John Keats as A Poetic Artist

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Keats: A Poetic Artist

      John Keats was a conscious artist and his poetry, apart from its other qualities, is marked by its artistic workmanship. He wrote rapidly, and many of his happiest phrases came to him in the flush of inspiration; still he carefully reviewed his work, and made alterations, where necessary, to give his conceptions the desired shape. “Keats’s sureness of touch in the corrections of his verse reveals a rare sense of the consummate artist.” Though poetry came naturally and spontaneously to him “as leaves to a tree”, yet he felt that poetic composition needed application, study and thought, and with regard to many passages of his works he took considerable pains to shape his verse.

Development of Keats’s art

      The art of Keats developed quickly from the immaturity of Endymion to the finished excellence of the Odes; this speedy development was guided by his sure poetic and artistic instinct Endymion in spite of its admirable passages, ‘‘represents the error of an undisciplined genius.” The poet (says Cazamian) is dazzled by his own ardor, and diffuses his attention over mere details, without caring for a sense of the whole. Endymion shows the early immaturity of Keats’s art, though there radiates out of it a genuine poetic enthusiasm. Its style is often artificial; it is loaded with elaborate ornaments, and shows over-refinement of profusion. This exuberance of fancy, bringing with it the uncertainty of touch, did not last long. Some of the sonnets, which followed Endymion, reveal the poet’s restraint. The long poem, Lamia though not free from, the early faults, represents a marked development in the poet’s art. Then came two of his masterpieces—The, Eve of St. Agnes, and Isabella or the Pot of Basil. Here also we find too much of ornamentation in The Eve, of St. Agnes, and an imperfect blending of diverse elements in the pathos of Isabella. The best of Keats’s poetry with its sureness of artistic touch is to be found in the Odes in La Belle Dame Sans Merci, in the first version of Hyperion, and in some of his sonnets. Here we find the restraint and discipline of classicism combined with the ardor and spontaneity of romanticism. “Nothing, could be more truly Romantic,” says Oazamian, “nor could the very figure of antiquity be animated with more concrete life” than the Odes of Keats.

Pictorial art

      The most characteristic quality of Keats’s poetic art is power to paint pictures by means of words. His poems may be said to have been painted with words. His words and epithets call up vivid pictures to the mind: “beaded bubbles winking at the brim; anguish moist; full-throated ease; soft conched hushed, cool-rooted flowers fragrant eyed," The abstract ideas in Keats’s poetry assume a concrete, corporeal form; for instance, he gives a concrete living image to express the idea of earthly joy which is transitory;

Joy whose hand is ever at his lips
Bidding adieu.

      He portrays autumn as a person:

Sitting carelessly on a granary floor,
Her hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind,
Or on a half reaped furrow sound asleep
Drowsed with the fume of poppies, while her hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers.

      The poetic equivalent for emotion with Keats is commonly a picture; he hardly expresses a thought or feeling in abstract terms; his thought leaps into visual forms. The chili of winter is thus expressed by means of picturesque images:

St. Agnes’ Eve—Ah, bitter chill it was:
The Owl, for all his feathers was a cold,
The hare limp’d trembling through the frozen grass
And silent was the flock in woolly fold

Imaginative phrases

      Keats had the gift of making what Bridges calls “imaginative phrases.” This gift is the very real of his poetic birthright. It is indeed a rare power, possessed only by the greatest poet; it is the power of concentrating all the resources of language on one point, and thus producing a happy expression which not only satisfies the aesthetic imagination but surprises the intellect with a new aspect of truth. It is for the possession of this power that Keats has been likened to Shakespeare, for Shakespeare is of all poets the greatest master of it. In Keats we find “imaginative phrases”, which have the power to delight the aesthetic sense and also surprise the intellect by their aptness;

‘The journey homeward to habitual self”.
“My sleep had been embroidered with dreams”.
“These green-robed senators of mighty woods,
Tall Oaks”.

      Keats was a lover of fine phrases, and his poetry is full of phrases that haunt the imagination by reason of their aptness, and power of suggestion, and music. These phrases are so many bright gems that sparkle in the background of lovely verse:

“Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind”.
“With beaded bubbles winking at the brim”.
“There is a budding morrow in midnight”.,
“And Madeline asleep in lap of legends old”.

Use of Colour

      “Keats,” says Hewlett, “not only recovered in poetry the almost forgotten splendor of color, but used it as a master-craftsman.” He had used different kind? of colors with splendid effect in The Eve of St. Agnes. Old Angela takes Porphyro to “a little moonlight room”, and then comes the first note of strong color:

Sudden a thought came like a full blown rose
Flushing his brow, and in his pained heart
Made purple riot.

      The poem breaks into rich colors when the chamber of Madeline is described:

Full-on the casement shone the wintry moon
And threw warm gules on Madeline’s breast,
As down he knelt for heaven’s grace and boon:
Rosebloom fell on her hands, together prest,
And on her silver cross soft amethyst,
And on her hair a glory, like a saint.

      The color of love is suggested delicately in the thought of Madeline:

Blinded alike from sunshine and from rain
As though a rose should shut and be a bud again.

      It is in The Eve. of St. Agnes that Keats freely used splendid colors to heighten the effect of romance. The ballad of La Belle Dame Sans Merci provides a contrast. Here we have the whiteness of lily on the brow of the unfortunate knight and the rose on his cheeks is also withering away. In place of the rich color of The Eve of St. Agnes, we have in La Belle the parlor of sickness and death:

I saw pale kings and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
They cried La Belle Dame Sans Merci
Hath thee in thrall
I saw their starved lips in the gloom
With horrid warning gaped wide,
And I awoke and found me here
On the cold hill’s side.
And this is why I sojourn here
Alone and palely loitering
Though the sedge is withered from the lake
And no birds sing.

Music of Keats’s verse

      Keats was a conscious artist in the matter of producing musical effects in his verse. He consciously used language as Spenser, the Elizabethan poets, and Milton had used it, employing all its resources to make his verse musical. He frequently uses alliteration, but it is used with the sure tact of an artist, so that it contributes to the music of his verse: “the marble men and maidens’’, the winnowing wind “fast-fading violets covered up in leaves”. In his Odes, vowels are artistically arranged so that they do not clash with one another; they bear the burden of the melody, and are interchanged, like the different notes of music, to prevent monotony. Many are the devices employed by the poet to make his verse musical, one of them being to make the sound echo the sense. The most remarkable example in Keats of sound echoing the sense is to be found in the line:

The numerous haunt of flies on summer eves.
In the line
Thou watchest the last oozings, hours by hours.

Keats’s poetic art at its best in the Odes

      The peculiar excellence of Keats's poetic art consists in his unfailing sense of proportion and balance. The main fault of Endymion is the absence of this quality; in the Odes, this fault is completely eliminated; in fact Odes show Keats’s poetic art at its best, with their balance, economy, emotional intensity and logical evolution of thought. The Ode to Nightingale starts with the poet’s intense emotion of joy produced by the song of the bird. He longs to leave this world of painful realities and fly to the world of the nightingale. But how? He first thinks of a draught of vintage, rejects it and uses the viewless wings of poesy to fly and chant the world of the nightingale. He is so very happy that would not like to come back to the world of realities. He thinks it rich to die at this moment, hearing the song of the bird. The song of the bird reveals to him for a moment the eternity of beauty but this vision does not last - he comes back to his “sole self”. The progressive evolution of thought is a marked feature of the poem. There is here perfect harmony and balance: “everything here co-obviates to enchant a sensual and dreamy contemplation—the outlines, the color, the emotion and the melody”. And, says Cazamfan, the most original character of poetic art displayed in the best Odes is its density; each epithet is extraordinarily rich in suggestion. Each of the images which have been carefully selected, opens up to our view a far-reaching perspective. In these poems of his maturity, the language sparkles with all the gems of speech, and the rhythms are perfectly adapted to the unity of impression.

University Questions

Keats has highly been praised for his felicities of word and phrase. Discuss with illustrations.

Write an essay on Keats’s imaginative quality of phrasing.

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