Seminar Paper, 2002
22 Pages, Grade: 3 (C)
2.1. Keats’s thought
2.1.1. Keats and Beauty
2.1.2. Keats and Nature
2.2. Keats’s Odes
2.2.1. Ode on a Grecian Urn
2.2.2. Ode to a Nightingale
2.2.3. To Autumn
This writing focuses itself on John Keats, who lived a short time between the 18th and the 19th century (he was born in 1795 and died in 1821), and his conception of Beauty and Nature. He is considered to have been of great importance at his time, since, by exalting Beauty, he grew as a source of inspiration to many English 19th-century poets, becoming the idol of such writers as Tennyson, Rossetti and the Pre-Raphaelites, as well as Oscar Wilde and the aesthetes, who saw in his cult of Beauty the exaltation of Art for Art’s sake. Like most of the literature of the Romantic period, Keats’s poetry mirrors the tension between actuality and ideal perfection, always trying to reach it.
After providing a short summary of Keats’s thought, three of his Odes will be analized, both from the point of view of their content and of their structure, thus letting the reader find the aspects already discussed and helping him to have them clarified.
Keats’s life was imbued with family tragedies (both his father and his brother Tom died), financial problems, hopless love affair (he was unable to marry Fanny Brawne because of his ill health) and professional setbacks. Moreover, he himself was killed by tubercolosis at the early age of twenty-five (in 1818 he accompanied his friend Charles Brown on a walking trip through Northern England and Scotland, but the physical fatigue, the rain and the strict diet porvoked him a violent cold which resulted in tuberculosis).
His poetry was influenced by the events occurred to him and, in fact, most of his poems are imbued with a sense of melancholy, death and mortality. In these moments of need, Keats turned instinctively to poetry, which he conceived as something absolute, his only reason for life (“I cannot exist without poetry”), and through which he might achieve a kind of divinity. Poetry, he thought, should spring naturally from his inner soul and should reproduce what his Imagination suggested to him; and what struck his Imagination most was Beauty, not the “intellectual beauty” of Shelley, but the one which reveals itself to his senses. Beauty, in fact, became the central theme of all Keats’s poems, since it was the only consolation he found in life. The memory of something beautiful brought him joy, as he wrote in the opening lines of Endymion: “A thing of beauty is a joy forever”. Beauty could be either physical (women, nature, statues, paintings) or spiritual (friendship, love, poetry), though they were to be considered together, since physical beauty was simply the expression of spiritual beauty and, even if the former might be subject to time and decay, the latter was eternal and immortal. Imagination recognizes Beauty in existing things, but also it is the creative force of Beauty. In the letter to his friend Benjamin Bailey Keats wrote: “I am certain of nothing but of the holiness of the Heart’s affections and the truth of Imagination. What the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth – whether it existed before or not”. The worship of beauty is the clue to everything in Keats and it is quite usual to find that Beauty and Truth often unite (see closing lines in “Ode on a Grecian Urn”).
Nature was one of the greatest sources of inspiration for Keats. Like Wordsworth he had a cult of nature, though, unlike him, he did not see an immanent God in it. He simply saw another form of Beauty, which he could transform into poetry without the aid of memory; he only enriched it with his Imagination. While Wordsworth thought that “sweet melodies are made sweeter by distance in time”, Keats believed that “heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter”, i.e.: beauty imagined is superior to beauty perceived, since the senses are more limited than the Imagination and its creative power. While Wordsworth´s love for nature is well explained by the fact that he grew up in the Lake District, thus being influenced by the suggestive landscape, it is harder to understand the connection between Keats and nature, since he was a city boy. For this reason, unlike Wordsworth, whose relationship with nature was spiritual, he looked at nature with the eye of the aesthete, recreating the physical world, including all living things.
Nature was a major theme among the Romantics, but Keats turned natural objects into poetic images. When he already knew that he was gonig to die, he looked back at childhood and realized that concrete contact with natural objects at that time was responsible for the postitive associations they continued to communicate in adulthood.
Nature led Keats to the formulation of a concept he called “negative capability”, described as the ability to experience “uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact or reason”, managing to negate personality and opening to the reality around. It is an intuitive activity of mind, a metaphysical process in which nature is a potential source of truth. That of the poet is a visionary activity, which uses natural objects as means to represent the poet’s ideas. Though a great number of images connected with nature in Keats’s poems are used only to represent experiences, thus becoming a symbol of the psyche.
In some sonnets we find in Keats’s journal-letter to George and Georgiana in spring 1819, he already wrote about the theme chosen for the great odes and in the poem Letter to Charles Cowden Clarke in 1816 he had already an idea of how to stucture an ode, since he described the “grandeur of the ode, / Growing, like Atlas, stronger from its load”. Prior to 1819 he had wrote some odes: “Ode to Apollo” (1815), “God of the golden bow” (1816) and “Mother of Hermes! And still youthful Maia” (1818), but 1819 was Keats’s “annus mirabilis”, when, in the spring, he composed almost all his greatest poems, published in 1820, except “To Autumn”, which was written in September. Most of these poems were impromptus, the result of a sudden inspiration, like an autumn afternoon, a nightingale’s song or a mood of dreamy relaxation after sleep.
Already at the age of fifteen, Keats began to be attracted by books and particularly by classical antiquity. Five years later, his friends the poet Leigh Hunt and the painter Robert Haydon took him to see the famous Elgin Marbles, the sculptures brought to England by Lord Elgin from the Acropolis in Athens and kept in the British Museum. Greek plastic art enchanted him and deeply influenced his poetry. He could sit for hours in front of the Elgin Marbles, since ancient Greek and poetry ment to him Beauty. Thus he turned to the classical world for inspiration, but he interpreted it through the eyes of a Romantic. Keats is inspired by an ancient Greek vase, which he sees or imagines, to investigate the relationship of art and life. The urn is a symbol of ideal Beauty captured by art, above all classical art. It has remained unchanged through time, just as ideal Beauty never changes. The figures on it are immortal too, but only at the price of remaining frozen at a particular moment in time, without completing their lives. The poet, though, does not try to identify with them; he only contamplates a work of art, as the romantic tradition of the ut pictura poesis stated, deriving meditation from it.
Keats seems to be saying that art, beacuse it can capture the ideal and the eternal, is, in a sense, superior to life, which must come to and end, and that man, who is naturally mortal, can only express his sense of the ideal and eternal through art. Nevertheless, precisely because art is not subject to the cycle of life and death, it remains curiously unsatisfying since it can never be made a concrete part of people everyday’s lives.
The trees, boughs, leaves (i.e.: natural elements) are functional; they suggest both permanence and absence of the variety and richness of seasonal change.
Thou still unravished bride of quietness,
Thou foster-child of silence and slow time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
5 What leaf-fringed legend haunts about thy shape
Of deities or mortals, or of both,
In Tempe ot the deals of Arcady?
What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
10 What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?
Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endeared,
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:
15 Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal – yet, do not grieve:
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
20 For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!
Ah, happy, happy boughs! That cannot shed
Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieau;
And, happy melodist, unwearied,
For ever piping songs for ever new;
25 More happy love! More happy, happy love!
For ever warm and still to be enjoyed,
For ever panting, and for ever young;
All breathing human passion far above,
That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloyed,
30 A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.
Who are these coming to the sacrifice?
To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
Lead’st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,
And all her silken flanks with garlands drest?
35 What little town by river or sea shore,
Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
Is emptied of this folk, this pious morn?
And, little town, thy streets for evermore
Will silent be; and not a soul to tell
40 Why thou art desolate, can e’er return.
O Attic shape! Fair attitude! With brede
Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
45 As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty, - that is all
50 Ye know on earth, and all ye need yo know.”
 Nov. 22, 1817
 „I muse with the greatest affection on every flower I have known from my infancy (...) It is because they are connected with the most thoughtless and happiest moments of our lives“, Letters to James Rice, 16 Feb. 1820.
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