Percy Bysshe Shelley: Nomination of Nobel Prize in Literature for Adonaïs

June 7, 2022 by Essay Writer

Percy Bysshe Shelley’s corpse was found on a beach near Viareggio. His sailboat had been wrecked in a storm ten days ago, on July 8, 1822, at sea off the Italian coast. In his jacket pocket, he had a copy of the last book of poems published by John Keats (“The Romantics – Eternity” 55:15). In the spring of the previous year, Shelley himself had written a pastoral elegy dedicated to the memory of his friend entitled ‘Adonaïs: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats,’ a poem considered Shelley’s most elaborate work and in the best tradition of Miltonian poetry. Shelley thus elevated Keats to the category of mythological hero and declaring the immortality of his poetry, which will be ‘[A]n echo and a light unto eternity!’ (Shelley I, line 9). If Shelley’s poem were read with a speculative lens, it could be said that it is almost like a nomination for a Nobel Prize in Literature. That is an idea that would be fully founded in virtue of the literary value of Keats’ poetry and his influence on the universal literature thanks to the experimentation of the poetic tradition that resulted in a new and fresh poetic voice. Therefore, following this speculative path, John Keats should be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature due to his creative experimentation in variations of Romantic poetry that led him to create masterly poems such as ‘On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer,’ ‘The Belle Dame Sans Merci,’ ‘The Eve of St. Agnes,’ and his odes, especially ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ and ‘To Autumn.’

The short life of John Keats (London, 1795 – Rome, 1821) was marked by death and by fate that led him to have a life not easy, but against all the odds, he dedicated his life to poetry. His father was a prosperous businessman who ran a stable but died in the wake of the fall of a horse when John had only eight years. He had lost a little brother, an uncle, and then his mother dies as a victim of tuberculosis, a disease that became the scourge of the Keats. Thus, he was forced to be the head of the family taking care of his siblings working as a surgeon practitioner, and later he studied at Guy’s Hospital in London to become a licensed surgeon and apothecary.

He published his first volume of poems in 1817 and, despite his limited success, he decided to abandon medicine to devote himself only to literature. In 1818, his brother Tom died, also of tuberculosis, a fact that affected him deeply. Keats himself would begin to suffer the agony of the same disease. Around that time, he fell in love with the daughter of a neighbor, Fanny Brawne, the living muse who inspired most of his best poems. Despite being secretly engaged to Fanny, his health deteriorated, and love became an impossible dream. He traveled to Naples, Italy, with the idea of healing in a better climate, but the poet died a few months later (‘John Keats’). Despite being the youngest poet of the great British romantics, he is one of the most important bards of the English language. Decades after his death his letters and his diary were published, which complete a work of exceptional expressive purity and admirable poetic mastery in his aspiration to achieve absolute beauty. If Keats would not deserve the Nobel Prize for his poems, his letters alone, especially his love letters to Fannie, would deserve this distinction on their own.

The Nobel Prize for Literature is the distinction par excellence in the contemporary literary world, and it has been since its first edition in 1901. Literature in the English language has received the Nobel Prize thanks to several of its poets, including T.S. Eliot, William Golding, Seamus Heaney, Rudyard Kipling, and William Butler Yeats. The prize is given to exalt the merit of “the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction” (Alfred Nobel qtd. in “The Nobel Prize in Literature”). A Nobel Prize in Literature to John Keats would undoubtedly be a historical fact, since it was delivered posthumously only once, in 1931, to the Swedish poet Erik Axel Karlfeldt. Another historical highlight would be the age of John Keats. The youngest winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature was Rudyard Kipling in 1907 when he was 41 years old (“The Nobel Prize in Literature”). John Keats died when he was little more than 25 years old and had an active poetic career of only about five years. However, in that short period, he made sufficient merits having produced a sufficiently prominent literary work ‘in an ideal direction,’ as required by the Nobel standards.

The poetry of Keats is a living example of a distinctive poetic identity that rescues the great poetic tradition and transforms it into a new voice. According to Kelvin Everest, Keats’ entire career can be characterized as ‘a series of attempts to find a voice of his own’ by learning to speak the language of his most powerful poetic models, and it is a poetry that embodies ‘the experience of growing into participation in a tradition, and its achievement becomes a form of fresh life for that tradition. It is the supreme model of the means by which poetry itself survives’ (5). Therefore, someone who contributes to being a cultural and creative bridge between the tradition and the future deserves that his works be considered as pointing in the ‘ideal direction,’ and even more so when his poetry has influenced and continues influencing to poets and literati since two centuries ago.

The romantic vein of Keats and his eagerness for experimentation can be seen from his early poetic works. In October 1816, at the age of just 21, he wrote a fabulous sonnet where the persona speaks with the approach of those who enjoy a work of art. In ‘On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer,’ he extols the magnificence of a classic Iliad and Odyssey translation in a poem that rescues the magic of the Italian sonnet with the traditional structure of an octave and a sestet, with a rhyming scheme of abba abba cdcdcd. The poem is an extended metaphor of exploration and discovery whether geographically, scientifically, artistically, or in general, new knowledge. In the octave, the speaker focuses on the connection of poetry or literature with ‘realms of gold’ and ‘goodly states and kingdoms’ (lines 1-2), and the exaltation of Homer’s translation. In the sestet, on the basis of to comparison and allusion, in the personal emotion of reading Homer translated by Chapman, the persona feels like an astronomer observing the skies “[W]hen a new planet swims into his ken’ (line 10) and then he feels like the explorer who discovers ‘with a wild surmise” (13) new lands and seas.

In this poem, Keats represents the world of art and his personal perception. According to Richard Turley, with this sonnet, Keats highlights the poetic diction of Chapman in English speaking ‘out loud and bold’ in such a way that the genius of Homer is presented in all its magnitude. Keats discovers ‘Homer for the first time’ (206) and with his expression achieves ‘his finest poem to date’ (207). Therefore, it is evident that for Keats, the enjoyment and the scientific and artistic exploration come from the same source, and he knew how to express it in the most captivating way in a memorable sonnet. Following in the footsteps of the old tradition, Keats also experiments with the ballad, an ancient form of medieval verse adapted to sing or to recite. ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’ is a poem divided into 12 quatrains, which has three tetrameter lines and a final line of just two stresses. In this poem, as in the traditional ballad, the use of repetition is emphasized as in the repeated use of ‘O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms’ (lines 1 and 4), and the use of imagery mixed as in the final phrase ‘And no birds sing’ (48) to evoke the silence and death.

The poem is inspired by medieval poems and Celtic myths about cruel, cold, distant, and manipulative fairies, representing here the poet’s concerns about the pain that love can produce, particularly the loss of freedom, jealousy, desire for possession, among others. Love and death lurk in ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci,’ and both under the sign of sacred femininity, surely reflecting the impossibility of the poet to realize his love in life with his beloved Fanny. In this sense, Keats would be moving away from the traditional ballads that are objective and detached to give a subjectivity to the message, disguising his true conflicting feelings about his own enthusiasm for Fanny Brawn – a trick that, ironically, reveals everything he tries to hide. MHD Noor Al-Abbood in ‘The Irony of the Ballad Form in Keats’s’ argues that the poem shows ‘renewed efforts to distance himself from Fanny, this confirms the status of the original poem as a personal lyrical expression of tortured love and doomed efforts’ (124). This experimentation with the ballad is one more example of how Keats uses the poetic tradition and puts it into his own expression with a brand-new voice.

In ‘The Eve of St. Agnes’ John Keats pays tribute to his favorite writer and whom he considered as a teacher, Edmund Spenser. The poem consists of 42 Spenserian stanzas, stanza form created by Spenser in his long epic poem ‘The Faerie Queene,’ with eight lines of iambic pentameter, plus a final hexameter iambic or also called alexandrine line. The rhyme scheme is maintained as abab bcbc c. This type of verse is ideal for an extensive poetic narrative like the present theme of chivalrous ambiance that Keats offers of the complex love of Madeline and Porphyro, and that thanks to the intercession of the elderly accomplice Angela and the courage of the daring man, will be resolved with real passion. The poem reflects the deep passion that at the moment of his writing feels the poet for his beloved Fanny Brawne, his great love. The poem stands out mainly for its multisensory character. Keats uses a rich mixture of sensory impressions to make the sensual be, in addition to passionate, also sublime, as for example in the erotic description of Madeline going to bed, with the description of ‘her warmed jewels one by one,’ ‘her fragrant boddice,’ ‘her rich attire creeps rustling to her knees,’ (XXVII, 3-5) and so on.

The composition of ‘The Eve of St. Agnes’ can be defined as ‘a self-reflexive narrative that traces what was for Keats the consummate aesthetic process’ with a great allegory represented through the main characters. James D. Wilson in “John Keats’ Self-Reflexive Narrative: ‘The Eve of St. Agnes’” speaks of an approach that points to the tension and interaction between the holy, unstructured imagination represented by Madeline, and the reasoned, calculated or measured thinking, as represented by Porphyro (46). That is, a synthesis of reason and imagination that ‘represents the culmination of the aesthetic process’ and therefore the poem ‘is the finished, perfectly realized artifact like the Grecian urn which, though ‘a friend to man,’ transcends time to enter a realm where ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’ (50). That is to say, it is a poetic creation where the visionary imagination and the reason directed merge into a single entity and that shows the expansion of chivalrous narrative towards a realm of greater symbolism and that has been a matter of praise for its contemporaries and it had vast influence in Victorian literature of the nineteenth century.

If John Keats’ nomination to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature had to be reduced to a single specialization, those would be his odes. In the odes, Keats recreated the classical tradition in a new romantic expression of poetic strength. For instance, in ‘Ode to a Nightingale,’ poem of eight ten-line stanzas, the lyrical self rises with the wings of the poetic word to meet between the trees with the nightingale that sings there; that serves to differentiate the eternal and transcendental nature of ideals such as the transience of the physical world. The speaker who feels like dying, craves that eternity. ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ confronts human suffering with the immortality of the song of the nightingale, that ‘Immortal Bird’ (61) whose song “was heard / In ancient days by emperor and clown (63-4). The contrast between the eternity of beauty and the transience of human life becomes the central theme of his odes, as so also happen in the ode ‘To Autumn.’

‘To Autumn’ is a poem of three stanzas that instead of ten lines has eleven perhaps as suggesting a greater abundance of nature in this season. The poem describes in its three stanzas, three different aspects of the season, which are its fertility, its work, and its final decline. However, in a general way, the season of autumn is seen not as a season of deterioration and death, but as a moment of full maturity and splendor, as it is announced from his first line: “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness” (1). According to Yüksel Uslu, Keats’ odes have the common characteristic of presenting an idea, an intellectual determination and are written with the principle of artistic economy: ‘infinite riches in a little room’ (100). In his odes, Nature is considered a comforting and morally edifying element, and a kind of spiritual healer to cure the pain of the irreconcilable conflict in basic human desires. For instance, ‘a nightingale is regarded as a source of consolation’ to face the crisis by the death of his brother Tom (101). And the contemplative and detailed observation of simple things of Autumn like the gourd swelling, hazel shells plumping, ‘[T]hee sitting careless on a granary floor – lifted by the winnowing wind,’ and ‘the fume of poppies’ (Keats, ‘On Autumn,’ lines 14-7) y and other natural elements contribute to grant peace and comfort to the poetic speaker. In his odes, Keats rescues the beauty of the classic expression and renews it with a romantic splendor.

In his famous elegy, Shelley characterized Keats with the fictitious name of Adonaïs, which seems to be a kind of fusion of the Greek hero Adonis with the name “Adonai,” from the Hebrew, meaning ‘lord.’ Adonis was a Greek hero who died and rose again so that every drop of his blood became a red flower called anemone. Shelley uses this myth as an extended metaphor for the immortality of Keats’ poetry and ends his long poem by saying that ‘The soul of Adonaïs, like a star, / Beacons from the abode where the Eternal are’ (LV 8-9). This light of eternity seems to be projected from the poetic work of John Keats, who turned the old poetic tradition into a new influential voice in English and universal literature. Keats experimented with sonnets, with ballads, with stanzas, with rhymes, with odes, with new expressions of Nature and made them have a different echo through his poetic emotion. The tradition, passing through the crucible of his lyrical craftsmanship, became a new song. His voice and his romantic call to beauty have influenced generations of poets. His poetic sensitivity continues to shine today, as alive as when it was written. All this, like every verse written by John Keats, claims that he deserves a Nobel Prize in Literature. Adonaïs has not died, as Shelley proclaimed it. His poetry is alive, and he will remain alive forever illuminating through his poetry.

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