Imagery or Pictorial Quality in John Keats Poetry

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      Keats is one of the greatest word painters in English poetry. The pictorial quality in his poetical work stands above all its other qualities. Picture follows picture in quick succession in his poems and each picture is remarkable for its vividness and minuteness of detail. In this respect, he is a direct descendant of Spenser. His images are concrete and stand in striking contrast with' Shelley’s images which are abstract and vague. The Eve of St. Agnes is literally full of pictures, we have the bare imping trembling through the frozen grass; the frosted breath of the Beadsman taking flight for heaven; the aged creature Angela “shuffling along with ivory headed wand; the little moonlight room, pale chill and silent as a tomb; Madeline on whose fair breast the wintry moon threw its light and whose rich dress came rusting to her knees, etc., each image is distinctly drawn and we are able to see it.

      The Ode to a Grecian Urn also contains vivid and distinct pictures. On the urn are painted images of a fair youth burning with passion and about to kiss a maiden, a melodist piping unheard songs, a priest leading a heifer for sacrifice to some altar. As we read the poem, these images actually appear before our eyes.

      While giving us the pictures of inanimate objects, Keats often gives them life and the power to feel, see and think so as to make his pictures more vivid. He tells of dead and senseless things in terms? of life, movement and feeling. In The Eve of St, Agnes, for instance he draws the pictures of the statues of kings and queens and represents them as capable of feeling cold:

The sculptur’d dead on each side, seem to freeze,
He passeth by and his weak spirit fails
To think how they may ache in icy hoods and mails,

      Again, he refers to the angels carved in stones and attributes to them the power to see:

The carved angels, ever eager eyes.
Star’d where upon their heads the cornice rests.

      Another point about Keats’s pictorial quality is that many of his pictures are sensuous in appeal. In other words, his pictures appeal to our sense of sight, sense of taste, sense of smell, sense of hearing, etc. Here he again reminds us of Spenser. Many of his pictures are colorful. In the richness of color, no picture can surpass Keats’s description in The, Eve of St. Agnes of a high window decorated with “carven images” and ‘diamonded with panes of quaint device’, with splendid colors like the colors of the wings of a tiger moth. The description of the delicious eatables arranged by Prophyro on a table in The Eve of St. Agnes, appeals to the senses of sight, smell and taste simultaneously: Propyhro puts can die apple, plums, jellies, manna, dates, serious on golden dishes and bright baskets of wreathed silver. In La Belle Dame Sans Merci we have the sensuous image of a lady whose hair was long, whose foot was light, whose eyes were wild, and for whom the lover made a garland, bracelets and fragrant zone.

      His pictures, too, are detailed and elaborate and show minute observations.

Nature of Keats’s imagery: as compared with Shelley

      In his illuminating book, The Imagery of Keats and Shelley R.H. Fogle has presented a very lucid and exhaustive treatment of this aspect of Keats’s poetry which we can touch upon only briefly. Speaking about Keats’s imagery Prof. C. L. Finney has observed: “His poetry is not only rich in line, color, light and shade and sound but it is also rich in images of the intimately physical sensations of taste, touch, smell, temperature, and pressure and in images of the organic sensations, such as hunger and thirst. Thus his imagery is both sensuous and comprehensive” In this regard Shelley differs from him not because he is less sensitive but because he deals with different materials and has a different temperament. Keats is earthly and arboreal while Shelley is aerial and etheral; the former fixes his gaze on the objects in all their varieties, but the latter either penetrates into the heart of things or tries to grasp thin substances like light, air, fire, fog and airy things. Keats’s imagery is organic, rounded and statuesque: here everything is solid and tangible, but Shelley has so sense of the body and his poetry is replete with airy forms glittering phantoms or geometrical shapes, figures and structures. Keats’s objects are generally in repose, a state of momentary suspension of life and motion and if there is any movement at all it is slow and gradual. But Shelley is a poet of impetuous speed and his lines and words, even the things in nature are always on the run. We pant after him breathlessly, but with Keats the movement of lines is slow, drugged, almost slumberous, we have to stop at every phrase, simple or compound epithets and not the plays of vowels and consonants which retard our steep. Shelley had a passion for the naked loveliness of things or the realm of light above and beyond this universe. Hence, he is a lover of things keen and piercing, sounds equally shrill and smell which kills the senses, the heat which burns and cold, piercing to the marrow. His surface is jagged and broken and he dwells upon the shattering force storms and oak-splitting power of lighting. The surface of Keats is always smooth and velvety; his cold is seldom keen and cutting and heat is warm and agreeable; there is no storm in his poetry save in casual references, but common sounds and earth-songs and breezes are there in plenty. He loves honey, breaks the grape of joy on his palate fine and hankers after a ‘beaker full of warm south’. His poetry is thick with fragrance, which becomes sacramental because he loves the incense, hanging about it in the temple, like a thick cloud:

He would taste the spicy wreaths
Of incense, breath’d aloft from sacred hills.

      A remarkable feature of Keats’s sensuous imagery is the fusion of different sensations and a subordination of other sensations to those of touch and taste. This is why his images are so solid, rounded and intense—‘like a molten ore sublimed by enormous pressure’. Touching with dazzled lips her starlit hands; incense-pillowed every summer night. Let the rose glow intense and warm in the air. She writh’d about, convulsed with starlet rain: taste the music of that vision pale; mid hush’d, cool-rooted Bowers, fragrant-eyed are only a few of the examples.

University Questions

Analyze the distinctive features of Keats’s imagery. Give illustrations from the prescribed poems you have studied.

Write a short essay on the pictorial quality of Keats, giving illustrations from the poems that you have read.

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