Blending of Classical & Romantic in John Keats Poetry

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The blending of the Classical and the Romantic in Keats

      Keats was one of the finest flowers of the Romantic Movement. His genius blossomed under the romantic breeze, and matured under the sunshine of classicism. By classicism is not simply meant the English classicism of the school of Pope but genuine classicism of ancient Greece.

      In Keats’s mature poetry, there is a harmonious blending of romantic ardor with classical restraint. We are not repeating the romantic aspects of Keat’s poetry here as we have already elaborated above.

Union of Classicism and Romanticism

      Keats derived or rather absorbed classical spirit from its original source—Greek mythology and Greek poetry. He did not know the Greek language, but he was a Greek in temper and spirit. He looked with a pagan delight, like the ancient Greeks, at the beauties and glories of nature. Nature was alive to him and “at any moment, as he walked among the olives and oaks, he might meet Pan with his sweet pipings and all the choir of fauns.” And this temper—half worship, half joy, this living sensibility, this power of seeing all things with a child’s amazement and forgetfulness was the temper of Keats, as it was the temper of the Greeks. Keats again, had a passion for beauty, like the pagan Greeks. Hence when he first made acquaintance with Homer through Chapman’s translation, he cried out in “wild surmise” one of his finest sonnets.

      Keats, in the ancient Greek manner, created his mythology of nature. Autumn to him is not only the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, but is alive with a spirit and personality:

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind:
Or on a half-reaped furrow sound asleep,
Drowsed with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spare the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner though dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cider-press, with patent look,
Thou watchest the lost oozings hours by hours.

      The Greeks were worshippers of beauty in all its forms and their works were marked by beauty, harmony, and order. The great quality of Greek poetry was its clarity, unity and just sense of proportion. There is no lack or dearth of imagination or inspiration in Greek poetry, but it was never loose or slovenly, all kinds of extravagances were curbed by a sense of order and restraint. Order and restraint were thus the essential elements of classicism; whereas spontaneity and freedom are the very essences of romanticism. The romantic poet submits to no rule but the supreme dictates of his imagination, and so the works of the romantics are often marked by looseness and extravagance.

      Keats’s earlier poetry had these faults but in the Odes, he affected a harmonious union between these two apparently contradictory elements—classical order and romantic spontaneity, classical restraint and romantic freedom.

      Just as Keats drew inspiration from medieval legends so he found an inexhaustible source of poetic inspiration in Greek mythology. Many of his poems owe their existence to the latter source—Endymion Lamia, and Hyperion. And his Ode, on a Grecian Urn, though romantic in its aspiration, is thoroughly Greek in. spirit. The beauty of art takes the imagination beyond the limits of thought to a world of eternity.

Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought, As doth eternity.

      This is a romantic temper. Then comes to Greek idea, reinforced by the passion of Keats, the idea of identity of beauty with truth. To the Greeks, nothing was truth but beauty, and Keats expresses the same truth with all the ardor of romantic passion:

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


      Keats’s mature style is marked by classical balance and restraint. He has cast aside the over-loaded diction of Endymion and The Eve of St. Agnes. The style of the Odes which mark the highest stage of Keats’s poetic maturity, shows a fine combination of romantic passion and classical restraint. They are remarkable for their Hellenic clarity as well as for their romantic richness:

The weariness, the fever and the fret,
Here, where men sit and hear each other groan,
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last grew hairs.

      Each word has its significance, and the whole picture comes before us with clearness. This style is classical:

Now more than ever seems it rich to die
To cease upon the midnight with no pain
While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad

      Here there is romantic suggestiveness and mystery. The nightingale song is the voice of eternity, and the poet longs to die in the hope of merging with eternity. There is, behind the expressed words, a world of mystery. This is a romantic style. The word ‘rich’ is infinitely suggestive—suggestive of the sensuous delight of the poet, his physical comfort as well as the soul’s ardent longing to escape the fever and fret of this world. Then there are those lines which condense the whole world of romantic imagination:

The same that oft-times hath
Charmed magic casements, openings on the foam
Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.

      The romantic imagination has lifted the poet far away from the nightingale whose song is the theme of the poem. At once the poet restrains himself:

Forlorn! the very word is like a bell
To toll me back from thee to my sole self.

      Here is a perfect example of classical restraint. The Ode to a Nightingale with all its romantic passion and ardor is nevertheless a supreme example of classical clarity and classical restraint

University Questions

Write a note on the blending of the classical and the romantic in Keats’s poetry.

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