Keats Poems and Letters
How do Keats and Blake reflect romantic values in their poetry?
William Blake and John Keats were both prolific English poets of the Romantic era. Blake, an early Romantic along with Wordsworth and Coleridge, produced a poem called “Night” in 1789, which is part of a series of illustrated poetry called “Songs of Innocence.” This poem represents Romantic values through its emphasis on self-realization, freedom of expression and the natural world. These ideas are conveyed by Blake’s use of sensorial imagery and evocative language. Keats, a late Romantic along with Shelley and Byron, produced “Ode on Melancholy” in 1819 along with other odes known as “The Great Odes”. This Ode embodies the Romantic turn to nature, the importance of expressing emotions, and experiencing through the senses.The late 18th century saw a move towards the ideal that to be a truly modern person, one needed to break free of the rules that constrained society. This movement was labeled Romanticism, a term derived from the medieval tales of myth, magic and the supernatural that were called “Romances” because they were written in the language of Romanz. The movement lasted from 1798 to 1832 and was thought to have begun on par with the French Revolution. It was the first time England had been involved with a revolution, and the violence and terror that accompanied it were a shock to many. It was Wordsworth who contemplated the idea of having a revolution of the imagination and everything completely disassociated with war rather than a revolution of the people. The Romantic period was in many ways a backlash against the Enlightenment that preceded it. The Enlightenment of the early 1700s emphasized a mechanical, deterministic universe with prominence given to rationalism and science, and was therefore called the “Age of Reason.” In a Europe torn by revolutions and war, the certainties of the Enlightenment had already been shown to be false. Philosophically, Romanticism represented a shift from the certainty of science to the uncertainty of imagination-from objective to subjective. This move coincided with German philosopher Immanuel Kant proposing that we do not directly see “things-in-themselves” but that we only understand the world through our human point of view. Romanticism was essentially the opposite of everything that the Enlightenment represented.The roots of Romanticism had grown concurrently with neoclassicism but by the 1780s, the neoclassical virtues of reason and decorum were rejected and the Romantic mood took over in music, poetry, painting and architecture. The Romantic values of expressing the emotions and imagination were embodied in all forms of the arts. Romantic music was concerned with conveying moods, feelings and passions. Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Nights Dream overture and Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique are both examples of works that exploit instrumental expressive capabilities and each tells a story of sorts. The poetry relied on use of the senses to relate experience whilst paintings saw a shift toward portraying landscapes and other objects of nature. The Romantic emphasis on the individual was reflected in ideas of self-realization and in a turning to nature. It was believed that the individual could directly understand nature without the need for social artifice and that the solitary individual achieved salvation. The people generally tended towards adopting informal behavior, allowing their emotions to flow freely and focusing on their inner selves. They held in high esteem the concept of human freedom rather than human moderation.Romanticism brought about an existence beyond surface reality, and a sense of abstract idealism. There was a revolt against conventional morality, authority and government. People began to question fundamental issues such as the existence of a God and conventional Christianity more significantly. Romantics held beliefs in the exploration of the senses rather than use of the brain or any such rationalist way of thinking. This was a direct contrast to the ideals of the Enlightenment and the neoclassical period. The 1792 publication of Vindication of the Rights of Women by Mary Wollstonecraft sparked the beginnings of the feminist movement, with the formation of women’s political nightclubs in Paris in the wake of the French Revolution. Romanticism remained a force in the arts until the end of the 19th century. Blake’s poem on night exemplifies Romantic values. The first stanza sets the “night” scene of the poem. He creates this atmosphere by using sibilance throughout the stanza, an example of which is “The sun descending in the west, the evening star does shine.” This soft sound establishes an atmosphere of calmness and stillness, which is further enhanced by the use of alliteration, as demonstrated in the last line “with silent delight, sits and smiles on the night” and also by the repetition of the word “silent.” The poem is organized into six stanzas, each consisting of eight lines, the first four of which are in iambic pentameter, with an alternate rhyme scheme (ABAB). The use of iambic pentameter serves to add a lilting quality to the poem, its regular rhythm echoing the pleasant tone of the poem and the scenes that Blake is describing. Blake paints a picture in the reader’s mind of these scenes through his use of visual imagery, shown by “the evening star does shine;” personification, “the moon…sits and smiles;” and simile, “the moon, like a flower.” These techniques enable Blake to adequately portray the scene of “Night” and set the poem’s mood in the first stanza.The next stanza introduces a supernatural, somewhat magical element to the poem. This is evident by the appearance of the angels, which reinforces the allusions to “heaven” that Blake depicted in the first stanza. The angels are portrayed pouring “blessing…on each sleeping bosom.” This emphasizes the Romantic ideal about care for the individual. This ideal is upheld throughout the poem, seen by the angels protecting the sheep from its prey and guarding “every beast, to keep them all from harm”. The night atmosphere is carried through the second stanza by repetition of the words “silent” and “sleeping”, and figurative imagery: “silent moves the feet of angels bright” (visual) and “where lambs have nibbled” (tactile). Blake’s use of alliteration in “each bud and blossom and each bosom” at the end of the second stanza emphasizes the fact that the angels care for each and every individual creature. The fourth stanza witnesses the angles weeping for the sheep about to be eaten and also for the wolves and tigers who cannot help being cruel to the sheep. This is representative of the Romantic value of letting the emotions go and expressing oneself freely. It is implied by “receive each mild spirit new worlds to inherit” that the angels will take the sheep to heaven even if the tigers kill them. Blake has juxtaposed the natural with the supernatural perhaps to install a message of protection for the weak and to show the innocence of the angels’ sympathy for the creatures. This emotive mood in the fourth stanza is enhanced by Blake’s use of assonance on the “ee” sound through words such as “weep”, “seek”, “keep”, “sheep” and “heed” as well as his aural imagery as shown in “when wolves and tigers howl for prey”. The final two stanzas demonstrate the epitome of Romantic sentiment, with the lion pitying the “tender cries” of the sheep whilst its “ruddy eyes shall flow with tears of gold”. The lion’s tears could symbolize an awareness of the fragility of innocence, innocence being clearly represented by the sheep. The aural imagery of the “bleating lamb” emphasizes its helplessness and thus heightens the lion’s role in looking after it. The allusion to “immortal” once again suggests a heavenly atmosphere, pertaining to the “new world” referred to in the previous stanza. It has been suggested (I) that the “new world” is merely an extension of the earthly world, as earthly creatures reside in the new world and experience the same emotions. However, the lion clearly says that wrath “by his health sickness is driven away from our immortal day” and thus Blake could be suggesting that the world must be transcended so that the innocent vision can triumph.Romanticism is reflected in this poem by the references to nature, the individual and the emotions sustained throughout the poem. Nature is not only used to describe the atmosphere but also conjuncts with ideas presented, such as the metaphor “life’s river” and the simile “the moon, like a flower.” Blake’s use of sensorial imagery is also representative of Romantic values, which maintained that thing have to be experienced rather than be obtained by use of reason. The image of the angels “pitying stand and weep” epitomizes this statement – all that the angels achieve is through use of their sense and their emotions. Likewise, Blake uses sensorial imagery to describe the setting and set the scene. The juxtaposing of the natural/heavenly relies on the imagination and a sense of the abstract, also a Romantic characteristic. The wolves and tigers can be seen to represent a form of authority, which Blake clearly rejects, as would most Romantics, shown when the angels try to “keep them from the sheep.” Yet this can also be seen as the innocence of the ‘natural order’ (the tiger and wolf preying on the lamb) which is really a defiance of Romantic values as it does not promote care for the individual. However, the final image that remains etched on the reader’s mind is that of the lion guarding “o’er the fold.” It is apparent that the lion has achieved happiness by doing so when he uses the simile “My bright mane for ever shall shine like the gold.” Perhaps this is Blake’s way of saying that true happiness is only achieved through self-realization, focus on the individual and freedom of expression, all characteristic of Romantic values. In three stanzas of ten lines each and a decasyllabic structure to each line, Keats has chosen the subject of “melancholy” on which to write an ode. In the first stanza, Keats urges the reader not to let life’s misery consume them, for death will come eventually. This is implied by “for shade to shade will come too drowsily, and drown the wakeful anguish of the soul.” This evocative use of language implies that a sleep will eventually drown all sorrows. The mood of this poem, unlike Blake’s, is, as the title suggests, quite melancholy. This melancholic atmosphere is established in the first stanza by the neoclassical symbols of grief and death, such as “death-moth”, “downy owl” and “rosary of yew berries.” Keats has alluded to symbols of Greek mythology, such as Lethe, a river whose water produced forgetfulness of the past, as well as Proserpine and Psyche, Olympian deities who govern emotion. Keats has used visual imagery, such as the symbols of grief, as well as tactile imagery in “nor suffer they pale forehead to be kissed” and metaphors such as “ruby grape” in order to express the view that a person should not respond to melancholy by letting it consume them. Yet Keats also seems to be advising us that such searching after surcease of sorrow is premature since sleep of “shade to shade will come too drowsily.”In the second stanza, Keats seems to be advising us what to do when misery enters our lives. He emphasizes the suddenness of the “melancholy fit” with a simile, “sudden from heaven like a weeping cloud.” The personification of the cloud adds to the intensity with which melancholy can descend upon us. Keats then goes on to say, “glut thy sorrows on a morning rose…or on the rainbow of salt sand-wave,” both references to nature. Keats is in fact implying that by turning to nature in times of melancholy, we can achieve sanction, a highly esteemed ideal in the Romantic era. Romantics believed that nature was a reflection of the soul and thus was connected to the individual. The focus on nature paralleled a focus within the self and was so thought to bring some form of salvation. Keats could also be suggesting that the antidote to melancholy is a renewed consciousness of beauty. He embodies this in the form of a woman: “Or if they mistress some rich anger shows, emprison her soft hand…feed deep, deep upon her peerless eyes”. Keats has used assonance in “deep” and “peerless” and repeated the word “deep” to enhance the woman’s beauty and emphasize an almost hypnotic feel about her peerless eyes. The contemplation of these objects of brief beauty is perhaps meant to be a reminder of the brevity of human experience and the mutability of humanity. In order to advise us what to do with melancholy, Keats suggests turning to nature and seeking remedy through beauty. The third stanza witnesses the personification of the emotions of Melancholy (her) and Joy (his). Keats has used the metaphor “temple of delight” to allude to Greek mythology again, as this temple is where all the deities were supposed to have lived and inside it, “veiled Melancholy has her sovran shrine”. Perhaps Keats is implying that melancholy has her place amongst all other emotions. This idea is emphasized in the opening line of the stanza, “she dwells with Beauty: Beauty that must die”. Keats could be celebrating the dualities of life, acknowledging that melancholy dwells with beauty and joy, but is with those things for a short time. However, the power of melancholy is emphasized through the metaphor “cloudy trophies” and Keats’ use of alliteration, “his soul shall taste the sadness of her might”, implying that we shouldn’t attempt to dismiss melancholy because she will always be there, but instead we could learn to co-exist. This form of evocative language has been used in the poem whenever an atmosphere of anguish is depicted. The strong Romantic nature of the poem is revealed by the references to nature and the encouragement of displaying emotions. Keats is encouraging people to “glut they sorrow on a morning rose,” not to ignore the melancholy, but to experience the emotion along with other emotions, to literally pour the emotion out. He mentions that if “they mistress some rich anger shows…let her rave,” i.e.: let her express her anger. This purging is something that Romantics valued highly, along with nature’s ability to soothe the soul. The sensorial imagery and constant allusion to the senses used throughout the poem are also reflective of the Romantic notion of feeling rather than thinking. Blake’s “Night” and Keats’ “Ode on Melancholy” both combine to constitute the values held by people of the Romantic era. Blake captures the essence of this by portraying happiness as being achieved through the senses, as depicted by the lion weeping for the sheep and the angel’s sympathy for all creatures. Keats encourages turning to nature for inner sanction and a renewal of beauty yet letting the emotions flow. The poems, although very different in tone, have essentially the same message and thus embody the values represented in the Romantic era. BIBLIOGRAPHY1) Blake, William. 1994. A Selection of Finest Poems. Oxford University Press, Oxford.2) Keats, John. 1988. A New Selection. Penguin Books, London. 3) Lombard, Stephen. “Songs of Innocence and Experience” [online]http://www.english.uga.edu/wblake/SIE/20/20whitt.bib.html September 9th, 1997.4) Tobum, Emilio. “The great odes of John Keats” [online] http://www.Teode.go.ip/jkeats/embum/97uk.html May 11th, 1998.
Sonnet Analysis – “When I Have Fears that I May Cease to Be”
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-pilÃ©d 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-pilÃ©d” 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 “pilÃ©d” 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.
Reconciling Mortality and Immortality in John Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale”
In John Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale,” a despairing speaker overhears a nightingale in the depths of a far away forest. The speaker yearns to leave behind his physical world and join the bird in its metaphysical world. The nightingale sings of a world where there is no pain, there are muted senses, and life is immortal: the opposite of the speaker’s domain. The speaker considers joining the nightingale’s world of immortality by means of alcohol, death, and finally by creating art of his own. John Keats explores these themes in “Ode to a Nightingale” to illustrate the speaker’s battle with the reconciling of conscious and unconscious worlds. The major theme in this poem focuses on the reconciling of many opposites as Richard Fogle summarizes in his article, “Keats’s ‘Ode to a Nightingale”:The principal stress of the poem is a struggle between ideal and actual: inclusive terms which, however, contain more particular antitheses of pleasure and pain, of imagination and commonsense reason, of fullness and privation, of permanence and change, of nature and the human, of art and life, freedom and bondage, waking and dream. (Fogle, 211)While all of these opposites play against one another throughout, in this article, I intend to focus on how Keats attempts to balance mortality and immortality in “Ode to a Nightingale.” Unhappy with the pain and inevitability of death in the conscious world, Keats looks into ways to circumvent the unpleasantries of this physical state.Keats explores the opposing worlds of the conscious and unconscious in many of his odes. He seems very interested in combining the two worlds, reconciling their opposites, and therefore reaping the best of both states. “Ode to a Nightingale” stands as yet another step in Keats’ journey to this desired reconciliation. A previous ode, “Ode on Indolence,” rejects the conscious world altogether, while “Ode to Psyche” celebrates an opposite state of creativity. “Ode on Melancholy” focuses on the pain and beauty found in reality and the action required in this reality. “Ode to a Nightingale” attempts to locate a point in between these two states of reality and illusion through means of drugging, death, or creativity. In his article, “The Sub-Text of Keats’s ‘Ode to a Nightingale’,” Karl Wentersdorf explains the importance of this ode: “In a sense, the excursion in ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ records in brief the aesthetic and psychological journey that had led Keats to a more mature judgement regarding poetry and its relation to life,” (Wentersdorf, 82). Keats is very interested in how life and the world of poetry mingle together and can possibly merge. Later, “To Autumn” will finally accomplish what is hinted to by “Ode to a Nightingale.” Keats is able to accept the passage of time and find a point merging mortality and immortality, permanence and impermanence, ripeness and decay, dark and light, and so on. “Ode to a Nightingale” is an important step along Keats’ exploration of a merging of opposites and extracting the best of both worlds.Two major opposites that Keats attempts to balance found within “Ode to a Nightingale” are mortality and immortality. The conscious world of the speaker is one which entails the inevitability of death. The unconscious world of the nightingale is one of immortality. The speaker will meet physical death at some point, while the bird and its song will live forever. In his article,”The Immortality of the Natural: Keats’s ‘Ode to a Nightingale,'” Kappel focuses on why the nightingale is seen as immortal and man is not: “This ontological difference gives rise to the essential experiential distinction between the two beings, around which the poem is built: the bird is oblivious to death, man painfully aware of it,” (Kappel, 272). The nightingale does not know of death, and therefore lives every day with no thought of the life ceasing. On the other hand, the speaker is mortal in that he knows of and expects death. Also to be noted, the nightingale is of the natural world. Nature — and, likewise, the nightingale — is eternal and never knows death (Kappel, 272). Keats points to this idea: Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget What thou among the leaves hast never known,The weariness, the fever, and the fret Here, where men sit and hear each other groan; (ll. 21-24)Keats wants to sink into the natural and primitive world of the nightingale where the worries of man are not known. The bird is emphasized as dwelling among the leaves, a strong symbol of nature. Likewise, Keats describes the bird and nature as free from burden; hence they are immortal, unlike man. In his quest to reconcile the two worlds and escape the pain and mortality of the conscious world, the speaker considers several options.In order to join the mockingbird in its dark world empty of pain and full of permanence, the speaker first explores drunkenness. The speaker calls for a quantity of wine: O for a beaker full of the warm South Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene, With beaded bubbles winking at the brim, And purple-stained mouth;That I might drink, and leave the world unseen, And with thee fade away into the forest dim: (ll. 15-20)Here, the speaker hopes that alcohol can bring him into the world of the nightingale by numbing his consciousness and the pains of mortal life. Wine, in itself, represents a strong symbol of a merged mortality and immortality. The winking of the bubbles may hint at the merging of conscious and unconscious, as a wink is neither a closed eye or a fully open one. The purple of the wine is another merging, as blue is a cool and somber color, while red is a vibrant and lively color. Wine also merges the two worlds because it contains symbols of life such as the ripe grapes of summer and the “warm South.” It also contains symbols of death, as it is aged as a mortal being would age and stored under the earth and in a dark and tomblike setting. Wine not only acts as a symbol of the merging of conscious and unconscious, but it also acts as a medium. With the drinking of wine, the speaker can leave the conscious world and dip into the unconscious. However, alcohol cannot provide a lasting combination of these two states, as the effects of wine are only temporary.To skirt this temporary state, the speaker thinks of death as a solution to escaping the unpleasantries of the conscious world. Death would be the ultimate escape from the unconscious world. In Jeffery Baker’s work, John Keats and Symbolism, he discusses the fault that Keats finds in the idea of escaping the pains of the conscious world and enveloping the unconscious by means of death: “Keats’ position at this moment in the poem is that consciousness is extinguished by death, but the contrary case is offered by the conflicting implications of the diction. If Keats dies, he will cease, but the bird will continue to pour its soul abroad” (Baker, 148). Therefore, while death may seem like the perfect solution, it lacks the immortality that unconsciousness offers when posed against consciousness. Death oversteps the reconciliation of opposites that Keats’ attempts to achieve, as death is overly final. Janet Spens furthers this idea in her article, “A Study of Keats’s ‘Ode to a Nightingale'”:Death would make him deaf and blinde to the beauty of the world concentrated in the bird’s song, and he cries out that it is of immortal life not death that the nightingale sings: its song ‘becks’ him to the ‘fellowship divine’: he has stept into the oneness of the world of pure emotion. (Spens, 242)Death ignores the desired aspects of the conscious and unconscious worlds. The beauty and activity of the physical world, and the immortality of the nonphysical world are lost with death. To reap the benefits of both worlds, the speaker must look beyond the simple, mediocre, and temporary method of drunkenness and stop short of the final, extreme, and blinding method of death. The speaker must join the nightingale’s immortal song with a song of his own.The remaining option allows the speaker to join the immortal world through action. The conscious and unconscious worlds can thereby be reconciled: immortality being part of the unconscious world, and action being that of the conscious. Indolence must be pushed aside, while physical death must be accepted. Through this give and take, the speaker may reach the point where the two worlds combine. The nightingale and its song can be likened to the poet and its poem: “If the nightingale’s song is a symbol of lyric poetry, the words ‘immortal Bird’ must refer to the Poet” (Kappel, 270). Hence, the nightingale as a poet will live on through the art it creates. The bird’s song will be heard generation after generation, as Keats states: 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: (ll. 61-64)The song is heard by all throughout the past and in the future. Therefore, the song and its creator, the bird, never die. Hence, the speaker finds the much sought-after immortality in the world of the nightingale and its song, and is moved to join the bird through the act of his own creation of art. While the speaker may not be able to physically live forever, his song, like the nightingale’s, will live on. In this sense, the speaker as a poet will also live eternal. To live forever, the speaker must pull away from indolence, and create. He cannot rely on alcohol: Away! Away! For I will fly to thee, Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards,But on the viewless wings of Poesy, (ll. 31-33)Here, the speaker rejects alcohol as a legitimate solution for his desire for reconciling the conscious and unconscious worlds. Neither can he rely on death. He will join the nightingale’s immortality through the creation of his own song. Keats’ sixth stanza speaks of how death might prove the solution: I have been half in love with easeful Death,Call’d him soft names in many a mused rhyme, To take into the air my quiet breath; Now more than ever seems it rich to die,To cease upon the midnight with no pain, While thou art pouring fourth thy soul abroad In such an ecstasy!Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain— To thy high requiem become a sod. (ll. 51-60)Here, the speaker is tempted with thoughts of death, as it would surely end all pains. Yet, he is quick to realize that while all of his mortal pains would be eased, the bird would live and sing on. On the other hand, the consciousness of the speaker would be dead, and therefore unable to experience this beauty and immortality. The bird would live and create still, while the speaker would have left the life and beauty of the conscious world and consequently sunk below this world to a final unconsciousness. He is buried beneath the earth, unable to enjoy both conscious and unconsciousness. Therefore, he sees that the key to reaping the pleasure of both states and living eternal is to mimic the nightingale’s method. He must create poetry.John Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale” explores how one might find a balance between the conscious physical world and the unconscious nonphysical world. He hopes to avoid the unpleasing aspects of these worlds and take only the best qualities of both: “The Ode is an attempt to find a poetic Paradise, that is to say a state of mind in which ‘the weariness, the fever and the fret’ will be forgotten and only the ecstasy of the poetic perception will exist” (Spens, 242). One specific goal within this desire is the speaker’s desire for the immortality that the nightingale possesses. In his search for this reconciliation of opposites, the speaker in Keats’ poem considers reaching this goal through intoxication, death, and ultimately, poetry. How successful this method of creation is remains to be seen in future odes.Works CitedBaker, Jeffrey. John Keats and Symbolism. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986.Cook, Elizabeth (ed). John Keats: The Major Works. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.Fogle, Richard Harter. “Keats’s ‘Ode to a Nightingale’.” PMLA 68, 1 (Mar., 1953): 211-222.Kappel, Andrew J. “The Immortality of the Natural: Keats’ ‘Ode to a Nightingale’.” ELH 45, 2 (Summer, 1978): 270-284.Spens, Janet. “A Study of Keats’s ‘Ode to a Nightingale’.” The Review of English Studies 3, 11 (Jul. 1952): 234-243.Wentersdorf, Karl P. “The Sub-Text of Keat’s ‘Ode to a Nightingale’.” Keats-Shelley Journal XXXII (1984): 70-84.
Form as Strategy: Keats’s On the Sonnet and Bright Star
Form as Strategy: Keats’s “On the Sonnet” and “Bright Star””On the Sonnet” is a poem that deplores convention, flouts convention, is governed by convention, and recuperates convention. It is neither a proper Petrarchan poem nor a Shakespearean sonnet; both forms, however, serve as references for the poem. “On the Sonnet” has five rhymes, as in the Petrarchan form, but they are distributed with a seeming randomness, and do not mark structural shifts. Rhetorically, the poem gestures to both the Shakespearean and the Petrarchan forms. As in a Shakespearean sonnet, its argument is organized in short imagistic units, and it closes with two final, epigrammatic lines that form a couplet not through rhyme but through syntactical structure. While a Shakespearean sonnet is organized 4+4+4+2, Keats’s sonnet is organized 3+3+3+3+2. Again, I speak of syntactic organization, unmarked by rhyme, but this numerical scheme is echoed by a rhyme scheme in which four of the five end-sounds appear three times, and the fifth only twice (ABC ABD CAB CDE DE; spaces represent syntactical divisions). The poem also gestures to a larger, two-part Petrarchan structure, as the timbre of its image-set shifts in the middle of the poem. This suggestion of a volta occurs, however, not at the expected point of division between octave and sestet, but rather divides the poem into a sestet followed by an octave.The poem consists of a single sentence cast in “if-then” constructions in which the “then” has been suppressed: “If…[then] let us.” The “if” is always concessive, and though it undermines the absolute certainty of the conditions it describes (Keats might have written “since”), the use of the indicative leaves the fundamental assumptions of the poem in place: Keats does not overtly suggest that “the naked foot of poesy” be left unadorned, though the possibility may hover behind the terms of his argument. The poem’s first six lines, a section that I hesitantly suggest as its sestet, take binding as their dominant trope. The opening image is by far the most violent one found in the poem: “If by dull rhymes our English must be chained, / And, like Andromeda, the Sonnet sweet / Fettered, in spite of paind loveliness”: this is an image not only of bondage, but of sacrifice. It is the only time poetry (“the Sonnet sweet”) is given a human face in the poem, and the only time it is ascribed a feeling: “paind.”The poem’s second group of three lines both presents a “then” clause and repeats the “if” clause that sparked it. The repetition, however, comes with a difference: if before it was “our English” that was “chained,” here it is “we” who are “constrained”: binding’s burden has shifted from the language to its shaper. However, if we are bound, we are also the seekers of our binding: “Let us find out… / Sandals more interwoven and complete / To fit the naked foot of poesy.” There is a curious shift here: “sandals” hardly resonate in tune with Andromeda’s chains. This is not an image of violence, but of utility, protection, and even, perhaps, adornment. Far from desiring to reduce constraint, the speaker seeks out a binding more “interwoven and complete.” This image also makes explicit the speaker’s conception of poetic making, at least for this moment in the poem – “the naked foot of poesy” precedes the form it fills; rhyme is conceived as exterior to “poesy.”In line seven, as mentioned above, the tone of the poem’s images shifts from constraint to making, from explicit bondage to art. The speaker is suddenly transformed into a far more active figure: while the first person pronoun was linked by the imperative auxiliary (“let”) to only one active verb in the poem’s first six lines (“find”), here there are three verbs; each of them, in context, verbs of diligence and judgment: “inspect”, “weigh”, “see”. This set of three lines is the first in which there is no concessive “if” (the word will not appear again until the poem’s penultimate line), as though the speaker has stopped questioning, even implicitly, the fact of constraint. Indeed, the sense of repression – of “pain” – that accompanied the notion of form (“dull rhymes”) in the sonnet’s first six lines is replaced by a sense of possibility: let us, the poet says, “see what may be gained.” And it is with this turn toward industry and making that the poet takes on the full burden of poetic craft: “By ear industrious, and attention meet.” The turn to art, from line seven, is for this poem a turn to sound (“lyre,” “chord,” “ear,” “sound”).The poem’s final group of three lines opens with a syntactical inversion; whereas lines one, four, and seven opened with one half of the poem’s rhetorical cast – either “if” or “let” – line ten opens with two phrases that are apposite to the “us” of the imperative construction: “Misers of sound and syllable, no less / Than Midas of his coinage.” The industry and attention of line nine are intensified to obsession. The Midas comparison serves as a bridge between the two functions of poetic making: the poet must be miserly of “sound and syllable,” never spending more than he must, and he must also prune, leaving no “dead leaves in the bay-wreath crown.” The poem’s final syntactical unit and the epigrammatic nature of the final two lines is announced by the grand “so,” promising a closing summation; the “if” clause absent since line four returns to give a sense of completion to the closure. The poem ends as it began, with a female figure, though instead of the hapless Andromeda there is now a triumphant Muse, “bound” not with chains but with her own “garlands”, made, presumably, from the “bay-wreath” of line twelve.This final image clarifies the astonishing transformation effected in the poem. Every aspect of the opening image finds its inverse in the close. While the poem began with inorganic “chains” imposed externally upon an unwilling victim, the Muse is adorned with organic, living (the pruning of “dead leaves” in line twelve underscores this life) symbols of victory, and symbols that signify herself, that are “her own”, not externally imposed. The notion of constraint has not disappeared (the Muse is still “bound”), but it has been thoroughly re-envisioned. The transformation of form from an external, separate, imposed bondage (chains), to a chosen (“her own”) adornment made of the very symbol of poetry (the bay-wreath), signifies an identity between “poesy” and form. Indeed, that identity has been present in the poem all along: what meaning might “Sonnet” have without the “fetters” by which it is defined? And yet the poem’s practice suggests that these fetters must be chosen, or at least negotiated and crafted; form must not become a received abstraction, “dead leaves”. Thus Keats’s sonnet is no less patterned than its Shakespearean or Petrarchan counterparts, however different it may be; in fact, one might argue that the greater number of parts to Keats’s sonnet – there are five divisions here (3+3+3+3+2), not four or two – allows for more pattern, a form “more interwoven and complete.” Received forms are visible in the poem, especially in Keats’s departures from them; the poem maintains its contact with the sonnet tradition, and makes much of its meaning from that contact. The Muse is not “free,” but neither does she languish, chained to a rock, a sacrifice to a monstrous tradition.”Bright Star” opens with a sense of failure or lapse: “Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art.” This imploring, marveling wish (“Would I were”) generates a fourteen-line sentence, the syntax of which is far more fluid and complex that that of “On the Sonnet”, full of hesitation, interruption, correction. The dash – that mark of crafted syntactical carelessness, ambiguity, or vacillation – appears four times, two of its iterations cradling the strangely reiterative negation at the volta. Though rhymed in the Shakespearean manner, the syntax pays the quatrain divisions no heed, nor are the final two lines a properly cordoned epigrammatic couplet. Instead, the poem’s rhetorical structure is clearly Petrarchan, with the primary division falling, as it should, between the octave and the sestet. This mixture of forms is hardly remarkable, or remarkable only in that “Bright Star” betrays little of the restlessness with traditional form displayed in “On the Sonnet.”The primary rhetorical tool of the poem is, of course, comparison: wakeful in bed beside his beloved, the speaker gazes at a star and wishes he were, at least in some way, like it; this occasions ponderings on devotion, fidelity (“steadfast[ness]”), and transience. Although the star is cast as an ideal, after the first line the octave proceeds through negation, describing in great detail the speaker’s reservations about his own longed-for simile. For three lines this reservation is wholly convincing: “Not in lone splendor hung aloft the night / And watching, with eternal lids apart, / Like nature’s patient, sleepless Eremite.” Solitude, however splendid, is the lover’s great terror, and there is something weirdly agonized in the star’s “eternal lids apart”. “Eternal” is an adjective, and apposite to lids; but it is difficult not to sense in it some adverbial force, and “apart” has an oddly unwilled, mechanistic feel. The force of the speaker’s reservation, however, is mitigated by the loveliness with which he invests the poem’s second quatrain, which delivers the delayed object of “watching”:The moving waters at their priestlike taskOf pure ablution round earth’s human shores,Or gazing on the new soft fallen maskOf snow upon the mountains and the oarsThe first two lines attain a beauty of adjectival excess: “moving”, “priestlike”, “pure”, “human”. Much of this poem’s aesthetic force is provided adjectivally (there are, by my count, twenty-one adjectives in these fourteen lines, more than twice the number of “On the Sonnet”), and lines five and six contain the most striking adjectives of the poem: “moving” and “human”. They are striking in large part because of their demotic blandness: these waters do not “rush” or “purl” or even “run”; they merely “move” as one supposes nearly all waters do. What justifies the modesty of the adjective is the vision of orderly devotion into which it is placed. The waters are personified with the line’s second modifier, “priestlike,” which consolidates the religious suggestion of the “sleepless Eremite” in line four. With the “pure ablution” in the next line, a natural process has become an act of charity and service, and the world is seen, from a celestial vantage point, as sublimely ordered and intelligible. “Human” means, presumably, “inhabited”; but it also personifies the landscape and invests it not with the ideal service of the “priestlike” waters, but rather with a pollution that requires purification. The metaphorical relation of water to land imagined by Keats (he could have imagined any other: lover and beloved, for instance) requires this sense of pollution, without which “ablution” is meaningless; as “human” is the only modifier ascribed to the shore, we must look to it as the source of this pollution. I insist on this sense of pollution not to imbue the poem with a sinister moralism, but rather because it heightens the tenderness and charity of the waters; it makes the image more beautiful. (I’m tempted to see here a precursor of that other great poem of amorous wakefulness, itself a meditation on tenderness and flaw: “Lay your sleeping head, my love, / Human on my faithless arm.”) This personification of landscape fades in line seven, present only in the metaphor of the mask, which is presumably a human adornment; even here, however, a sense of pollution or shame may faintly linger (especially if one recalls Milton’s “To hide her guilty front with innocent Snow”). While line seven continues the intensity of modification that characterizes the poem (“new soft fallen”), the beauty of line eight is secured rather by its plainness amidst such wealth; it is the only line in the poem without adjective or adverb.One assents, I think, to the inherent gorgeousness of these lines; there is an aesthetic investment in them incommensurate with their status as interpolated, negative qualification. And the adversative insistence at the sonnet’s turn suggests that the poet, too, has been lured by his own creation, that he cannot turn from it without effort: “No – yet still steadfast, still unchangeable.” The speaker reasserts the primary term of his desired identification with the star (“steadfast”), but intensifies it: the desire isn’t merely for more perfect fidelity, but for immortality. The sentiment is a familiar one in Keats (“More happy love! more happy, happy love! / Forever warm and still to be enjoyed”), but the dream of an eternal, imperishable consummation is given the lie in the next line: “Pillowed upon my fair love’s ripening breast.” The very quality for which the beloved is cherished is inscribed in time: though “ripening” may be cast in the present participial form, the form of expanding timelessness, the word loses any semantic distinction outside of temporal processes. “Ripening” is the action that links two states, un- and over-ripeness; the “ripening breast” is cherished because it exists, and ceases to exist, in time. Even as Keats longs for eternity, he reminds us that it is unattainable – and that the very conditions of our longing are predicated upon its unattainability.The explicit mention of the senses reappears in line eleven; but, again, it returns with a difference. In the octave the only sense available to the “star” is a solitary, detached, platonic sight; here the speaker experiences the beloved with a more carnal sense: “To feel forever its soft fall and swell.” Indeed, sight is invoked nowhere in the sestet (except by implicit reference to the star, on which the speaker still gazes); instead the speaker invokes touch and hearing, which insist upon a closer proximity to their object. However, lest we think the beautiful vision of the star has passed without regret, its shadow is cast in this very line: “soft fall and swell” echoes the “soft fallen mask” of line seven. “Awake forever in a sweet unrest” recalls “nature’s patient, sleepless Eremite,” but “awake” gives a positive cast to “sleepless”, and “sweet” dispels any sense of the agony I detect in “eternal lids apart”. The couplet repeats the double “still” of line nine, but now in its temporal, not adversative sense: “Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath / And so live ever – or else swoon to death.”The poem’s second, sudden volta, “or else swoon to death”, is extravagant, and it is perhaps difficult to take seriously the poem’s final demand of “immortality or death”. And yet death has hovered throughout the sestet, in the organic nature of the very processes the poem has cherished: “ripening”, “fall and swell”, “tender-taken breath”. The poem’s final rhyme, breath/death, makes explicit this link (I think again of Auden: “and the grave / Proves the child ephemeral”): anything that lives (any beloved the lover can hold) carries within itself the possibility of its death. This is the source of the unsteadfastness from which the poet begins to speak, a lack of “fidelity” evidenced in his lingering, longing description of the landscape viewed by the eternal star – a description that delays the turn to the beloved – and in the return of that landscape (“soft fall”) in the description of the beloved’s breath. It would be difficult to argue that the sonnet’s sestet carries an aesthetic charge equivalent to that of the octave: there’s nothing like the figurative brilliance of lines five and six after the poem turns to the beloved. Keats attempts to mask this loss of intensity with a kind of rhetorical fervor, evidenced in the sestet’s repetitions: still/still, forever/forever, still/still (note that no word is repeated in the poem’s first eight lines); and evidenced also in the melodramatic final stakes. But this isn’t to claim aesthetic failure in the poem’s close, but rather to recognize the full depth of its pathos and the impossibility of its hopes: the price of the star’s steadfastness, its eternity, is its “lone splendor,” its removal from the organic joys of life; the cost of those joys, however, is death. And even the entertainment of choice, of course, is restricted to poetry: the human poet is condemned to his own – and his beloved’s – mortal, unsteadfast matter.
Two Worlds Collide
“The Eve of St. Agnes” tells the fantastic story of a bewitching night when two lovers consummate their relationship and elope. It takes place on the Eve of St. Agnes, a night when “young virgins have visions of delight,” giving the action of the poem a dreamy and otherworldly quality. But while the romance takes place on this evening, the setting is a cold, gloomy castle (probably between the 12th and 16th centuries) during a “bitter chill” in the dead of night. These two elements of the setting contradict each other, the bewitched night reflecting the unreal, fantastic aspects of their affair, and the cold, rigid castle embodying the external forces that oppose their romance in reality.Keats’s portrayal of an idealized romance and dream offers an environment steeped in the mysterious and miraculous, but threatens to unravel at any moment through glimpses of the banished elements of reality. Keats uses images of mystery, adventure, and the unknown to enhance the fairy-tale atmosphere of the poem. Throughout each stanza Keats evinces the importance of setting, time and atmosphere, never quite lifting the veil of mystery. The progressively dramatic quality of this poem is achieved by a metamorphosis of sensations felt through the ever-changing settings, the escalating action of the poem, and the emotional and sensual imagery.In the second line of the poem, Keats uses the image of the owl to set a tone of the mysterious and unknown. The owl is a nocturnal bird of prey that has held mankind’s curiosity for thousands of years, associated with wisdom and mysticism, and helps establish the supernatural and romantic setting. With his vivid images of “frozen grass, numb fingers,” and “frosted breath,” Keats adds to the chill foreboding of the opening stanzas- only a hero or a villain would venture into such harsh weather- preparing the reader for extraordinary happenings.Stanza one establishes the importance of time and legend within the poem. Arguably it is this assessment of the past, coupled with Keats’s reconstruction of a medieval romance, that enables him to look toward both the present and future. Indeed, throughout much of the poem the tense is shown to change, shifting from a past-tense narrative to an emphatically dramatic present tense. “Anon his heart revives; her vespers done,/ Of all its wreathed pearls her hair she frees,/ Unclasps her warmed jewels one by one.” This abrupt change of tense makes the poem far more emotive, bringing to life the ancient legend. The style calls to mind authentic medieval literature, where far greater emphasis is placed on flowing prose than on diction and grammar, and tenses are known to shift within a single sentence.Keats begins the narrative in an abandoned chapel of the castle, void of life save for a wasted, self-flagellating Beadsman who is offering prayers to the Virgin in the name of his wealthy benefactors. On the tombs of the chapel, “the sculptured dead, on each side, seem to freeze,/ Emprison’d in black, purgatorial rails.” The knights and ladies of these family monuments have been carved in pious poses, “praying in dumb orat’ries.” The frozen representations of those long-deceased relatives present a double image of death, and as a result we see a failure of spirituality within the beadsman’s prayers; he has been paid to say these prayers to save the souls of the impious, who will likely only pray in their death friezes.The castle’s stern gothic interior does not depict a hoped-for regeneration, but a series of “carven imageries” of the ” ‘sculptured dead.” This castle is the setting, not for the rejuvenation of love, but for the reenactment of an old legend in an attempt to translate “old romance” into the present.Madeline and Porphyro are a star-crossed young couple, reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet: they seek to hide their relationship from their families and protect their love from “sleeping dragons” and “ready spears.” Their love is hindered by a family feud, and Madeline fears that Porphyro will be killed by her relatives, a “blood-thirsty race”.Madeline performs the rite of St. Agnes Eve according to legend, and Porphyro’s expression of love for Madeline echoes an “ancient ditty, long since mute” (291). When Madeline retires to her bed chamber, the tone takes on an element of fantasy, and Keats want us to feel the “charm” in the air on a night that belongs to spirits; the room is invaded by ephemeral moonlight, creating a “dim, silver twilight” and enhancing the magical qualities of the night. Madeline is described alternately as “like a saint: she seemed a splendid angel,” “like a mermaid in sea-weed,” and like a “rose.” The fact that her privacy is invaded by Porphyro is offset by the adoration with which he beholds this vision. Although he eyes her secretly from the closet, it is in the guise of an adoring and enchanted admirer rather than a voyeur.Madeline has enchanted dreams of the “fair St. Agnes,” and in this aura of fantasy and mysticism Porphyro steals out of his hiding place in her closet and “play[s] an ancient ditty” on the lute. She awakes and there is a “painful change,… expel[ing] the blisses of her dream so pure and deep”. She realizes that life is “eternal woe” as the danger of their situation replaces her idyllic dream.Madeline’s dream experience discloses an awareness of unfulfillment, reflecting her desire for an idealized “old romance,” preferring her own imaginatively created Porphyro over his actual presence. “How change’d thou art! how pallid, chill, and drear! / Give me that voice again, my Porphyro, / those looks immortal, those complainings dear!” Even waking, Madeline is not yearning for the actual voice of Porphyro, but her own dream representation of his voice and identity.Upon Madeline’s waking, the physical setting of the poem overtakes the spiritual one. Keats describes a lavish feast of “delicacies…on golden dishes…filling the room with perfume light.” He introduces more sensual imagery, incorporating taste and smell to symbolize the physicality of the previously chaste young pair. As “into her dream he melted…the rose blendeth its odour with the violet,- solution sweet,” the richly fragrant image describes their union. But with the onslaught of physical sensation they also become more aware of the “frost-wind blow[ing] like Love’s alarum pattering the window-panes.” Keats implies the risks they must take as they leave the spiritual world to enjoy the physical one. The young lovers must face the reality of their circumstances; they risk not only censure but Porphyro’s certain death upon discovery.The tone and imagery shift considerably as they “glide like phantoms” through the castle; they steal out as if escaping from prison, sneaking past the “wakeful bloodhound” and the sleeping porter. The tapestries, “rich with horseman. hawk, and hound,” seem to “flutter,” as though the very walls are alive and watching them with menace. This ominous imagery helps to make the storm outside appear as the lesser of the two evils, although Keats does everything possible to emphasize its “besieging uproar.” While their escape is met with relief, the fact that they “fled into the storm” emphasizes the dangers that await them, and reminds us that even young love is superseded by the reality of death.The prevalent image of death in the poem suggests that what they abandon the castle walls is in fact love’s ideal (which ceased to exist the moment the dream was shattered), as the couple flees into a troubled “storm” of tragic reality. Just as Madeline’s dreams of Porphyro are sweeter than his actual presence, undaunted by social pressures and confines, the reader must wonder whether their dream romance will weather the reality of the brutal storm awaiting them outside the castle walls.The peril of their flight can be gleaned from Porphyro’s description of the harsh storm as “the elfin-storm from fairy land.” He is ignorantly optimistic, relying on his love and the invincibility of youth to save them. The lovers fail to transcend the perils of human existence, because whether they remain within or without the castle their ultimate fate is predicted by the “beldame” and the “beadsman.” “The first [died] palsey-twitch’d and the other unsought for slept among his ashes cold.” In spite of the lovers’ passion, the passage of time will ultimately yield death no matter how strong their love.The two settings and their accompanying moods serve to express the conflict and duality so often present in romances: people are given no choice as to whom they will fall in love with, and oftentimes circumstances prevent the realization of a happy relationship. The poem expresses the magical quality of young love in an idyllic fantasy world, and contrasts it with two different but sinister realities. Keats literally depicts them running away from the castle, which embodies the threats and austerity their relationship faces from society, choosing instead to bear the harsh elements, as if nature is more likely to be compassionate toward their plight.This ambiguous ending is appropriate in that it leaves their unspoken future completely open to interpretation: it affords the reader a more personal connection with their fate through individual reactions and responses. The ending merely implies that the lovers are immortalized in legend; other young lovers will whisper about their grand escape long after death has claimed Porphyro and Madeline, for through the survival of their tale, love finds a way to supersede death.
A Critical Appreciation of “La Belle Dame sans Merci”
The cursory reading of this poem is that it is merely a story of a knight bewitched by beauty, who becomes abject slave to a fairy woman, and who falls asleep, waking up alone and dying on a hillside in the meadow. However it could be perceived as a Romantic vision pertaining to the importance of youth, beauty and emotion, and to the transience of these factors.The poem is written predominantly in the poetic form of a ballad, the subject matter is the communal tale of unrequited love and of a supernatural happening, themes common to the ballad; the stanza¹s are four lines long with an ABCB rhyme pattern and a memorable iambic tetrameter. However there are some deviations which lead the reader to realise the possibility that this is perhaps not so old a poem as the traditional form and archaic wording seem to suggest. This is most clearly evident in the final line of each stanza where the iambic tetrameter is broken and there is instead a monosyllabic trimeter. This confuses the lyrical rhythm of the poem which causes it to have a slightly disjointed tone. The abrupt cessation of the line also seems to echo the knights sudden awakening to loneliness, and alerts the reader to the fact that his life¹s end is nigh. In a traditional ballad one would expect instead either a continuous meter or the trimeter to occur on the second and fourth lines rather than just on the fourth.The traditional melancholy tone of the poem is further evoked by the use of repetition that occurs throughout the poem, for example the word pale, which is repeated five times. This paleness seems to denote the plight of those “in thrall” of “la belle dame”, their slavery has caused their deteriorations, it is not a slavery of the body but of the heart and mind. One of the underlying themes of this poem seems to be this sense that the loss of such an exquisite emotion as love is fatal, but that love by it¹s nature is transient, and therefore to truly experience it one must forfeit the self entirely to it. It is not clear whether the lady herself is real or imagined, but the sense of intensity of emotion is not hindered by this. In fact, it is perhaps this idea of the intangibility of emotion which makes it so irresistible. Perhaps also why the cruel face of love is personified in a “faery¹s child”, because fairies are mythical beings, intangible, iridescently beautiful creatures which can disappear quickly as a thought and are often described as mischievous, even malevolent beings. The female character is the predator, taking a sadistic pleasure in the men¹s pain, this could be said to be a very subversive view of women. This malevolent quality seems to be shown in the fact that the lady has no mercy, she has enslaved many men without remorse, however it could be seen that the poet is merely using the tale to illustrate the vulnerability of men to beauty, is he perhaps embodying a personal experience of helplessness, of feeling that he is bound to a woman? Could it even in wider terms represent the bindings of marriage? This could be possible if the garlands that the knight gives to the lady are symbolic, they could be representative of chains or of oaths that bind. The fact that they are made of flowers shows that beauty and nature can be deceptively powerful and dangerous.Nature in this instance seems to mimic the disintegration of the knight¹s health through the progression of the seasons, which indicate the brevity of life and emotion. The changing of the season is depicted in the lines, “The squirrels granary is full / And the harvest¹s done.” and also in the absence of birdsong, which reflects the absence of love, when “no birds sing”, it becomes winter in the soul. The migration of the birds also seems mimetic of the lady¹s moving on to the next man, of her desertion of the knight. The “sedge” is described as “withered” from the lake, as if it is aging, shrinking from the lake as if in fear. Although it has withered it is not yet dead, like the knight who is “palely loitering”, it is on the brink of death. This fatality is emphasised especially in the third stanza where the pallor of death is described. The “lily” has connotations of funereal flowers and the “fading rose” is surely love dying as roses are a traditional image of love. They describe the loss of colour from the cheeks and the deathly pale complexion of the knight whilst at the same time explaining it. The “fever-dew” is the perspiration brought on by sickness, it adds to the metaphor of the flowers with the word “dew” which also seems to represent the coldness of morning, which is fitting as the knight has just woken from the warmth of love to the coldness of reality and also because it causes the reader to imagine a cold sweat, such as that from a fever. It is also interesting because love has often been described as a sickness, people are said to be love-sick¹, and the sweat is reminiscent perhaps of the nervous perspiration that often occurs upon meeting a new lover. It is demonstrative of an intensity of feeling, whether physical or emotional . The idea of pain seems to be implicit with that of love, even the portrayal of the woman¹s love is a “sweet moan”, a moan being usually connected to pain. She is also described as crying “full sore”, this creates an image of her eyes, red and swollen with tears, but it is unclear why she cries, and there also seems to be a sexual undertone which links to the idea of pain and pleasure being connected, she is a seductress and a temptress.The portrayal of love and women in the poem is distinctly pagan in contrast to Christian ideals of a chaste woman, unattainable till marriage and then subject to the will of man. This woman accepts kisses and sleeps by the knight, “lulling him to sleep”. She has “wild wild eyes” and it seems that the idea of her as wild and untidy and free is more enticing than a traditional woman. The poem seems to use pagan imagery such as that of nature and fairies in opposition to the courtly love of king and knights who are shown to be “pale warriors” in love. The knight seems to have been enchanted, common images of enchantment are used, such as singing, eating roots and a “strange language”. The rhythmic, lyrical pattern of the poem is itself hypnotic, and seems to echo the “pacing steed” and “Faery¹s song”. The title of the poem being in French also seems to echo the foreignness of the lady in comparison to what is known, and to show that she speaks another, softer language. It is as if the knight has been hypnotised, he imagines that she loves him, although he cannot understand her actual words and he describes seeing “nothing else all day long” as if he is totally transfixed by her image and the outside world has passed by without notice. The kings and Princes in his dream have “starved lips” which adds to the sense of time passing quickly around them, they are starving in the vacuum of the lady¹s presence. It is clear that much time has passed because the knight makes flower garlands for the lady, but it is Autumn or Winter when the poet finds him. We know that he will die because it is his “latest dream”, this means that it is his last dream, it is ambiguous as to whether the knight has decided to die or whether he has been so drained by the experience that he has no choice. It is also unclear what the motives of the temptress are, she could be defending her fairy domain from the intrusion of man, the ever expanding city into the countryside, or it could be sheer caprice and malice that prompts her to lure the men to their death.It seems that the importance of the poem lies in intensity of experience, even if that experience is the hideous one of rotting away on a hillside, it seems that Keats believes that it is these poignant moments which define us as people, that distinguish us and make us real, and love is the all intensifying experience to which all others pale in comparison. It also seems that nature and sexuality are intrinsically linked with poetic vision and dream visions which instruct the poet and the reader. It falls to the poet to convey the last words of the knight. The poem leaves us wondering what actually is the intention of the speaker, after all, the poem is encapsulated in the question, “What can ail thee, knight at arms, / Alone and palely loitering?” which is answered by the knight, but the poet seems to remain a voyeuristic figure as he makes no reply nor takes part in the action. He is quite an ominous figure, why is he watching the knight die and not helping him, why does he stop? Is the poet himself the next victim of the lady? Is the lady representative of something else, some drug or cult? Part of the essence of this poem is that it is largely inscrutable, it creates an atmosphere of pathos and mystery but does not appear to mean anything specific. Searching for a meaning in poem, Keats seems to be saying, is like searching for the meaning of life, the essence of life being in it¹s inscrutability.BibliographyKeats, John, La Belle Dame Sans Merci in The new Penguin Book of English verse, ed. Keegan, Paul, (Penguin Books, 2001, England)
An Exploration of Love and the Supernatural
Keats’ exploration of the nature of love is enhanced through his utilisation of the imagination and the overtly supernatural settings which he creates. Both Lamia, which relates the mystical story of a beautiful serpent who strikes a deal with Hermes in order to restore herself to the form of a woman, and La Belle Dame Sans Merci, which presents the story of a knight falling victim to a ‘faery’-like woman, employ an hypnotic rhythm accompanied by mythical allusions which help to display the inner workings of Keats’ highly imaginative mind. Critics have described some of the poetry of the Romantics as ‘a semi-religious response to the natural world’; however, what can be detected from Keats’ aforementioned poems is the sense of a semi-religious response to the supernatural world, which is portrayed with such sensory detail and artistry that it can seem almost unimaginable.
The entrancing hypnotic effect of both La Belle Dame Sans Merci, which is written in iambic tetrameter, and Lamia, consisting of heroic rhyming couplets which create a repetitive beat and continuous motion, perhaps reflect the supernatural nature of the stories and the potentially damaging power of their protagonists. This becomes apparent in the ‘wild wild eyes’ of the faery, which forcefully conveys the treachery of the female through the adoption of repetition and builds upon the foreboding tentativeness of the opening line ‘O what can ail thee Knight at arms’. The cunning tone of the words suggests that we are later to discover that the conventionally strong and courageous soldier will succumb to some greater power, which in this case is the deceitful and threatening female. Her ‘wild’ eyes and ability to cause the Knight to be ‘lulled’ asleep establish an otherworldly aura about the woman, which could be interpreted as representing Keats’ paradoxical fascination with the lure of the opposite sex whilst also illustrating his wariness of the innate female essence, here depicted as manipulative and possibly lethal. The supernatural theme of the poem enhances this ambivalent perception along with the power of seduction, which can similarly be recognised in the character of Lamia. Keats’ use of the oxymoronic declaration ‘ah, bitter-sweet!’ to describe her illustrates his perplexity at the ambiguity and uncertainty of the female. The serpent creature is described as having a mouth ‘with all its pearls complete’, which is suggestive of her inestimable worth whilst also having sexual connotation, and eyes that ‘were born so fair’, yet conversely as potentially ‘the demon’s self’. He appears ambivalent towards women; both fascinated with their beauty yet simultaneously presenting them as being phenomenally destructive, to the male in particular. The spiritual reference to the ‘demon’, with its connotations of malevolence and torment, emphasises this notion and causes us to question the stereotypical innocence and submissiveness of Keats’ 19th century female counterparts.
Moreover, Keats’ use of the spiritual emphasises the transient nature of earthly love, as discovered by the Knight of La Belle Dame Sans Merci, and the ease with which those in possession of mystical abilities can taint the nature of love. He is left ‘alone and palely loitering’ after we learn that ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci/ Thee hath in thrall’, illustrating the pitilessness of his enchanter, which is accentuated by the harsh sound of the consonance of ‘th’. Her beauty and magical ability appears to have fooled and enslaved him, resulting in his isolation and ill-health. This is reinforced by the metaphoric ‘lily on thy brow’, which suggests a deathly paleness and seems to foreshadow his passing due to the connotations of what is commonly recognised as a funeral flower. Similarly, Lamia has been described by David Perkins as being ‘about the consequences of being a dreamer’, reflecting Keats’ belief in the greatness of the imagination and suggesting that human relationships should be allowed to flourish naturally in order to display their sublime nature. After the contract between Hermes and Lamia has been fulfilled, Lamia begins her transition towards becoming a woman again leaving ‘nothing but pain and ugliness’ after she ‘convuls’d with scarlet pain’. This passage reveals the torturous sufferings she is forced to go through as a result of her desperation to be with her ‘youth of Corinth’. The description of her pain as ‘scarlet’ is suggestive of blood and severe discomfort, which is underpinned by the sensory verb ‘convuls’d’, with its implications of violent sufferings and an inability to control oneself. It seems that she has shed all of her previous beauty and exoticism to become unsightly and uncomfortable, enforcing the negative consequences of unnatural powers.
Furthermore, a typically Romantic sense of defiance of the rationality and order of the 18th Century is tangible in both Lamia and La Belle Dame Sans Merci, which are replete with imaginatively medieval and mythical allusions. The beginning of Lamia, in particular, which details the fairytale setting of the poem, is abundant in rich imagery of supernatural creatures. Keats references ‘Dryads’, which are tree nymphs, ‘Fauns’ and ‘Tritons’, building up a magical and somewhat extraordinary setting, which is complemented by the inclusion of Greek mythology. The opening is focused upon Hermes, the god of commerce, transitions and boundaries, heightening what could be seen as the importance Keats places upon the imagination and the constantly changing nature of human beings. The resistance and rebelliousness that Hermes displays through ‘amorous theft/From high Olympus’ suggests that he gains a sense of enjoyment from causing trouble and defying the hierarchy of his social system, with Mount Olympus being the home of the gods in Greek mythology, again reflecting the beliefs of the Romantic poets. This exhibits a carefree and buoyant attitude, which is in contrast to the more serious tone of La Belle Dame Sans Merci, which is arguably a poem warning us about the dangers of obsessive love. Whereas Hermes seems to draw some enjoyment out of neglecting his responsibilities, the Knight soon learns that becoming entranced by the ‘Lady in the Meads’ was a mistake. Described as ‘a faery’s child’ and as using ‘language strange’, she also appears to be of medieval times, stressed by the use of quaint old English, which emphasises Keats’ fascination with chivalric tales and even reminds us of the courtly love tradition. There is a sense of uncertainty surrounding the woman, which is suggestive of Keats’ disapproval of the oppressive past, which she is a part of, and his desire for a future where the rights of the individual are valued. Thus, it could be argued that he is utilising various allusions to classical and supernatural beings as a form of escapism, in order to cause the reader to question the morality of political and social conventions.
Overall, Keats’ exploration of the imagination and supernatural manifests itself in various forms in both Lamia and La Belle Dame Sans Merci. His typically Romantic perspective that the imagination should triumph over all else is clearly evident, whilst there is simultaneously a suggestion that the contemporary conventions were damaging and inhibited the natural desires of the people of the time. The supernatural is also used to highlight what could be seen as Keats’ wariness of the female and the dangers of their allure, as embodied by both Lamia and the ‘faery’s child’, whilst accentuating the transience of love perhaps due to an acute awareness of his own mortality.
Finding Reconciliations and the Value of Art in John Keats’s Epistle-Poems
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”. 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”.
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. 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”. 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”.
Scholar Chatterjee presents a series of paraphrased interpretations of other scholars who have analyzed this epistle-poem thus far. 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”. 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”. 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, 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”. 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”. 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”. 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?”. 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”. 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”. 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. 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,
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”. 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”. 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”. 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”, 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.
 Keats, John. Selected Letters of John Keats. Edited by Grant F. Scott. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002), xxii.
 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.
 Keats, John. Selected Letters of John Keats. Edited by Grant F. Scott. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002), 107.
 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.
 Chatterjee, Bhabatosh. John Keats: His Mind and Work. (Bombay: Orient Longman, 1971), 284.
 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.
 Swaminathan, S. R. The Still Image in Keats’s Poetry. (Salzburg, Austria: Institut Für Anglistik Und Amerikanistik, Universität Salzburg, 1981), iii.
 Swaminathan, S. R. The Still Image in Keats’s Poetry. (Salzburg, Austria: Institut Für Anglistik Und Amerikanistik, Universität Salzburg, 1981), 44.
 Gittings, Robert. John Keats: The Living Year, 21 September 1818 to 21 September 1819. (London: Heinemann, 1954), 121.
 Keats, John. Selected Letters of John Keats. Edited by Grant F. Scott. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002), xxxi.
 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.
 Baker, Jeffrey. John Keats and Symbolism. (Sussex: Harvester Press, 1986), 183.
 Schwartz, Lewis M. Keats Reviewed by His Contemporaries: A Collection of Notices for the Years 1816-1821. (Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1973), 144.
 Schartz, Lewis M., Keats Reviewed by His Contemporaries, 144.
 Baker, Jeffrey. John Keats and Symbolism. (Sussex: Harvester Press, 1986), 4.
 Sinson, Janice C. John Keats and the Anatomy of Melancholy. (London: Keats-Shelley Memorial Association, 1971), 17
 Chatterjee, Bhabatosh. John Keats: His Mind and Work. (Bombay: Orient Longman, 1971), 295.
 Baker, Jeffrey. John Keats and Symbolism. Sussex: Harvester Press, 1986), 13.
 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.
Analysis of Keat’s Ode To Autumn
Keats’ ode ‘To Autumn’ deals predominantly with the passage of time, described within the imagery of the season of Autumn. The ode is a celebration of change, involving life, growth and death. Keats makes use of many literary and textual tools, which will be detailed in this analysis. A symbolic reading of this poem produces not only a literal appreciation of the text, but also invites the question of whether Keats was making another statement on the human condition, specifically the transitory nature of life itself.
The first stanza details the fertility of the season, with growth and ripening being the predominant images. Autumn is presented as a female personification, with many of the allusions being to natural growth; this allusion is strengthened later in the poem. The season is presented as one that is giving – “loading” and “blessing with fruit”, “swelling” and “plumping”. The bounteousness of Autumn is emphasised with “still more, later flowers”, so many that bees continue to harvest as though the days of plenty will never stop. The description is predominantly feminine, and Keats uses words that suggest pregnancy or a natural state, such as “ripeness”, “swell” and “budding”. The first stanza centres on the growth of the first months of Autumn, and is crafted such that it is read in a slow, unhurried manner, much as the bees are not hurrying to collect pollen from the flowers, as they believe “warm days will never cease”.
The second stanza is a slower presentation, with Autumn depicted “sitting”, “sound asleep”, or “drows’d”. The months of plenty, which the bees thought would never end, are ending. There is an allusion to death in the form of the Reaper in lines 17-18, with the “hook” sparing the “next swath”, an extension of the “half-reap’d furrow” in line 16. There is no activity by the persona of Autumn in this stanza, the emphasis on watching and looking over the harvest. There is no haste in this stanza, with Autumn watching “the last oozings hours by hours” – the words themselves are drawn out, using long vowel sounds and soft consonants.
The final stanza contains more allusions to the season’s end – the “soft-dying day”, and “wailful choir” of “soft gnats mourning”. The opening of the first stanza, with “mists” of mornings, and “maturing” sun is brought to a conclusion in the third stanza with “barred clouds” of the “soft-dying day” touching the “stubble plains” of the harvested crop, an evening setting. This stanza compares Autumn favourably to Spring, each having their own sounds and songs. The final image is of the swallows, gathering for their Winter migration. The final stanza deals predominantly with the aural imagery of the season – from the opening line of the “songs” and “music” to the pathetic fallacy of the “wailful choir of small gnats”, the “bleating” of the fully grown lambs, and the final “twitter” of the gathering swallows.
Overall, the poem appears written as an ode to Autumn, although it is delivered more in the format of an internal monologue, taking the form of a single voice musing the passing of time. The form of the poem, particularly the first stanza as a continual single sentence, implies a “stream of consciousness” approach – the poet thinking the words rather than giving them voice. The language is not contrived, and is quite informal. There is very little poetic compression of words, or inversion. The words are chosen for their descriptive powers, supporting the poem based around the imagery of the season. The tone is gentle, there is no haste; this is supported by the use of long vowel sounds and soft consonants. These have the effect of forcing the reader to move slowly through each stanza, until the closing lines of the final stanza, where Keats uses harder consonants, giving a tighter presentation of the closure of the season.
The rhythm, although based on an iambic pentameter, has subtle variations that control the pace of the poem. For example, line 5 can be read strictly as an iambic pentameter, although it feels more natural to read “apples” as a single, monotone word, rather than enforced cadence of “-ples” in the word “ap-ples” that the metre would demand. This has the effect of displacing the rest of the metre, giving a slower overall reading of the line. Line 5 also contains “moss’d”, a poetic contraction which could be read as “moss-ed”, but feels more natural when read as “mossd”, again, giving a softer tone to the line by removing the stress of “ed”. The final words “cottage-trees” contain harder, repeated consonant “t” sounds, inviting three stresses on “cot-tage-trees”, effectively bringing the line to a conclusion but without actually terminating it. The use of soft consonant sounds such as “s” and “l” slow the reading of the stanza, giving it an Autumnal, lazy feel2E The use of a variation on the iambic pentameter gives the poem a more conversational or thoughtful tone, allowing control of the words but not enforcing a high degree of rigidity on the overall structure.
The rhyme scheme is constant throughout each stanza (A, B, A, B C, D, E, D, C, C, E), and this is used with the technique of enjambement and end-stopping with comms, colons or semicolons rather than full stops to allow the poem to flow. As mentioned earlier, the first stanza is a complete and single sentence, the second and third stanza only being broken by the questions of their respective opening lines. The definite rhyme scheme produces an overall feeling of harmony within the poem, and the regular length gives a feeling of order rather than discord or chaos. This use of harder consonant sounds in the final stanza, such as “touch the stubble plains”, and “red breast whistles”, bring the poem to a slightly harsher conclusion, as Autumn turns to Winter.
Keats also uses imagery and figurative language to give his poem greater impact. The visual imagery is the strongest, with detailed descriptions of the bounteousness of the harvest in the opening stanza, through to the description of the evening and the setting sun in the final stanza. Keats does not make extensive use of metaphor or simile throughout this text, preferring to focus on the personification of Autumn, depicted “sitting”, or “sound asleep” in the second stanza. The auditory qualities are strongest in the final stanza, with Keats making use of onomatopoeia in the “bleat” of the lambs and the “twitter” of the swallows. Overall, the use of imagery in this way draws the reader into a visual scene, created by the skilful use of text.
Keats builds the sequence of imagery throughout each stanza, providing a visual experience, which leads the reader through Autumn. The conclusion of the completed harvest, the lambs now fully grown and awaiting slaughter, and the swallows gathering for their migration allow Keats to sum up the entire season of Autumn in 33 lines of verse. His images are intense, and immerse the reader completely in his vision of the season.
The poem may be taken on a literal level as a description of the season of Autumn. It may also be read as a symbolic description of the transitory nature of life itself, an explanation alluded to with the feminine, almost sexual, pregnant, description of growth in the first stanza, the “ripeness”, “plumping” and “budding”. The second stanza contains the first connotation of death with the introduction of the “reap’d furrow” in line 16 and the watching of the “last oozings”, descriptions of a general cessation of growth. Symbolic references abound in this poem – autumn itself being a symbol for maturity, and the description of flowers symbolising the shortness of life. In addition, the references to birds in the final stanza may be a symbolic reference to the soul, as with the “sallows”, or willow trees, referring to the whole order of nature, from roots, through branches to leaves and the continual cycle of life. The final stanza and it’s funereal “wailful choir” and “soft-dying day” bring to a conclusion this cycle of life. This underlying connotation gives the reader a deeper sense of involvement in the poem, and introduces a willingness to re-read in search of perhaps a deeper meaning.
In conclusion, Keats has produced a technically superb poem, utilising many of the tools available to the poet, to give on the literal level a description of season of Autumn, or on the symbolic level a description of the cycle of life. The poem enacts the passage of the season, from the rich, heavy growth of the opening stanza, through the soporific effects of the second, to the slow, concluding third. His rich use of the full range of imagery, and his control of the rhyme and rhythm produce an almost languid verse that produce a vivid, three-dimensional picture in the mind of the reader.
“To Autumn” by John Keats
Of John Keats’ “Great Odes,” “To Autumn” is a poem which rests on a precipice. In other words, autumn lies directly between the life breath of spring and summer and the impending death of winter. Much to his advantage, Keats knowingly embraces autumn’s ambivalent nature in order to perpetuate the middle season’s own unique beauty. The result is an ode entirely dictated by negative capability, in which the common human context of autumn is transformed and reviewed in a new light. “To Autumn,” filled with both vivacious nature poetry and subtle nods in death’s direction, gradually affirms the paradoxical beauty of the season through stark contrast and steady change.
In the first stanza, Keats establishes autumn’s lively benevolence through traditional pastoral imagery, basking in autumn’s more conventional beauty with only slight references to the cold ahead or warmth prior. Here, abundance and excess are both prevalent themes. With summer only recently departed, the speaker flushes with autumn’s blessings of “swelling” gourds, “plump” hazel shells, and cottage-trees that bend from the bounteous weight of apples. “And still more,” the speaker continues, “later flowers for the bees, / Until they think warm days will never cease” (ll. 9-10).
Here, Keats lets slip the first hint of comparison upon autumn’s beauty. Summer’s legacy, represented by the late “maturing sun,” is the driving force of life with autumn acting as its conductor. In fact, their collaborative efforts are so pronounced that the bees think not of colder weather, the end to a seemingly endless bounty. However, this surmise regarding summer’s end is highly ominous. While the thoughts of bees with honey combs “o’er-brimm’d” seems innocuous enough, the speaker is actually laying the foundation for a great change. The fruit of the land is filled with “ripeness to the core,” indicative of both summer’s triumphant conclusion and autumn’s own commencement—the harvest. Summer and autumn’s literal fruition, while lively in its own right, is the impetus for autumn’s own inverted bloom.
The transitory second stanza is marked by the harvest and a personified autumn encumbered by the “oozing” advance of time and death rather than the labors of nature. Now, autumn who was once referred to as the regal “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness” in the introductory apostrophe is now listless: “sitting careless on a granary floor.” The speaker recounts, “Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep, / Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook / Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers” (ll. 16-18). Previously a divine champion of bounty and life, autumn now finds itself in a delicate, humanized stupor. The bed of flowers, noticeably “half-reap’d,” portrays the harvest as another symbol of autumn’s ambivalence, half-way between life and death. Meanwhile, time’s slow, ceaseless procession is encapsulated well by autumn’s serene slumber induced by “poppies,” nature’s literal opiate. These images are incredibly striking despite their blurry, languid nature due to their divergence from the sweet festivities of the first stanza. Vines riddled with produce have been replaced with autumn half-reaping and half-sparing the fruits of two seasons’ labor. Now, the season assumes the figure of the reaper with “hook” gliding past each swath toward autumn’s final trimester.
Finally, the third stanza, a literal and figurative sunset on autumn’s reign, features the speaker blending the elements of life and death and at last confiding in autumn its true beauty. It begins, “Where are the songs of spring? Ay, where are they?” (l. 23). Nearing autumn’s close, the speaker bemoans the loss of “songs,” or beauties, of spring; Keats even employs ubi sunt as if to indicate the fruition of a full emotional—or seasonal—transformation. Clearly, springtime has long left this world: “barred clouds” have taken the place of the once “maturing sun” and the harvest is deep into the past. However, the speaker quickly expounds on autumn’s beauty, “Think not of them, thou hast thy music too” (l. 24). In tender and genuine tone does the speaker reassure autumn of its worth, walking a fine line of life and death. The sun falls low, casting off the “soft-dying day,” and a “wailful choir” of gnats harmoniously mourn the climax of autumn. All at once it seems, the design of nature begins to betray and contradict itself. Rosy skies contest to the glorious, “soft-dying” transition from day to night, and the buzzing gnats incite the full chorus of autumn’s own songs. Oxymoronic “full-grown lambs” bleat before the shepherd or the slaughterhouse while crickets and robins “sing” and “whistle” respectively, reciprocating the speaker’s reassured peace. Here, nature appears to be untangling its own natural contradictions and juxtapositions and thus allows autumn to assert its own capability to be beautiful regardless of the lapse of spring and summer or the oncoming wintertime. Then, as if to relinquish any doubt, the speaker concludes, “And gathering swallows twitter in the skies” (l. 33). The birds, eager to resume along the procession of time and season, soar up and “twitter” the last refrain in autumn’s song shortly before flying south for the winter.
From onset to its conclusion, “To Autumn” is strung about by time and change. The apples which hung from the cottage-trees at sunrise are plucked and then juiced by the cyder-press at midday. The “winnowing wind” tossing autumn’s soft hair “lives or dies” among the river sallows. Indeed, autumn is capable of attaining beauty because negative capability allows the speaker to seek beauty out in the least likely of places. In this case, beauty lies on the boundary of life and death, both individually beautified while forever conscious of their polar opposite. To Keats, autumn is nature’s primary example of the coalescence of life and death.