Characteristics of John Keats Poetry

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Unending pursuit of Beauty

      With a pure poet, the pursuit of beauty overcomes every other consideration. The poetry of Keats is an unending pursuit of beauty. He pursued truth indeed, but truth for him was beauty. He never intellectualized his poetry. He was gifted with extraordinary sensibility and had an ardent passion for the beauty of the visible world. He therefore cried, “O for a life of sensation rather than of thought.” (It may be mentioned here that Keats uses the word ‘thought’ in the sense of abstract reasoning or speculation.) His entire being was thrilled by the beauty of the world; nothing gave him greater delight than the excitement of his sense, produced by ‘a thing of beauty’. All his poetry is full of the sensuous appeal of beautiful things. To Wordsworth nature is a living being with power to influence the human mind, and carry a spiritual message. Shelley, though not a moralist, is an idealist—“The poet of the sky and the sea and the cloud—the gold of dawn and the gloom of earthquake and eclipse.” The world that he depicts and makes symbolic of human passions—is rarely the world that we know, but it is a world that he has intensely imagined. His grand description of the effects of the west wind, is a great poetry.

O Wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being.

      But the beauty and grandeur of the west wind goes beyond our actual experience. When we turn to Keats’s Ode to Autumn, we are brought into imaginative contact with beauty that we know. Autumn is represented by Keats by its familiar qualities: “mist and mellow fruitfulness”. Realism and truth inform every detail of the poem. Keats neither attributes moral life to nature, nor attempts to pass beyond her familiar manifestations. He, the pure poet that he is, sees and presents nature as she is, and his presentation has that magic quality with which his imagination has supremely endowed him.

Spontaneity and concentration of thought and feeling.

      Keats was a pure poet in the sense that in his poetry he was a poet and nothing else—not a teacher, not a preacher, not a conscious carrier of any humanitarian or spiritual message. His ambition was to become a poet, pure and simple and his ambition was fulfilled. Poetry came naturally to him, as leaves come to a tree; it was the spontaneous utterance of his powerful feeling. The poetry of Keats was based on his actual experience of life, and therefore it is marked by spontaneity and intensity. What he experienced and felt upon his pulse, he expressed. He actually listened to the song of a nightingale, and the music of the song actually transported him to the world of imagination. He attained the realization of eternity and truth in the beauty of the song, and he wrote the famous line, “thou wast not born for death, immortal bird”. Much has been written about the logical fallacy of the line, but what did the poet in Keats care? What he felt he wrote. Keats genuinely felt the thought that a beautiful thing also pleases, and so he wrote, thing of beauty is a joy forever. And because he felt the truth of what he wrote, it carries an instant conviction and is in itself a joy forever. In fact, the power of Keats’s poetry is due to intense concentration of thought and feeling.

Submission to the truth of life and experience

      Keats possessed what Bradley calls “the Shakespeare on strain”, and submitted to the truth of life. He knew that the cold wind and the hot sun were as essential as the fresh blown rose. The poetry of Shakespeare reveals the beauty of life; truth is beauty, it says. It accepts the world of men and women and accepts them as they are. This is also true of Keats. He accepted life as it is, joy and sorrow, happiness and melancholy—both exist side by side; if there is discord in life, it has its music too. A pure poet always submits to life, so that life is glorified through him. “Keats submitted himself” says Middleton Murry, “Steadily, persistently, unflinchingly to life” and had “the capacity to see and to feel what life is.”

      A pure poet feels and expresses his joy in beauty, but when he feels this joy, he realises also a new aspect of beauty, which is truth. In this identity of Beauty and Truth lies the secret harmony of the universe. Keats realizes this harmony when he emphatically says,

Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

      Beauty transcends individuals, time and space. For Keats. Beauty is truth. He arrived at this truth through ‘negative capability’ and through the realization of the necessity of pain and sorrow. A pure poet like Keats loves foul and fair, joy and sorrow, mean and elevated alike. He turns unflinchingly to life and human experiences, and by an act of imagination transmutes the bitterest human experience into beauty which is truth.

      We may in conclusion quote a few lines from T.S. Eliot to show the contrast between Wordsworth and Shelley on the one hand and Keats.

      ‘‘Wordsworth had a very delicate sensibility to social life and social changes. Wordsworth and Shelley both theorize. Keats had no theory, and to have one was irrelevant to his interests, and alien to his mind. If we take either Wordsworth or Shelley as representative of his age; as being a voice of the age, we cannot so take Keats. But we cannot accuse Keats of any withdrawal or refusal; he was merely about his business.” His business was that of a pure poet.

Pursuit of truth

      But Keats’s aestheticism was not only sensuous—it had an intellectual element. He was constantly endeavoring to reach truth through beauty; he had a conviction that “for his progress towards truth, thought, knowledge and philosophy were indispensable. But he felt also that “a poet will never be able to rest in thoughts and reasonings, which do not also satisfy the imagination and give a truth which is also beauty”. But in so far as they fail to do this, in so far as they are thoughts and reasonings, they are no more than a means to an end, which end is beauty—that beauty which is also truth. This alone is the poet’s end and therefore his law.” (Bradley). Keats was led to this conviction by the poetic instinct in him. He was more than Wordsworth or Coleridge or Shelley, a poet pure and simple.

Negative capability

      Keats has an impulse to interest himself in anything he saw or heard. He accepted it and identified himself with it “If a sparrow comes before my window,” said Keats, “I take part in its existence and pick about the gravel.” A poet, he says, has no identity. He is continually in, for and filling some other body. “Of the poetic character,” Keats says, “it has no self; it is everything and nothing. It enjoys light and shade; it lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated. It has as much delight in conceiving an Iago or Imogen. What shocks the virtuous philosopher, delights the chameleon poet.” This is the spirit of Shakespeare. Though Keats did not fully achieve this ideal, he was growing towards it. For Keats, the necessary quality of poetry is a submission to things as they are, without any effort to intellectualize them into something else. Keats and the nightingale are merged into one—it is his soul that sings in the bird. He was wholly in the place and in the time and with the things of which he wrote. He could be absorbed wholly in the loveliness of the hour and the joy of the moment. (He is fully thrilled by the beauty of autumn. He does not complain,

Where are the songs of spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too.

      This joy in the present, this absorption in the beauty of the hour—is one of the chief marks of his genius as a pure poet.

No moral teaching or didacticism

      Keats often says that the poet must not live for himself, but must feel for others, and must do good but he must do so by being a poet—not by being a teacher or moralist. He must have a purpose of doing good by his poetry, but he must not obtrude it in his poetry—that is, he must not show that he has a palpable design upon us. Keats says: “We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us. Poetry should be great and unobtrusive— thing which enters into one’s soul and does not startle it”. To make beauty, says Bradley, is his (poet’s) philanthropy. He must be unselfish; by refusing, that is, to be diverted from his poetic way of helping by his desire to help in another way. Hence there is no didacticism in Keats as there is in Wordsworth. There is no moralizing in The Eve of St. Agnes as there is none in King Lear; in both, the poets leave their works to speak for themselves.

Keats poetical achievement

      Keats’s influence has been very strong from Tennyson to the present time. His emphasis upon craftsmanship has had excellent following. Many a poet has been led through the example of Keats to perfect verse that might otherwise have been carelessly written. Keats also turned attention to richness of verse, unlike the simplicity of Wordsworth. Again, he taught a new use of the classics. Instead of finding in the classics models for restraint he found a highly colored romanticism. Restraint of form he did emphasize, but for his material, he chose the legends of Endymion and Lamia rather than the tales of Greeks and Romans of inspiring deeds.

      Keats’s greatest achievement, however, is in his presentation of pure beauty. Beauty itself was his interest, not beauty to point a moral or to carry a message. Keats had no lesson to teach. He did not want to call his readers’ attention to social wrongs as Shelley did; to the corrupt state of society as Byron did, to nature as a great moral teacher as Wordsworth did. Because of this lack of bias, his poems have an objective beauty which is especially attractive to young people. But to readers of all ages Keats sings enduring music.

      The underlying principle of all Keats’s poetic thoughts is this: “Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty”. In one of his letters, he says: “I have loved the principle of beauty in all things”. But his “passion for the beautiful” was not that of the sensuous or sentimental man, it was an intellectual and spiritual passion. There was a deep melancholy about him, too; pain and beauty were the two intensest experiences of his mind. “Do you not see”, he writes, “how necessary a world of pains and troubles is to school an intelligence and make it a soul?” Keats studied the Elizabethans, and “caught their turn of thought, and really saw things with their sovereign eye...He rediscovered the delight and wonder that lay enchanted in a dictionary” (Lowell). “There is something of the innermost soul of poetry in almost everything he wrote”. (Tennyson).

University Question

Write a note on Keats as a pure poet.

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