Form, Spirit & Experience of John Keats Odes

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Ode: its brief history

      When we sit down to trace the history of ode we find that to begin with this form of verse was Greek. Odes have been written in Latin poetry also. Greek and Latin poets used to write odes to invoke pagan gods and goddesses. Originally this form of verse was fundamentally objective and impersonal in character. In the literature of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance period the ode form, of verse remained more or less rejected or neglected. But in the eighteenth century Dryden and Pope, under the influence of Latin poets, revived the ode form of verse in English literature. In their hands also the form remained purely objective

      It was with Wordsworth that the ode form really underwent a basic change in character. He refused to remain confined to the condition of objectivity imposed on this form of verse. He used this form of verse as a mode of expression to give vent to his heart-felt experiences. Ode on the Intimations of Immortality is a classic example for this. Thus in the hands of Wordsworth, the ode reversed its character. From being purely objective, it became purely personal.

Ode form with Keats

      Finally, when ode form came to Keats it reached the height of perfection and subjectivity. It was primarily under the influence of Shakespear’s negative capability that Keats came to adopt this form of verse for the later period of his literary career. He wanted to attain that perfection in negative capability which Shakespeare had achieved in his dramas, but Keats found that instead of drama, the ode form of verse was best suited to his purposes. So he did in odes what Shakespeare had already done in dramas. For him, the negative capability was a capability “When a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” To put it in the language of a lay man, negative capability is a capacity to negate one’s individual self and to assume the very personality of the person whom the writer wants to portray. It is a capacity to be like water, with no color of its own, but capable of assuming any color that it is put into. Keats has been able to acquire this negative capability in his odes and this is his individual contribution to this form of verse. Now it shall be in. fitness of things to study a few odes of Keats in the light of their relationship to Keats’s negative capability because it is this capability that marks his odes with a stamp, so characteristically Keats’s own.

Keats’s handling of negative capability in his Odes

      In Ode, to a Nightingale Keats shows his deep sense of awareness for “the fever, and the fret” of men and women of the world of reality, a world

Where men sit and hear each other groan:
Where palsy shakes a few, sad last gray hairs,
Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;
Where but to think is to be full of sorrow.

      In a way Keats has been shocked by the very sad and miserable state of affairs prevailing around him. He has felt this shock right in the depth o! his heart. But in spite of all the sad background in his-mind, Keats does not fail to identify himself with the joys of the world—of the Nightingale and in it lay the success of Keats’s negative capability. He wants to “Fade far away” into the world of the Nightingale,

“not through envy of the happy lot,
But being too happy in thine happiness.

      The worries of this world fail to stop Keats from sharing with the Nightingale, the joys of the world of imagination. At the same time he enjoys the beautiful natural surroundings in which the Nightingale lives. He has been altogether successful in setting the two worlds the real and the ideal, the transient and the eternal, in a very interesting and brilliant presentation, side by side.

Ode on a Grecian Urn’: a study in contrasts

      Same is true of the Ode on a Grecian Urn, Keats is acutely aware that in real life everything is short-lived and fleeting, but when he looks at a beautiful piece of art, the Urn, he is all praise for its artistic worth which has lent a touch of immortality, not only to the Urn itself, but also to all that has been carved upon it, the piper, the trees, the lover and the maidens. Even earthly objects have been immortalized just because they are there on a piece of art that has stood the test of time and which has been very beautifully named by Keats as the

“Still unravish’d bride of quietness” and the “Sylvan historian.”

“Ode to Autumn”—a single-minded mood

      Ode to Autumn is yet another poem depicting an entirely different mood of Keats, a mood of complete calm and serenity, a mood that sets his mind at rest and Keats is at peace with the world. He enjoys the “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness.” He is happy to think that soon all fruits shall be full:

“With ripeness to the core.”

      This once again reminds us of Ode to a Nightingale in which Keats enjoys to the full, the sweet fragrance of flowers, the white hawthorn, the fading violets and “the coming musk-rose, full of dewy wine.” Thus we have seen as to how rich is Keats’s variety of moods as depicted in his odes. Still more interesting is the fact that has been able to give expression to every mood with equal success. He has dealt with each one of them with full poetic justice. All moods have been put across with equal perfection of art and language.

      And this makes the odes of Keats new in themselves. All his odes are complementary to each other. One is a commentary on the other. For their real enjoyment they must be read one after the other. They are like a well-knit and closely inter-woven structure of different ideas and different moods but the different ideas and moods carry with them the unifying force of Keats’s perfect poetic skill. It is by virtue of this distinct balance of form and expression that Keats shall forever continue to be remembered as a writer of those odes that rank among the finest in English literature.

University Questions

“The Odes of Keats show an equal balance of form and experience.” Discuss.
“The great Odes of Keats stand alone in literature new in form and spirit and owing nothing to any predecessor.” Elucidate.

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