Keats as a Poet of Beauty
John Keats has rightly been regarded as ‘the worshipper of beauty’. Keats’s poetry is remarkable for its treatment of Beauty and Mutability. Keats began his poetic career as a lover of beauty in its purely sensuous aspects. The beautiful in sound, colour and form made a strong appeal to him. But afterwards he stepped beyond the sensuous stage, and his love for beauty became, like Shelley’s, an intellectual or spiritual passion. He came to
“love the mighty abstract idea of Beauty in all things.”
He saw beauty in the
“still sad music of humanity”,
and the moral problems of the universe. This beauty is eternal, it is the very stuff of that ever-lasting reality that lies beyond the surface of things. It is identical with truth—
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,”
In Keats’s poems Beauty is often contrasted with Mutability that characterize the facts of life—the changefulness to which man and all that he is heir to are subject.
Keats’s poetry may be broadly termed as a Search for beauty. The development of Keats’s mind and art is nothing but the development of his concept of beauty. In the beginning of his poetic career Keats was concerned with beauty as perceived by the senses beautiful sights and scenes in Nature, and beautiful women. But about 1817 his concept of beauty undergoes a sea-change. In his Sleep and Poetry he comes to grapple the mighty abstract idea of beauty in all things. Therefore in his poem Endymion, Keats states:
“A thing of beauty is a joy forever”
He bids farewell to “the world of Flora and Old Pan”, and comes to see beauty into “the still, sad music of humanity.” He realizes that true concept of beauty must embrace the sorrows and sufferings of life, which, though ugly and unpleasant, are the never-changing truths of life. And whatever is true is beautiful and whatever is beautiful is eternal, because truth (i.e. beauty) never perishes. Keats has beautifully defined his final idea of beauty in the concluding lines of Ode on a Grecian Urn:
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty, that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
Thus the poet must deal with the agonies and the strife of human hearts to show their latent beauty. This is what Shakespeare has done.
Ode to a Nightingale illustrates Keats’s treatment of Beauty and Mutability. The bird nightingale represents beauty. Like a thing of beauty it is deathless:
“Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!
No hungry generations tread thee down.”
Keats’s imagination transforms it into a voice of romance regaling kings and clowns with its sweet song down the ages. Keats also 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.
The beauty as represented by the nightingale is set off by the mutability of this world which is full of “the weariness, the fever and the fret” and
“……Where men sit and hear each other groan,
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last grey hairs,
Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thing, and dies;
Where beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,
Or new Love pine at them beyond tomorrow.”
But Keats describes the tragic facts of life with such an intensity of imaginative perception that they impress us as things of beauty. Middleton Murry rightly says that 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 thing which is truth.”
In Ode on a Grecian Urn Keats balances Beauty with Mutability the changeless life in art with the changeful life on earth. Art isolates a single moment out of the complex web of life and makes it static. It cannot reach the progressive perfection of life, but to set off against this it will never fall off from the crest of experience embodied in the moment. Eternity is promised to art while transitoriness is the portion of life. On the surface of the Grecian urn there are a number of figures sculptured in different postures. Among these is a young man hotly chasing a girl who is running away to escape being caught and kissed. The lover is passionate and the girl is beautiful. There is a gap between the young man and the girl. The young man is very eager to make the gap up so that he can catch and kiss the girl. But art has caught them in their respective positions and made them changeless. So the passionate lover will never be able to kiss the girl. But the lover need not be sorry for this, because for art’s intervention he will never know the satiety that follows the physical enjoyment of love in life: nor will the girl ever lose her youth and beauty-a fact that cannot be dreamt of on this earth where everything is in a flux. As Downer observes,
“life pays for its unique prerogative of reality by satiety and decay, while Art in forfeiting reality gains in exchange permanence of beauty, and the power to charm by imagined experiences even richer than the real.”
Ode to Autumn treats beauty which is truth. The poets ever consider spring as a season of beauty, and sings of its joy and glory. On the other hand, they think autumn to be an ugly season a season of mist and cold. But Keats finds in autumn as much beauty as in spring. He says.
“Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too-“
The spiritual disturbance which is caused him by his sense of the mutability of life and which marks the Nightingale Ode is absent here. He is fully satisfied with what he sees and hears in autumn.