John Keats as a Romantic Poet
Table of Contents
John Keats was not only the last, but also the most perfect Romanticists. While Wordsworth was reforming poetry or upholding the moral laws and Scott merely telling romantic stories, and Byron voicing his own egoism and the political discontent of the times, and Shelley advocating impossible reforms, Keats lived away from men and politics worshipping beauty like a devotee. The might slogans of the French Revolution and the deafening cries of the Napoleonic campaign blew over his head. He was perfectly content to write what was in his own heart, or to reflect some splendor of the natural world as he saw or dreamt it to be.
Keats’ poetry reveals almost all the features of Romantic poetry, such as subjectivity, escapism, addition of strangeness to beauty, love of nature, melancholy note and lyricism.
Keats’s poetry is essentially subjective. It expresses his personality, his faith and philosophy. The epithet ‘egotistical sublime’ which he once applied to Wordsworth is equally applicable to himself. A marvel of English poetry, the Ode to a Nightingale vibrates with his personal anguish. The youth that “grows pale, and spectre-thin and dies” is his own brother, Tom who died of consumption and the new love that cannot pine at them beyond tomorrow refers to his own love for Fanny Brawne which has already become an agony. The poem expresses the poet’s realization that imagination cannot transcend reality for a long time.
“……..the fancy cannot cheat so well
As she is famed to do, deceiving elf.”
Ode on a Grecian Urn is a record of his personality and his philosophy of beauty. The following lines ring with his passion for Fanny Brawne and the painful restlessness it meant for him.
“That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloyed,
A burning forehead and parching tongue.”
This Ode also expresses his concept of beauty which embraces the agonies, the strife of human hearts–the beauty which he thinks identical with truth,
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty”
Escapism which is the distinctive feature of Romantic poetry finds most eloquent and poetic expression in Keats’s poetry. The realization that human life is a long succession of sufferings makes him fly from reality to the imaginative world of beauty, art and romance, and to the Middle ages, the favourite haunt of the romanticists.
In the Ode to a Nightingale he escapes to the dreamland of beauty, and romance-the bower of the nightingale which is free from “the weariness, the fever and the fret” of human life. In the bower the poet forgets the ills and evils of life and enjoys himself fully. He smells the sweet smell of the flowers blooming in the bower and regales his ears with the murmur of flies that have alighted on the musk-roses to cull honey. He is perched on the height of bliss and longs “to cease upon midnight with no pain.”
In the Ode on a Grecian Urn he escapes to the world of art. The poem begins with the vision of an ideal condition of existence in which the decaying influence of time stands arrested. The poet is elated at the superabundant vitality of the figures carved on the Grecian Um and enjoys the picture of a happy, peaceful and harmonious communal life the harmony in the people’s life being sustained by their living faith in the presence of an eternal world.
Renascence of wonder
Keats’s poetry conforms to Watts-Dunton’s definition of Romanticism as the “Renascence of Wonder”, the definition which is considered to be the best one. Like Wordsworth, Coleridge and Shelley Keats’s imagination transfigures the common and familiar objects of life, nature and art into the uncommon things on which shines the light that was never on sea and land, and charges them with a subtle sense of mystery which for him consists in “an exquisite response to manifestations of beauty wherever they may be found.”
In the Ode to a Nightingale Keats’s imagination transforms the ordinary bird nightingale into a voice of romance and beauty, a voice that is deathless in a world in which beauty perishes and romance fleets. He discovers beauty in man’s ever-lasting capacity to respond to the voice of beauty in the midst of distressful situations as Ruth or the captive princess did. Moreover, he describes the truth of life ever-recurring ills and evils of life with such an intensity of imaginative perception that they impress us as things of strange beauty. Middleton Murry rightly says,
“the Ode denies nothing of human experience and it makes a great affirmation that……the bitterest human experience, if it can be so contemplated by the imagination, turns or can be transmuted into the beauty which is truth.”
In the Ode on a Grecian Urn Keats’s imagination transforms an ordinary Greek urn into an object of deathless beauty that will ever strike man with wonder. Addressing the urn the poet says that it provokes feelings and ideas which can no more be grasped by the human intellect than those raised by eternity. He turns the urn into an object which will soothe and console the future generations in the midst of their new woes by teaching them that
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty”
Love of Nature
Nature is a perennial source of inspiration to Keats as she is to other Romantic poets. But his love of Nature, unlike that of Wordsworth or Shelley is sensuous. Where Wordsworth spiritualizes and Shelley intellectualizes, Keats is content to express her through the senses, the colour, the scent, the touch, the pulsing music. There is not an aspect of Nature he does not love, not a season that will not cheer and inspire him.
In the Nightingale Ode Keats enjoys the beauties of Nature through his senses. He scents the sweet-smelling flowers that have bloomed in the bower and regales his ears with the murmur of bees collecting honey from the musk-roses. The same sensuousness marks his descriptions of the sculptured scenes in the Ode on a Grecian Urn. The fair youth plays on his pipe beneath the trees which have,
“………happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu,”
We have also sensuous description of the “heifer lowing at the skies”, “a little town by river or sea-shore or mountain-built with peaceful citadel.”
Keats’s poetry strikes that note of melancholy which is the hall-mark of Romantic poetry. His sense of the permanence of Beauty and mutability of life lies at the root of his melancholy. The Nightingale Ode is charged with the melancholy note, with the realization that everything in this world youth physical beauty, love are all evanescent Life on earth is a continual round of sorrows and sufferings. Here “men sit and hear each other groan.” To escape this painful reality the poet longs for death–“to cease upon the midnight with no pain.” The poem ends on a note of melancholy:
“Forlorn! the very word is like a bell
To toll me back from thee to my sole self”
There runs a thread of romantic melancholy in Ode on a Grecian Urn. Though he escapes to the ideal land of bliss represented by the Grecian Urn, he is aware, all the time, of the sorrows and sufferings that invade human life. This is attested by the fact that the poet’s ascent into the life of the imagination (i.e. eternity) is followed quickly by a descent into the life of death, decay, sorrow and satiety.
“All breathing human passion far above
That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy’d
A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.”
Romantic poetry is essentially lyrical. Keats’s poem’s, especially his odes are marvels of lyrical poetry. His Ode to a Nightingale and Ode on a Grecian Urn scale the height of lyricism. As A. C. Swinburne says, “Greater lyrical poetry the world may have seen than any that is in these odes, lovelier it surely has never seen nor ever can it possibly see.” These odes are charged with an intensity of feeling and illustrate his power of word-painting, and his sense of music and melody. Their spontaneity as in the following lines from the Nightingale Ode is almost unparalleled :
“Charmed magic casements, opening on the foam
Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.”
Keats was endowed with a truly Hellenic (i.e. Greek) temperament. Though he could not read Greek and though his knowledge of Greek life and culture was derived from the translations of Greek literature, still his poetry embodies the Greek spirit so fully that Shelley was led to say:
“He was a Greek.”
Keats’s vision and worship of beauty is essentially Hellenic. To him, as to the Hellenes (i.e. ancient Greeks) the expression of beauty is the ideal of all art and this beauty is not exclusively physical or intellectual or spiritual, but represents the fullest development of all that goes to make up human perfection. Like the Hellenic poetry Keats’s is free from philosophic or moral purpose, and exists for its own sake. Keats’ Hellenism is also seen in his marvellous power of visualizing natural phenomena in concrete human forms and images.
Like the ancient Greeks he views Nature not as mere scenery but as human beings. Autumn to Keats is not only a season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, but a divinity in human shape. Again, like the Greeks’ his attitude towards Nature is one of child-like wonder and joy. Keats’s Greek-ness also reveals itself in the delight he shows in the myths and legends of ancient Greece and in the belief in the presence of numerous deities peopling the different objects of Nature. He is also a Greek in the simplicity and directness of expression which are the inestimable quality of Homer and the Greek tragedians. There is nothing vague or involved in his style, as in Shelley or Wordsworth.
Medievalism with all its paraphernalia of love, all-daring, all enduring, faithful unto death, chivalry, romance, adventure, religion, superstitions, mystery, enchantment, pomp and pageantry, cast an irresistible spell upon Keats’s mind. So he sought an escape from the drab and joyless present to the coloured world of the middle ages. Many of his poems are based on stories from medieval life. The glaring example of this type of poem is La Belle Dame Sans Merci.
Keats is, as Matthew Arnold says, abundantly and enchantingly sensuous. He himself exclaims in one of his letters: “Oh, for a life of sensations rather than of thoughts.” He believed like Wordsworth, in the importance of sensation and its pleasures : but for him sensation included taste, touch, smell, sight and hearing while for Wordsworth it included only sight and hearing. Records of sight, touch, smell, hearing crowd every line of his poetry. “Sensation for Keats, as for Wordsworth, was cognitive, it was a path to the knowledge of reality. and the poet’s duty was therefore to seek it and to render it persuasively in words. This was a new view of the poet’s task.” Again, Keats revelled in the luxury of all the senses, even of those associated with sex on feminine body and not merely of the respectable senses, as with Wordsworth.
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