John Keats: Literary Contribution to Romanticism

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      John Keats, (1795-1821) the Adonais of Shelley's song presents a contrast of Shelley as a poet. Shelley was the poet of swift movement and impetuous energy - a poet who sought an immediate transformation of the social order. He was a dreamer and visionary. Matthew Arnold says of him: "He was an ineffectual angel beating his luminous wings in the void". The West Wind that sweeps away the dead leaves is the symbol of his poetry; the skylark who sings and soars is the symbol of his ideal. The substance of his verse is light, liquid and airy; his imagination is ethereal; his imagery is abstract and intangible; his words are winged. Keats found fault with Shelley for the thinness of his verse and urged him to "load every rift with ore". His verse moves with the slow leisurely pace; it has the full, close richness of the teeming earth, Shelley was the poet of inspired lyrics; Keats was the poet of odes.

Keats delighted in the contemplation of the beauties of Nature and life.
John Keats

      Keats delighted in the contemplation of the beauties of Nature and life. The past and the present were equally beautiful to him; for him "a thing of beauty is a joy forever" and for him also "truth is beauty, beauty truth." He seized upon beauty wherever it had been plentiful on earth - in Greek mythology in medieval legend in great poetry. The analytical science which destroyed the lovely legends seemed to him horrible. He was essentially the poet of the earth; he enjoyed the beauty of the earth with all his senses wide awake. His imagery was sensuous, concrete and real; his expressions were tangible and earthy. His poetry was abundantly sensuous, yet he was a reflective poet. His poetry indicated a contrast between the real world of sufferings and frustrations and the imaginative world of ideal beauty and love.

      Born in London in 1795, the son of a livery-stable keeper, John Keats received a very scanty education. He knew of Greek mythology only what he could learn from a classical dictionary and the marbles in the British Museum. In 1818 Keats published his poem Endymion written in couplets. It was a chaos of images and legends. It was harshly criticized in The Quarterly Review. But his poetic powers grew rapidly and by 1820 he had published a volume which included such masterpieces as Limia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes, and a fragment of the Hyperion. In Hyperion (begun 1818, abandoned 1819) Keats took up the epic theme of the primeval struggle between the older race of gods such as Saturn and Hyperion and the younger divinities such as Apollo. Both in style and structure, the poem is modeled on Paradise Lost. The blank verse is Miltonic. Book II provides us with the fullest exposition he was ever to give of his theory that first in beauty shall be first in might. He points out the contrast between a poet and a dreamer.

      Keats was ever maturing from a dreamer to a poet with the knowledge of life. The Eve of St. Ages (1819) is a fine normative poem which is a tale of the elopement of two lovers. Love scenes are more controlled than those of Isabella or the Pot of Basil. It is highly sensuous and decorative. Besides this, he wrote the odes Ode to a Nightingale, Ode on a Grecian Urn, To Autumn, Ode to Psyche, etc. which are the most exquisite expressions of his poetic genius. All these showed how Keats developed as a poet from sensuousness to contemplative habit of mind. Keats's work as he left it has a beauty that is absolute and wholly individual. The influences of Spenser, of Shakespeare, and especially of Milton can be felt in it but they do not dominate it. His genius like Shakespeare transmuted what he borrowed. He is again with Shakespeare in the fine felicity of expressions. His expressions are concrete, picturesque vivid and suggestive.

      The gift of literary word-painting Keats has few rivals in English poetry. And his influence on the later poets like Tennyson and the Pre-Raphaelite poets in this respect is immense. Keats did not have the imaginative idealism of Wordsworth, the metaphysical subtlety of Coleridge, the revolutionary theology of Shelley and the patriotic fire of Byron. But he had more poetry, more melody and more harmony than any of these great giants. Free from all moral dogma, his poetry has the most compelling enchantment for lovers of pure poetry.

      As a sonneteer, Keats ranks with the greatest English poets. He wrote sixty-one sonnets and of them some are worthy to be ranked with those of Shakespeare. After a strict adherence to the Petrarchan form in the 1817 volume, Keats turned to the Shakespearean form which suited him better. His sonnet Bright Star written at the end of his life testifies to his command over theme, structure and imagery. It is Petrarchan in form with a Shakespearean rhyme scheme.

      Among his other short poems, La Belle Dame Sans Merci is one of the choicest of the language. Like Coleridge, he would recapture the eerie supernaturalism of the middle ages with dreamy grace. In 1819, he collaborated in a drama Otho the Great and began another King Stephen.

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