Representations of Nature in Romantic and Contemporary Poetry. A Comparison of John Keats and Kathleen Jamie

Term Paper, 2018
24 Pages, Grade: 2,5



1. Introduction

2. John Keats – the Chameleon Poet
2.1 The Romantic Ideology in View of Nature Concepts
2.1.1 The Importance of Individualism and Subjectivity
2.1.2 Imagination as a Way to “Beauty and Truth” over Reason and Intellect
2.2 “Ode on a Grecian Urn”
2.3 “Ode to a Nightingale”

3. Kathleen Jamie
3.1 The New Nature Writing and Its Ecocritical Awareness
3.1.1 Individualism and Identity
3.1.2 The Subjective Poet and Negative Capability
3.1.3 Nature and Its Unspoiled State
3.1.4 Endlessness

4. Conclusion

Works Cited

1. Introduction

“The poetry of earth is never dead” (Keats 45), that is what John Keats wrote in the first line of his sonnet “On the Grasshopper and Cricket”. Until now, one could say that his statement from 1884 is true. Poetry still exists and has a significant impact on our present society. Contemporary authors as Kathleen Jamie are modern writers who deal with themes about our lives on earth.

Nature was one of the central topics during the romantic era and is still a persistent theme due to environmental debates as the climate change or the pollution of our planet. It is a well-known fact that the consciousness of nature, during these years, had possibly changed, but, some thoughts and ideas of the romantics might still wield influence on contemporary poetry.

This fact leads to the central question that motivates this paper, namely to what extent the poems in The Tree House by Kathleen Jamie contain similarities to the ideas and thoughts about nature, in the romantic era during the 18th century. Is Individualism and Subjectivity still as important as it was for the romantics and is the understanding of nature still the same as it was two-hundred years ago? Does Kathleen Jamie try to escape of the world through imagination or does she face up to the problems of our planet?

To answer these questions, it is necessary to begin by taking a closer look at John Keats and his poetical character. Afterwards, the romantic ideology with its importance of individualism and subjectivity as well as escapism through imagination will be considered. On this occasion, reason and intellect in opposite to emotion will be discussed. After analysing the poems “Ode to a Grecian Urn” and “Ode to a Nightingale” by John Keats, in terms of the characteristics considered previously, the romantic era will be outpaced, and the focus will be on Kathleen Jamie and her contemporary poetry. The new nature writing and its ecocritical awareness will be discussed what, in the end, leads to the main analysis, where a few selected poems of the collection The Tree House will be examined and interpreted.

2. John Keats – the Chameleon Poet

The romantic poet John Keats, born on 31 October 1795, in London, is the eldest of five children in his family. During his early childhood, Keats was sent to a private school and was later qualified to an apothecary-surgeon. However, Keats abandoned medicine for poetry, which initiated a rapid development to a poetic maturity, first under the influence of Wordsworth and then of Shakespeare. John Keats, who only became 25 years old, published three volumes of poetry in 1817, 1818 and 1820. After falling deeply in love with Fanny Brawne, he became increasingly ill with tuberculosis, in winter 1819. One year later, he had a series of haemorrhages, went to Italy and died in Rome (Hilton 5-21)1.

John Keats, along with the romantics Percey Shelley and Lord Byron, is commonly quoted as a poet of the “second-generation” during the romantic era (Parker and Morrison 111). In contrast to the “first-generation”, including William Blake, William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the writers of the younger period tend to write more about passion, emotions and the supernatural, often with a compassionate tone (89). Historically speaking, it is true that each generation and their corresponding poets feature common characteristic traits, yet the fact remains that each one of them has a unique style of writing and thinking.

Several letters of John Keats to his family members and friends help to illuminate the phenomenon of Keats being a chameleon poet and dissociating him from his coeval. Taking the striking characteristics of a chameleon into account, one could assert that they are able to change their appearance in order to adapt to external circumstances. This kind of adaptability is not arbitrary but provides an opportunity to protect itself from predators. Moreover, it seems as if they become one with nature and the world surrounding them by changing their colour. The being of John Keats seems to be similar to that of a chameleon in respect of its self-protection against outside influences.

On the one hand, Keats tries to change his identity to hide from the world, on the other hand, to cope with the sensation of pain brought by the illness and the knowledge about his imminent death (Stillinger and Lynch 880). Keats himself wrote a letter to his lawyer Richard Woodhouse, in 1818, which discloses his thoughts about his own identity as a poet:

[…] As to the poetical Character itself, […] it is not itself – it has no self – it is every thing and nothing – It has no character […] A poet is the most unpoetical of any thing in existence; because he has no identity - he is continually in for - and filling some other body – The Sun, the Moon, the Sea and Men and Women who are creatures […] who have about them an unchangeable attribute – the poet has none […]. (Keats qtd. in Stillinger and Lynch 947)

Following the quotation above, Keats is not able to see himself as a poetical character with an own identity, but rather as a man who tries to enter into the poetical personality of other humans, animals or objects to find an identity and to achieve a state of immutability. It appears that Keats changes to be unchangeable which seems to be a paradox. However, after some consideration, one could argue that both ideas do not rule each other out. If we consider the example of the chameleon once again, one could assert that it changes its colour to be unchangeable as well. The chameleon wants merely to survive and tries to protect his body and soul through disguise. All in all, this change of colour should only serve one end, namely that the chameleon is able to live on and keep the inevitable fact, of being a chameleon, alive. John Keats knows that his death is imminent, but even if he tries to escape the reality through changing identity, he will be still the one he is in the real world, namely John Keats.

2.1 The Romantic Ideology in View of Nature Concepts

A persistent theme in the romantic period, dated from 1785 to 1830, is nature (Stillinger and Lynch 11). Not only John Keats but also other relevant poets made nature to an important topic in their poems. This involves various perspectives explained below.

The concept of nature is tremendously complex. In this context, we speak particularly of the living non-human nature, which includes uncultivated land, wild sceneries, flora and animals. Moreover, nature is frequently associated with spontaneity, independence and unspoiltness (11).

Stillinger and Lynch argue that nature, therefore, stands in contrast to all things which are produced by humans and which are by implication, artificial (11). Thus, one could argue that romanticism during the second half of the 18th century was a “response against the scientific rationalism of nature during the Enlightenment” (Oosthoek) and moreover “against the material changes in society, which accompanied the emerging and expanding industrial capitalism” (Oosthoek).

Peter Kitson said that nature is often understood as the basis and origin of all life and deeds. Therefore, nature demonstrates a religious aspect and is an expression of divine, in the broader sense (320). As a result, our world, which includes nature as well, is worth protecting, for the reason that we were and are part of it.

Poets of the second generation often debate the fact that a combine with nature could accomplish transcendence (328). Transcendence defines the transition from reality to a conceptual world (Davidson 26). The most frequent transition in poetry might be the end of life, which connotes the way into the world of death. However, there are other transitions, during the romantic period, which play an important role. For instance, the alternation from reality to dream, spirit worlds or to art, and from human society to nature (26).

Nature creates a range, which provides protection and salvation for those who failed in society. Moreover, another fact cannot be ignored, namely that nature is not always seen positively. One could as well argue that nature is threatening because it often turns directly against humans, destroys their possessions or even their lives (Stillinger and Lynch 11).

2.1.1 The Importance of Individualism and Subjectivity

The romantic era was also known as the period of the industrial revolution. Taking a closer look at the revolutionary aspect, it can be determined that industrialism might cause the change in society. Peter Kitson claimed that a new working class including all men, women and children, who labour in manufacturing companies, was established. He said that the overall income in these industries was low, and the working hours unpleasant as well as the working conditions. This newly formed working class was apt to see themselves as combating high taxes, and moreover, the rules and code of conduct, defined by the aristocratic society. Also, their primary objective was not to achieve contentment in working and being a member of the working class, but rather to have a sufficient income to provide their families with food (312).

The industrial revolution brought up a society, in which every man had to fight for themselves. The working class is not merely the only one who tried to be successful through individual objectives but also artists. In this context, I mainly focus on authors who were very ambitious to earn money through their works. By writing poems, novels or other texts they found a way to express their individualism which is, on the one hand, their distinctive style of writing and, on the other hand, their personal feelings and thoughts (Stillinger and Lynch 7).

Romantic poets often saw themselves as a central, solitary figure who are in turn the nonconformist outcasts, engaged in long quests and search for the solution of their dilemma. It was an essential aspect, during that time, to oppose the mainstream and to follow individual thoughts, ideas and emotions. Moreover, the poets saw themselves as a natural genius or superior artist who have the highest status in mankind and therefore have a social responsibility (11-15).

2.1.2 Imagination as a Way to “Beauty and Truth” over Reason and Intellect

The term imagination and the related concept of phantasy play a decisive role in the theory of the romantic era and is moreover a significant contrast to the Age of Enlightenment which focused on the power of reason (Kitson 317). Hereafter, I would like to explain to what extent the imagination is linked to the poet John Keats.

In a letter of Keats to George and Georgina Keats, it becomes apparent that imagination offers the possibility to experience fascinating encounters and adventures to the poet which, in turn, will be refused to ´non-poets´:

I feel more and more every day, as my imagination strengthens, that I do not live in this world alone but in a thousand worlds – […] I am with Achilles shouting in the Trenches, or with Theocritus in the Vales of Sicily. (Keats qtd. in Sydney Colvin 73)

From the quote, we can note that Keats believes the imagination to be the supreme power and the highest state of creativity. He uses his imagination to develop a connection and relation to the objects he observes or thinks of. John Keats escapes from his thoughts and immerses himself into a poetic and creative world. This process is also known as negative capability, a term which he described in a letter to his brothers Thomas and George, in 1817:

I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason […] (Keats qtd. in Stillinger and Lynch 942)

This condition is the only one which leads to real happiness and beauty because the poet can accept the fact that not everything in the world, and particularly in nature, can be explained. For Keats, every poet needs to be capable of being open-minded to these unexplainable aspects. As Maqsood Patteeri mentioned, it is not reprehensible to be passive to a certain extent, because then one gets the chance to let what is mysterious or uncertain to remain just that (Patteeri). A tireless search for a reason only achieves one thing namely that one loses sights of the essentials – beauty and truth. John Keats described his expectations of other poets in a letter to John Taylor in 1818:

[…] 2nd Its touches of Beauty should never be half way therby making the reader breathless instead of content: the rise, the progress, the setting of imagery should like the Sun come natural natural too him – […]. That if Poetry comes not as naturally as the Leaves to a tree it had better not came at all. (Keats qtd. in Stillinger and Lynch 944)

It seems as if he has a clear concept in mind of how poetry works and to what extent a poet should be. This axiom of poetry, described in the letter, is fundamental because it shows the process of imagination that all poets need to pass through to see the beauty and truth of the things. This way is a natural instinct; a poet should possess because otherwise, it is not necessary to devote oneself to the process of imagination anyway.

Both terms, beauty and truth, had great importance for Keats, which we can again read in his letters. The first letter, from 22 November 1817, is addressed to Benjamin Bailey and Keats wrote:

I am certain of nothing but of the holiness of the Heart’s affections and the truth of Imagination - What Imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth - whether it existed before or not. (Keats qtd. in Stillinger and Lynch 940)

Later in December 1818, he wrote another letter to George and Georgina, in which he said: “I never can feel certain of any truth but from a clear perception of its Beauty – […]” (Keats qtd. in Sydney Colvin 80). By writing these sentences, John Keats shows his close relation to the terms beauty and truth. He gains an insight into the persons or objects he imagines and while doing, he is capable of finding the true nature in them. All things, which he discovers through imagination, are accepted as truth and this truth, in turn, is called beauty. Furthermore, beauty is not an abstract phenomenon, but a concrete one which can be grasped by all senses and John Keats wants to live a “life of Sensations rather than of Thoughts” (Keats qtd. in Sidney Colvin 22). All in all, one could argue that without imagination, the reality is confined to ugliness which John Keats seems to escape of. Imagination, in the eyes of Keats, is a creative power which automatically leads to truth and again to beauty. Their recognition is an act of instinct and intuition which can only be performed by imagination.

Following the poets of the romantic generation, scholars have argued, that one has to distinguish between two types of poets. The first one is called the objective - and the other one the subjective poet (Hudson 102 - 103). The former is the one who is not able to ignore the legitimate concerns and therefore disregards the feelings that uncertainty and mystery creates. Objective poets present their material in an impersonal and less emotional way (103). The latter is a more subjective or sentimental poet who presents his material together with his interests, beliefs and feelings (Nünning and Nünning 49). He is able of negative capability, which, in turn, means that the truth and beauty found in the objects or persons, is necessarily subjective. According to the gathered aspects, one could conclude that John Keats is primarily a subjective author.

2.2 “Ode on a Grecian Urn”

The poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn” by John Keats, written in 1819, features five stanzas, each with ten lines written in the form of a constant quatrain and a varying sestet (Keats qtd. in Stillinger and Lynch 905-906). Each stanza begins with an “abab” pattern, whereas the subsequent lines are varying. The first and firth stanza end with a “cdedce” pattern, the second with “cdeced” and the third and fourth stanza end with “cdecde”. This rhyme scheme is also known as a “Miltonic sestet” (PoetAndPoem). The meter of the poem is in iambic pentameter, except for the eighth line of each stanza which is in iambic trimeter. Each line contains ten syllables, with an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one.

The central figure of the poem is an ancient Greek pot, which is artfully decorated and covered with illustrations that show reliefs of Dionysian ecstasies (Hilton 105).

The lyrical I of the poem addresses the urn, moreover, describes and analyses it. The urn´s sides show different images and the speaker of the poet gets bogged down in details. He tries to comprehend the story behind these pictures which all pursue another purpose and theme.

The first theme which is indicated through the paintings of the urn is immutability. John Keats wrote: “Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave/thy song, or ever can those trees be bare” (l. 24-25). The lyrical I is taken with the couple underneath the tree which is frozen in time. The tree, as well as the couple, will remain unchanged as long as the urn survives. The tree under which the young couple is sitting will never lose its leaves for the reason that the seasons on the urn will never change. It will always be springtime in the world of the urn. Another example for this immutability can be found in the following line “Ah happy, happy boughs! That cannot shed” (l. 31). The innocent world depicted on the urn is, and will always be, unaffected by change and the ups and downs of life in human reality. It stays unaffected by the suffering which results out of changes, for instance, industrialism during the 19th century. Based on the analysis above, we know that John Keats is a chameleon poet and, for the reason of his imminent death, longing for being frozen in time to preserve his true self.

As we analyse the poem, it becomes evident that the ode includes the concept of transcendence, namely the one from reality into the eternal world of art. The speaker gets bogged down in the infinity of the urn. The ancient urn, to which the speaker is talking, serves as a source of inspiration. The urn is the one that remains longer than mankind would ever live, and therefore, has the chance to repeat its story to future generations watching its illustrations.


1 Citations at the end of a paraphrased section always refer to the complete preceding paragraph

Excerpt out of 24 pages


Representations of Nature in Romantic and Contemporary Poetry. A Comparison of John Keats and Kathleen Jamie
Technical University of Braunschweig
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
New Nature Writing, Kathleen Jamie, John Keats, Poetry
Quote paper
Lisa Gribbohm (Author), 2018, Representations of Nature in Romantic and Contemporary Poetry. A Comparison of John Keats and Kathleen Jamie, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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