Dramatic Structure of John Keats Odes

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      For making an analysis of the structure of Keats’s Odes, we will have to trace briefly the background against which the odes came to be written. A close study of the plays of Shakespeare had generated in Keats a very keen interest in the drama form of writing. It was his desire to write something objective and drama is one branch of literature which demands absolute objectivity on the part of its writer, but Keats found that his poetic talent was suited more to ode form than the drama form of writing. So, he made an effort to make his odes as effective as the plays of Shakespeare. No doubt he could not reach the perfection of Shakespeare’s plays but there is no denying the fact that he could give to his Odes, to a very large extent, a coloring of the drama. So it can be said that the basic structure of the Odes of Keats is dramatic.

Juxtaposition of the objective and subjective.

      When we study the Odes of Keats against this background we also find that there is slight deviation from the drama form of writing in the strict sense of the term. Whereas drama tends to be purely objective, there is an element of subjectivity also in the Odes of Keats but his Odes become all the more lovable by the very fact of this deviation. There is in them, a very interesting juxtaposition of the subjective and objective; but at the same time we find that as Keats progresses from one ode to the other he goes on becoming more and more objective and it is finally in Ode to Autumn that Keats shows his maturity at its highest point.

The personal and impersonal in Ode to a Nightingale and ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’.

      Keats fulfills the objectivity condition of drama in his two Odes—Ode to a Nightingale and Ode on a Grecian Urn. He has been perturbed by human agony. The palsy-shaken and the spectre-thin youth have snatched away from Keats, his calm of mind. His mental unrest speaks for itself when he finds this world as a place, no better than a jungle of thorns where but to think is to be full of sorrow. The existence of man has lost its meaning because the only obsession of men is to sit and hear each other groan. Still Keats has the essential dramatic force of negative capability to enjoy the sweet song of the Nightingale and the natural beauties of her world. He wants to join-the Nightingale not out of jealousy of her happy lot but because he Is too happy in her happiness. His awareness of human mortality does not fail him from adoring the permanence of the bird. Similarly in the case of Grecian Urn, he is full of eloquent praise for the Urn because it is a piece of art and therefore, immortal and perfect. The subjectivity of the odes lies in the fact that finally, in both the odes, Keats comes back to the world of reality. He finds imperfection in the Urn because it is in a static and motionless condition It is dead like a machine. He comes back from the world of the Nightingale when the sound of the word ‘Forlorn’ hammers upon his mind. Thus we see that there is a very curious mixing together of the personal and impersonal in these two odes.

Element of climax and Anti-climax in the Odes

      The other element of drama to be found in the odes of Keats is their drama-like development. A mood takes birth, it develops and reaches its point of pinnacle and finally it drops from that high poem to its lowest position. The climax is reached when the mood of escape goes to the extent of a wish for death and at that moment Keats finds it richer than ever to die but the word ‘forlorn’ reverts the whole process and the anti-climax takes place with Keats's return to the world of reality.

Intellectual development of Keats in his Odes

      In the end, we shall discuss still another factor by which the structure of Keats’s Odes assumes the shape of a drama and it is this factor that brings Keats so close to Shakespeare in the matter of literary achievement. We find that Keats undergoes various stages of development which a Shakespearean hero also experiences in the dramas. In the beginning, he is in the position of Hamlet. He is suffering from the strains of various pulls from different directions. He does not wish where to be and where not to be. He continues to hang between the world of reality and the world of imagination, he does not know which course of action to adopt, which world to choose and which to reject. But towards the end of his two Odes ‘Ode to a Nightingale and ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ we find that Keats has developed himself upto Hamlet’s state of ‘readiness’ in the fact that after his escape he is ready to accept the realities of life as they are, but this readiness of Keats falls much short of. King Lear’s ‘Ripeness’ and we find a Lear-like ripe Keats in his Ode to Autumn where the season of mellow fruitfulness, indeed attracts him to that extent to which the world of the Nightingale had fascinated him. Here Keats does not think of making an escape. He is already mature enough with the awareness that the reason of melba fruitfulness shall soon cease to be. He does not regret or mourn the going away of spring because he knows that the season to follow has its own music. In Ode on Melancholy also Keats shows an equal awareness of the final realities of life, how-so-ever stark they may be. He does not indulge in any ideal fabrication of beauty and joy because he already knows that both of them are temporary in character. With this awareness in his mind, Keats shows that with the fruits he also is full with:

‘ripeness to the core’.

      And here one is reminded of King Lear where it is felt that man must abide his going hence as his coming hither. Ripeness is all. “Coming hither” stands for life and ‘going hence’ stands for death and man’s ripeness lies in his acceptance of both of them. Man must live life in all its intensity, with all its plus points and minus points and every moment he must know that life must end into death. There must not be any child-like drifting between one world and the other. Keats stands the test of this ripeness in his Ode to Autumn. Thus we see that Keats undergoes a very systematic intellectual development of the hero of a drama and this fact lends a pure touch of drama to the structure of Keats’s Odes. With these impressions of his odes with us we can put it very safely that the odes of Keats are abridged dramas and the credit goes to, Keats for having put so much in so short a form of writing and having made it absorb all perfectly well and this leads to his odes the distinction that is there.

University Questions

Write a critical commentary on the structure of Keats’s major Odes.
Would you agree with the view that Keats’s artistic vision as embodied in the Odes is basically dramatic?
Discuss the view that the Odes of Keats are incipient drama; Give illustrations in support of your argument.

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