John Keats: Literary Contribution to Romanticism

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      John Keats (1795-1821) was born, of somewhat humble parentage, in 1795. From an early period, his poetical bent displayed itself (studied Spenser, Chapman’s Homer, and the Renaissance poets). He was as fortunate in his friendships (e. g. Hazlitt and Leigh Hunt) as he was luckless in his love (Fanny Brawne). Keats was apprenticed to become a surgeon; but the call of poesy was too strong to be resisted, and from 1817 onward he lived the life of a man of letters. He left England for Italy, in 1820. He died of consumption early the next year. Some critics are of opinion that Keats died on account of bitter criticism of his rivals. But it is a wrong notion as he was made of sterner stuff. Keat himself remarked: Praise or blame has but a momentary effect on the man whose love of beauty in the abstract, makes him a severe critic of his own works. My own domestic criticism has given the pain without comparison beyond Blackwood or Quarterly could in Diet; and also when I feel I am right, no external praise can give me such a glow as my own solitary reperception and ratification of what is fine.”

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

Two Groups of Romantic Poets. All the six great romantic poets are classified into two groups. Wordsworth, Coleridge and Scott belong to the elder group while Byron, Shelley and Keats are of the younger group. Herford has beautifully compared the two groups of poets of the romantic period. As he says: “To the elder group, all three were deeply indebted and in various subtle and intricate ways, akin. Yet the younger group stand sharply and definitely apart, they are not merely of a younger generation but of a different age. The Revolution, which had profoundly disturbed the elder poets, had for the younger, already become history; the ideas and aspirations which Wordsworth and Coleridge first embraced, and then did battle with, and which Scott consistently abhorred, had passed into the blood of Byron and Shelley, and kindled humanitarian ardors even in the artist Keats. And they are definitely less English. Poetry, in their hands, loses almost entire touch with the national life and the historic tradition of England; nor was it mere accident that Shelley and Byron lived their best years, and produced their best poetry in Italy, or that Keats, in his London suburb, sang Endymion and the moon, of magic casements and perilous seas.”

      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.

      Keat’s Works. “When we remember that all his work was published in three short years, from 1817 to 1820, and that he died when only twenty-five years old, we must judge him to be the most promising figure of the early nineteenth century and one of the most remarkable in the history of literature.” The following poems are noteworthy which are briefly discussed:

      (i) His First Volume (1871). “When he was about seventeen years old, Keats became acquainted with the works of Spenser, and this proved to be the turning point in his life. The mannerisms of the Elizabethan immediately captivated him and he resolved to imitate him. His earliest attempt at verse is his Imitation of Spenser (1813), written when he was eighteen. This and some other short pieces were published together in his Poems (1817), his first volume of verse.

      This book contains little of any outstanding merit, except for some of its sonnets, which include the superb On first looking into Chapman’s Homer. The poems, which include Sleep and Poetry and stood tip-toe upon a little hill, show the influence of Spenser and, more immediately, of Leigh Hunt, to whom the volume was dedicated.

      (ii) Endymion (1818). This poem is divided into four books. The poem tells, and develops with a wealth of invention, the story of Endymion, the ‘brain-sick shepherd prince’ of Mt. Latmos, with whom the moon goddess (Cynthia, Phoebe) falls in love, and whom, after luring him, weary and perplexed, through cloudy phantasms’, she bears away to eternal life with her. With this story are mingled the legends of Venus and Adonis, of Glaucus and Scylla, and of Arethusa. The poem includes in Book I the great Hymn to Pan, and in Book IV the beautiful roundelay O Sorrow. In his preface, Keats described this work as ‘a feverish attempt rather than a deed accomplished.’ It is the work of an immature genius, the product of sensation rather than thought. The allegory, which is somewhat obscure, represents the poet pursuing ideal perfection and distracted from his quest by human beauty. The poem was violently criticized in Blackwood’s Magazine and the Quarterly. Regarding this poem, E. Albert says: “The work is clearly immature, and flawed with many weaknesses both of taste and of construction, but many of the passages are most beautiful, and the poem shows the tender budding of the Keatsian style — a rich and suggestive beauty obtained by a richly ornamental diction. The first line is often quoted, and it contains the theory that Keats followed during the whole of his poetical career.

      (iii) Keats Third Volume (published in 1820). A great advance of artistic power appears in the third volume. The first poem of this volume is Isabella, or The Poet of Basil (1818), which is the version of a tale from Boccaccio, and deals with the murder of a lady’s lover by her two wicked brothers. “The poem, which is written in ottava rima, marks a decided advance in Keats’s work. The slips of taste are fewer; the style deeper in tone; the tale is told with an economy and precision new in Keats; and the conclusion, though it is sentimentally treated, is not wanting in pathos.” 

      The next important poem of this volume is Hyperion (begun 1818, abandoned (1819). In this poem, 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 has not only many of the typically Miltonic tricks of style, but also much of the sonorous weight and dignity of its model. At the same time, it replaces the vigor and passion of Milton with a repose and charm of its own. As the poem progresses the Miltonic is gradually supplanted by a tone more truly Keats’s own, and the third book it ends abruptly, because, as Keats himself said, ‘it was too Miltonic. It is doubtful weather it could ever have been completed as it lacks the gripping action which must be the basis of the poem. Yet, as far as it goes, Hyperion is a successful work, which has been claimed by some critics as Keats’s greatest achievement. 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 and the poem shows clearly his growing control over structure and style.

      “At the end of 1819, Keats made an attempt to refashion his unfinished epic in The Fall of Hyperion, a Dream. Casting off the Miltonic style of the first version, Keats here creates a blank verse of his own, flexible, powerful, and sonorous, a blank verse which accords well with a serve and more thoughtful tone than is to be found in any other of his poems. It carries still further Keats’s philosophy of beauty, which lie now feels to be attainable only by those who have experienced pain. Over the merits of this revision, as compared with the original draft, controversy has raged. A comparison of parallel versions of the same passage will show that, in many cases, the splendor and magic of the first have gone. On the other hand, it may be argued that not only is the poem more truly Keats’s own, but that it shows a deeper height into human problems.”

      In this volume, there is another beautiful poem named Lamia. The story is taken from Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy. It tells about a beautiful enchantress. Lamia was the Latin name for a witch who was supposed to suck children’s blood, a sorceress. The story is that Lamia, a witch, is transformed by Hermes from a serpent into a beautiful maiden.

      The other poems of this volume are The Eve of St. Agnes and The Eve of Saint Mark. The first poem is based on popular superstition connected with the Eve of St. Agnes, which falls on January 20. A vigil is kept at night, and the feast celebrated on the following day. It is believed that a maiden who performs certain rites and observes certain forms may be vouchsafed in a vision a sight of her future husband. Around this superstition, the poet gives the story of a bold and adventurous young man who visits his beloved. He puts his life in great risk because his beloved belongs to a hostile clans He visits her chamber when she is laid asleep, soothed by the dreams of St. Agnes Eve. In the same year was written The Eve of Saint Mark, which remains unfinished. It has the fine pictorial work of The Eve of St, but the material is handled with more restraint. In style it is effortless, and free from Keats's fault of oyer-luxuriance.

      (iv) His Letters. “Unlike Wordsworth, Keats made no attempt at a systematic formulation of his views on his art. His Letters, however, give a clearer insight into his mind and artistic development than any formal treatise could have done. Written with a spontaneous freshness and an easy intimacy, they are the most interesting letters of their day. They reveal his profound insight into his own spiritual growth, and show how passionate was his love for poetry.” “I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the heart’s a flections and the truth of imagination. What the imagination seizes as beauty must be truth.

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