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...
(The entire section is 7,149 words.)