John Keats Greatest Achievement of Writing Odes

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      Originally ode was a Greek form of verse. It meant a poetic composition written to be sung to the music of lyre. So it came to be known as basically lyrical in character. But when ode form came into the hands of the English writers the idea of a musical accompanies ment ceased to be considered essential. It came to mean a type of lyric poem only. Thus in the context of English poetry, Ode can be defined as a lyrical poem which expresses exalted or enthusiastic emotion in respect of a theme which is dignified, and it does so in a metrical form which is as a rule complex or irregular.

Characteristics of an ode

(i) It is an address to an abstract object which means that it is written to and not written about.
(ii)Ode is a natural and spontaneous overflow of the feelings of its writer. So it carries with it a degree of emotional depth and lyrical zeal.
(iii) The ode must be highly serious in character by virtue of its exalted and dignified theme.
(iv) To be able to do real justice to its dignified theme, its language and style should also be dignified and elevated.
(v) The ode must exhibit a very clear logic in the development of the thought of its writer, whereby the ode can be long
enough to explain the entire process of thought development. In this way an ode also becomes a study in the psychology of human mind.
(vi) The ode can adopt any of the meters, regular or irregular but the metrical pattern must be complex and elaborate.

      John Keats tried his pen at various forms of writing, but none of them yielded him as great success as the ode form. After every reading of his poetry, his odes alone fascinate our attention to the highest degree. Therefore Keats is always remembered chiefly as a writer of odes. Not only this, Keats holds a leading rank among the ode-writers of English literature. In our study here, we will analyze as to what qualities of his odes make them so remarkable in themselves.

Unity of impression in Keats’s Odes

      The first and foremost quality of his odes is their unity of impression. The major odes of Keats, Ode to a Nightingale Ode on a Grecian Urn and Ode on Melancholy have a common subject and theme. They have a common mood to depict and last but not the least in all these odes the development of mood is more or less similar and the mood develops, in the shape of a drama, i.e. first the mood takes birth, it develops, reaches a climax and finally, the anti-climax takes place. Thus when we read Keats’s odes, we feel that we are reading an abridged drama, and in this lay the secret of their success. In so short a form of writing, Keats has been able to give an impression of the kind that plays of Shakespeare produce. But it shall be an over-simplification of facts if this statement of ours is taken to mean that Keats has reached the Shakespearean heights of literature’s perfection. No doubt it was Keats’s most cherished desire to be remembered with Shakespeare in the rank of men of letters, but unfortunately, Keats could not perform this feat. Might be, if he had not died young, he could have had been able to probe better into his poetic wealth.

Element of drama

      After this unavoidable digression, let us come back to our main subject. We will study first, the dramatic development of Keats’s mood with reference to his odes. The very opening stanza of Ode to a Nightingale shows Keats in a mood of escape. He wants to trespass into the zone of forgetfulness, “Lethe-wards”. He longs for an intoxicant, either “a draught vintage” or “a beaker full of the warm south”, to help him “fade away into the forest dim,” the forest that is the nightingale’s abode. He wants to cross over to the world of the “Immortal Bird !” that “was not born for death.” Jo the same way in Ode on a Grecian Urn Keats says:

“Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard Are sweeter.”

      Here by “unheard melodies” Keats means the sound of the pipes coming from the world of art i.e. the Urn. In an Ode to a Nightingale, we have “the viewless wings of Poesy” as an equivalent of the “unheard melodies” of the Ode on Grecian Urn In both the poems the fascinating element for Keats is the world of imagination. The world of the Grecian Urn has its own joys, the “pipes and timbrels”, the “wild ecstasy” and “men or gods” in a “mad pursuit” after the maidens. The world of the Nightingale has the sweet fragrance of

The grass, the thicket, and the fruit-tree wild;
White hawthorn, and the pastoral eglantine;
Fast fading violets cover’d up in leaves;
And mid-May’s eldest child,
The coming musk-rose, full of dewy wine.

      The other binding factor between the Nightingale and the urn is their permanence. No hungry generations can tread down the existence of the Nightingale. Same way the urn has remained unravished from the movement of clock which is driving all earthly objects to their end. Both the poems speak eloquently of Man’s susceptibility to death in the world “where youth grows pale, and specter-thin, and dies.” There is a common concern for Man’s pains and griefs. Escape into the world of imagination takes the two poems to a point of climax, but in the right tradition of a drama-development, the anti-climax takes place and this anticlimax involves Keats’s coming back into the world of reality. Whereas in Ode to a Nightingale it is the world ‘Forlorn!’ that puts the clock back towards anti-climax, in Ode on a Grecian Urn it is the realization of the Urn’s death-like silence that brings Keats back into the world of Man.

      Ode to Autumn can be read in the same light. It depicts the theme of ripeness, decay and death in describing the natural cycle of seasons: Autumn, spring and winter. Ode on Melancholy also presents a study in contrasts in its third and last stanza which contains the theme of the poem that joy and beauty are a source of human misery by their very nature, because their days are so numbered. This again reminds us of the Ode to a Nightingale where Keats shows a deeper concern for the transitoriness of human values.

      Thus, we have seen that there is a unifying force behind the great odes of Keats and that unifying force is their common theme and object, a common mood and above all a systematic and drama like development of the mood. This lends them their unity of impression.

Style of Keats’s Odes

      And finally a word about the style of Keats in his odes. Their style is as unifying a fact or as their mood and theme. Every ode has the same perfection of language. Really Keats loads every rift with ore. He makes use of a beautiful vocabulary but beauty is not divorced from thought. Every word is as full of meaning as it is beautiful. The language is concise, exact and concentrated. There is not a word which we can afford to dispense with, without doing damage to the very structure of the poem. The right word has been used at the right place, and every word has been chiseled to the full. By virtue of these distinct features of Odes of Keats carry weight with them.

University Questions

Discuss Keats as a writer of Odes.
Comment on the quality of Keats’s achievement in the Odes in the light of the following observation: ‘‘These poems (the Odes) are different in kind from their predecessors; while the earlier ones were decorative, these are tragic”
“Had Keats left us only his Odes, his rank among the poets would not be lower than what it is.’’ Discuss the greatness of Keats's Odes in the light of this remark.

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