Development of Arts in John Keats Odes

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      The tale of Keats’s development from his feeble poetic beginnings to the magnificent odes is one of the great stories of literary history. It is remarkable that this achievement is contained in four years. The development, by necessity because of the short period of time, may be incomplete. But the pattern is nevertheless pronounced. In Keats’s work, beginning from 1816 and culminating in 1821, we see the growth of a high poetic intelligence.

Conscious effort towards perfection

      Keats’s development towards a higher perfection in art was the result of hard effort and ceaseless struggle accompanied by a tough critical awareness. Faults in technique and emotional tone are gradually but steadily corrected; harmful models are rejected for better ones; subjectivity gives way to a considerable degree of objectivity; and the belief of dream and fancy as being the repository of Truth and Joy is rejected in favor of the reality of pain and suffering. Pure sensuousness is discarded, and in its place comes a rich contemplative sensuousness — where the “sensations” themselves become inextricable from thought.

Early-stage: luxuriantly sensuous and extravagantly emotional

      The earliest poetic efforts of Keats, published in 1817 are clearly experimental and immature, overflowing with extravagant phrases and Spenserian imagery. Indeed, in these poems there is. great evidence of the “realms of gold” traveled in by the poet. However, at this early stage itself, there is evidence of promise. I Stood Tiptoe, Sleep and Poetry and On First Looking into Chapman's Homer stand out in proof of the germinating genius. Spenserian imagery and Elizabethan conceits notwithstanding, the two poems mentioned earlier show the presence of the poet’s soul. Throughout this first volume of poems we feel some ecstasy of youthful power, tremulous expectation and half-fledged confidence. In the sonnet on Chapman’s Homer, we have the perfection of words, excitement of thought and discovery which make the poem the first entirely successful poem Keats wrote very early in his poetic career. But, on the whole, in this early volume of poems, we find Keats luxuriating in the sensuous beauty of the very concrete physical world. There is plenty of alliteration in the manner of Spenser abuse of double rhymes, jarring vulgarities and avoidable ornateness.

‘Endymion’: its significance in Keats’ poetic development

      In Endgmion (1818) Keats’s first long narrative poem, we see the cumulative influences of Spenser, Mithon and Wordsworth. The poem is obviously immature, not only because of faulty technique, but because it reflects the poet’s uncertain grasp of experience. The design is confused and there are purple patches of incompletely assimilated poetical influences.

      Endymion is profuse in faults. But it is based on a view of love and life which is important in the understanding of Keats’s mind and art. Endymion turned out to be a major factor in the poet’s creative development. In this poem, at this stage of his poetic career, Keats saw ultimate truth in nature’s charms, passions of love and the pleasures of fancy. Imagination is seen as the ultimate truth. This view was to gradually change into something more mature, more understanding and more comprehensive.

Towards technical maturity

      The poems published in 1820, of which the most famous are Lamia, Isabella and The, Eve of St. Agnes, show a development towards restraint in adornments and embellishments. There is greater strength and discipline in expression. The Eve of St. Agnes shows a marked improvement in techniques over Keats’s earlier work. Isabella is more or less a failure. Lamia, though unequal in parts, is yet polished and unified in tone compared to earlier work.

Out of the infant or thoughtless chamber

      We must recall one of Keats’s letters in which speaks of human life as a “Mansion of Many Apartments”. He calls the first “the infant or thoughtless chamber”, which is left for the “Chamber of Maiden-Thought’, which is full of pleasant wonders. But amidst this delight is born the vision into the “heart and nature of man” and the darkness of misery and pain.

On the threshold of recognizing “Misery and heart-break’’

      Keats continues and advances to explore further the experiences he had already entered. He attempts in his poems written after the first stage to evaluate the relations of visions to reality, of “romance” to fact, and of oblivion to the pains of life. He is, in fact, standing in his second chamber of maiden-thought, on the threshold of recognizing pain, sickness and oppression, but he is wavering before the darkness. In Endymion he takes refuge in the enchantment of unreal ctive pleasures; in Isabella and The Eve of St. Agnes in romance. Hyperion presents the shift from individuality to impersonality and the grandeur and breadth of conception Keats looked for. In this poem left incomplete, Keats has clearly grown towards the recognition of permanent human problems and experiences.

Gaining maturity of vision; Impersonality

      In Lamia we see Keats concerned with the fragility of love and the impermanence of human happiness in general. Keats has grown to the realization that the world of imagination may be a source of joy but it is also deceptive.

      The Fall of Hyperion marks the next, tragically final stage of Keats’s development. The poem is a fragment, but it marks in many ways the height of Keats’s achievements. The vision in this poem is not opposed to life, nor more enticing than life. There is no escape here; there is, instead, a compulsion, as a poet, to come into contact with a more terrible and more truthful reality than what is available in mundane existence. What is important, however, is that Keats has been able to transform personal suffering into a universally relevant experience. Suffering and death are given their accepted place in a comprehensible scheme of values. The poet’s power lies in presenting suffering so that ordinary human beings feel only wonder. The Fall of Hyperion, though a fragment, reaches the profound impersonality of tragedy. Keats has recognized the need of accepting suffering and disciplining the heart in the face of harsh reality. Imagination is still the repository of Truth, but that Truth has an inextricable mixture of joy and pain. But Hyperion is a fragment and reaches no resolution.

The Odes: apex of Keats’s poetic career

      In the great Odes, which on their own present a pattern of development in Keat’s poetic art, we find the true voice of the mature Keats. In theme and technique, they are, perhaps, the apex of his poetic career. They are given an enlarged and more complicated dimension as compared to earlier work because of Keats’s own enlarged vision of human experience. The Odes dramatize the central dilemma of dream and actuality most effectively. But the passion is controlled, even in the voluptuous Ode, to a Nightingale. The craving to fade “away” is, however, realized to be a wishful yearning — a delusory “waking’ dream”. On a Grecian Urn is a perfect poetic expression of the insight into the vital differences between life, which pays for its unique reality by satiety and decay, and art, which is not “real” but charms by it permanence of beauty and imagined experience. However, art is, after all, “Cold pastoral”. In the Ode on Melancholy, Keats associates joy with beauty that must die. It accepts the impermanence of beauty and joy as inevitable. But there is a tinge of sadness in this acceptance. In To Autumn, the acceptance of mutability is calm, without any sadness, for Keats has archived the recognition that it is all a part of a larger and richer permanence. This permanence is the continuity of life itself, in which the impermanence of the individual existence is one tiny aspect of a vast deathless pattern.

      In the Odes, Keats has combined “sensations” with thought; here he thinks. with his senses, as a critic has aptly observed. The sensuousness of On Melancholy or To Autumn can hardly be missed, but it is not indulged in for its Own sake, but in combination with a deep meditative vision of life’s reality.


      Keats’s poetic development is centrally recognisable. From a purely romantic egocentricity, he shows a movement towards objectivity. He progressed, remarkably fast, towards his poetic ideal of “Negative Capability”, which he achieved to a great degree in To Autumn. From a purely sensuous response to life (and nature), passing through the transitory period of a desire to escape the reality of life, Keats has arrived at the recognition that brute facts are to be faced and one has to come to terms with them.

University Questions

Write a brief essay on Keats’s development from a sensuous to a deeply contemplative poet.
“With the great Odes, we are probably at the apex of Keats’s poetic power”. Trace the evolution of Keats’s art till the achievement in the odes.
“We can perceive a pattern in the development of Keats’s poetry.” Write a critical note on his development as a poet.
Comparing his earlier poems with the Odes of Keats, one critic remarks that they (the Odes) “are enlarged, complicated by a dimension of human experience, unknown to the former”. Discuss the quality of the art of the Odes in the Jight of this view.
Trace the development of Keats’s mind as reflected in his poetry.

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