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 ambition, love, and work is accepted.
The Fall of Hyperion
All these issues—the quest for immortality; the region of quest as dream; the transformation essential to achieve the quest; the spiritual weakness inevitably felt in the face of the challenge to be immortal; and, beyond all these, an altruism that seeks to distinguish between the relative value of humanitarian works and poetry in behalf of suffering humanity—are melded in Keats’s second quest for epic achievement, The Fall of Hyperion. Following a brief introduction, the poem moves to a dream arbor reserved for the dreamer, who “venoms all his days,/ Bearing more woe than all his sins deserve.” Remnants of a feast strew the ground; the narrator eats, partakes of a draft of cool juice and is transported through sleep and reawakening to a second dream kingdom. He finds himself this time amid remnants of an ancient religious festival. These dream regions represent Keats’s aspirations to romance and epic respectively. Off in the west, he sees a huge image being ministered to by a woman. The image is Saturn; the minister is Moneta, Mnemosyne’s surrogate. Moneta’s face is curtained to conceal the immense knowledge her eyes can reveal to those worthy of receiving her immortal knowledge. She challenges the narrator to prove himself so worthy by climbing the altar stairs to immortality, or dying on the spot. Cold death begins to mount through his body; in numbness he strives to reach the lowest step—“Slow, heavy, deadly was my pace: the cold/ Grew stifling, suffocating, at the heart;/ And when I clasped my hands I felt them not.” At the last moment, he is saved; his “iced feet” touch the lowest step and “life seemed/ To pour in at the toes.” He learns that he has been saved because he has felt for the suffering of the world, though he is only a dreamer, without hope for himself or of value to others. True poets, Moneta tells him, pour balm on the world; dreamers increase the vexation of humankind.
Although in his letters Keats gave precedence to “fine doing” over “fine writing” as “the top thing in the world,” the poem does not clarify whether humanitarians are above the poets of humankind, though both are unquestionably above the dreamers. The poem then moves to the metamorphosis that will make the dreamer a poet through the acquisition of knowledge. Moneta’s bright-blanched face reveals the immortal sorrow she has endured for eons; her eyes hold the narrator enthralled with the promise of the “high tragedy” they contain, for their light and the sorrowful touch of her voice reveal deep knowledge. He begs to know, and she relates the fall of the Titans. The revelation begins the narrator’s transformation: “Whereon there grew/ A power within me of enormous ken./ To see as a God sees.” His vision opens with the “long awful time” Saturn sat motionless with Thea at his feet. In anguish, the narrator sits on a tree awaiting action, but the pain must be endured, for knowledge does not come easily or quickly, not even in a dream. The narrator curses his prolonged existence, praying that death release him from the vale, until Saturn moves to speak and the narrator witnesses scenes of the beginning of things from Hyperion. The poem continues but this version also ends incomplete, with Hyperion flaring to earth.
It is a poignant fact that Keats never believed that his poetry, his work, had come to anything, his epic endeavors left incomplete, no “few fine Plays” written. Writing to Fanny Brawne in February, 1820, he said that he had frequently regretted not producing one immortal work to make friends proud of his memory. Now frighteningly ill, the thought of this failure and his love for Fanny were the sole two thoughts of his long, anxious nights. Quoting Milton’s lines on fame from “Lycidas,” Keats wrote to her: “Now you divide with this (may I say it) ’last infirmity of noble minds’ all my reflection.”
Their love had earlier spawned his most important love poems, though he refused his created lovers the bliss of unreflecting love. It would seem unfortunate that dreams do not outlast the act of dreaming, but Keats’s romances, “The Eve of St. Agnes” and Lamia, approach wish-fulfillment more critically. “The Eve of St. Agnes” permits a love dream to become flesh to provoke a dreamer’s response to the contrast between dream and reality, though they are, in person, the same; Lamia permits a too-ordinary mortal to enter the love dream of a lovely immortal to elicit the likely response of the nondreamer to the experience of continuous, in this case, carnal, perfection. Together the poems serve to show that lovers cannot have it either way: Either reality will not be good enough for the dreamer, or the dream will not satisfy the extra-romantic desires of the nondreamer.
“The Eve of St. Agnes”
“The Eve of St. Agnes” presents an array of wish-fulfilling mechanisms that seek to alter, control, or purify reality—praying, suffering, drinking, music, ritual, dance, and, at the center, dreaming. This poem with a medieval setting opens with a holy beadsman, “meagre, barefoot, wan,” praying to the Virgin in the castle’s icy chapel. Though he is fleetingly tempted to walk toward the music dancing down the hall from a party within, he turns to sit among “rough ashes” in recompense for his and others’ sins. Among others praying this frigid night is Madeline, who follows the ritual of Saint Agnes: If a maiden refrains from eating, drinking, speaking, listening, looking anywhere, except up to heaven, and lies supine when she retires, she will be rewarded with the vision of her future husband. The irony of the patron saint of virgins inspiring a heterosexual vision is lost on the young girl, panting as she prays for all “the bliss to be before to-morrow morn.” Meanwhile, Porphyro, her love, is in reality racing across the moors to worship his Madeline. As Madeline works on her dream, Porphyro will act on his desired reality—getting into Madeline’s bedroom closet where “he might see her beauty unespied,/ And win perhaps that night a peerless bride.”
The lovers’ stratagems provide a weird culmination, though they move in complementary pattern. While Madeline is undergoing her ritualistic deprivations, Porphyro is gathering, through the assistance of her wily old nurse, Angela, a banquet of delights to fulfill deliciously her sensual needs; while she undresses, he gazes, of course, unseen; while she silently sleeps, he pipes in her ear “La belle dame sans merci.” When she awakens to find the man of her dream at her side, however, the seemingly perfect solution is shattered. Madeline’s dream of Porphyro was better than Porphyro and she tells him so: “How changed thou art! how pallid, chill, and drear!” She implores that he return to her as the dream. Porphyro arises, “Beyond a mortal man impassioned far/ At these voluptuous accents” and
like a throbbing star. . . . . . .Into her dream he melted, as the roseBlendeth its odor with the violet—Solution sweet.
The moon of Saint Agnes, which has been languishing throughout the poem, sets as Madeline loses her virginity. Madeline, however, comes out of the experience confused; she wanted a dream, not reality, and apparently she could not distinguish between them at their climax. Now bewildered, and feeling betrayed and vulnerable to abandonment, she chides Porphyro for taking advantage. He assures her of his undying devotion and the two flee the sleeping castle into the storm, for he has prepared a home for her in the southern moors. The drunken revelers from the party lie benightmared; Angela soon dies “palsy-twitched”; and the loveless beadsman, after thousands of Aves, sleeps forever among his ashes.
A skeptical reading of the poem has found Porphyro a voyeur and (perhaps) a rapist, Madeline a silly conjurer whose machinations have backfired; an optimistic reading has Madeline and Porphyro ascending to heaven’s bourn. The language, imagery, and structure allow both interpretations, which is the way of complex ironic honesty. The dream experience, for example, has two parts: the first when Madeline awakens to find Porphyro disappointingly imperfect; the second when the two blend into “solution sweet.” It would seem that dream and reality have unified in the second part, but the first part is not thereby negated. Rather, the lovers are lost in sensory intensity, which, according to Keats, makes “all disagreeables evaporate.” Whether the moment of intensity is worth the necessary conjuration before or the inevitable disillusionment afterward is a judgment on the nature of romance itself, down to this very day.
Lamia provides the nondreamer, Lycius, with much more than the two ordinary lovers of “The Eve of St. Agnes” are permitted; but the question is whether more is better. T. S. Eliot wrote that humankind cannot stand very much reality; Keats suggests in Lamia that neither can people bear very much dreaming. Lamia, as imagination incarnate, provides her lover Lycius with a realized dream of carnal perfection that extends continuously until he tires of her adoration. When Lamia, once bound in serpent form, was capable of sending her imagination abroad to mingle among the mortals of Corinth, she saw Lycius in a chariot race and fell in love. After being released from her serpent prison house by another immortal, Hermes, in an exchange of wish fulfillments, she assumes a glorious woman’s body to attract Lycius. She is successful, but a series of compromises must be made to win him and satisfy his desires. Those compromises are the record of imagination’s degeneration. Because Lycius is so overwhelmed by her beauty, he believes she must be immortal and loses his confidence. She “throws the goddess off” to encourage his masculinity. When he tires of the carnal pleasure she provides in the “purple-lined palace of sweet sin,” she begs on her knees that he might preserve the privacy of their dream, for she knows of her vulnerability to reason. The sight of her begging brings out the sadist in Lycius, who “takes delight in her sorrows, soft and new.” His passion grown cruel, Lamia plays the complementary masochist, burning, loving the tyranny. She grants his wish that they should be married before all of Corinth, and creates a feast and a vision of palatial splendor for the “gossip rout.” The philosopher Apollonius, tutor to Lycius, crashes the party to destroy the dream with his “keen, cruel, perceant, stinging” eye. Apollonius is reason to Lamia’s imagination, and in the confrontation between them, Lamia dissipates; Lycius the scholar-lover dies because he is incapable of balancing reason and imagination; and Apollonius is left with a Pyrrhic victory, for he has lost his pupil whom he intended to save.
Ironically, the loss of the dream, the dreamers, and the battle is not even tragic because not one was worthy of salvation. Lycius risks his dream so that his friends will look with admiration, but his friends choke over his good fortune; Lamia concedes to this foolish vanity; and Apollonius, the brilliant sophist, mistakes the whole situation, feeling that Lycius has become the prey of Lamia. More than saying that dreams cannot mix with reality, Lamia warns that imagination cannot be prostituted to the pleasure principle. Dreams are pure and sensitive constructs inspired by love, created for the psyche by the imagination. The eye of self-consciousness; participation with others, including loved ones; the dictates of forces less pure than love—all cause dissolution of the ephemeral dream.
“Ode to a Nightingale
“Ode ” to a Nightingale” leaves the medium of the dream for empathic identification with a natural being that seems to promise transcendence of the human condition. Again, a transcendence of self is fleetingly achieved, leaving the poet, in propria persona, more isolated and bewildered thereafter. He opens the poem having returned from identification with the bird’s “happiness” that causes and permits it to sing “of summer in full-throated ease.” The poet, however, is now drowsy and numb, so far has he sunk from that high experience of unself-conscious joy. He wishes for any wine, human or divine, that might effect a dissolution of consciousness and a return to the bird; for among men, “but to think is to be full of sorrow/ And leaden-eyed despairs.” The transience of the physical splendor of beauty, of the psychological heights of love; the tragedy of early death, the indignity of aging to death; participation in human misery—all have thwarted any love or hope he might feel for the human condition.
In the fourth stanza, the poet seems to join the bird, but ambiguously. After exhorting either his imagination or the bird (or both) to fly “Away! away!” where he will reach it on “the viewless wings of Poesy,” he seems to achieve the connection: “Already with thee! tender is the night.” The eighth and final stanza supports the interpretation of his extended identification, for it has the poet being tolled back from the bird “to my sole self.” Before the identification in stanza 4, however, he has qualified the power of those viewless wings to keep him in stable flight, for “the dull brain perplexes and retards.” Consequently, throughout the poem, he is neither entirely with the bird, nor entirely in his metaphysical agony, but rather in a state of mixed or split consciousness that leads to the poem’s concluding questions: “Was it vision, or a waking dream?/ Fled is that music:—Do I wake or sleep?” In the sixth stanza, for example, as he sits in his “embalmèd darkness” in the arbor, he says, “Darkling I listen; and, for many a time/ I have been half in love with easeful Death.” Shortly, he seems to be lost in the ecstasy of the bird’s song. Yet immediately he retracts, for common sense tells him that, if he were dead, his ears would be in vain, and “To thy high requiem” of the bird, he would “become a sod.”
The seventh stanza distinguishes the immortality of the bird’s song from the mortality of the poet, and for another passing moment he seems to experience identification as he slips into empathy with those through time who have also heard the immortal song, especially Ruth of the Old Testament: “Perhaps the self-same song that found a path/ Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,/ She stood in tears amid the alien corn.” This song that flows through time sparks both the poet’s identification with it and his empathy for fellow beings. He is not as explicit as Walt Whitman would be in defining immortality as empathy for all beings and experiences of all times, but his revealed feeling for others is the eternal human counterpart to the song that eternally elicits the feeling. Still, the great divider between the bird and poet is the poet’s self-consciousness. The bird, unaware of its individuality and coming death, is more a medium of the song of its species than a being in its own right. The poet withdraws completely in the final stanza to his “sole self.” The imagination cannot support the identification with a dissimilar being for very long. The bird’s song fades until it is metaphorically dead to the poet, “buried deep/ In the next valley glades.” The stimulus for experience now fled, the poet recognizes the division he has undergone between empathy and identity, being in and out of self, with neither strain coming to resolution. The bewilderment of the conclusion reflects perfectly the imperfect resolution of his experience.
“Ode on Melancholy”
The “Ode on Melancholy” offers perhaps the most positive perspective possible to one who appreciates this tragedy of the human condition. Its psychology is a variant of Satan’s from Paradise Lost: “Evil, be thou my good.” The poet advises that when the “melancholy fit shall fall,” as fall it must, one should not seek to escape with “poisonous wine,” “nightshade,” or other agents that would “drown the wakeful anguish of the soul,” for that very anguish is the catalyst for more intensely valuing transient beauty, joy, and love. Even the anger of a loved one will reach a value transcending relationship, if one should “Emprison her soft hand, and let her rave,/ And feed deep, deep upon her peerless eyes.” The glow fired by her passion, the beauty, joy, and pleasure that accompany love, all must dwindle, die, depart, sour; but if one holds an awareness of their end while indulging in their prime, the triumph of deep inclusive response will reward the sensitive soul with ultimate mortal value. It will be among Melancholy’s “cloudy trophies hung,” which is to say, the “sadness of her might” will hold him forever sensitive to the richness of transience.
In ” like manner,“To Autumn” offers a perspective on nature in the ultimate richness of its condition. It has always been difficult for poets to look on nature without moralizing its landscape for human edification. The Romantic period especially sought its morality from nature and its processes. Keats, however, describes nature without pressing metaphor out of it; his goal is to offer it as worthy in itself so that one might love it for itself. If there are analogues between human nature and nature, they are not the subject, concern, or purpose of the poem. As several critics have noted, the stanzas move from the late growth of summer to the fulfillment of autumn to the harvested landscape; correspondingly, the imagery moves from tactile to visual to auditory in an ascension from the most grossly physical to the most nonphysical. The sun and the season are in league to load and bless the vines with fruit, and in a string of energetic infinitives, the push of life’s fulfillment is represented: “To bend with apples the mossed cottage trees,” to “fill all fruit with ripeness to the core,” “To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells,” “to set budding more,/ And still more, later flowers for the bees.” An image of surfeited bees, who think summer will never end, their “clammy cells” are so “o’er-brimmed,” concludes the first stanza.
Stanza 2 presents the personification of autumn “sitting careless on a granary floor”; sound asleep “Drowsed with the fume of poppies” in the fields; “by a cyder press, with patient look,” watching the “last oozings hours by hours.” The harvested stubble plains of stanza 3 provoke the poet’s question, “Where are the songs of spring?” Even so, the question is raised more to dismiss it as irrelevant than to honor its inevitability. Autumn has its own music and the poem softly presents it: as the stubble plains are covered with the rosy hue of the dying day, the “small gnats mourn,” “full-grown lambs loud bleat,” “Hedge crickets sing,” “with treble soft/ The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft,” and “gathering swallows twitter in the skies.” The suggestion of animate life singing unconsciously in its joy, while just as unconsciously readying for winter, signals the end of the natural year. Unlike Shelley, however, who in “Ode to the West Wind” looks through the fall and coming winter to spring as an analogue of rebirth for humankind, Keats allows not more than a suggestion of what is to follow, and that only because it belongs to the sound and action of the season. Autumn is accepted for itself, not as an image, sign, or omen of spiritual value. Ripeness is all.
“Ode on a Grecian Urn”
As “Ode on Melancholy” and “To Autumn” established perspectives on the human condition and nature, so “Ode on a Grecian Urn” establishes a relationship with art. This ode begins and ends by addressing the urn as object, but the subject-object duality is dissolved in the third of the five stanzas. The experiential movement of the poem is from ignorance through identification to understanding. The poet addresses the urn as a “bride of quietness,” “still unravished” by passing generations. It is a “foster child of silence and slow time.” Once the child of the artist and his time, the urn belongs not to eternity, for it is vulnerable to destruction, but to the timeless existence of what endures. It is a sylvan historian, containing a narrative relief of the beings and scenes of its surface. The poet asks questions of it as historian; what gods, music, bacchanalian frenzy it images. All is silent; but that is best, we learn, for “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard/ Are sweeter,” free to become as flawless as imagination can wish. The second stanza finds the poet moving close, addressing the urn’s individuals. The “Fair youth” who pipes the song so softly that only the spirit hears, the “Bold lover” who has neared the lips of his maiden, both arouse the poet-lover’s empathy.
In the third stanza, the poet participates fully in the urn’s existence as he inspires scenery and youths with imaginative fervor. The “happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed/ [their] leaves, nor ever bid the spring adieu”; the “happy melodist, unwearied,/ Forever piping songs forever new”; and, above all, “more happy love! more happy, happy love!/ Forever warm and still to be enjoyed,/ Forever panting, and forever young”—none of it can pass. Nature, art, and love remain in the glow of their promise. The love on the urn arouses a special contrast with “breathing human passion . . ./ That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloyed,/ A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.” The fourth stanza begins to pull out of intense identification, with questions on the urn’s religious scene: “Who are these coming to the sacrifice?” To what “green altar” does the priest lead his sacrificial heifer? What town do they come from that will be emptied of its inhabitants forever? Stanza 5 again addresses the urn as object, but with increased understanding over stanza 1. She is now “Attic shape! Fair Attitude! with brede/ Of marble men and maidens overwrought.” The bride, though unravished and wed to quietness, has her breed of beings, themselves passionately in pursuit of experience. She is a “silent form” that “dost tease us out of thought/ As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!” If her silence provokes participation so that viewers lose self-consciousness in her form, then truly they are teased out of thought, as the poet was in stanza 3. Why, though, is she a “Cold Pastoral!”
Critics have taken this to be the poet’s criticism of the urn in her relationship with those who contemplate her; perhaps it is best, however, that the urn remain cold, if she is to encourage and reward the viewers’ empathy. Stanza 3 criticized human passion for its torrid intensity in contrast with the urn’s image of love “Forever warm and [thus] still to be enjoyed.” The urn remains a cold object until it is kindled by the viewers’ passion. When the mortals of the present generation have been wasted by time, the urn will continue to exist for others, “a friend to man,” to whom it (or the poet) has this to say: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty—that is all/ Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
Much has been written about these final lines of the “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” and the technicalities of this famous problem for criticism must be at least briefly addressed. The difficulty is in determining who is saying what to whom; the issue has a mundane origin in punctuation. According to the text of the Lamia volume, the lines should be punctuated with the quotation marks enclosing only the beauty-truth statement: “’Beauty is truth, truth beauty’—that is all. . . .” If the lines are punctuated thus, the urn makes the beauty-truth statement, and the poet himself offers the evaluation of it, either to the urn, to the figures on the urn, or to the reader. Many scholars, however, see the matter differently; they would place the entire aphorism within quotations, based upon manuscript authority: “’Beauty is truth . . . need to know.’” With this punctuation, the urn is talking to man. Both choices lead to problematic interpretations. In the former case, it does not make much sense for the poet to speak to the urn or to its images about “all ye know on earth,” as if there were someplace else for the urn to know something. There might be an afterlife where things can be known, but not for the urn. It would be odd for the poet to speak to the reader in that way, too. The inconsistency in tone would be especially awkward. Several lines earlier, he had joined his reader in saying to the urn: “Thou . . . dost tease us out of thought.” To refer now to “us” as ye, as in “that is all/ Ye know on earth,” is out of tone. On the other hand, the argument against the urn speaking the entire aphorism is directed against its sufficiency. It has been argued that human beings need to know a great deal more than “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” no matter how one tries to stretch the meanings of the terms to make them appear all-inclusive. There is no way to resolve this critical problem with confidence, though trying to think through it will provide an exercise in Keatsian specuation at its best.
To agree that the experience the poet undergoes is entirely satisfactory might be enough, though there is not critical unanimity about this, either. Lovers about to kiss, rather than kissing; trees in their springtime promise, rather than in fruition; a song that has to be imagined; a sacrifice still to be made, rather than offered—all can suggest experience short of perfection. Yet, like Keats’s dreams that surpass reality, these figures are safely in their imaginative prime. The kiss, after all, may not be as sweet as anticipated; the fruit may be blighted; the song may be tiresome or soon grow so; the sacrifice may be unacceptable.
In fact, a reader comes to Keats’s poetry as the poet himself came to the urn. Like all great art, Keats’s poetry is evocative; it leads its readers’ emotions and thoughts into and then out of its formal beauty to teach and delight. One can stand back and examine its formal perfection; one can ask questions of it about human nature and its desires for being and loving. Yet only through the experience of it can one learn what it has to teach; only after one goes through the empathy of Keats’s narrator in stanza 3 can one speak with confidence of its meaning.