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.
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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, […]