John Keats Attitude Toward Nature in Poetry

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Keats’s Attitude to Nature

      Sensuousness is the key to Keats’s attitude towards nature. He looked with child-like delight at the objects of nature and his whole being was thrilled by what he saw and heard. The earth lay before him tilled, spread out with beauties and wonders, and all his senses reached to them with delight and rapture. Everything in nature for him was full of wonder and mystery—the rising sun, the moving cloud, the growing bud and the swimming fish.

Sensuous delight in nature

      Keats’s attitude towards nature developed as he grew up. In the early poems, it was a temper of merely sensuous delight, an unanalyzed pleasure in the beauty of nature. “He had a way”, says Stopford Brooke, “of fluttering butterfly-fashion, from one object to another, touching for a moment the momentary charm of each thing.....’’ He would let things flit in and out of the brain not caring to ask anyone to stay and keep him company, but pleased with them and his game of life.” His attitude was one of unthinking pleasure and enjoyment without thought. In the poem, “I stood tip-toe upon a little hill’’, the poet flits from one object to another, and sucks delight from each:

...the sweet buds which with a modest pride
Pull droopingly, in slanting curve aside
Their scantily-leaved and finely tapering stems.
Here are sweet peas, on tip-toe for a flight
With wings of gentle flush o’er delicate white,
And taper finger catching at all things
To bind them all with tiny rings;
Where swarms of minnow show the little heads
Staying their wavy bodies against the stream.

      This is a description of a summer’s day. Each object of nature brings delight to the poet and he paints a beautiful picture. Nature is to him a store of delight but there is no spiritual union between his soul and the soul of nature. The poet is enraptured by the beauties of Nature which have gratified and thrilled his senses, and he sings them with unalloyed, thoughtless joy.

Keats’s love of nature for her own sake: the physical beauty nature

      Keats loved nature for her own sake, and not for the sake of any idea that the human mind can read into her with its own workings and aspirations. He had no theory to illustrate or a moral to preach. His poetry is full of an enchantment which arises out of his deep enjoyment of the beauty that he finds in nature and life. “He had grown up neither like Wordsworth under the spell of lake and mountain nor in the glow of millennial dreams like Shelley”, but born and bred in London and Middlesex die was “gifted as if by some mysterious birthright, with an insight into all the beauties, and sympathy with all the life of the woods and fields.” Where Wordsworth spiritualizes and Shelley intellectualizes Nature, Keats expresses her through the senses. He is stirred to depths by the color and scent and music in nature. He feels and loves every mood of the Earth; and ‘‘so passionately did he love her with a love far more concrete and personal than Wordsworth or even Shelley that no other consideration impinges upon his work.” Wordsworth interpreted nature by the operations of his own strenuous soul; Shelley saw in nature a visible symbol of the mysterious universe; “Keats seeks to know Nature perfectly and to enjoy her fully, with no ulterior thought than to give her complete expression. With him no considerations of theology, humanity or metaphysics mingle with nature.”

Keats: Nature is a great consoler

      This temper of spontaneous joy changes with the coming of pain and sorrow in the poet’s life. He has seen his brother die and his love doomed to disappointment. The temper of the poet becomes grave and imaginative, and his note towards nature is mixed with sorrow, which seeks to lose itself in joy. Now there is deep spiritual union between the soul of the poet and the soul of nature. Nature does not merely gratify his senses-she now goes deep into his soul. In the joy of nature, Keats forgets his sorrow. This is the spirit that informs the Ode to a Nightingale. The poet has felt the burden of sorrow in his own personal life and the whole world is full of sorrow. But then there is the nightingale also in the world, and the nightingale is the very symbol of joy. The imagination of the poet is set aglow by the song of the bird, and he forgets his sorrow and joins the nightingale in spirit. This is the moment when nature, with her moon and stars and flowers, enters into his soul, and his soul is merged in nature. Keats and nightingale are one; it is his soul that sings in the bird, and he sings.

Keats’s absorption in the Beauty and life of Nature

      In the Ode on a Nightingale, there is sorrow. But Keats, an untiring worshipper of beauty, would not allow his personal sorrow to interfere with his pursuit of beauty. In one of his letters Keats writes: “The setting sun will always set me to rights, or if a sparrow were before my window I take part in its existence and pick about the gravel.”

      He enters fully into the life of nature, and does not impute his own feelings to her. He is completely absorbed in the momentary joy and movement of things in nature. He enters into the very soul of autumn season:

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;

      The poet is wholly in the time and with the things of which he wrote. He lives wholly in the present, and does not look back to the past or forward into the future. In the Ode to Autumn he asks,

Where are the songs of spring?
Ay, where are they?

      He answers, “Why talk of spring? We are in autumn.”

Think not of them,
Though has thy music too.

      “This joy in the present, this absorption in the beauty of the hour, this making of it a divine possession and losing in its loveliness the pain of life is one of the chief marks of his genius.”

Keats’s personification of objects of nature

      Like the ancient Greeks, Keats often presents the objects of nature as living beings with a life of their own. As Leigh Hunt said of him, “he never beheld the oak tree without seeing the Dryad.” The moon is Cynthia, the sun Appollo.

Keats’s detailed observation of Nature

      Keats’s observation of Nature is characterized by minuteness and vividness. Keats’s eye observes every little detail, and presents it with a mature touch. He has the knack of capturing the most essential detail and compelling our attention. His descriptions of nature are thus marked by a fine pictorial quality.

Keats’s mystic experiences in objects of Nature

      But there are inspired moments when the present beauty of nature with all its sensuous appeal gives him a fleeting vision of deeper reality. He then in his imagination passes from the world of time to the world of eternity. These mystic experiences are indicated in his Ode to a Nightingale. As Keats hears the song of the nightingale, the barriers of time and space seem to vanish away. He has imaginatively passed through death, flown on the wings of imagination to the nightingale’s immortality.” The nightingale will be singing on while he will become a sod. “Then”, says Middleton Murry, “with a magnificent sweep of the imagination, he sees the song and the bird as one. The bird becomes pure song, and inherits the eternity of beauty.”

“Thou wast not born for death, immortal bird, No hungry generations treat the down.”

      The sound of the bird is the voice of eternity; sounding in ancient days in the ears of emperors and clowns, of Ruth in tears:

The same that oft-times hath
Charmed magic casements opening on the foam Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.

      The ode is an exquisite example of the imaginative adventure of Keats. Nature takes him away from ‘the weariness, the fever and the fret’ of the present world to the eternity of beauty represented by the song of the nightingale. Here is the highest nature poetry of Keats, where the inspired imagination of the poet gives him a fleeting glimpse of eternal beauty.

Keats’s attitude to Nature in comparison with Wordsworth and Shelley

      All romantic poets except Keats see in nature a deep meaning, ethical, moral, intellectual or spiritual. For Wordsworth, Nature is a mother, a nurse, an educating influence. He regards it as a living spirit. He sees in it the presence of God. Shelley, too, finds in Nature Intellectual Beauty. But while Shelley intellectualizes nature and Wordsworth spiritualizes it, “Keats is content to express her through the senses; the color, the touch, the scent, the pulsing music; these are the things that stir him to his depths; there is not a mood of Earth he does not love, not a season that will not cheer or inspire him.”

University Questions

“Keats’s attitude to Nature is predominantly of a happy gazer at a delightful spectacle”. Elaborate and discuss.

“Though other phases of Nature are not forgotten it is those of quietness, and repose that Keats most affects”. Discuss this remark with reference to Keats’s attitude to Nature.

Critically examine Keats’s attitude to Nature and compare him with Wordsworth and Shelley in this respect.

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