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John Keats Essays

Sample Answer - John Keats

The poetry of John Keats is filled with personal explorations of deep and intense feelings and reflections on life. His poems concern a variety of themes, such as eternity and the passage of time; poetic inspiration and ambition; and the desire to find permanence in the midst of constant change. From reading his poetry I believe that these themes are clearly very important to Keats, as they can frequently be seen as the foundations on which much of his poetry is based. Another important aspect of Keats’s poetry is his use of rich, vibrant imagery, often related to nature, which is used to give impressive insights into life. In this essay I will discuss the above themes, and how I responded to Keats’s treatment of them. The poems on which I will base this essay are “When I Have Fears That I May Cease to Be” [WIH], “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” [LBD], “Ode to a Nightingale” [OTN], “Ode on a Grecian Urn” [OGU], “To Autumn” [TA] and “Bright star! Would I were Steadfast as thou Art” [BS].


Upon reading and studying his poetry, it appears to me that Keats was very concerned with poetic inspiration and ambition, and similarly, the imagination and it’s presence as a means of escaping life.  This concern is evident in WIH, when Keats describes his fears of death before he is able to fully express all that his mind holds:
When I have fears that I may cease to be, before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain, before high pilèd books in charact’ry, hold like rich garners the full ripened grain”.
This shows to me a great poetic ambition within Keats, and a self-realisation of his potential as a writer of poetry. He goes on to contemplate his grief if he were never given the chance to capture the beauty “huge cloudy symbols of a high romance”, and describes the process of their description in his poetry as “[tracing] their shadows with the magic hand of chance”. This seems to show a recognition that his poetry, and the beauty that inspires it, is something magical and other-worldly, and this realisation adds to his distress, were he to die and never fully reach his poetic potential. In OTN we encounter, among other things, Keats’s contemplation of the various means to escape the hardships and tribulations of life. In the first stanza Keats describes how “[his] heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains my sense”; he sees the nightingale and its happiness, and seems to be deeply hurt by this. He explains that it is not through envy of the bird’s happiness that he is hurt, but that the nightingale is “too happy in [it’s] happiness”, and perhaps does not recognise its fate, which Keats contemplates could be filled with “shadows numberless”. It seems Keats is suggesting that his own life could be full of these shadows, and that could be why, in stanza two, Keats describes how he resorts to alcohol as his means of escaping his sadness and misfortune: “That I might drink, and leave the world unseen”. This line in particular seems to me perhaps to hold a double meaning. First, that Keats will leave the world without being seen; alone and forgotten, second, that he himself will not look upon the world, and will instead let it go unseen by his senses, perhaps fading into a numbness that he describes at the start of the poem. It seems that Keats then tries to justify this escape in stanza three; he describes the sickness and decay all around him, “the weariness, the fever and the fret”, and mourns the fact that “Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes” in such hopeless conditions. However, in stanza four there is a change in tone, as Keats rejects alcohol as a means of escaping this life, and instead turns to “the viewless wings of poesy” for his escape. To me, this seems to be Keats’s realisation that the imagination can provide a means not only of producing the beauty of poetry, but also of escaping from hardships in life; it seems to provide another, alternative world to the one in which he is forced to live and bear pain. In the last stanza, Keats seems to be dragged back from his imagination and the freedom he had enjoyed listening to the bird’s song: “Forlorn! The 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 famed to do”. But as the bird flies away, and the song fades, it seems that Keats is left wondering if he really has returned from his imagination, and is perhaps also left with the dilemma of whether he will continue to struggle on living in the real world, or retreat forever to the respite provided by his imagination. In my own life, the issue of not reaching my potential is particularly relevant, albeit less significant than Keats’s; in preparation for the leaving cert exams, I would sometimes contemplate the idea of losing all the knowledge and experience that I have accumulated over the last two years, and this would leave me with a feeling of emptiness, as Keats appears to feel as a result of his reflection on such an idea. However, I appreciate the vast difference between my academic knowledge and Keats’s desire and ability to share his poetic visions with the world, and in that way, I do not think that I can fully relate to Keats’s fear of losing this potential, one far more advanced than my own. In terms of Keats’s desire to escape the world, as discussed in OTN, I believe that I, like most people, could relate to this, at least in part. Although I have never experienced the death of a close loved one, such as Keats has with the death of his brother Tom Keats, I do at times feel the pressures and ordeals in life can become too much to endure, and end up longing for a way by which to escape. While I have never become dependant on alcohol for that escape, as Keats seems to have done, I do appreciate that retreating into the world of one’s imagination is an extremely appealing idea at times, and can offer a sanctuary when life feels too difficult to bear. Keats describes his imagination using with vibrant, natural imagery, such as the “soft incense [hanging] upon the boughs” and “the grass, the thicket and fruit tree wild”, which to me, makes the idea of a retreat to one’s inner-mind all the more appealing.

 
It appears to me that the theme of time, eternity and the desire to find permanence in the midst of constant change are themes which are present in much of Keats’s work. This theme is linked with that of perfection, and it seems that Keats believes that through the attainment of permanence and immortality, one could achieve perfection. This can be seen in WIH’s last six lines, in which Keats seems to lament the fact that he will never be able to capture the same beauty which he experiences again:

And when I feel, fair creature of an hour, that I shall never look upon thee more”.

To me, it seems that Keats may realise that time’s constant passage prevents him from experiencing the beauty of “the faery power of unreflecting love” for more than a fleeting moment; this beauty is perfect, yet transient, and Keats seeks to capture it, making it permanent through the art of poetry. This theme could be seen once again in OTN, in which Keats describes how, though the nightingale will die one day, his song will live on through time, from generation to generation: “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”. To me, it seems as tough Keats uses the extended metaphor of the bird’s song to represent the art of poetry; just as the bird’s song defies time and lives for eternity, so Keats’s works will far outlive him. Perhaps Keats believes that through his leaving behind his immortal poetry he can create a state of permanence in the midst of the constant passage of time. In OGU Keats once again contemplates permanence, eternity  and perfection as he examines a wedding scene on a Grecian urn. In the opening line,  he admires the “still unravished bride of quietness”; she is granted perpetual innocence, and the ability to stay forever young, and through this, he says that she has become a “foster-child of silence and slow-time”, allowing her to reach a state of perfection. In stanza two, Keats realises that, though he will live forever, the lover will never kiss his bride; he has almost kissed her, but will remain forever in that state, never granted the kiss. Yet, he recognizes that her beauty will never fade and, though he will never kiss her, the lover may look upon her youthful beauty forever: “She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss, for ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!”. This description seems to be double-edged, in that Keats seems to envy their eternally “happy love [;] for ever warm and still to be enjoyed”, and yet, he realises the misfortune of never being able to experience this love and warmth. The figures have been preserved in a moment of intensity that they can never enact, and so, it seems Keats both envies and pities them. Stanza four describes a religious procession travelling to sacrifice, and Keats speculates where they could be going to, but is then hit, it seems, with the realisation that, wherever they may be going, they are leaving somewhere behind, and in this urn’s state of permanence, their town or city will be left empty and abandoned forever. The seriousness of this seems to resonate within Keats, as he contemplates that in the “little town, [the] streets for evermore will silent be; and not a soul to tell why [it is] desolate, can e’er return”. This image of a town left forever abandoned could represent the coldness and impersonality that is inseparable from the permanent, perfect beauty one attains through immortality. It seems to me that Keats is presented with a dilemma of whether the cold beauty and empty perfection found in the urn is really something to be admired, or whether living a relatively brief, transient life full of real warmth and passion is preferable: “Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought as doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!”. In the last two lines, it seems to me as though Keats resigns himself to the fact that the eternal beauty of the urn, whether envious or not, is something no generation can ever obtain: “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”. In BS, a similar idea is discussed; Keats begins the poem in awe of the star’s tenacity; he is envious of the star’s permanence, but even by the second line, Keats recognises the star’s misfortune, as it is forced to remain in the sky, “watching, with eternal lids apart, like nature’s patient, sleepless eremite”. This draws a resemblance with Keats’s acknowledgement in OGU that the immortality is both perfect in its eternity, and flawed in its misfortune of never experiencing the joys of life, and so, in line nine, Keats rejects the fortune of the star, but never the less wishes to be “still steadfast, still unchangeable”. He wishes to live a warm, joyful life “pillowed upon [his] fair love’s ripening breast, [feeling] for ever its soft fall and swell”, but recognises that this kind of human warmth is not congruous with immortality, as demonstrated by the star above him, who must live for ever, unsleeping and alone. For me, Keats’s desire to find permanence amongst constant change is one with which I can wholly relate; in attending secondary school during some of the most formative years of my life, I have grown used to life as a secondary school student, and it is a life with which I am very familiar and comfortable in, but when faced with its conclusion, I am forced to enter into a whole new, unfamiliar world. I will be forced to take responsibility for myself as an adult, and face a range of new and demanding challenges, and as such, I have, at times, found myself desiring for life as a secondary school student to continue indefinitely, particularly the days of early secondary school when I was blissfully unaware of the difficulties of growing up and the pressure of exams and adulthood. In this way, I feel that Keats’s handling of this theme has really spoken to me about the dangers of living forever in desire of such unattainable concepts as permanence, and that the acceptance of life’s transience will allow me to enjoy better what life has to offer me; an acceptance which I feel Keats could have perhaps benefited from.


Another aspect of Keats’s poetry which should not be overlooked is his employment of strong, potent imagery in order to represent and develop his themes and ideas. This can be found in all six of my studied poems, but for me, the two most evident are LBD and TA. LBD is not as typically Keatsian as the other five that I have studied, in both its ballad structure and narrative form, whereas much of Keats’s poetry is in sonnet or odal form, and tend to be more personal, composed mainly of Keats’s own contemplations on life. However, not only does LBD deal with similar concepts as his other poetry, such as death and transience, but it also contains the powerful, mood-evoking imagery which is typical of Keats’s work. Within the opening lines, Keats describes a knight, “alone and palely loitering”, and subsequently establishes the setting as dark and ominous through his description of nature’s sickly state, with the lines, “The sedge has withered from the lake, and no birds sing”. Keats’s description of the knights pale features is done through the use of tainted natural imagery, in the lines “I see a lily on thy brow, with anguish moist and fever-dew, and on thy cheeks a fading rose fast withereth too.”. The use of natural imagery is continued throughout the poem, with vivid descriptions of “roots of relish sweet”, “honey wild, and manna dew”. This marks a distinct change in mood from the gloom created by the earlier imagery, to magical, romantic imagery, as the Belle Dame tempts the knight, and gives both him and the reader a false sense of security as she rides her horse and “sing[s] a faery’s song”. Once the knight has realised that he has been tricked, and watched the ghostly apparitions of princes and kings belatedly warn him of the Belle Dame, Keats reverts to the pale, deathly imagery of “their starved lips in the gloam” and nature once again becomes tainted as the knights sits on the “cold hill’s side”. As the poems draws to a close, the knight finishes his explanation with lines mirroring the opening stanza, “the sedge is withered from the lake, and no birds sing”. For me, Keats’s subtle use of natural imagery to create an intense mood of gloom, and further juxtaposition natural and unnatural imagery, allows me to fully appreciate how tainted and twisted the Belle Dame truly is and to feel more intensely the mood of the knight as he falls prey to the mysterious “lady in the meads”. Keats’s use of natural imagery is again seen in TA, which strongly contrasts that of LBD, portraying nature as vibrant and colourful, creating a restful mood. Keats packs this poem full of soporific images of plenty, such as the opening lines, describing autumn as the “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness”, and portrays autumn in idealistic abundance. By stanza two, autumn, personified as a female labourer, seems so weighed down by this abundance that she lies “on a half-reaped furrow sound asleep, drowsed with the fume of poppies”. By the third stanza the poem’s true theme becomes more apparent, as Autumn draws to a close, Keats reminds us that such abundance cannot live forever, and that soon it will turn to winter, but urges Autumn not to dwell on it’s death, but to live its life fully, even to its dying day: “think not of them, thou hast thy music too – while barrèd clouds bloom the soft-dying day”. Keats’s imagery becomes somewhat musical and mournful as Autumn dies; the insects are personified as a wailful choir” mourning, while the “light wind lives or dies”, and the lamb seems to bleat loudly in response to the dying day.  For me, this poem seems to be Keats’s way of accepting life’s transience, and perhaps, through the interconnection of natural idealism and the reality of death, acknowledging that he cannot fight the passage of time, and must surrender to it, as Autumn does; ageing, and eventually dying, in ripeness and abundance. Personally, this poem reminds me that time and aging should not be resisted, but rather embraced, allowing one to enjoy more fully every season we are granted. In terms of Keats himself, I am happy that he seems to have come closer to accepting his own mortality, and hope that I can one day do the same.

 
As I see it, Keats also manages to capture in his poetry the prevailing zeitgeist of the romantic era of poetry; the movement of focus and inspiration from the external to the internal, the personalisation of poetry, and the contemplation and glorification of the commonplace and everyday. I believe that Keats manages to discuss eternity, the process of ageing and death through subtle, unconventional means, coming to no distinct conclusion, allowing me, the reader, to decide best what my own feelings on these ideas are. That, to me, is the mark of a brilliant poet; bringing forth ideas and questions to be tossed and turned over in the mind of the reader, leaving them to eventually come upon their own answers without having the poet’s forced upon you. In this way, the poetry of Keats was, for me, an interesting insight into the mind of a man tortured by the idea of his own mortality, and  has certainly brought me closer to accepting mine.

                                                         

 



                                                  
 


 


John Keats 1795–1821

English poet and dramatist.

See also, Hyperion Criticism.

John Keats, today renowned as a leading poet of the Romantic movement, was viciously snubbed by many contemporary critics and by other poets. During his lifetime, Keats struggled against the obstacles of his lower-middle class social standing, limited education, early association with the "Cockney School" of poetry, and poor health, as he sought to develop his skills as a poet and advance his poetical theories. Even after his premature death at the age of twenty-five, and well into the nineteenth century, Keats's poetry continued to be disparaged as overly sensitive, sensuous, and simplistic. By the twentieth century, however, his position within the Romantic movement had been revalued by critics. Keats continues to draw scholarly, critical, and popular attention. Issues examined by modern critics include Keats's political leanings; his theories regarding poetic imagination and "negative capability"; the rapid development of his poetry from the Cockney style to his more complex efforts, such as Hyperion, The Fall of Hyperion, and his later odes; and Keats's treatment of women in his poetry.

Biographical Information

Keats, the oldest of four children, was born in London in 1795 into a working, middle-class family. He lost both his parents at an early age; his father died when Keats was seven, and his mother died six years later. The Keats children were then placed within the care of a guardian. While attending the Clarke school in Enfield, Keats did not display any proclivity toward literature until the age of fifteen, when his friend Charles Cowden Clarke, the son of the school's headmaster, helped to interest Keats in mythology and travel-lore. At about the same time, Keats's guardian apprenticed the teenager to an apothecary-surgeon. Keats entered medical school and in 1816 passed the examinations required to become a surgeon. That same year, Keats met Leigh Hunt, who published the liberal journal the Examiner. In 1817, Keats published a volume of poems, which is typically characterized as an immature effort, although the few reviews the volume received were not wholly unfavorable. The 1818 publication of Endymion is regarded as a transitional effort by Keats, in which the influence of Hunt and his Cockney

style is still detected in the use of colloquialisms, and in the luxurious and sentimental style. Yet the poem also displays an increasing level of skill and maturity that would culminate in Keats's next volume of poetry, Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes, and Other Poems (1820). This publication would also be Keats's last; shortly after the publication of Endymion, the first symptoms of tuberculosis, the disease that had killed his mother and his brother Tom, began to trouble Keats. In the autumn of 1820, in an effort to stabilize his health in Italy's fair climate, Keats left England, what remained of his family, and his love, Fanny Brawne. Keats died in Rome five months later.

Major Works

Endymion, while still displaying some of the flaws of Keats's earlier poetry, was also graced with mythological, poetical, and artistic imagery. The story itself, chronicling the love of Endymion and Diana, is based in myth, although Keats's knowledge of it was taken from other English renderings of the myth, as Keats never learned Greek. The primary theme of the poem has been described by critics Samuel C. Chew and Richard D. Altick (1948) as "the quest of a unity transcending the flux of the phenomenal world." Keats's Hyperion, published in his 1820 volume of poetry, was followed by the incomplete The Fall of Hyperion, which is regarded by most critics as Keats's attempt to revise the earlier work. Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion, like Endymion, focus on mythological themes; the story centers on the Titans' fall to the triumphant Olympians. Some critics have suggested that the history of the French Revolution played some role in Keats's construction of the poem. Other works considered to be among Keats's greatest are the odes published in the 1820 volume, including "Ode to Psyche," "Ode to a Nightingale," and "Ode on a Grecian Urn." The poems examine such themes as the relationship between art and life, and the nature of human suffering.

Critical Reception

One issue modern critics have studied is the discrepancy between the initial, often negative, reception of Keats and his poetry and the stellar literary reputation Keats enjoys today. Marjorie Levinson (1988) focuses her study on the barrier posed by Keats's social standing, pointing out ways in which his lower-middle-class status affected his work and influenced the negative reviews offered by his critics. Concentrating on politics rather than class status, Nicholas Roe (1992) similarly maintains that Keats's potential political subversiveness was the reason his poetry was deprecated by contemporary critics. Like Roe, Morris Dickstein (1983) examines Keats's politics, demonstrating that early on, Keats was associated not only with Leigh Hunt's poetry, but also with his liberal politics. Dickstein further argues that Keats makes his revulsion for the politics of the day and his desire for social and political progress explicit themes in both his poetry and his letters.

Keats's letters are often studied by critics to gain insight into his poetical theories. Wolf Z. Hirst (1981) examines Keats's letters to his family and friends and discusses what the letters reveal about Keats's theories of "negative capability," the truth of Imagination, and "soul-making." Hirst interprets that by negative capability, Keats was referring to the ability of a poet to suppress his ego, to be "capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason… ." Keats's letters also reveal his belief that human suffering is a necessary experience in the processes of personality development and soulmaking, and that what the imagination apprehends as beauty must be truth. These theories are also reflected in Keats's poetry, and critic A. E. Eruvbetine (1984, 1987) examines the qualities of Keats's poetic imagination and of beauty as an aesthetic ideal, as displayed in his poems. Eruvbetine argues that to Keats, imagination served as the "true voice of feeling," that through the imaginative experience truth was revealed and new experiences could be envisioned. In the essay on beauty, Eruvbetine asserts that beauty represented to Keats a medium for accessing truth. While truth and beauty were apparently resolved into a single aesthetic ideal, the critic notes, beauty remained the focus of the ideal.

In addition to exposing his poetical theories, Keats's letters also conveyed his mixed emotions about the love of his life, Fanny Brawne. Critics such as Margaret Homans (1990) examine Keats's remarks to and about Fanny Brawne in his letters as a means of understanding the way in which women are portrayed in his poetry. Homans likens the objectification and distancing of Brawne in the letters to Keats's objectification of women in his poetry, and to the poet's attempts to exclude female readers from gaining access to his poems. Similarly, in Karla Alwes's 1993 study of Keats's exploitation of the female "not only as an ideal to be achieved but as an obstacle to that achievement," Alwes suggests that Keats's difficult relationship with Brawne is related to the depiction of the female in "La Belle Dame sans Merci," in which the critic argues "the male is seen as most vulnerable."

In addition to these areas of scholarship, modern critics still study Keats's poetry in more traditional ways, analyzing his imagery, style, and the structure of his poems. For example, Richard Harter Fogle (1949) explores the way in which the "concreteness" of Keats's imagery affects the metrical structure of his poems; François Matthey (1974) examines the development of the structural complexity of Keats's poetry; Jack Stillinger (1990) asserts that through narrative analysis Keats's poems can be better understood; and John A. Minahan (1992) investigates Keats's use of music in his poetry.

Most modern students and scholars appear to be interested in Keats as an individual and as a poet, noting that to fully appreciate the poetry, one must fully appreciate the man. As Jerome McGann (1979) argues, Keats must be approached historically, rather than in the strictest literary sense, if analysis of his poetry "is to achieve either precision or comprehensiveness."

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