem, like the bird’s song, will be heard by future generations, and with each hearing or reading, the spirit of John Keats will live again.
“Ode on a Grecian Urn”
First published: 1820 (collected in “Lamia,” “Isabella,” “The Eve of St. Agnes,” and Other Poems, 1820)
Type of work: Poem
In a world of change and uncertainty, art offers the poet a symbol of permanence and timeless truth.
“Ode on a Grecian Urn” addresses many of the same concerns that occupied Keats in “Ode to a Nightingale,” except that in this poem he turns his attention from the natural poetry of the bird to the human artistry of the urn. Unable to escape his sense of life’s transience through the immortal song of the bird, Keats looks to the timeless truth embodied in the urn. Keats once again encounters the paradox that is central to all of his art: To achieve immortality is to rid oneself of change, but it is change, not stasis, that produces the contrasts necessary for all that is good.
In the first stanza, the poet contemplates first the urn as a whole, which he characterizes as a “historian,” and then turns his attention to the detailed scene engraved onto the side of the urn. The urn first is described as an “unravish’d bride of quietness,” calling attention to the fact that it is only when the poet begins to think about the urn that it begins to tell its story. The urn cannot speak, in other words, until it is spoken to. That is a significant point, for it leads to the conclusion that the immortal urn exists in any meaningful way only when it comes into contact with, and is activated by, the inquiring intelligence of a mortal observer. Immortality, the poet again seems to be saying, depends in some fundamental way upon its opposite.
He then begins asking the urn questions about the people portrayed on the side of the urn. He wonders who they are, “deities or mortals, or of both,” and speculates about the location of the engraved scene, “In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?” The setting is obviously ancient Greece, a time when mortals and gods often interacted. From the very beginning, therefore, the poet is concerned with the issue of immortality, both as it is represented by the immortal urn and by the godlike characters whose “legend” is engraved on the side.
Stanza 2 shifts from questions to observations. The first observation stems from the experience of the first stanza. Having tried to experience imaginatively the scene before him, the poet reaches the conclusion that the imagination, when engaged by art, produces an experience that is superior to reality. The sounds of the pipes are sweet, to be sure, but the sounds supplied by the imagination “Are sweeter,” because the imagination can alter and improve upon actual experience. Not bound by the material world, the imagination is capable of conjuring up sights, sounds, and emotions far beyond one’s physical human capabilities. It would seem, therefore, that Keats is suggesting that the world of the imagination, which is the world of art, is preferable to the world of actuality. In the ideal world of art, where life need not conform to the limitations of flesh and blood, everything is as it should be; there the leaves never fall from the trees, no one ever dies, youth never fades, and lovers are forever young and forever in love. Keats comes to that realization through the scene before him: Although the lover, poised to kill his beloved, will never actually complete the act, nevertheless it is not a loss, since his beloved “cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,/ For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!”
This praise for the perfection and permanence of art continues through stanzas 3 and most of 4 until the poet pauses to wonder about the “little town by river or sea shore” that has been vacated by the people portrayed on the urn. In attending this celebration of life, they have left their village forever, never to return. In this detail the poet discovers a complication in his admiration for permanence, for even as the lovers will always be young and in love, so in turn will the village always be empty and silent with “not a soul to tell/ Why thou art desolate.” There is a shift in tone from the celebratory mood of the previous two stanzas to a somber, almost sad picture of the deserted town and its eternal silence. The celebration of life on the urn has its counterpart in the unspoken death of the village. Again Keats brings life and death together, but in this case both are made immortal through art. Keats’s point is that if there is much that is desirable in the immortality of his lovers and their eternal celebration of love and life, there is also much that is undesirable in this idealized world; not only will the lover never actually kiss his beloved (they will always remain right on the verge of touching each other’s lips) but also everything that surrounds this event likewise will be frozen in time, including the abandoned village.
In the end, the poet sees the urn as a friend to humanity, but that friendship resides less in the particular truth that the urn has to teach humankind and more in the fact that the message is truth, and truth (whether joyful or painful) is beautiful. The questions of whether the permanence of art is good or bad, whether immortality is better than mortality, or whether stasis is preferable to change are all set aside in the end in favor of a statement about the lasting importance of truth—all truth—and the capacity of art to convey that truth from one generation to the next. Whether or not one agrees with Keats’s poem is ultimately unimportant; what is important is that his poem discloses a truth, the great and enduring gift of art.