Theme of Inner Conflict in John Keats Odes

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Element of drama

      When we study the Odes of Keats, the very first thing comes in the mind is their dramatic quality. By drama we essentially mean tension and conflict. The Odes are a running commentary on Keats’s poetic state of mind that always suffered from the pulls of reality from one end and those of imagination from the other. He hanged on the balance between the bitter realities of this world “where but to think is to be full of sorrow” and the happy world of the Nightingale which has remained absolutely untainted by the fret and fever of the world of Man. This, in brief, constitutes the fundamental problem of the Odes of Keats and the same lends to them the dramatic value that is characteristically their own. Now we shall take a few of his Odes, one by one for a detailed study of the subject before us.

Temporal and the eternal

      In the Ode to Psyche, Keats invokes a goddess who is basically dramatic in character. Psyche was a mortal first, but later she became a goddess i.e. immortal. Symbolically she stands between the real world which is temporary and the world of imagination which is permanent. The poet wants to raise a temple In honor of the goddess. In other words, he wants to widen the horizon of his imagination because he himself admits that the temple shall be built in “some untrodden region” of his mind. By widening the "horizon of his imagination, he shall be in a position to interact and communicate between the two worlds, the temporary and the permanent. This will also lead to the expansion of his body which has also been symbolized in Psyche. The whole process of interaction between the temporary world and the permanent world once again involves a tense - drama between pains of the real and joys of the imaginative.

World of joy and world of pain

      The Ode to a Nightingale two comparisons to make. The first is between the immortality of the nightingale, the bird that “wast not born for death” and the mortality of all that is human “where youth grows pale” “where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes or new Love/Pine at them beyond tomorrow.” The second comparison is between the miseries of the world of Man and the complete joy and serenity of the world of the Nightingale. The poet wants to flee this world “where men sit and hear each other groan.” He wants to escape to the happy world of the Nightingale, but the realities of life are too naked and hard. He just cannot be with the Nightingale for long. A single word Torlom’ “is like a bell” for him and it tolls him back from the Nightingale to his sole self. Thus we find that with all the high drama in his mind Keats is a realist through and through. His escape is very short-lived. His feet are firmly rooted in the realities of the world of man, to which he must return after a brief stay in the world of imagination. He puts it in very unambiguous terms “Fancy cannot cheat so well.” This fact about his Odes makes them all the more lovable.

Reality versus Art

      The Ode on a Grecian Urn is among the masterpieces of Keats. The Urn, very much like the Nightingale has a monumental value. It is a piece of art and, therefore, it is immortal. Keats calls it the “still unravish’d bride of quietness”, a “Sylvan historian”. Like the nightingale the urn also cannot be trodden down by any hungry generations. The urn, by virtue of its permanent value, has the capacity to immortalize even the mortal events of the human world which stand depicted on the urn. There are young people in moments of their utmost sensuous ecstasy. The piper on the urn will always continue to pipe songs. The trees will never shed their leaves. The lover will always love the beloved, and the beloved on her part shall ever be fair. In direct contrast to this are the facts of human life where nothing is permanent where even beauty has only a fleeting value, but the urn has given a touch of the everlasting to beauty. The urn will always continue to give this message to Man “Beauty is truth, truth beauty that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” Still the fundamental fact remains that Keats must not escape to the world of the Urn or the world of the Nightingale for long. In the fourth stanza of the poem he realizes that with all its immortality with it, the Urn will remain speechless. It will remain empty and desolate and the desolation of the Urn, so much like the world ‘forlorn’ in Ode to a Nightingale once again brings him back on the hard crust of earth on which an average man lives.

Keats primarily a realist

      The Ode on Melancholy dwells primarily on two fundamental experiences of human life, the experience of joy and the experience of pain. Paradoxically enough he says that real melancholy is there in all that is joyful and beautiful. The paradox gets resolved when he says that Melancholy

“Dwells with Beauty, Beauty that must die;
-And Joy whose hand is ever at his lips
Bidding adieu.”

      The very idea of joy and beauty makes one melancholic because the duration of joy and beauty is very short. They must die one moment or the other. Thus we see that in this Ode Keats is purely realistic and there is no question of making an escape into a different world. The poem deals with purely human emotions of pain and joy.

Sensaousness of Keats

      To Autumn opens with a description of sensuous joys. The sun is going to

“Load and bless!
With fruit the vines.”

      The very words “load and bless” have a connotation of the physical (and if I am allowed to say, even sexual) with them, Keats also talks of “ripeness to the core.” But once again, as in the case of other odes of Keats, the dramatic value of this ode also lay in its contrast between the sensuous joy of the world of nature on the one hand and the hard facts of the world of man on the other hand. The summer that has helped trees “bend with apples” shall soon be replaced by autumn and then winter will set in, and this involves the natural cycle of seasons. This cycle is likened to the cycle of joys and pains in the life of man lends an essentially realistic character to the ode of Keats.


      After a study of these Odes, we can conclude that the essential feature of Keats’s Odes is their dramatic value. The drama revolves: around an interaction between the pains of the real world on the one hand and the joys of the world of imagination on the other. But we must like to emphasize again, the essential fact that Keats is a realist in and out. His stay in the world of imagination has always been brief and after every brief stay, he comes back to the world of Man of which he is a flesh of flesh and bone of bone.

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