John Keats World Literature Analysis
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....
(The entire section is 3,173 words.)