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  • By David B. Gosselin

Why John Keats Is Not a Romantic

Portrait of John Keats by Joseph Severn, 1819

While most professors and critics place John Keats in the same category of poets as Romantics like Lord Byron, William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, nothing could be further from the truth.

In a letter to his brother George (September 1819), Keats made the subtle, but crucial distinction between his approach to poetry and that of such notable Romantics as Byron:

"You speak of Lord Byron and me – There is this great difference between us. He describes what he sees – I describe what I imagine – mine is the hardest."

Romantic poetry largely concerned itself with describing and idealizing the sensual world and its myriad images. However, Keats thought in precisely the opposite manner: the sensual world was a realm of paradoxes, an entry-point through which to confront and wrestle with the greatest questions of the human experience. Imagination was not a question of merely imaginary worlds, it was the realm in which Truth could be captured in its purest form, untainted by the folly and prejudice of the world.

Like his contemporaries, Keats did use the lush and natural imagery of the sensual world as something familiar with which the reader could identify, but he did this not in order to simply keep them in a sense of thrall to the sensual world, but as a means of drawing them into a new unfamiliar world – one beyond all sense – the realm of ideas.

Percy Bysshe Shelley – another great classical poet of the 19th century – articulated their approach in his preface to Prometheus Unbound in the following way:

"The imagery which I have employed will be found . . . to have been drawn from the operations of the human mind, or from those external actions by which they are expressed. This is unusual in modern poetry, although Dante and Shakespeare are full of instances of the same kind; Dante, indeed, more than any other poet, and with greater success. But the Greek poets . . . were in the habitual use of this power."

The words and images of poetry are the shadows cast by the “operations of the human mind,” just as Plato spoke of our sense experiences as the shadows cast by an unseen cause; a cause which can be discovered through the paradoxical nature of the shadows cast.

Thus Keats' statement on Byron, a paragon of Romantic poetry, refers to the use of a metaphorical power as a means of communicating that which literal words or images cannot, no matter how beautiful and exciting the language might be. It is the response of a sovereign individual, and his choosing to confront the paradoxes of the sensual world as presented by the poet, which allows the reader to discover the poet’s true meaning.

In opposition to this approach was the one championed by poets such as William Wordsworth, Samuel Coleridge and Lord Byron. Their approach had been laid out in what has come to be known as the de facto manifesto of the Romantics, the preface to Lyrical Ballads. It is a standard which has continued to shape the way people think about poetry and the way they write it.

In Wordsworth’s own words, he did everything to avoid metaphorical language in order to keep the reader in the company of "flesh and blood":

"The Reader will find that personifications of abstract ideas rarely occur in these volumes; and, I hope, are utterly rejected as an ordinary device to elevate the style, and raise it above prose. I have proposed to myself to imitate, and, as far as is possible, to adopt the very language of men; […] I have wished to keep my Reader in the company of flesh and blood, persuaded that by so doing I shall interest him."

We can hear modern day professors harping on the need for "concrete nouns" and the need to "fear abstraction." We can recognize the insistence on poetry needing to essentially remain in prose-like form.

However, Wordsworth himself admitted the problem with his philosophy, though he had no way of resolving it:

"But, whatever portion of this faculty we may suppose even the greatest Poet to possess, there cannot be a doubt but that the language which it will suggest to him, must, in liveliness and truth, fall far short of that which is uttered by men in real life, […] However exalted a notion we would wish to cherish of the character of a Poet, it is obvious, that, while he describes and imitates passions, his situation is altogether slavish and mechanical, compared with the freedom and power of real and substantial action and suffering."

The poet should never hope to communicate anything which the reader cannot already touch, taste, hear, see or smell. We must be kept "in the company of flesh and blood."

Keats, even at his tender age, saw the fallacy of such thinking, which he wrote about in many of his poems. Take even a light example such as Fancy:

"Where 's the cheek that doth not fade,

Too much gazed at? Where 's the maid

Whose lip mature is ever new?

Where 's the eye, however blue,

Doth not weary? Where 's the face

One would meet in every place?

Where 's the voice, however soft,

One would hear so very oft?

At a touch sweet Pleasure melteth

Like to bubbles when rain pelteth.

Let, then, wingèd Fancy find

Thee a mistress to thy mind:"

What is real for the Romantic is what no philosopher or sound thinker can avoid recognizing as merely fleeting images. However, according to the Romantic conceit, poetry must essentially adhere to the constraints of the “real world.”

As we will see, the ideas expressed by Keats in his poetry - as opposed to that of leading Romantics - are the expression of a fundamentally different universe, one which the Romantics could never conceive of. It was only by letting the imagination freely take its flight - the "wingèd Fancy" - that Truth, unhindered by the bias of the senses and the folly of the world, could be captured.

Part I: The Shadow of a Magnitude

"What the imagination seizes as beauty, must be truth."

-Letter to Benjamin Bailey, November 22, 1817

Keats was a self-conscious actor who saw himself as someone defending the greatest traditions of classical poetry, such as those of Shakespeare, Dante and the ancient Greeks.

For Keats, the world of sense was a world of paradoxes, of passing images whose resolution could only be achieved with a conception which sought to reconcile the seemingly opposing world of sense and reason – through Beauty. Contrary to popular opinion, Keats was not writing to escape the world and its troubles, he wrote in search of and to deal with a more substantial world, one which lurked beneath simple sense perception.

Let us take a closer look at some examples in order to investigate what kind of questions Keats chose to address and how he chose to address them. Take one of his most famous sonnets:

On Seeing the Elgin Marbles

My spirit is too weak—mortality

Weighs heavily on me like unwilling sleep,

And each imagined pinnacle and steep

Of godlike hardship tells me I must die

Like a sick eagle looking at the sky.

Yet ’tis a gentle luxury to weep

That I have not the cloudy winds to keep

Fresh for the opening of the morning’s eye.

Such dim-conceived glories of the brain

Bring round the heart an undescribable feud;

So do these wonders a most dizzy pain,

That mingles Grecian grandeur with the rude

Wasting of old time—with a billowy main—

A sun—a shadow of a magnitude.

Keats was inspired to write this sonnet after witnessing a group of classical sculptures known as the “Elgin Marbles,” named after Lord Elgin, who had brought them back from an excursion in Greece.

The Parthenon Marbles (Or Elgin Marbles) created by scultpur Phisidas and his assistants

As in poetry, the art of communicating a metaphorical idea beyond the literal level of the senses was the defining characteristics of Greek classical art.

In sculpture, the question of communicating an idea becomes a question of motion, of creating an ironical organization of action in the sculpture, which allows the sculptor to bring his idea to life. Startled by the apparent movement of something completely still, the viewer’s attention is drawn from the literal domain of sense, into the metaphorical domain of ideas: one see's that the piece is not moving, which begs the question, “what is moving?” The apparent “action” in the visible world becomes the shadow, which brings to light the action of an invisible world.

The incredible effect of these classical works, which stand alive before its viewer despite the thousands of years that have gone by, had a very significant impact on Keats.

"Such dim-conceived glories of the brain

Bring round the heart an indescribable feud"

In parallel to this, what we have in Keats’ poem on the Elgin Marbles is not a series of literal images meant to excite: Keats uses the images of “Grecian grandeur” and “the rude wasting of old time,” the different worlds they represent, in order to open the door to a new world.

In the first quatrain, the idea of mortality is introduced:

"My spirit is too weak—mortality

Weighs heavily on me like unwilling sleep,

And each imagined pinnacle and steep

Of godlike hardship tells me I must die."

This initial idea of being overwhelmed by the contemplation of one’s own mortality is carried on into the first line of the second quatrain, but then a sudden shift in idea occurs:

"Like a sick eagle looking at the sky.

Yet ’tis a gentle luxury to weep

That I have not the cloudy winds to keep

Fresh for the opening of the morning’s eye."

Beginning at line six, a tension is created between the first set of images and the second: “Yet ‘tis a gentle luxury to weep” seems to contradict the initial sentiment of simple pain or despair. Keats calls them a “gentle luxury.”

The metaphor is then furthered by juxtaposing the idea of “Grecian grandeur” with “the rude wasting of old time.”

"Such dim-conceived glories of the brain

Bring round the heart an undescribable feud;

So do these wonders a most dizzy pain,

That mingles Grecian grandeur with the rude

Wasting of old time—with a billowy main—

A sun—a shadow of a magnitude."

Through the juxtaposition of the images of classical Greece, its sublime art, and the yet inevitable passing of all that once surrounded it, the tension between the idea of mortality and immortality has been fully developed. Keats has created a great paradox. He concludes with the image of the sun, which lights the world of our senses, as a shadow!

Now, let us take a look at a different kind of poem. It is one of Wordsworth’s most popular pieces, known as Daffodils. Let us see if we can identify a difference in approach.

I wandered lonely as a cloud That floats on high o'er vales and hills, When all at once I saw a crowd, A host of golden daffodils; Beside the lake, beneath the trees, Fluttering and dancing in the breeze. Continuous as the stars that shine and twinkle on the Milky Way, They stretched in never-ending line along the margin of a bay: Ten thousand saw I at a glance, tossing their heads in sprightly dance. The waves beside them danced; but they Out-did the sparkling waves in glee: A poet could not but be gay, in such a jocund company: I gazed—and gazed—but little thought what wealth the show to me had brought: For oft, when on my couch I lie In vacant or in pensive mood, They flash upon that inward eye Which is the bliss of solitude; And then my heart with pleasure fills, And dances with the daffodils.

What is occurring in the poem? The poet is wandering in a field and comes upon “a host of golden daffodils.” What happens then? He proceeds to give a titillating description of their pleasant motion and appearance and of all the pretty images that surround it. By the end, the poet reflects on the images of the daffodils and how their memory still fills him with pleasure. Is the poem about anything other than the literal images of daffodils or how they make one feel? Does this poem offer anything better than what one could experience by simply walking into a field of daffodils?

What we see in Wordsworth's poem is essentially prose written with meter and rhyme, depicting a series of literal images with "colorful" language used as a way to interest the reader – just as Wordsworth said he would do. But there is no metaphor, no higher meaning, it is simply description, however nice.

The arguments that have been carried down from the ages, which center on the use of sensual imagery and images of nature as a quintessential element of Romantic poetry completely miss the point: it is the way in which the poet treats his subject, which defines the nature of the poetry. Images in of themselves are meaningless – it is the idea that those images are used to communicate which defines their meaning. They are shadows “drawn from the operations of the human mind.”

Keats’ metaphorical power sets him apart from other poets. He is able to create paradoxes out of the sensual world and use those as a means of generating fundamentally new conceptions, which cannot be grasped through the senses. It is the idea that has set all those images into motion, which must be captured. Through the poet’s power to create new metaphors out of the world’s imagery, such ideas become as tangible to the mind as the sensual world is to our senses.

It is not to say that there are not exceptions in the world of Romantic poetry. Wordsworth’s own poems such as the great “Ode on Intimations of Immortality” depart from his own recommendations and stated philosophy. As do those of other leading Romantics. However, in general they refused such “ostentatious” speech, such flights of fancy- they preferred the comforts of “flesh and blood.” Moreover, the general tendency of their legacy, has been precisely this insistence on “flesh and blood,” that is to stick to precise literal descriptions, augmented with colorful language as a means of exciting the reader. Poetry was not a place for “abstract ideas.” However, Shakespeare and Keats were full of such instances because they wished to develop the kinds of metaphors that could elevate the reader above the sensual world, and draw them away from the shadows, towards that which must necessarily cause them.

Were the Romantics’ standard to have prevailed in past times, we would have never been given a Homer, an Aeschylus, a Dante, a Shakespeare, or a Keats.

Given the inevitable realization that no matter how creatively and how skillfully one seeks to play around with and describe the world's various sights and sounds and experiences, it is only natural that many modern and contemporary poets have resorted to increasingly questionable approaches in order to interest the reader. From highly stylized language used as means of titillating the reader's senses, novel word choice and descriptions used for the sake of effect, self-referential writing and obscuring meaning in the hopes of appearing profound, an understanding of the use of classical metaphor as championed by Keats and all the immortal poets of the past, has been all but lost.

Until such a standard is restored, the beauty and power of great poetry will remain with the muses alone.

Keats: A "Contemporary" Poet?

Romantics like Wordsworth referred to Keats’ work as “paganism;” Sir Walter Scott considered Keats’ work “Cockney drivel;” Byron, along with the Oxford fellows of that time balked at the idea of a young poet singing of ancient Greece since Keats did not know ancient Greek himself. The use of imagery such as that of nymphs and dryads, of Pan and Apollo, which hearkened back to the days of ancient Greece, were thought utterly ridiculous and “uncontemporary.” It was the kind of thing which critics today simply dismiss as “dated” or “unconvincing.”

The great German poet Friedrich Schiller however, already weighed in on such a debate with a seeming premonition of Keats:

"The Artist, it is true, is the son of his age; but pity for him if he is its pupil, or even its favorite! Let some beneficent Divinity snatch him when a suckling from the breast of his mother, and nurse him with the milk of a better time that he may ripen to his full stature beneath a distant Grecian sky. And having grown to manhood, let him return, a foreign shape, into his century; not, however, to delight it by his presence; but terrible, like the son of Agamemnon, to purify it. The matter of his works he will take from the present; but their Form he will derive from a nobler time, nay from beyond all time, from the absolute unchanging unity of his nature. Here from the pure aether of his spiritual essence, flows down the Fountain of Beauty, uncontaminated by the pollutions of ages and generations, which roll to and fro in their turbid vortex far beneath it."

- Friedrich Schiller, Letters on the Aesthetical Education of Man

Part II: Uncontemporary Poetry

Marbles Frieze of Greeks fighting the Amazons, Roman copy of original attributed to Phidias

"I have not the slightest feel of humility towards the public –or to anything in existence—but the eternal Being – the principle of Beauty, and the memory of great Men."

- Keats in a letter to his friend Reynolds

In poetry, one finds the history of ideas. The poet is stepping into the greatest debate in history: the nature of man. Perhaps, more than any other historical figures, poets such as Homer, Aeschylus, Dante, Shakespeare, Schiller et al were able to shape and create entire cultures through their poetry. By addressing the greatest paradoxes of human nature, they defined an image of man which transcended the idea of human beings as merely creatures of sense, and in doing so developed a concept of the Sublime.

Keats, like Shelley, saw himself in this tradition, as both his poetry and correspondences demonstrate. He was not striving to be a poet of his time, but for all time. Thus his rapid development became one of assimilating the greatest poetic and artistic achievements of history, and contributing something unique within the continuity of that historical creative development.

The Canzone

"Conosco i segni dell’antica fiamma" – I see the light of that ancient flame

Dante, Purgatorio, XXX 48

Six Tuscan poets, Georgi Vasari (1544): Dante, Pétrarque, Guido Cavalcanti, Boccacce, Cino da Pistoia et Guittone d'Arezzo

Keats contributed something new to the already incredibly rich tradition of English poetry, but instead of simply aiming to speak to the man of his time, as Coleridge and Wordsworth had declared, he chose to speak to universal man. He looked to the ancient Greeks, to the language of Dante Alighieri and to Shakespeare.

What we know to be the ode form, which has brought Keats universal fame, originates from the Italian "canzone," meaning song. It was Dante Alighieri and his contemporaries of the Dolce Stil Novo (sweet new style) who developed the form in the 13th century.

In fact, if we look back to Keats’ sonnet “On Seeing the Elgin Marbles” we have the form of the original sonnet, a "sonetto," which means little song in Italian. We can compare the basic structure with its other historical variations:

A second look at Keats’ sonnet “On Seeing the Elgin Marbles,” reveals the rhyme scheme of the original Italian sonetto, known as the Petrarchan sonnet. As we shall see, Keats’ sonnet, an Italian sonetto, is simply the equivalent of one unit or stanza of Dante’s canzone, or "song."

In the sonnet, the basic unit is a quatrain. As we saw earlier, the first quatrain of Keats’ sonnet introduces the initial idea of mortality ending with “and tells me I must die.” However, this initial theme spills over musically into the second quatrain without any pause, and they are connected musically to reflect this by the rhyming of the last line of the first quatrain with the beginning line of the second quatrain:

Of godlike hardship tells me I must die (line 4)

Like a sick eagle looking at the sky. (line 5)

There is nothing arbitrary about the sonnet’s execution, instead it reflects the lawful development of an idea unfolding musically, just as in a great classical composition by a Mozart or a Beethoven.

By line seven, midway through the second quatrain, a new theme is introduced as an answer to the first:

"Yet ’tis a gentle luxury to weep

That I have not the cloudy winds to keep"

There is a juxtaposition between the pain of mortality and the joy of discovering what can persist, despite the expiration of our mortal selves. This second quatrain ends with “Fresh for the opening of the morning’s eye.”

What happens next is Keats introduces what Dante called the “volta,” the turn of the musical piece. It is there that a new higher conception, which subsumes both of the preceding themes is introduced:

Such dim-conceived glories of the brain

Bring round the heart an undescribable feud;

Paradoxically, both “Grecian grandeur” and “the rude wasting of old time” seem to exist in the same world. The resolution takes the form of a sestet where everything that has unfolded up until that moment now undergoes a new dense transformation, which is reflected musically by a tight series of alternately rhymed couplets.

"Such dim-conceived glories of the brain

Bring round the heart an undescribable feud;

So do these wonders a most dizzy pain,

That mingles Grecian grandeur with the rude

Wasting of old time—with a billowy main—

A sun—a shadow of a magnitude."

A basic musical structure of a canzone

If we take a look at the scheme of a typical canzone by Dante Alighieri, a sonetto, such as Keats’ was essentially one poetic unit, a stanza, of the canzone. They developed musically in essentially the same way such that a theme could be musically carried over and developed with increasing density from one stanza to the next. What in English we call quatrains, Dante referred to as “piedi” (feet), in his canzone. One piedi was musically connected to the next, which was then followed by a "volta", or turn, which led into the "coda" or tail of the stanza. The turn connecting the first series of ideas with the second part of the stanza was also musically reflected with a connecting rhyme (labeled cc in the scheme).

Notably, the word "stanza" is an Italian word meaning room. Thus the musical idea of a poem is carried and developed as it jumps from stanza to stanza, from “room to room.” Dante described his thinking on the nature of this poetical unit in his De Vulgaria Eloquencia (On the Eloquence of the Vernacular):

[...]You must know that this word was coined solely for the purpose of discussing poetic technique, so that the object in which the whole art of the canzone was enshrined should be called a stanza, that is, a capacious storehouse or receptacle for the art in its entirety. For just as the canzone is the lap of the whole of its subject-­matter, so the stanza enlaps its whole technique; and the later stanzas of the poem should never aspire to add any new technical device, but should only dress themselves in the same garb as the first. (De Vulgaria Eloquencia, II, ix)

One should note that piedi or the feet of a canzone, as depicted in the scheme above, should not be confused with the idea of metrical feet in English poetry, such as iambs or trochees. In fact, Italians generally did not use lines composed of metrical feet. The main poetic line used by Dante and his contemporaries was the hendecasyllable line, a line of eleven syllables. Its length was deemed the most appropriate and well suited for the use of well varied and elevated language, which gave a canzone the greatest degree of freedom to “sing.”

Instead of metrical feet, we can see how the hendecasyllable was simply stressed in particular places, which reflects the way spoken Italian generally behaves.

Take the famous example of the opening of the Divine Comedy:

Nel mezzo del camin di nostra vita

Mi ritrovai per una selva oscura

Che la diritta via era smarrita

Nel — me — zzo — del — ca — min — di — nos — tra — vi — ta

Mi — ri — tro — vai — per — un — a se l- va — os — cu — ra

Che — la — dir — i — tta — via — era — smarr — i — ta

Compare that with one of Keats’ famous Odes:

Thou still unravish'd bride of quietness,

Thou foster-child of silence and slow time,

Sylvan historian, who canst thus express

A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:

Thou still – unra - vish'd bride - of qui - etness,

Thou fos - ter-child - of si - lence and - slow time,

Sylvan – histo - rian, who - canst thus - express

A flow - ery tale - more sweet - ly than - our rhyme:

‘The Stretched Meter of Antique Song’

"The voice I heard this passing night, was heard in ancient days by emperor and clown."

- Keats, Ode to a Nightingale, 1819

With his Odes, Keats brought English and all poetry for that matter, to new heights of composition. The quality of poetic idea which Shakespeare had succeeded in elaborating over a series of a hundred and more sonnets, Keats, with his Odes was able to achieve in a fundamentally new way. In several stanzas, his Odes such as “Ode to a Nightingale” and “Ode to a Grecian Urn” were able to express a density of poetic idea which had never been seen before, and which has yet to be achieved again.

The recognition of the pitfalls of a simple sense certainty "flesh and blood" approach to the world as developed throughout Keats body of work, had been previously treated with unparalleled beauty and rigor, and in all myriad forms, by William Shakespeare. For Keats as for Shakespeare, the world of sense was a world of paradoxes. What these poets did was use these paradoxes to define an image of man and the universe which would resolve man’s “flesh and blood” with his creative reason; his finite existence as a mortal, and his infinite potential as a creative being. In a letter to John Hamilton Reynolds, Keats wrote the following:

"One of the three Books I have with me is Shakespeare’s Poems: I neer found so many beauties in the Sonnets–they seem to be full of fine things said unintentionally–in the intensity of working out conceits. Is this to be borne? Hark ye!"

- Keats, Letter to To J. H. Reynolds, 22 November 1817

“Full of fine things said unintentionally-in the intensity of working out conceits” refers to this searching quality of the poet to confront those paradoxes within himself, and in the world at large, in order to develop a conception of a world and man which could subsume the seeming contradictions of human experience.

Take the very first sonnet of Shakespeare’s series. Through the most fundamental and basic paradox of human mortality, Shakespeare puts forward a concept of beauty which is exactly the opposite of a sense perceptual “flesh and blood” idea.

From fairest creatures we desire increase,

That thereby beauty’s rose might never die,

But as the riper should by time decease,

His tender heir might bear his memory;

But thou, contracted to thine own bright eyes,

Feed’st thy light’s flame with self-substantial fuel,

Making a famine where abundance lies,

Thyself thy foe, to thy sweet self too cruel.

Though that art now the world’s fresh ornament

And only herald to the gaudy spring,

Within thine own bud buriest thy content,

And, tender churl, mak’st waste in niggarding.

Pity the world, or else this glutton be,

To eat the world’s due, by the grave and thee.

Shakespeare begins "From fairest creatures we desire increase” to reproduce, “That thereby beauty's rose might never die." The issue of mortality is put squarely on the table, "skin deep" beauty does die, but if one is willing to face that reality, unlike the Romantics who preferred the distraction of sensual imagery, Shakespeare challenges us to do the opposite, to recognize our mortality and the fleeting nature of the world of sense in order to introduce a fundamentally higher order of beauty: the power to create new beauty! While all worldly beauty fades, each individual is endowed with the power to create new beauty and further contribute to the process of humanity’s development. Thus there is a qualitative leap almost immediately, for what sets the stage for reconciling the seeming duality between man’s mortal existence and his immortal mission.

In first approximation, Shakespeare identifies this as the continuity in which each man and woman partake, in raising children, in procreating, in contributing new life and beauty to the world, where even at its most basic level, this innate quality of immortality is given to each individual, and with it all the joys and challenges of a meaningful existence. It hearkens back to Plato's Symposium, where Socrates in his speech identifies the nature of love, as what else, but the longing for immortality? In the following exchange, Socrates has agreed with the wisdom of Diotima, who says Love “may be described generally as the love of the everlasting possession of the good.” However, Socrates admits that he does not know how such an everlasting good, as the product of love, might be achieved. Diotima is there to help shed light on the question:

"The object which they have in view is birth in beauty, whether of body or, soul." […] There is a certain age at which human nature is desirous of procreation-procreation which must be in beauty and not in deformity; and this procreation is the union of man and woman, and is a divine thing; for conception and generation are an immortal principle in the mortal creature, and in the inharmonious they can never be. […] For love, Socrates, is not, as you imagine, the love of the beautiful only." […] "The love of generation and of birth in beauty." […]" "Because to the mortal creature, generation is a sort of eternity and immortality,"[…] "and if, as has been already admitted, love is of the everlasting possession of the good, all men will necessarily desire immortality together with good: Wherefore love is of immortality."

Diotima goes on to elaborate how one sees that even in the lower forms of life, in the beasts, the longing for continuity and development is innate, even to the point of risking death in order to defend one’s kin, one’s future. However, in mankind, this first approximation can be taken to a whole new level, through art and the generation of new ideas. Take Shakespeare’s sonnet 17, the final in the procreation series, which introduces a now two-fold theme:

Who will believe my verse in time to come,

If it were filled with your most high deserts?

Though yet heaven knows it is but as a tomb

Which hides your life, and shows not half your parts.

If I could write the beauty of your eyes,

And in fresh numbers number all your graces,

The age to come would say 'This poet lies;

Such heavenly touches ne'er touched earthly faces.'

So should my papers, yellowed with their age,

Be scorned, like old men of less truth than tongue,

And your true rights be termed a poet's rage

And stretched metre of an antique song:

But were some child of yours alive that time,

You should live twice, in it, and in my rhyme.

Shakespeare introduces the idea that in a very real sense, beyond any simple idea of a past memory, the immortalizing power of art becomes an active force in shaping the outcome and thinking of future generations. Shakespeare continued to develop this theme of immortality in what was the most thoroughly composed manner up until that time. Yet, what Keats did went further: what Shakespeare elaborated over a series of 155 sonnets, Keats, availing himself of the Italian form – being thoroughly steeped in language of Dante and Shakespeare – condenses this entire development into several individual odes, in a fundamentally new and higher order of poetic form. The result is poetry which bears some of the most compact and compelling imagery with some of the greatest musicality ever conceived.

Of course, one must then figure out how to approach reciting such a piece of music!

Let us take the example of one of Keats’ great late Odes:

Ode to a Nightingale

My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains

My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,

Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains

One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk:

'Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,

But being too happy in thine happiness,—

That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees

In some melodious plot

Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,

Singest of summer in full-throated ease.

O, for a draught of vintage! that hath been

Cool'd a long age in the deep-delved earth,

Tasting of Flora and the country green,

Dance, and Provençal song, and sunburnt mirth!

O for a beaker full of the warm South,

Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,

With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,

And purple-stained mouth;

That I might drink, and leave the world unseen,

And with thee fade away into the forest dim:

Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget

What thou among the leaves hast never known,

The weariness, the fever, and the fret

Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;

Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs,

Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;

Where but to think is to be full of sorrow

And leaden-eyed despairs,

Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,

Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow.

Away! away! for I will fly to thee,

Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards,

But on the viewless wings of Poesy,

Though the dull brain perplexes and retards:

Already with thee! tender is the night,

And haply the Queen-Moon is on her throne,

Cluster'd around by all her starry Fays;

But here there is no light,

Save what from heaven is with the breezes blown

Through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways.

I cannot see what flowers are at my feet,

Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs,

But, in embalmed darkness, guess each sweet

Wherewith the seasonable month endows

The grass, the thicket, and the fruit-tree wild;

White hawthorn, and the pastoral eglantine;

Fast fading violets cover'd up in leaves;

And mid-May's eldest child,

The coming musk-rose, full of dewy wine,

The murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves.

Darkling I listen; and, for many a time

I have been half in love with easeful Death,

Call'd him soft names in many a mused rhyme,

To take into the air my quiet breath;

Now more than ever seems it rich to die,

To cease upon the midnight with no pain,

While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad

In such an ecstasy!

Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain—

To thy high requiem become a sod.

Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!

No hungry generations tread thee down;

The voice I hear this passing night was heard

In ancient days by emperor and clown:

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;

The same that oft-times hath

Charm'd magic casements, opening on the foam

Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.

Forlorn! the very word is like a bell

To toll me back from thee to my sole self!

Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well

As she is fam'd to do, deceiving elf.

Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades

Past the near meadows, over the still stream,

Up the hill-side; and now 'tis buried deep

In the next valley-glades:

Was it a vision, or a waking dream?

Fled is that music:—Do I wake or sleep?

In the opening stanza of the Ode, the first four lines present a poet speaking with a seemingly overwhelming lethargy: his heart aches, he feels faint as if from some poison or drug. However, the image is deceiving and is immediately transformed beginning with “'Tis not through envy of thy happy lot.” The poet is not overwhelmed by pain, or from the revels of the preceding night – he is overwhelmed with such joy that it is almost painful.

In the second stanza, quickly refusing all the possible routes of escape in the sensual world, the poet longs for that one and truly inexhaustible drink, poesie:

"O for a beaker full of the warm South,

Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene"

Contrary to a more Romantic interpretation, poetry is not being developed as a route for an escape from the overwhelming realities of the world, it is a means of transcending them, and reaching a realm which none of the world’s sights and pleasures, no matter how delightful or pure, can reach. Through the following three stanzas, Keats fully develops this idea by laying out the scope of the world’s pains, joys and ultimately, its limitations. He begins the development, with one of the most beautiful and compelling pieces ever written:

Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget

What thou among the leaves hast never known,

The weariness, the fever, and the fret

Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;

Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs,

Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;

Where but to think is to be full of sorrow

And leaden-eyed despairs,

Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,

Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow.

Wordsworth in his own words, stated how he intentionally avoided the “personification of abstract ideas,” as all the Romantics did. But here Keats’ work, as with Shakespeare and all the classical poets whose tradition they were steeped in, abounds with precisely such “abstract ideas.”

In the next stanzas, Keats introduces a series of new images, elevating us further and further away from the sensual world, towards a sort "death" of the senses, which becomes necessary for the kind of flight his soul longs to take. It is the same kind of death described by Socrates, when he speaks of the true philosopher as being one always concerned with "dying," that is of removing all the limitations of the world in order to reach the more substantial realm of ideas, of causes, whose shadows we can only experience as a continuous series of sense impressions.

Wordsworth never departs from the "real." He is content with limiting himself to descriptions of the world as it is. Keats has experienced the death of his mortal self, and then opens stanza seven by declaring “Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!”

"The voices I heard this passing day was heard

In ancient days by emperor and clown."

By this point anyone should be disabused from the idea that Keats was simply writing like other Romantics and talking about a literal nightingale. Keats has created a metaphorical meaning: Though each mortal passes, each can be a part of an immortal process, a continuous process of creation and generation of new beauty, to which each individual can contribute in their own unique way. The metaphor of the nightingale establishes the continuity of the present with the past, in a universality of human experience and the individual’s participation in that process. By recognizing this universal continuity, this process becomes the conscious object of attention such that now the reader too, can through the consciousness of this process, become a self-conscious actor. Keats’ nightingale expresses the enthusiasm of discovering such a prospect by a mortal, the joy of that discovery. Death no longer seems to carry the same weight; life becomes a gift, a chance to partake in this endless creative process.

Part III: Immortal Shadows

There is a continuity throughout the works of the ancient world of Greece, to the initial Roman Republic of Virgil and its Greek heritage, to that of the Italian Renaissance, Shakespeare’s England and the revival of classical poetry with Keats and Shelley. Each has cast a Greek shadow in their own way.

Greek Shadows

When Dante found himself in a darkened forest, he looked to his guide, Virgil. Virgil was the Roman poet who set out to write his Latin epic, the Aeneid, which he hoped would inform the creation of a new civilization in Rome, based on the ideas of classical Greece. As Keats worked on his epic Hyperion, he did so with an edition of Carey’s translation of Dante’s divine comedy by his side, as his guide. Were Keats to have completed his Hyperion, it would have been yet another affirmation of this unbroken dialogue among the greatest poets of history. They did not speak the same languages, they lived in completely different times, but they all expressed a universal commitment to the sublime image of man, developed through their poetry.

For Dante, the use of the Latin poet Virgil as a guide was not some clever literary device. Virgil's Latin, which Dante could read, was the bridge to ancient world of Homer and the Greeks (which Dante could not read). The germ of Dante’s Commedia was already born in Virgil’s Aeneid, based on the tradition of classical Greece. The scene which mark’s Aenaes’ descent into the underworld, where he meets various souls and learns of the reasons for their plight in the underworld, echoes the theme of Dante’s Inferno.

What Dante did was create a fundamentally new metaphor, using a Christian motif: the initial descent into Hell becomes the first stage of an ascent towards enlightenment. Dante has transformed the journey to the underworld into the metaphor of the soul’s journey from darkness to light; from the irrational world of blind sense to the realm of the intellect, a paradise, not of the senses, but of creative reason where man is free to discover the order of the creative universe.

Are you Byronic?

In opposition to this classical tradition, whose emphasis was centered on the idea of timeless beauty, something which Keats came to embody, the Romantic period saw the publishing of Byron’s "Don Juan," which has come to be considered a "modern" masterpiece, something that was completely new. What were these new modern ideas?

Take for example, an instance of Keats’ reading of a passage from Byron's modern work. As his friend Joseph Severn recounts:

“Keats threw down the book and exclaimed: ‘this gives me the most horrid idea of human nature, that a man like Byron should have exhausted all the pleasures of the world so completely that there was nothing left for him but to laugh and gloat over the most solemn and heart rending scenes of human misery; this storm of his is one of the most diabolical attempts ever made upon our sympathies, and I have no doubt it will fascinate thousands into extreme obduracy of heart – the tendency of Byron’s poetry is based on a paltry originality, that of being new by making solemn things gay and gay things solemn.’”

Keats was not upset because Byron wrote badly; he was appalled that such fine writing would be used for advancing such a vile idea of human beings. One need not venture any further than most University English Literature departments to see professors routinely balk and ridicule notions such as "Beauty is Truth," and always with that olden and ever new "Byronic" sneer.

The passage in question, which Keats found so offensive, was from Canto II of Don Juan, where a ship’s crew runs out of supplies, begins to contemplate cannibalism, and finally eats their shipmate.

The seventh day, and no wind—the burning sun

Blister'd and scorch'd, and, stagnant on the sea,

They lay like carcasses; and hope was none,

Save in the breeze that came not; savagely

They glared upon each other—all was done,

Water, and wine, and food,—and you might see

The longings of the cannibal arise

(Although they spoke not) in their wolfish eyes.


The surgeon, as there was no other fee,

Had his first choice of morsels for his pains;

But being thirstiest at the moment, he

Preferr'd a draught from the fast-flowing veins:

Part was divided, part thrown in the sea,

And such things as the entrails and the brains

Regaled two sharks, who follow'd o'er the billow—

The sailors ate the rest of poor Pedrillo.


And if Pedrillo's fate should shocking be,

Remember Ugolino condescends

To eat the head of his arch-enemy

The moment after he politely ends

His tale: if foes be food in hell, at sea

'T is surely fair to dine upon our friends,

When shipwreck's short allowance grows too scanty,

Without being much more horrible than Dante.

Upon Byron reflecting on his work as a whole, he had this to say:

"It may be profligate – but is it not life, and is it not the thing? Could any man have written it – who has not lived in the world?"

And with that we have the credo of every cynic and self-titled “realist”. Disillusioned by the untenable conceits of Romanticism and the effort to permanently wallow in the beauty of the fleeting world, the stern hand of a newly baptized “realist” quickly takes over. Much of modern and contemporary literature would go on to run with Byron's “modern” spirit, with an increasingly grim and cynical outlook -- ever searching for new ways to make "solemn things gay, and gay things solemn" -- just as Keats predicted it would. Keats recognized the fallacy of Romantic conceits and their consequence, but he set out to resolve such paradoxes:

Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed

Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;

And, happy melodist, unwearied,

For ever piping songs for ever new;

More happy love! more happy, happy love!

For ever warm and still to be enjoy'd,

For ever panting, and for ever young;

All breathing human passion far above,

That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy'd,

A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.

This stanza is only the third of five in his Ode to a Grecian Urn. If Keats thought like a Romantic, his poem would have ended there. Instead, Keats developed a new quality of metaphor, using what else, but a Grecian urn.

Ode to a Grecian Urn

As humans, we are all given the opportunity and duty to partake in the universal process of development. Keats’ Ode on a Grecian becomes one of the most exalted and emblematic expressions of this universal truth, which Keats thought to be the most beautiful.

The Ode begins with a description of the static and silent images of an ancient urn:

Thou still unravish'd bride of quietness,

Thou foster-child of silence and slow time,

Sylvan historian, who canst thus express

A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:

What leaf-fring'd legend haunts about thy shape

Of deities or mortals, or of both,

In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?

What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?

What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?

What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?

Just as the stones come to life in the Elgin Marbles, despite the still nature of the urn, it is able to move something deep inside the poet:

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard

Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;

Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear'd,

Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:

Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave

Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;

Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,

Though winning near the goal yet, do not grieve;

She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,

For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

Despite the fading of the musicians, their instruments and all that surrounded them, the music of the soul, that from which all heard music is born, is as clear today as it was millennia before.

By the end of stanza two, the static nature of the urn's images creates a great tension with the recognition that while these lovers, musicians, and all that was depicted on the urn is unchanging, and never will change, we are fading:

Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed

Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;

And, happy melodist, unwearied,

For ever piping songs for ever new;

More happy love! more happy, happy love!

For ever warm and still to be enjoy'd,

For ever panting, and for ever young;

All breathing human passion far above,

That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy'd,

A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.

Who has not known such a feeling? For who do any of these images not speak with a familiar voice? Yet Keats does not leave us there to wallow “with a burning forehead and a parching tongue” –though this could read as the conclusion of many a modernist verse— they are used to present a fundamental paradox, which cannot be avoided by a mortal searching for deeper meaning.

In order to resolve this paradox, Keats, with the great freedom of a creative imagination (as opposed to an arbitrary freedom of association), effortlessly breaks away from the trap of his paradox by introducing a completely different kind of imagery:

Who are these coming to the sacrifice?

To what green altar, O mysterious priest,

Lead'st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,

And all her silken flanks with garlands drest?

What little town by river or sea shore,

Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,

Is emptied of this folk, this pious morn?

And, little town, thy streets for evermore

Will silent be; and not a soul to tell

Why thou art desolate, can e'er return.

The lovers frozen in a moment of passion, the little ancient town by river or sea shore, all these images are frozen in time, or rather, they are outside of all time. They force us to consider what persists as we mortals bear witness to immortal shadows, the timeless power of man's genius. What persists are the ideas of truth, as embodied in the great art and science of civilizations across human history.

O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede

Of marble men and maidens overwrought,

With forest branches and the trodden weed;

Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought

As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!

When old age shall this generation waste,

Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe

Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say'st,

"Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all

Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."

Such art stands as an emblem of the greatness, which can be summoned from each individual’s self-consciousness of their own sublime nature. The Grecian Urn becomes a metaphor for the discovery of the truth, which such beauty entails.

Part IV: The Sublime

"Beauty in the form of the goddess Calypso has enchanted the valiant son of Ulysses, and, through the power of her charms, she holds him for a long time imprisoned upon her island. For long he believes he is paying homage to an immortal deity, since he lies only in the arms of voluptuousness—but a sublime impression seizes him suddenly in the form of Mentor: He remembers his better destiny, throws himself into the waves, and is free."

- Friedrich Schiller, On the Sublime

The most profound creativity emerges from an intense and impassioned feeling that longs to communicate something located deep within one’s soul. It is beyond anything that can be grasped directly through the senses. The process of digging deep into one’s soul, and struggling to bring such passions into the real world, to “name” them, is arguably one of the most difficult challenges any mortal faces. It also parallels the process of discovery any great scientist must go through in order to develop a hypothesis, which the universe will accept.

For Keats, the imagination was not the mere fancy of a Romantic, and the material world of sense perception was not the defining basis of his poetry. Rather than being concerned with a precise description of the "real" world, the agency of the creative imagination was the hallowed realm in which a greater Truth about the nature of man and the universe could be captured, which “flows down the Fountain of Beauty, uncontaminated by the pollution of ages and generations, which roll to and fro in their turbid vortex far beneath it.”

Keats sought “The Eternal Being,” that which does not change: the creative power of the human individual to transcend the world of sense and partake in the eternal process of creativity.

Where the poetry of the Romantics ends is where the poetry of Keats begins.

David Gosselin is a poet, translator, and linguist based in Montreal. He is the founder of The Chained Muse and the New Lyre Podcast.

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