Keats Poems and Letters


Sonnet Analysis – “When I Have Fears that I May Cease to Be”

July 22, 2019 by Essay Writer

John Keats’ sonnet “When I have Fears that I may Cease to Be,” written in 1818 when the poet was twenty-three years old, deals with the young man’s fears that he will not live long enough to accomplish what he wants to in life. He is afraid that his artistic and poetic potential will not be fulfilled, and that his love will be cut short. Based on Keats’ letters and his biography, we can assume that the speaker is indeed Keats himself. Interestingly, the poem was written before Keats contracted tuberculosis, from which he would die a mere three years after the poem was written, adding an eerie, portentous quality to the sonnet. However, it is understandable that he would have fears of an untimely death. His mother had died of the disease a few years earlier, and his younger brother was currently suffering from it.”When I have Fears” is in many ways typical of Keats’ work. He was a master of the sonnet form, and the poem is full of sensitive passion and the romantic imagery for which he is famous. Throughout the poem Keats uses a variety of poetic elements, including form and metrics, to help convey his thoughts and to emphasize his imagery. The poem takes the form of a Shakespearian sonnet, and rather strictly adheres to that structure’s template. The lines follow the standard ababcdcdefefgg rhyme scheme, and, making the rhymes as simple as possible, they are all perfect and masculine. Each rhyme is clearly differentiated from the others as well. Also in keeping with the definition of the form, the poem is written in iambic pentameter. All the lines have a neat ten syllables, and six of them are perfectly iambic. The remaining eight lines have generally few foot substitutions, with occasional trochees and spondees appearing.The form of the Shakespearian sonnet is so ideally suited for this poem that Keats must have seen little need to buck against it. In fact, doing so would probably undermine the perfect match of the sonnet’s form with his content. In the words of Paul Fussel, “…the sonnet as a form tends to imply a particular, highly personal, usually somewhat puzzled or worshipful attitude toward experience,” which is exactly what Keats conveys in this poem. Continuing to follow the mold of the Shakespearian sonnet, “When I have Fears” is set up as a thought or long sentence that is not completed until the final lines of the poem. Each quatrain starts with the word “when” and the introduction of an elaborate circumstance, but we do not find out what happens when these things occur until the middle of the twelfth line, when the completion of the idea is thrust upon us, signaled by the word “then,” which clearly marks the turn in the sonnet.Each quatrain introduces a slightly different idea, but the ideas are all related, and all tie into the fear of an untimely death. The final two and a half lines after the turn are different, as discussed above. However, under the powerful influence of the Petrarchan sonnet, “When I have Fears” slightly veers away from the true Shakespearian form. Although the ideas of the three quatrains all tie into the central idea, there is a clear distinction between the interconnected ideas presented in the octave – that he will not be able to write all he wants in his lifetime – and the separate fear expressed in the third quatrain – that his love will be cut short. This causes the feeling of a slight shift between the octave and the sestet, which is where the turn would be expected in a Petrarchan sonnet. Perhaps the leaning away from the Shakespearian sonnet occurs because sonnets of that form tend to have quick, often witty resolutions at the end, whereas Petrarchan sonnets, with more lines to slowly ease and develop the conclusion of the poem, tend to have endings that are more emotional and in depth. Supporting this notion even further, Keats found it necessary to elongate his couplet by an extra half line. With the slight melding of these two sonnet forms, Keats created a perfect, tailored vehicle for the expression of his ideas. The octave’s two quatrains discuss his fear that he will not reach his poetic potential – specifically that he will not be able to write all he wants or express all he can before he dies. This idea is broken into two main images and metaphors, one for each quatrain. The poem opens with imagery of a bountiful harvest. Keats likens the unreaped bounty to himself, saying that he (his mind and emotion, his “teeming brain” (l2)) is very full and fertile. He fears he will not be able to fully harvest (by writing poetry) all of his metaphorical grain in his lifetime: “Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain, / Before high-piléd books, in charactery, / Hold like rich garners the full ripen’d grain;” (2-4). In the second quatrain, the idea expressed is that of the nearly endless supply of beauty in nature and Keats’ desire to document and reflect it (to “trace” (7) it). He recognizes both the simple, clear beauty of the natural world in “shadows” (8) and “the night’s starr’d face” (5), as well as a deeper, more hidden and mysterious beauty that is still partially obscured and will take time – which he may not have – to fully understand and express. He recognizes this masked beauty as “Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance” (6). It is not clear whether he means the “high romance” to refer to the potential, unwritten poetry or if it exists in nature by itself, while the unnecessary figure of John Keats stands idly by. Either way, it is clear that something is out there, untapped. The first two quatrains work together to give the impression that there is so much raw material in the world that, to continue the metaphor, as long as Keats lived his field need never be fallow. In the third quatrain, perhaps due in part to the Petrarchan influence discussed earlier, the idea shifts slightly to voice another element of Keats’ concern that his life will be cut short. He now expresses the fear that he will lose his beloved. Just as he fears that his life will not be allowed to run its full course, he does not allow the quatrain to run its expected measure: it is only three and a half lines long. He emphasizes the abrupt cut by the use of a hyphen, conveying a sense of suddenness and even urgency that parallels his feelings: “Never have relish in the faery power / Of unreflecting love; – then on the shore” (11-12). The comparative shortness of this quatrain can have other implications as well. It can be interpreted to mean that love is short and fleeting, and can end at any minute. Calling his beloved “fair creature of an hour” (9) supports this notion. Additionally, Keats devotes more than twice as many lines to discussing his desire to write poetry than his unwillingness to let go of love, perhaps making a qualitative judgment about the two. After the three quatrains, “then” in the middle of line twelve marks a clear turn in the poem and indicates that the reader will finally find out what happens “when” all the previous thoughts occur to the poet. Accordingly, the final two and a half lines do just that. When he has such thoughts, he “stand[s] alone, and think[s]” (13), “Till love and fame to nothingness do sink” (14). That is, he feels himself put into perspective by the “wide world” (13), and feels that he is nothing, and everything is insignificant and meaningless – including his fear of not writing all he can and his thwarted desire to achieve fame and lasting love. In addition to Keats’ themes of his fear of dying before his full potential is reached and of the fleeting nature of love, an interesting dichotomy between thought and feeling is explored. It is clear that Keats wants to feel and not to think. This is a bit paradoxical, since the action of writing a poem necessitates thinking (even if it is thinking about feeling). Things that Keats states explicitly as thoughts are generally negative, often specifically referencing death (he “think[s] that [he] may never live to trace” (7)), and at the end of the poem he “stand[s] alone and think[s]2” (13), which brings on a very sad, empty feeling. Keats exalts feeling over thought. He yearns for “unreflecting love” (12). That is, love without thought. He says that he might “Never have relish” (11) in such love, implying that not only will he not experience it in the future if his life is abbreviated, but that he has not yet had it. He seems to be saying that he is not capable of stopping thought, and simply feeling, even though he would like to. Other things related to feelings as opposed to thoughts are also positive. When he “beholds” (5) nature, he is awed and inspired by it. He is not thinking about it, but simply letting the feelings it arouses wash over him. “[W]hen I feel… / That I shall never look upon thee more” (9-10) may seem to be an exception to this idea, associating feeling with something negative, but in fact it’s not. He is simply using a misnomer, calling the thought of never looking upon his beloved a feeling. One final idea expressed in the poem is Keats’ desire to strive for and to believe in idealistic fantasies, even though he knows that they are not realities. In the end he comes to terms with the almost cruelly indifferent, depressing world. He alludes to these fantasies when he calls writing poetry “the magic hand of chance” (8), and when he mentions the “faery power” (11) of love (in this case also playing into the idea that love is only a myth). Keats uses many poetic elements to emphasize these themes and to help convey his meanings and images. In addition to making use of essentials like meter, Keats also employs many smaller techniques throughout the poem. The repetition of the word “when” at the beginning of each quatrain and the parallel structure of the of the first lines of the first two quatrains serves to repeatedly draw attention to the focus on time, and keeps bringing the reader back into the immediate moment. Similarly, the parallelism and repetition of the word “before” in lines two and three does the same thing on a smaller scale. Not exact repetition, but the use of similar sounding words is also found. The similarity of the words “fair” (9) and “faery” (11) links the two ideas, perhaps implying that love (which “fair creature” indicates by metonyme) is only “faery” (a magical illusion). Keats uses alliteration in many other places as well. The hard “g” sound is repeated in the first quatrain with the words “glean’d” (2), “garners” (4), and “grain” (4). All of these words also carry stress. The repetition of the clear, full sound, in addition to the fact that the words are all associated with images of plentiful things, enhances the image of bountiful fields. Similarly, the “r” sound is repeated in this quatrain. It is found in the words “brain” (2), and “charactery” (3), as well as many times in line four, “Hold like rich garners the full ripen’d grain.” Again, all of the “r” sounds are stressed. When spoken, the sound is naturally heavy and a bit drawn out, creating a feeling of indelibility, which, after all, is what Keats, would like himself and his work to be. More alliteration is found in line thirteen with the words “wide world.” In this case the sound is especially pertinent to the image: when spoken, the “w” sound actually makes the mouth wide, and the sound itself seems to have a wide feel. The juxtaposition of “wide world” with “I stand alone” (both line 13) emphasizes the contrast between the two images. Keats does other little things like this that enhance the poem’s imagery. The apostrophes in the words “night’s starr’d” (5) form a concrete image, as they actually look like stars perched above the words. The fact that the apostrophe in “starred” is unnecessary (even if it was written “starred,” the pronunciation would be the same) lends credence to the idea that Keats was cognizant of the image the apostrophes create. Keats’ simile that books hold grain “like rich garners” (4) works within the harvest metaphor to self-consciously bring attention to the fact that it is a metaphor and a poem, maintaining no pretense of reality. He acknowledges that he is like a full field of grain, he does not try to pass himself off as one. This picks up on the theme of the disconnection between magic, fantasy, poetry, and cold reality. Then, in the same breath, he jumps back into the metaphor by saying that his poetry is not like, but is “full ripen’d grain” (4), as he strives to regain the fantasy. The last main poetic element that Keats uses in this sonnet is meter. As mentioned earlier, the meter remains rather regular throughout the poem. It is iambic pentameter, as expected in a traditional sonnet, and about half of the lines have slight variations. Since the meter of most of the poem is so regular, the slight alterations that occur seem especially important. Some of the substitutions serve specific, clear purposes in addition to simply making the rhythm of the poem interesting and not overly “sing-song” or predictable. Small words and articles throughout the poem that should be stressed according to strict iambic pentameter often are not. Some examples of these little, unstressed words are “the” (4), “of” (6), and “with” (8). Often times there are two of them in a row, like “with the” (8), and “in the” (11). The lack of an expected stress on an insignificant word allows for the stresses on the more important words to carry more weight and receive more notice. Keats inserts extra stresses in a number of places. In line three, the words “high-piléd” are both stressed, creating a spondee in the place of an iamb. The two stresses work directly with the meaning and imagery of those two words, creating a building-up feeling. It almost seems like there are three stresses in a row, since the reader nearly skips over the unstressed second syllable of “piléd” to go straight to the more substantial, stressed word, “books.” This third stress adds to the feeling even more, making it really feel like a big pile is being built. The word “starr’d” (5) also carries an irregular stress. Just like the concrete imagery of the apostrophes in this phrase, the three stressed words in a row, “night’s starr’d face,” seem almost like stars – perhaps Orion’s belt, if that’s not stretching it too far – which adds to the imagery. The word “Huge” in line six carries a stress for rather obvious reasons. It would be counterintuitive for a word meaning something large and grand to be unstressed. Also, the previous line starts with the word “Behold,” but does not say what to behold (the “Huge cloudy symbols”) until the next line. After the anticipation and excitement created by this delay and enjambment, the declaration of the object is surely worthy of a stress. The unexpected stress on the word “fair” in line nine serves to emphasize the alliteration with the word that comes before it (“feel”), again tying feeling together with positive, “fair” things. Additionally, the stress is important because it marks a change in the poem: he is now addressing someone, the “fair creature of an hour” (9), even if it is just for a couple of lines. “Never” in line eleven forms a trochee for emphasis instead of an iamb. “Never” is an extremely important word, since the whole idea is that he won’t achieve the lofty goals and happy love that he desires. Lastly, “wide” and “world” in line thirteen are both stressed, as is necessary in order to highlight the alliteration and convey the “wide” feeling of the words. Throughout “When I have Fears that I may Cease to Be,” Keats employs a plethora of poetic elements to convey his meanings and enhance his imagery. Form and metrics are paramount among these, as Keats masterfully adheres to and abstracts from the sonnet form in order to reap all of its potential.

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Finding Reconciliations and the Value of Art in John Keats’s Epistle-Poems

June 4, 2019 by Essay Writer

After his death at the tender age of twenty-five, English poet John Keats left behind a legacy of hundreds of letters in addition to his published poems. These letters to family and friends feature a few common recipients, including his brothers Tom and George, his sister Fanny, his last love Fanny Brawne, and his good friend Reynolds, among others. One remarkable feature of these letters is the inclusion of poetry in them. This poetry is anything from completed pieces to merely fragmentary lines. Scholar Grant Scott writes, in his introduction to the Selected Poems of John Keats, “Perhaps what is most surprising and delightful about Keats’s letters, especially next to the polished, anthology-ready gems of his poetry, is their unpredictability…The proximity of the mundane and the profound leads to another salient feature of Keats’s letters: their seamless integration of everyday life with the life of the mind”[1]. The towering twentieth-century poet T. S. Eliot said, of Keats’s letters, “[they] are what letters ought to be; the fine things come in unexpectedly, neither introduced nor shown out, but between trifle and trifle”[2].

The “seamless integration” recognized by Scott is a unique reconciliation which runs, through multiple levels, throughout all of Keats’s poetry, but especially the poetry found in his letters. The incorporation of poetry into Keats’s letters—which are written in prose—unconsciously brings together several layers of seemingly opposed forces. By inserting verse into his prose letters, Keats brings together first stillness and movement, and then individuality and otherness, and finally, the understanding of art as both a personal pursuit and a public presentation. Keats’s general purposes in including poems in his letters are practical: he provides himself with an opportunity to critique his own work, he shares his new and currently present ideas with his family and friends, and finds an expressive outlet which functions differently than prose. Therefore, rather than examining the roles these poems were intended to perform, it is now more interesting to at what roles these poems have come to play.

By looking at a work which utilizes a letter form within a poem—or, depending on perspective, a poetic form within a letter—the layered process of reconciling oppositions can be better understood. While all the answers to the questions of what roles embedded verses have come to play cannot be completely addressed by looking at one poem alone, the insights this one work lends will inevitably shed light on larger, connected answers regarding Keats’s letter-poetry in general.

One poem which meets the above criteria is found in a letter to Keats’s friend J. H. Reynolds, written on March 25 of 1818.[3] Keats met Reynolds (1796-1852) in 1816 at the house of a mutual friend; the two fast became close; “of all the company that Keats met at Hampstead, Reynolds seems to have had the most genuine poetic talent, the keenest powers of criticism, and the greatest sympathy with the intellectual interests of his friend. Like Keats, he had been much influenced by Wordsworth…We are not surprised, therefore, to find that when Keats wishes to discuss the profounder problems of life and art his letters are generally addressed to Reynolds”[4]. This poem in the March 25, 1818 letter is precisely concerned with such a large and abstract problem: “If substantiality be the criterion of value, what value can be assigned to mental perceptions?…This questioning receives a special poignancy in Keats’s verse epistle to Reynolds…what troubled him [Keats] most was the inability of the human will to regulate events, and events were unpredictable, cruel, and ineluctable…The idea is expressed through a series of images in the verse epistle to Reynolds, as a statement of the poet’s inner crisis the poem deserves a more searching critical attention than it has so far received”[5].

Scholar Chatterjee presents a series of paraphrased interpretations of other scholars who have analyzed this epistle-poem thus far[6]. Amy Lowell “considers the poem ‘unconnected’ and thinks that Keats’s purpose was to make a picture solely to amuse his sick friend. (Reynolds was suffering from rheumatic fever.)” Albert Gerard, after analyzing the poem in great detail, believes that “a fundamental aesthetic problem underlies the epistle,” which has to do with accounting for “ ‘disagreeables’ in the products of imagination, in dreams, in art, and in poetry.” Mary Visick puts forth that the poem calls for the “need of reconciling complex imaginative values with natural or with moral philosophy; the poet finally abandons the whole dilemma and seeks to take refuge in ‘new romance.’” Walter Evert asserts that the poem is overall “concerned with the unhappy vagaries of imagination.” All of these three extensive analyses emphasize the tension of unreconciled opposites within the poem. However, scholar W. J. Bates thinks that “it would have disturbed rather than flattered Keats that, long after his death, these lines, like so much of his impromptu verse, were salvaged, printed as ‘poetry,’ and then approached with formal expectations that are wildly irrelevant. Therefore, instead of performing any sort of close analysis of the poem, the ways that its formal qualities contribute to its macro-role in contemplating the presentations of art will be considered instead, in accordance to the aim of this paper. While Chatterjee recognizes that the “clash between the inner and the external world undoubtedly constitutes the theme of this troubled poem; the ramifications of this theme demand close scrutiny”—this paper will focus on the important unreconciled opposites outside of the poem itself.

This epistle-poem is composed of 113 lines told in 56 sets of heroic couplets. (The one out-standing line is line 105, where the end word “moods” does not rhyme with anything, and does not have a paired line, at all.) The poem is rather long for something to be included in a letter; in many other letters Keats will write the majority of his content in prose, before inserting, here and there, sections of verse (usually much shorter than 113 lines long.) This oddity is mitigated by the fact that the poem is essentially the letter. It absorbs the greeting of the letter into its opening line, thus: “Dear Reynolds, as last night I lay in bed,/There came before my eyes that wonted thread.” The quality of the poem, that is, its usage of language, has been critiqued as having “certain obvious lapses in taste, [such as] the meaningless caprice of the opening paragraph with the unnecessary banality of line 11 and the vulgar pronunciation of perhaps as p’raps in line 14, all due in a measure to the rapidity of its production, [but this epistle-poem still] marks a great advance in style and treatment of subject upon the earlier epistles. The heroic couplet is well controlled throughout, enjambment is sparingly and effectively employed, and there are no double endings to the lines”[6]. This rapidity of production is the same reason Bates cited for the unnecessary close readings of this epistle-poem and other epistle-poems like it. Yet despite the validity of such a claim, reading the poem as a less significant product of its more significant context is valuable insofar as it reflects the fleeting and momentary mindset of its author.

The rapidity of this poem’s production is all the more striking when its content is considered. The epistle-poem spends several lines considering a painting. The ending of the letter, written in prose, will be discussed in fuller detail later in this paper; for the time now it is sufficient only to mention that, in it, Keats directs his recipient’s attention, thus: “You know, I am sure, Claude’s Enchanted Castle and I wish you may be pleased with my remembrance of it,” he writes, in prose, after his epistle-poem. The Enchanted Castle (1664) is an oil painting by Baroque English painter Claude Lorrain, illustrating the tale of the princess Psyche and her love affair with the god Cupid. While Psyche features as the prominent, and the only, human subject of the painting, she is dwarfed by the rest of the image, which contains a lush and mystical landscape.

In much of Keats’s poetry, that is, not only this epistle-poem, there is a “tendency…towards an imagery of stillness or repose [that] has been the subject of frequent critical comment”[7]. Scholars have said that “Keats’s imagery is characterized by a ‘sense of power momentarily in its restraint, of massive repose, which yet gives promise of decisive action’”; that there is not simply “absence of motion, ‘but of things poised on the brink of action, their motion briefly arrested and ready to continue.’” Bate argues that Keats’s ideal in poetry is “the dynamic caught in momentary repose.”

In this epistle-poem, in his remembrance of The Enchanted Castle, Keats is not painting an image with his words per se, at least not in the way he does so explicitly in works like “Ode on a Grecian Urn” (1819). Rather, Keats is performing a sort of ekphrasis, a linguistic illustration of an artwork. Nevertheless, the literal anchoring of this epistle-poem in the remembrance of a single, static painting is a definite way for Keats to express this quality of stillness which permeates his corpus. “His images endow silence with a certain being of its own. It is no mere negation of sound or noise, but a presence to be felt, and almost heard. Keats conveys experience in complex and paradoxical personifications,” writes Swaminathan in The Still Image in Keats’s Poetry[8], in a return to the paradoxical or opposed natures of the elements in Keats’s works. The Enchanted Castle inspired the completed poem “Ode to a Nightingale” (1819), one of Keats’s most beloved, acclaimed, and studied poems, but these related lines in a single letter also contain reference to this painting offer up a different significance. Letters are something which inherently involve movement and transition—and, it might even be said—lack of stillness. The fact that this letter which will be transported from Keats to his friend, and will be removed from its author or creator, goes against the tendency towards stillness found in its verse content. Yet it is the content of this epistle-poem, and the contents of its author’s life which created it, that necessitate this stillness. Points of immense gravity lie in Keats’s own life during the composition of this letter. His dear brother Tom is deathly ill with tuberculosis, something which weighs heavily on Keats’s heart, especially after having nursed his mother on her deathbed during his adolescence. In line 110 of the epistle-poem, he explicit mentions his daily concerns for his brother: “Do you get health—and Tom the same—I’ll dance,/And from detested moods in new Romance/Take refuge.” Furthermore, by inserting certain lines of still imagery into this dynamic poem, and then into this letter, which is a vehicle of motion—an item of delivery and of communication—Keats instills a reverence into his personal letters which extends beyond the simple presence of verses in these correspondences.

Moving forward from the reconciliation between stillness and movement is the way that this epistle-poem finds a balance between the value of the individual and the value of the other. The prominence of reconciliation is not completely new to theoretical work on Keats; scholar Robert Gittings describes Keats’s letters as making up the body of a “spiritual journal,” and that they were not for specific others as much as they were for “synthesis”[9]. Despite this immediate gravitation towards synthesis, Keats’s letters do put due importance on the individuality of the recipient. His letters to different members of his family and his different friends vary in tone and style, and perhaps most significantly in the poetry that they contain. For example, his poems to his brother George and his wife Georgiana contain some of the longest, brightest, and most completed lines in his letters; his tone, there, is also more colloquial. His tone with his friends changes from person to person, whether it is “ambitious with Haydon” or “reflective and philosophical with Bailey and Reynolds” or “paternal with his sister, Fanny”[10]. Furthermore, the epistle-poem of March 25, 1818 was composed only for Reynolds: Keats specifies, after his lines end, that he hopes to have cheered up the sick Reynolds, and chose the subject of The Enchanted Castle because he thought Reynolds would appreciate it.

The differentiation, as well as the bringing together, of the individual and the other, inevitably brings up the concern of personal versus public consumption. This is of especial concern to artists. In another letter to Reynolds, written on April 10, 1818, Keats rails that he “never wrote a single line of poetry with the least shadow of public thought”[11]. This is clearly untrue to some degree, as the young poet was lauded by others for his poetic talents, and sought publication, as poetry became his professional career. The “public thought” that Keats is unhappy about here has to do with the opinions of certain critics. Around this time, a mere couple of years before his death which no one at the time foresaw, Keats’s poetry was scathingly criticized by professional literary critics. This criticism only served to worsen his uncertainties about the purpose and the value of art. “Poetry,” he once wrote to his friend Benjamin Bailey on March 13, 1818, “may be a mere Jack-a-lanthern to amuse whoever may chance to be struck with its brilliance. The artist ought to be a friend of man—a physician to all men—but how can an artist labour for mortal good and ease the giant agony of the world?”[12]. This, at the very least, demonstrates that Keats clearly kept public opinion in his mind as he composed poetry, because he viewed—even if he doubts this view from time to time—the consumption of art by general others to be a way of healing the brokenness of humanity. Reynolds, the recipient of the 1818 epistle-poem, seemingly also agrees with Keats’s belief in sharing poetry with the world. In a response to the Quarterly Review’s unpleasant review of Keats’s Endymion, Reynolds writes that: “The genius of Mr. Keats is peculiarly classical; and, with the exception of a few faults, which are the natural followers of youth, his imagination and his language have a spirit and intensity which we should in vain look for in half the popular poets of the day…Poetry is a thing of generalities—a wanderer amid persons and things—not a pauser over one thing, or with one person”[13]. Reynolds’s usage of the terms “pauser” and his phrasing of “over one thing, or with one person,” harken back to the unique function of poetry contained in letters, which are sent to other people. The poetry that is contained in Keats’s letters does precisely what Reynolds puts forth as the mission of poetic arts, to wander from person to person and thing to thing. Not only does the epistle-poem blur the lines between individuality in creator and recipient, but it also forms a bridge between the personal mission for creating poetry and the public goal of receiving and consuming and appreciating the works. Just as poetry is an immensely personal process, so it is an immensely public presentation. Because of the aim of the artist in easing “the great agony of the world,” these processes are now one and the same.

In this same protest to the Quarterly Review Reynolds writes: “The manners of the world, the fictions and wonders of other worlds are its [the mind of poets] subjects; not the pleasures of hope, or the pleasures of memory. The true poet confines his imagination to no one thing—this soul is an invisible ode to the passions”[14]. The role of the poet’s mind is to encompass as much of the universe as possible, and the role of the poet is to make sense of these realities into graspable works. “Keats undoubtedly regarded poetry as his vocation in the religious sense of that word,” writes Baker in John Keats and Symbolism[15]. and so “his understanding of the nature of art is organically connected to his understanding of larger issues.” But, as seen earlier, Keats’s understanding of the nature of art wavers. He values and devalues it seemingly in alternation. In his letters, he often uses the prose around his verses to critique his own work. After the poem in the epistle-poem he writes to Reynolds:

My Dear Reynolds,

In hopes of cheering you through a Minute or two I was determined nill-he will-he to send you some lines, so you will excuse the unconnected subject and careless verse. You know, I am sure, Claude’s Enchanted Castle and I wish you may be pleased with my remembrance of it. The Rain is Come on again. I think with me Devonshire stands a very poor chance. I shall damn it up hill and down dale if it keeps up to the average of 6 fine days in three weeks. Let me have better news of you.

Your affectionate friend,

John Keats

Tom’s Rememberances to you. Remb. us to all—

He asks to be excused for the “unconnected subject” of his poem and the “careless verse.” Keats’s understanding of larger issues does not necessarily further his understanding of the nature of art, although Baker is right in saying that the two are tightly tied together. For example, the larger issues of pain in the world and of human physical inability are reasons for the wavering of Keats’s constantly developing understanding of the value of art. In writing to George on the 19 of March, 1819, after Tom’s death, Keats reveals his pained state of mind: “Neither Poetry, nor Ambition, nor Love have any alertness as they pass by me: they seem rather like three figures on a greek vase—a Man, and two women who no one by myself could distinguish in their disguisement”[16]. Hints of this melancholia can be found in the 1818 epistle-poem as well, in which an upbeat attitude is maintained, but strains of fatalism still shine through; it seems that “beauty itself, whether natural or artistic, seems no more valid than the enchanted castle which is only a delightful illusion”[17]. Keats’s value of art, or of his own art, depends on the larger factors at play in his life, and his “sensibility was [deeply] stirred by the actual. It is true, of course, that in some of his early poems he proposes an escapist view of poetry…Yet even in his abortive tales of chivalry (Calidore, Specimen of an Induction), the grasp of reality is clearly meant to provide the substance of the poetry, and is not an accidental and scarcely welcome intrusion into a pleasant daydream”[18]. The way Keats chooses to grasp his reality determines the way he produces his poems, even as he comments on these poems over and over again, and reshapes them into more complete pieces than the epistle-poems found in his letters. Many of Keats’s letters themselves foreshadow prominent, complete poems to come, as these letters reflect the poet’s current mindset, and his most recent outlook on the world.

The letters, too, show “no embarrassment in mingling serious ideas with bits of idle gossip, light-hearted banter, comments on women and the weather”[19], even as they include poetry both of Keats’s creation and of others’. “Here the poems are not isolated aesthetic events…so much as natural extensions of his [Keats’s] ordinary existence. Some of Keats’s most supple and original sonnets grow organically out of specific contexts, reflecting both the patterns of his thought at the moment of writing and the interest of individual correspondents,” writes scholar Grant Scott, “The happy marriage of poetry and prose in the letters tells us that for Keats, poetry was not a job or a career but a necessity, like breathing.” The marriage of poetry and prose is not the only union that takes place. Like generations, further reconciliations take place that involve the movement of letters as items of correspondence, and the natural functions of letter-writing; the self-assessment that is evident in Keats’s epistle-poems and his general contemplations about the value of art are also brought to the surface. In bringing prose together with poetry, regular correspondences with verse; in binding together artificial profession with organic breathing; Keats finds ultimate resolution by bringing life together with writing about life.

NOTES (References)

[1] Keats, John. Selected Letters of John Keats. Edited by Grant F. Scott. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002), xxii.

[2] Eliot, T. S. The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism: Studies in the Relation of Criticism to Poetry in England. (London: Faber and Faber, 1964), 100.

[3] Keats, John. Selected Letters of John Keats. Edited by Grant F. Scott. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002), 107.

[4] Keats, John, John Gilmer Speed, and Richard Monckton Milnes Houghton. The Letters and Poems of John Keats. Vol. 1. (New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1883), 537.

[5] Chatterjee, Bhabatosh. John Keats: His Mind and Work. (Bombay: Orient Longman, 1971), 284.

[6] Keats, John, John Gilmer Speed, and Richard Monckton Milnes Houghton. The Letters and Poems of John Keats. Vol. 1. (New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1883), 537.

[7] Swaminathan, S. R. The Still Image in Keats’s Poetry. (Salzburg, Austria: Institut Für Anglistik Und Amerikanistik, Universität Salzburg, 1981), iii.

[8] Swaminathan, S. R. The Still Image in Keats’s Poetry. (Salzburg, Austria: Institut Für Anglistik Und Amerikanistik, Universität Salzburg, 1981), 44.

[9] Gittings, Robert. John Keats: The Living Year, 21 September 1818 to 21 September 1819. (London: Heinemann, 1954), 121.

[10] Keats, John. Selected Letters of John Keats. Edited by Grant F. Scott. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002), xxxi.

[11] Keats, John, John Gilmer Speed, and Richard Monckton Milnes Houghton. The Letters and Poems of John Keats. Vol. 1. (New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1883), 77.

[12] Baker, Jeffrey. John Keats and Symbolism. (Sussex: Harvester Press, 1986), 183.

[13] Schwartz, Lewis M. Keats Reviewed by His Contemporaries: A Collection of Notices for the Years 1816-1821. (Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1973), 144.

[14] Schartz, Lewis M., Keats Reviewed by His Contemporaries, 144.

[15] Baker, Jeffrey. John Keats and Symbolism. (Sussex: Harvester Press, 1986), 4.

[16] Sinson, Janice C. John Keats and the Anatomy of Melancholy. (London: Keats-Shelley Memorial Association, 1971), 17

[17] Chatterjee, Bhabatosh. John Keats: His Mind and Work. (Bombay: Orient Longman, 1971), 295.

[18] Baker, Jeffrey. John Keats and Symbolism. Sussex: Harvester Press, 1986), 13.

[19] Keats, John. Selected Letters of John Keats. Edited by Grant F. Scott. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002), xxiii.


Baker, Jeffrey. John Keats and Symbolism. Sussex: Harvester Press, 1986.

Chatterjee, Bhabatosh. John Keats: His Mind and Work. Bombay: Orient Longman, 1971.

Colvin, Sidney. John Keats: His Life and Poetry, His Friends, Critics, and After-Fame. New York: Scribner’s, 1917.

Eliot, T. S. The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism: Studies in the Relation of Criticism to Poetry in England. London: Faber and Faber, 1964.

Gittings, Robert. John Keats: The Living Year, 21 September 1818 to 21 September 1819. London: Heinemann, 1954.

Hanson, Marilee. “The Life of John Keats – Facts, Information & Biography.” English History. February 1, 2015. Accessed December 7, 2015.

Keats, John, John Gilmer Speed, and Richard Monckton Milnes Houghton. The Letters and Poems of John Keats. Vol. 1. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1883.

Keats, John, and Richard Monckton Milnes. The Life & Letters of John Keats,. London: J.M. Dent & Sons;, 1927.

Keats, John. Selected Letters of John Keats. Edited by Grant F. Scott. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002.

Schwartz, Lewis M. Keats Reviewed by His Contemporaries: A Collection of Notices for the Years 1816-1821. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1973.

Sinson, Janice C. John Keats and the Anatomy of Melancholy. London: Keats-Shelley Memorial Association, 1971.

Swaminathan, S. R. The Still Image in Keats’s Poetry. Salzburg, Austria: Institut Für Anglistik Und Amerikanistik, Universität Salzburg, 1981.

Wigod, Jacob. The Darkening Chamber: The Growth of Tragic Consciousness in Keats. Salzburg, Austria: Institut Fur Englische Sprache Und Literatur, Universitat Salzburg, 1972.

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Indolence as Productivity: Deconstruction, Foucault and Paradox in Keats’s Negative Capability

May 21, 2019 by Essay Writer

Michel Foucault, in his seminal essay, What Is An Author?, considers the relationship between author, text, and reader: “…the quibbling and confrontations that a writer generates between himself and his text cancel out the signs of his particular individuality.”(Foucault, 1477) Forms of discourse, and the “author function’s” impact on these established forms, are theoretically questioned, while simultaneously speculating the absence of author in a text. Keats’s poetic character and temperament, as evidenced from his letters and exercised in his odes, can be characterized by his ideal of negative capability, which he defines as a state of mind in which “man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”(Cox, 109) Keats is describing the capacity that human beings possess to transcend and revise their contexts; it is an inherent rejection of the attempt to formulate theories or categorical knowledge, particularly in poetic practice. In the narrative that Keats’s letters cast, the concept arises only once, formally, however, Keats’s development of an aesthetic theory unique to him is ever present. In order to contextualize this development, various passages from the letters must be contemplated alongside biographical information, which places a contrast on modes of thinking between Charles Wentworth Dilke and Keats’s “exemplary” model, Shakespeare. Negative Capability, for Keats, is born out of the dichotomy that these figures posited as methods for “true poetry”; to attain the standard of “true poetry”, Keats demanded that the poet be receptive rather than searching for fact or reason. Though Keats’s condensed body of work does not include a prescribed text for his conception of aesthetic theory, which was a trend amongst his Romantic contemporaries, Keats’s thoughts on poetic character and the “non-identity” is affirmed throughout a series of letters. Keats fundamentally believes that aestheticism requires a removal of one’s identity during the creative process; writing poetry must be approached by an individual who has nothing of himself to impart while possessing the capacity to subdue his own personality. This notion can also be extracted from one Keats’s more inferior odes, “Ode on Indolence”, an 1819 poem which explicates the writing process and the necessity for authorial removal. The content is relatively mundane, as it follows the speaker’s, presumably a poet’s, contemplation of a morning spent in idleness. Three figures approach the poet as he enters a state of “indolence”: Ambition, Love and Poesy. During the speaker’s interactions with the figures, there dawns a realization that Poesy, or “poetry”, cannot be entirely banished; indolence is a necessary state for productive poetry, combined with the dissociation of identity and the self, or, in Foucauldian terms, the “subject”. Foucault’s theory on interpreting texts while conscious of the author’s absence or “death” is compatible with the ode. Keats’s other odes tend to thematicize ideas, rather than enact them, as “Ode on Indolence” demonstrates; just as exponents of Foucault’s essay and poststructuralist thought deny any identity to a text, Keats inherently denies any temperament and identity to the poet. Keats confronts the lived reality of the poetic spectacle, not just as an aesthetic space for displaying expression, but also as a coercive agent for invading and structuring modes of thinking and human consciousness.The origin of “negative capability” is easily traceable to the perpetually revisited letter written by Keats to his brothers George and Tom on December 21, 1817; the term, in a formal sense, occurs only once in all of Keats’ writings. In terms of theory, however, Keats was persistently concerned with elucidating a process for writing “true poetry”. Keats’s contemporary and personal companion, Charles Dilke, proposed facets of aesthetic theory that relied on categorization and didactics. In his letter of 17-27 September 1819, addressed to George Keats, Keats describes Dilke’s character, calling him “a Man who cannot feel he has a personal identity unless he has made up his Mind about every thing”(Cox, 326) Li Ou, in her biographical exposition, “Keats and Negative Capability”, contextualizes the relationship between Dilke and Keats, as well as the influence Dilke held over him: “…Dilke, like Coleridge who reaches after fact and reason irritably, an example of something opposite to negative capability in his ‘consequitive’ and dogmatic approach to experience.”(Ou, 5) The influence, according to Ou, occurs in the form of a contradiction; Dilke’s logic, which dictates a “dogmatic approach”, is not compatible with Keats’s perspective. In a letter to John Reynolds, Keats details his admiration of Shakespeare:”One of the three books I have with me is Shakespeare’s Poems: I neer(never) 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!”(Cox, 126)Though Keats’s influences are often owned to John Milton and Edmund Spenser based on stylistic structure, thematic nature and diction, in terms of theory, Shakespeare is at the epicenter of Keats’s aesthetic thought. To regard Shakespeare as a poet who produces works while simultaneously “working out conceits”, he is participating in an early formation of what Keats will label as a capability of “being in uncertainties”. Shakespeare, Ou argues, is responsible for an early cognition of what Keats’s later coins “negative capability”. She states:“A Man of Achievement with negative capability is a camelion poet with no proper self but metamorphic identities…No wonder Shakespeare is again indicated as the exemplary camelion poet, while Wordsworth, like Coleridge formerly, is set on the opposite side,”(Ou, 6)“Camelion poet” refers to the quality of identity displacement, which Shakespeare, according to Ou, applied to himself consistently. Keats adopts this quality habitually in his formation of poetic character and “non-identity”. Ou’s mentioning of William Wordsworth is also significant to consider; he, similarly to Dilke, influenced Keats through incompatible ideals.Keats possesses an awareness of the theoretical thought that was contemporary to his writing career. Though he regards Shakespeare highly, he does not share this respect with Wordsworth for two reasons: firstly, Wordsworthian influence was assigned to Keats within the poetic circle, and Keats was conscious to assure his independence from that influence, and secondly, Wordsworth’s contribution to aesthetic theory essentially disagreed with Keats’s ideas. In a letter to Reynolds, Keats demonstrates his disdain of “egotist” logic:“But for the sake of a few fine imaginative or domestic passages, are we to be bullied into a certain Philosophy engendered in the whims of an egotist. Every man has his speculations, but every man does not brood and peacock over them till he makes a false coinage and deceives himself… We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us”(Cox, 121)It is this “palpability” that causes the incompatibility between the poets; Keats valued sensibility and humility as qualities in the poetic figure, as Wordsworth advocates his own “speculations” as an objective mode of thought. Jacob Wigod, author of “Negative Capability and Wise Passiveness”, attempts to reconcile the inherent differences between Wordsworth and Keats by comparing the two concepts, as the title suggests. He claims that,“Far from looking at the world in the Shakespearean or negative-capability way, Wordsworth had developed a strictly bound set of didactic and moral principles from which he would not deviate.”(Wigod, 385)Wordsworth, whose poetic career precedes Keats’s considerably, entered a status of canonicity while that career was still active. Contemporarily, Wordsworth was nationally praised and through his writings in the preface to Lyrical Ballads, established a universal form of poetic speech. Keats does not accept the “set of didactic and moral principles” that Wordsworth promotes, as negative capability is based in opposition. Wigod comments on the connecting factor between the poets:“The whole measure of Wordsworth’s influence on Keats is almost untraceable. Whereas Keats gladly of wise passiveness, Wordsworth’s individualistic poetic strength precluded his assuming a Shakespearean role of negative capability.”(Wigod, 390)As Wigod demonstrates, a reconciliation is possible, however, negative capability relies on the contradiction between Dilke, Wordsworth and Shakespeare to exist. The concept is born out of the inability to balance the opposing views, and with the context that both Ou and Wigod provide, it becomes possible to conceive of it concretely and trace it within Keats’s poetic writing.Negative Capability and Keat’s corresponding aesthetic theory is composed of the poet’s “no-self”, “non-identity” and the act of accepting binary oppositions, or rather, the contentment associated with “inbetweeness”. In a letter to J.A. Hessey Keats provides a stable definition for the poetic character that conforms to negative capability:”As to the poetical character itself….it is not itself – it has no self – it is everything and nothing – It has no character- it enjoys light and shade; it lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated – It has as much delight in conceiving an Iago as an Imogen. What shocks the virtuous philosopher, delights the camelion poet”(Cox, 287) The “Poetical Character” as enunciated by Keats in the passage is that which has no identity of its own that can surpass its imaginative faculty and leave an impression of its identity on what the imagination conceives. Keats claims that the “true poet” is one who has nothing to impart but is gifted with the capacity to subdue his own personality. He must maintain the ability to project himself into other’s identities and actively participate in all types of experiences of life, both moral and immoral. Walter Jackson Bate, a notable figure in Keats scholarship, authored a seminal doctoral dissertation simply entitled, “Negative Capability”. In the publication, he authenticates an interpretation and definition of negative capability and the “poetical character”; he defines this character as follows: “This self-annihilation of the poet through a sympathetic identification of himself with his subject—whether a creature or a phenomenon—will be accomplished through the Imagination, immediately and intuitively”(Bate, 32) Essentially, the “imagination” is treated as a conscious mental exercise; Keats demonstrates this consciousness in the letters, and will also be examined and extracted from “Ode on Indolence”. Keats asserts that a poet who has no identity is certainly,”the most unpoetical of anything in existence; because he has no Identity – He is continually in for – and filling some other body – The Sun, the Moon, the Sea and Men and Women who are creatures of impulse are poetical and have about them an unchangeable attribute – The poet has none; no identity”(Cox, 295) The paradox that Keats presents in the excerpt becomes tangible within his poems, particularly those that exhibit a grand narrative, such as Lamia or the existing versions of Hyperion. The theory itself, when understood as a tool for writing is most apparent within the odes, especially “Ode on Indolence”, which can be viewed as an exposition of the writing function.To further authorize Keats’ conception of “poetical character”, he wrote to Richard Woodhouse on 27 October 1818, “When I am in a room with People if I ever am free from speculating on creations of my own brain, then not myself goes home to myself: but the identity of every one in the room begins to (for so) press upon me that, I am in a very little time annihilated”(Cox, 295). The poetical gift of self- annihilation, which, enables an artist to accept the opposites—the paradoxes and contradictions—of life, does not allow the poet to remain egocentric. Bate’s argument encompasses Keats’ previously disputed influences and assigns the states of being “characterless” to negative capability:“Such a manifestation of the poetic gift will be permitted only to the poet who possesses the quality of Negative Capability, who is himself characterless and without identity, who will not only tolerate but unhesitatingly welcome the obliteration of himself…This is the philosophy, not of Wordsworth or Milton, but of Shakespeare, and of Keats himself.”(Bate, 29)Bate supports Keats’s independence as both a poet and theoretical critic; negative capability, thus, provokes an individual to approach a text, both as reader and writer, with a suspension of identity and preconceived notions of self.In examining negative capability and poetic “non-identity” and its relation to writing, it is plausible to make a connection to poststructuralist thought, particularly that mandated by Michel Foucault. Keats’s theoretical conceptions lend themselves readily to a Foucauldian lens; What Is An Author? questions the precedence of the authorial identity in texts, just as Keats warrants the removal of “poetical identity” in the act of writing texts. Though Foucault places allegiance in structuralism as a more appropriate method for deconstructing text, the notion of “nothingness” that structures his essay is inherently poststructuralist. Jo-Anne Cappeluti’s publication, “For the Love of Nothing: Auden, Keats, and Deconstruction”, connects Keats’s ideals to those that belong to poststructuralist thought. She argues that,“Deconstruction by definition is an exercise of the intellect’s predilection to disprove and deny aesthetic experience. Deconstruction is in love with denying this “nothing,” but is seemingly unaware of how attempting demystification entangles the intellect all the more with the imagination.”(Cappeluti, 345)The “entanglement” between “intellect and imagination” can be interpreted as a supposition that regulates Romantic thought. Negative Capability is concerned with displacing intellect and personal speculations and substituting “non-identity” in its place. Indolence, as enacted in “Ode on Indolence”, requires the denial of “aesthetic experience”; to be in a state of indolence is to reject aesthetic thought and personal identity in order to experience “true poetry”. Keats, again in a letter to Reynolds, states that,“The Genius of Poetry must work out its own salvation in a man: It cannot be matured by law and precept, but by sensation and watchfulness in itself – That which is creative must create itself.”(Cox, 287)Just as negative capability does not endorse “law and precept”, neither can “The Genius of Poetry”. Text, particularly that which is creative, relies on itself for signification; absence of identity, absence of author are necessary in compiling a discourse or mode of thinking.Foucault, in his essay, explores the consequences of interpreting a text and dispossessing the author credited with that text. Similarly, “Ode on Indolence” is essentially a plea for authors to consciously enter a state of “indolence” to produce work; there must be an absence primarily, to initiate a presence. Foucault defines the function of writing as such:“The essential basis of this writing is not the exalted emotions related to the act of composition or the insertion of a subject into language. Rather, it is primarily concerned with creating an opening where the writing subject endlessly disappears.”(Foucault, 1477)Keats’s ode is nearly void of emotion; rather, the speaker abandons emotion, represented by the figures of Ambition and Love. “O folly! What is Love? And where is it?/ And for that poor ambition—it springs/ From a man’s little heart’s short fever-fit…”(lines 42-44) exclaims the speaker when he undergoes the realization that he unable to join them when experiencing indolence. Contrarily, the “demon Poesy” cannot be dismissed as easily. Keats is perhaps alluding to the necessary removal of self that grants access to “true poetic” thought; because the speaker cannot abandon Poesy, he is paradoxically inclined to desire and reject her. Keats found a mind associated with indolence, which was a narrow private path, not a “thoroughfare for all thoughts.”(Wigod, 390) Cappeluti also comments on the connection between poetry and a method of deconstruction:“Poetry invites this process, and deconstruction thrives on making nothing of it, but the answer lies in the power of language…Poets see language as a powerful means of engaging people in the aesthetic nature of being human.”(Cappeluti, 356)Cappeluti stresses the importance of human agency in the language of poetry. To conceive of indolence linguistically is to view it as not only a state that provides access to “Poesy”, but a space in which a poet can gain agency and a sense of humanism. It requires the removal and stripping of identity in order to enter indolence, and consequently experience aesthetic movement. Foucault, also emphasizes the primary need for “identity sacrifice”:“Writing is now linked to sacrifice and to the sacrifice of life itself; it is an obliteration of the self that does not require representation in books because it takes place in the everyday existence of the writer.”(Foucault, 1477)The “obliteration of the self” corresponds to the “self-annihilation” discussed earlier. Foucault is conscious of authorial sacrifice a wrier must make in order to produce a text; Keats’s negative capability can be perceived as an early method of deconstruction in this context, as it a facet that is manifest in the poet, rather than his work.Deconstruction envisions a state of mind in which inherently opposed and irreconcilable ideas exist simultaneously with no possibility of a synthesis, which can lead to certainties. Although Keats does not talk about irreconcilable ideas in the letters, uncertainties presume such a situation, while reason removes uncertainties to arrive at certitudes. In “Ode on Indolence”, the relationship between the speaker and Poesy can be defined as a relation among “irreconcilable ideas”. The idea of existing “inbetween” is characteristic of Keats in his letters, poems and theoretical discussions; this contradictory nature aims to alleviate any concrete regulations or conventions that categorize or organize poetry. Foucault’s argument encompasses the author, and his/her affiliation with “contradictions”:“The author serves to neutralize the contradictions that are found in a series of texts. Governing this function is the belief that there must be—at a particular level of an author’s thought, of his conscious or unconscious desire—a point where contradictions are resolved, where the incompatible elements can be shown to relate to one another or to cohere around a fundamental and originating contradiction.”(Foucault, 1484)Keats’ theory and its evidence in the ode is contradictory in itself, since it abstains from categorization, yet “coheres around a fundamental contradiction”; the poem tends to be declarative rather than dramatic, and narratively veracious rather than densely reflexive. The conclusion of the poem, whether influenced by biographical or more purely critical discourse, reveals its mission as Keats’s incapacity for or disillusionment with the exercise of the poetic imagination. Keats’s idea of the “chameleon poet” and application of negative capability is palpable in the ode. It is an attempt to expose that in “true poetry”, being invested in a suitable object obliterates the identity of the poet.Though poststructuralist and Foucauldian thought occur in literary criticism as a facet of the postmodern movement much later that Keats’s involvement in the Romantic movement, it is plausible to accept that Keats and his concept of negative capability aided in paving the way for such modes of thinking. Keats’s theory attempts to negotiate the turbulent relationship between intellect and imagination, “poetical character” and “non-identity”; as demonstrated, it is readily applicable to his poetic practice, in the form of “Ode on Indolence”. Keats’s other odes tend to thematicize ideas, rather than enact them, as “Ode on Indolence” demonstrates; just as exponents of Foucault’s essay and poststructuralist thought deny any identity to a text, Keats inherently denies any temperament and identity to the poet. Keats confronts the lived reality of the poetic spectacle, not just as an aesthetic space for displaying expression, but also as a coercive agent for invading and structuring modes of thinking and human consciousness.Works CitedBate, Walter J. Negative Capability. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1939. Print. Cappeluti, Jo-Anne. “For the Love of Nothing: Auden, Keats, and Deconstruction.” Philosophy and Literature 33.2 (2009): 345-57. Project MUSE. Web. 7 Dec. 2012.Cox, Jeffrey N. Keats’s Poetry and Prose: Authoritative Texts, Criticism. New York:W.W. Norton, 2009. Print.Foucault, Michel. “What Is An Author?” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. 2nd ed. New York: W. W. Norton &, 2010. 1475-490. Print.Ou, Li. “Chapter 1: Genealogy of Negative Capability.” Keats and Negative Capability. London: Continuum, 2009. 23-61. Wigod, Jacob D. “Negative Capability and Wise Passiveness.” Modern LanguageAssociation 67.4 (1952): 383-90. Print.

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The Role of the Self in Byron and Keats

May 2, 2019 by Essay Writer

The primary source of feeling comes from within the Self. At least, this is what Lord Byron’s Manfred and “Lara: Canto the First” and Keats’ “Four Seasons Fill the Measure of the Year”, tell us. The implications of this are that once the internal Self has begun a process of inner torment, there is little in the universe of external circumstances that can do anything to stop or change that process. The ability of the Self to influence a person’s general disposition and outlook on life can be stronger than man’s ability to overcome it, and in a sense foregrounds man’s association with himself, others and his environment. In the two works by Byron, we see examples of men tormented by some past memory that they can’t seem to forget. In the work by Keats, we see a description of the mastery of the mind over its subject. It is the acknowledgment of the memory and the state of the mind which inform the actions of the individual.The idea of a traumatic memory is something that is carried over in both Byron poems. In the case of Manfred, the main character is tormented by the ambiguous loss of a love. The memory itself is described without ever really being completely being fleshed out, as in the lines 213 to 216 when Manfred says “Not with my hand, but heart– which broke her heart; /It gazed on mine, and wither’d. I have shed/ Blood, but not hers– and yet her blood was shed– I saw, and could not stanch it” (Byron, Manfred, 213-216). This adds to the mystery of the memory itself, which suggests that the impression of the sum of the whole memory is more important than its individual details, and that the unique perspective of the mind subject to the impression is likely to have the greatest influence of the form the impression takes on the mind. Evidence of this idea can be seen in Manfred, when he says “My slumbers-if I slumber-are not sleep, But a continuance of enduring thought” (Byron, Manfred 3-4) and in “Four Seasons Fill the Measure of a Year”, where Keats writes “There are four seasons in the mind of man”. (Keats, 2) In “Lara: Canto the First”, we also encounter an gentleman who is tormented by past regrets, and who, as a result, finds himself disconnected from the rest of society. In this poem, the idea of this man being tormented by his own mind is mentioned quite explicitly, when Byron writes “A thing of dark imaginings, that shap’d /By choice the perils he by chance escap’d;/ But ‘scap’d in vain, for in their memory yet/ His mind would half exult and half regret.” (Byron, “Lara: Canto the First”, 317-320) This is similar to lines from Manfred, such as: But we, who name ourselves its sovereigns, we, Half dust, half deity, alike unfit To sink or soar, with our mix’d essence make A conflict of its elements, and breathe The breath of degradation and of pride, Contending with low wants and lofty will, Till our mortality predominates, And men are what they name not to themselves, And trust not to each other. (Byron, Manfred, 300-308)In fact, the lines seem to mirror each other conceptually, and reinforce the running theme in Keats that the mind is tempered by internal contradictions, experience and age, much like the changing of the seasons. The difference between the Byron poems and the Keats poems is that Byron does not separate the temperament of the mind so much by age as by experience. Manfred’s youth is noted as a contrast to his brooding spirit, like in Act II Scene I, where he tells the chamois hunter Think’st thou existence doth depend on time? It doth; but actions are our epochs: mine Have made my days and nights imperishable Endless, and all alike, as sands on the shore Innumerable atoms; and one desart Barren and cold, on which the wild waves break, But nothing rests, save carcases and wrecks, Rocks, and the salt-surf weeds of bitterness. (Manfred 51-58)In “Lara: Canto the First”, a similar connection is made to the torment of experience on the mind, as the poem reads, “He lives, nor yet is past his manhood’s prime,/Though sear’d by toil, and something touch’d by time” (“Lara”, 55-56). In this poem, however, Lara is described as having had his Keatsian “spring” (Keats, 3) of his youth, having been energetic and full of verve. This is not a question of maturity, but rather of temperament, as Byron’s Manfred may be biologically young, but psychologically goes from having a desire to forget to a willingness to die, (which would essentially be a gloomy “summer” stage of remembrance (Keats, 5)), and pass into a “winter” stage (Keats, 13). Likewise, Lara “ruminates” (Keats, 7) in a summer stage, with all the sadness and morbidity associated to his regrets.This desire to forget leads Manfred down a path of transcendental magic, where he attempts to dominate a series of spirits and wishes for them to undo his curse of remembering. Ironically, it is this memory which dominates him, as no spirit can undo it. However, his memory finally confronts him in the form of the ghost of his lost love, and this is the catalyst for his existential winter, as the Phantom says “Manfred! To-morrow ends thine earthly ills./ Farewell!” (Manfred 521-22). Here, Manfred is dominated by his tormented self, despite all his learning, power and mastery. And it is only by confronting his torment, as opposed to forgetting it, that he can transition into death. However, when ghouls come to collect him, he wards them off, saying, The mind which is immortal makes itself Requital for its good or evil thoughts, Is its own origin of ill and end, And its own place and time; its innate sense, When stripp’d of this mortality, derives No colour from the fleeting things without, But is absorb’d in sufferance or in joy, Born from the knowledge of its own desert. (Manfred, 389-296)The idea that feeling comes from within the mind, and not without, is explicitly said. The implication of that is that no matter what hell or paradise Manfred experiences, it is always his own mind which will torment him most. The duality of Manfred and the torture of his own mind is also present in “Lara: Canto the First”, when Byron writes In him inexplicably mix’d appear’dMuch to be lov’d and hated, sought and fear’d.Opinion varying o’er his hidden lot,In praise or railing ne’er his name forgot;His silence form’d a theme for others’ prate;They guess’d–they gaz’d–they fain would know his fate. (“Lara”, 289-294)This is the caricature of a bright and promising man, with the bewildering darkness and bitterness of an old veteran. There is something about him which seems contradictory and enticing in a morbid kind of way, and despite his brilliance and moments of goodness he still inspires fear with his demeanor. The major discrepancy between the two works is that Manfred looks into the transcendental to find manifestations of his own torment, and Lara presents the duality of self among mortals. However, this mindset has caused Lara to reject his own mortality, as seen when Byron writes “He call’d on Nature’s self to share the shame,/And charg’d all faults upon the fleshly form.” (“Lara”, 332-333) Lara isolates himself from his former company and from society out of some manner of shame, for example, But what he had beheld he shunn`d to show, As hardly worth a stranger`s care to know; If still more prying such inquiry grew, His brow fell darker, and his words more few. (“Lara”, 91-94)Byron’s Manfred has isolated and alienated himself from the rest of society, considering himself to be existentially and psychologically disconnected from the rest of human life , for example ” I disdain’d to mingle with/ A herd, though to be leader– and of wolves./ The lion is alone, and so am I.” (Manfred 121-123) He deals with people on a basis of necessity, but feels no relationship to mortals except for the one mortal he lost, which hangs in his memory. This is related to “Lara: Canto the First”, where the main character is described as returning “at last in sudden loneliness” (“Lara”, 43). However, the character in Lara is told more from the point of view of an outside observer, who perceives this suddenness, and so what we get is the story of how this man is perceived by other people in almost every line. This is as opposed to Manfred, where we get both an indication of how the outsider feels in observing him, like the Abbott, hunter, Herman or Manuel, or how Manfred relates to others when he speaks for himself, clarifying the origins of his feelings rather distinctly.The two works by Byron, Manfred and “Lara: Canto the First”, and the Keats poem “Four Seasons Fill the Measure of a Year” all suggest an importance of the self and of the temperament of the mind. However, the approaches of the respective works to these ideas are not altogether identical. Keats’ work lends a generalization to the topics while the Byron poems narrow in on specific concerns in regard to the mind and the self. Ultimately though, the predominance of the state of the self is shown as being more powerful to the individual than any exterior forces or willful machinations of that person to change it.Byron, Lord, Manfred, The Literary Gothic, 18 Jan, 2008. 24 Nov, 2009.Byron, Lord, “Lara: Canto the First”, Great Literature Online. , 1997-2009,24 Nov, 2009.Keats, John, “Four Seasons Fill the Measure of a Year”,, 24 Nov, 2009.

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Discussion of “Bright Star”, “Ode to a Nightingale” and “To Autumn”

April 5, 2019 by Essay Writer

Like much of the poetry of Keats, these three poems explore life’s contrasts of pleasure and pain, happiness and sorrow, permanence and impermanence. The mortal pleasures of Beauty and Love are longed for, but proven to be all too often tempered by pain and sorrow as a result of their fleeting nature. Woven amongst these poems is an implicit sense of anguish at humanity’s mortality – a mortality contrasted with, and yet also reflected by Nature. Bright Star begins with a wish for permanence, for the steadfastness that humanity, due to its mortality, lacks. While the poet aspires to a star, it is not its ‘lone splendor’ he envies, nor the fact it is an ‘Eremite’ or hermit. Rather than being eternally alone, the poet desires an eternal love – to remain with his lover ‘for ever’. The repetition of ‘for ever’, ‘ever’ and ‘still’ reiterate the poet’s deep desire for things to remain the same, to be ‘unchangeable’. But alas, it cannot be. The reason he desires a permanent love so deeply is because love is by nature transitory and fleeting – a point mournfully expounded in Ode to a Nightingale.The poet’s longing for the permanence of the stars is as unreachable as their distance, and his realisation of this sad reality is the cause of his aching heart and ‘numbness’ in Ode to a Nightingale. The poet falls ‘Lethe-wards’, or into numb oblivion, as he hears the ‘too happy’ melody of the nightingale. It seems overly joyous to him because of the unhappiness often associated with life and its mortality. He longs for ‘a beaker full’ of wine in order to escape into the ‘happy lot’ of this simple creature, for his own mortal life is full of ‘weariness’, ‘fever’ and ‘fret’. Downcast is the poet because human life is beset by ‘sorrow’ and ‘leaden-eyed despair’. Both beauty and love, those pleasures that he wished would remain forever, fail to last ‘beyond tomorrow’, causing him to flee the anguish of mortality for the ‘dim forest’ of the unmindfully bliss nightingale. In true Romantic style, the poet rejects the scientific reasoning and logic of ‘the dull brain’, for to think is to remember and ‘be full of sorrow’. The poet would rather ‘dissolve, and quite forget’.Amongst the ‘dim forest’, devoid of the painful illumination of reason, the poet attempts to pursue the immortal nightingale, but fails. Thus, he comes to the same conclusion of Bright Star – he decides that if permanence cannot be attained, then ‘seems it rich to die’ an ‘easeful Death’. The song of the nightingale, just like the Star, reminds the poet of humanity’s transience. Unlike the bird’s ‘immortal’ melody, both ‘emperor and clown’ – powerful and poor – all meet the same fate of death, and thus it is better to ‘swoon to death’ in order to ease life’s sorrow, rather than endure the ‘few, sad, last grey hairs’ of old age.In To Autumn, the poet explores nature once again. His object of contemplation is the season of Autumn – the ‘close bosom-friend of the maturing sun.’ While this poem is essentially a celebration of the season, it also uncovers nature’s true transience and state of flux, thus contradicting the previously asserted immortality of nature, as embodied by the Star and Nightingale. Just as the sun matures, so also the seasons change. In Autumn-time, the poet observes the ripening fruit and flowers, representing the ‘youth’ mentioned in Ode to a Nightingale. Just as youth is often mistakenly convinced of its invincibility, so too the bees of Autumn falsely assume ‘warm days will never cease.’ Likewise, Autumn is personified as ‘careless’ and ‘sound asleep’ – taking its ease as a result of the affluence of harvest time, symbolic of the peak condition of youth. But just as a peak implies a valley, the ‘last oozings’ indicate a coming time of want, or a ceasing of affluence and its associated pleasures. These pleasures will soon fade, like the ‘fume of poppies’ will grow faint, for the days are ‘soft-dying’. The pain and death symbolised by winter is softly creeping up unawares on Autumn, but its icy clutches will soon replace Autumn’s ‘mellow fruitfulness’. Already, nature senses its approach, with the ‘small gnats’ mourning in a ‘wailful choir’. Symbolising life’s fleeting pleasures, Autumn is blissfully unaware. But the repeated imagery of change throughout this poem, such as ‘sinking’ and ‘grown lambs’ make it clear that nothing, not even nature, can remain ‘unchangeable’ – as much as the poet of Bright Star might wish.The repeated allusions to death and impermanence throughout these three poems reflect Keats’ own constant reminders of mortality. They imply a disenchantment with life born of hardship, sorrow and disappointment. These poems share an inclination towards escaping reality and finding solace in ‘wine’, the ‘wings of poesy’ and even death, as a result of life’s fleeting pleasures and inevitable pain. Life, beauty and love are celebrated, only to be revealed as fleeting and out of reach. And even the poet’s comparison – Nature – is also portrayed as impermanent. In a world of heartache and ‘weariness’, the poet seeks stability and constancy in Nature, but even the natural world is proven to be without solace. Just as the poet asks, ‘Where are the songs of Spring?’, so Love and Beauty soon fade and are forgotten, for such is the nature of life. To the poet’s regret, the truth must be accepted – nothing is constant.

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Romantic Movement in Poetry

March 8, 2019 by Essay Writer

The Romantic Movement of poetry focused on the return to the individual as much as the political revolutions of the time. In doing so, there is also a return to the natural world in poetry that had been superseded by a more predominant abstract setting. In general, the natural world plays a more pertinent role in poetry than in prose writing. It acts not only as a setting but also interacts with the individual poet or audience. Certain natural elements can determine how the narrator feels or even can reflect their emotions. As in the pastoral, setting the natural world contains certain strong themes that can take focus in a poem. It creates a world of potential metaphors and motifs that come naturally to the reader and the poet, as they are founded in emotion before intellect. The potentiality of the natural world is reflected in the work of two of the most renowned poets of the Romantic Movement. William Wordsworth in his poem Tintern Abbey as well as John Keats with his poem La Belle Dame Sans Merci displays how the natural world can be more than just a setting. Both works contain a strong integration of natural themes, and in many circumstances the natural setting of the poem plays an active role in the poem.There exist several themes within both Tintern Abbey and La Belle Dame Sans Merci that are habitual within a natural setting. The most predominant is some type of change or growth. It is common in romantic poetry that is set within the natural world to observe some type of development in the poet that mimics the changing of nature. It usually parallels the changing of seasons, or even just the progress of the sun over the course of a day. The coming of spring can symbolize a new beginning or the setting of the sun can represent a peaceful end. It can interact with the poet intensely, or conge with the reader delicately. Regardless of how it is applied, it creates a sense of familiarity as most readers are acquainted with the natural world that surrounds them. In his poem Tintern Abbey, William Wordsworth relates how his perspective on nature has changed dramatically since his last visit to this familiar place. The poem indicates that the setting is spring, which is reflective of Wordsworth’s spirit. These plots of cottage ground, these orchid tufts,Which at this season, with their unripe fruits, Are clad in one green hue, and lose themselves’Mid groves and copses. (Wordsworth, 11-14) Wordsworth describes how he feels a sense of renewal which is a common theme that is conducive with spring. Not only do Wordsworth’s emotions reflect the setting, but the setting also inspires the emotions. As spring begins to flourish and grow the poet mimics the change. This is common of the relationship between the poet and the natural setting. The same feature appears in John Keats poem La Belle Dame Sans Merci. The main character appears to the narrator in a dismal and barren location. Initially the narrator questions why the knight would be “alone and palely loitering” (Keats, 2), but as the poem progresses it becomes evident that the setting turns gloomy as the knight does. Before the knight lost his “fairy’s child” (Keats, 14) he was happy and the natural setting was blooming. She found me roots of relish sweet, And honey wild, and manna dew, And sure in language strange she said- I love the true. (Keats, 25-28)But after the mysterious woman abandoned him in the night, the natural setting changed to reflect his emotion. Now the character is lost, hopeless and cold. The season changes to winter as “the squirrel’s granary is full and the harvest done.” (Keats, 7-8) and the knight reflects this in is sadness. These two poems demonstrate this natural theme of change. For Wordsworth the change of season is reflected in the poet whereas for Keats the change of season mimics the change in character. The natural world in poetry often takes an active role in the language of the poem. Although this is not exclusive to the setting it has a stronger meaning within a poem set in nature than it would in a more abstract location. Wordsworth uses an interesting form of alliteration in his poem Tintern Abbey to create different sounds that he would have heard while was writing . Within the first twenty two lines of his poem the predominant sound is created by the letter s or c. This creates the sound of the wind that Wordsworth would be hearing on the hill where he is writing. Sent up, in silence, from among the trees! With some uncertain notice, as might seem Of vagrant dwellers in the houseless woods, Or of some Hermit’s cave, where by his fire The hermit sits alone.By adding the excessive “s” sound, Wordsworth creates his imagery with more than words. This fits well with the romantic style of poetry which aims at emotion before intellect because the sound creates a feeling not an idea. In regards to John Keats no alliteration is apparent in his poem La Belle Dame Sans Merci but there is an interesting language element none the less. In his poem a knight is lured by a mysterious lady who abandons him after he has a frightful nightmare. The character that he was lured by sang to him “a fairy’s song” (Keats, 24) and he assumed told him that she loved him in a “language strange” (Keats, 27). This poem has varying interpretations, one of which could be that mysterious lady was a creature of the forest where the knight now sojourns. Perhaps she is a nymph or some other mythological figure. She seems to be an extension of the setting as she appears and disappears. The knight is entranced by her and does not speak a word as she sings to him, “And nothing else was said all day long, for sidelong would she bend and sign a fairy’s song.” (Keats, 22-24). With this interpretation the setting takes a more active role because the character is an extension of the setting. Her description leaves the reader pondering who or what she really was, and the knight’s dream fits well with the idea that she is a forest creature who lures men. This very credible interpretation is entirely based on the fact that the “fairy’s child” does not speak any recognizable language. The style that Keats uses contrasts the way the Wordsworth uses alliteration, but both styles of integrating language with nature attributes a more active role to the setting. In addition to naturalistic themes and language, Tintern Abbey and La Belle Dame Sans Merci are teeming with symbolism and metaphors pertaining to the natural setting. Wordsworth and Keats both successfully integrate their respective settings with various elements of their poems. La Belle Dame Sans Merci is a considerably shorter poem than Tintern Abbey yet it balances its use of creative symbolism thoroughly. In the third stanza of the poem the narrator is describing the appearance of the knight. His description of him includes reference to two flowers. I see a lily on thy brow With anguish moist and fever dew, And on thy cheeks a fading rose Fast withereth too. (Keats, 9-13)Not only is the initial narrator relating the knight’s face to different colours, but his choice of flowers contains a concealed metaphor. The lily is considered to be a traditional symbol of death whereas the rose is more commonly known as a symbol of love. The withering rose would obviously represent the knight’s love for the mysterious woman, whereas the lily represents the knight’s disillusion. By using a metaphor that conjoins nature with central themes of the poem, the poet assigns the natural setting with a more active role. The description also foreshadows what may come in the knight’s tale. Not only does Wordsworth’s poem include similar organic symbolic metaphors, but as it is a much longer poem, the entire setting carries significance. One of several subjects discussed by Wordsworth in Tintern Abbey is his perspective on religion. Wordsworth seems to propose the concept of heaven on earth in his description of his surroundings and the emotions that it inspires. A sense sublime Of something far more deeply interfused, Whose dwelling is the light of the setting suns, And the round ocean and the living air, And the blue sky, and in the mind of man: A motion and spirit, that impels All thinking things, all objects of all thought, And rolls through all things. Therefore am I still A lover of the meadows and the woods, And mountains; and of all that we behold From this green earth; of all the mighty world Of eye, and ear, -both what they half create, And what perceive; well please to recognize In nature and the language of the sense, The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse, The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul Of all my moral being. (Wordsworth, 95-111) Wordsworth expresses that it is nature that guides his soul. All this being expressed in the vicinity of the actual abbey seems intentional. Wordsworth seems to be making a bold statement here about his own religious beliefs as well as the impact the setting has had on him. The setting that is described becomes a powerful force for Wordsworth, one of sublime stature. This is an intense example of how the natural surrounding of a poem can take an active role in the poet’s work. Both poems contain elaborate symbolism and metaphors which are intertwined with the natural world; this successfully attributes an active role to the setting. One of the most distinct aspects of the Romantic Movement of literature was the appeal to emotion before intellect. This quality is reflected in Wordsworth’s poem Tintern Abbey and Keats La Belle Dame Sans Merci. Both poems are written in a natural setting that takes a very active role in the poem and appeals to the reader through imagery not articulation. Nature themes, nature language, and nature symbolism all contribute the overall effect of the setting and its impact on the poet as well as the reader

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