John Keats Hellenism or as A Greek

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      The word ‘Hellenism’ is derived from the word ‘Hellene’, which means Greek. ‘Hellenism’ therefore stands for Greek culture and Greek spirit.

Greek influence on Keats from three sources—the instinctive “Greekness” of his mind.

      Shelley once said: ‘Keats was a Greek’. In what sense was Keats the Englishman, a Greek? Keats did not know the Greek language, and therefore had no opportunity of reading Greek literature or knowing anything about Greek customs and ways of life. Still Keats was Greek in temper and spirit. The Greek influence came to him through his reading of (i) translation of Greek classics and (ii) Lempriere’s Classical Dictionary, and (iii) through Greek sculpture, but more important than these three sources was—his own tendency and nature.

      One of his friends lent him a copy of Chapman’s translation of Homer. He was fascinated by the new world of wonder and delight, which Homer revealed to him. It was like a discovery, and Keats described its effect upon him in the famous sonnet, On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer, He felt as he had discovered a new planet.

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies,
When a new plant swims into his ken.

      His study of Lempriere’s Classical Dictionary fully acquainted him with the Greek mythology, and he loved every bit of it, and freely used it in his poetry. The stories of Endymion Lamia and Hyperion, are based upon Greek legends. In his Ode to Psyche and On a Grecian Urn, the subjects are avowedly Greek, and the poet while expressing his passion for beauty transports himself in his imagination to the days of the ancient Greeks.

      The third source is Greek sculpture. His sonnet On Seeing the English Marbles indicates his emotional reaction to the sculptured ‘wonders’ of ancient Greece. He felt in them the calm grandeur of Greek art, its symmetry and simplicity, and lastly, sense of proportion, its subordination of parts to the whole. The pieces of sculpture were obviously in Keats’s mind when he was writing the Ode on Indolence and the Ode on a Grecian Urn.

      But the most important factor in Keats’s Hellenism was his own Greek temper—the inborn temperamental Greekness of his mind.

Keats loves Beauty like the Greeks

      The Greeks were lovers of beauty, and so is Keats. To him, as to the Greeks, the expression of beauty is the aim of all art, and beauty for Keats and Greeks is not exclusively physical or intellectual or spiritual but represents the fullest development of all that makes for human perfection. It was the perfection of loveliness in Greek art that fascinated Keats, and it was the beauty and shape liness of the figures on the Grecian Urn that started the imaginative impulse which created the great Ode.

      The instinctive Greekness of Keats’s mind lies in his passionate pursuit of beauty, which is the very soul of his poetry. It is a temper of unruffled pleasure, of keen sensuous joy in beauty. To him a thing of beauty is a joy forever. His passion for beauty finds a concrete expression in his Ode To Psyche:

Yes, I will be thy priest and build a fane
In some untrodden region of my mind,
Where branched thoughts, new grown with pleasant pain
Instead of pines shall murmur in the wind.
Far, far around shall these dark-clustered trees
Fledge the wild—ridged mountains steep by steep.
And thereby Zephyrs, streams and birds and bees The moss-lain Dryads shall be lulled to sleep.

      The Greeks did not burden their poetry with philosophy or spiritual message Their poetry was an incarnation of beauty, and existed for itself. Similarly Keats was a pure poet. He enjoyed unalloyed pleasure in nature, which for him did not carry any philosophical or spiritual message. Keats did not know anything of Shelley’s enthusiasm for humanity, or his passion for reforming the world. Keats’s poetry had no palpable design; it existed by its right of beauty. For Keats the sense of beauty overcame every other consideration.

Blending of Hellenic or Classical restraints with Romantic freedom

      Thus there was in Keats the keenest sense and enjoyment of beauty and this gave him a fellow feeling with the Greek masters. But it was one side of Greek art he saw. He saw its beauty but he did not see its purity, its self-restraint and its severe refinement. His poems—barring La Belle, the Odes and the Hyperion fragments are characterized by over-refinement and looseness. They have romantic ardor, but lack classical severity. It is in the Odes that we find a fusion of romantic impulse with classical severity. Here we notice Keats’s sense of form, purity, and orderliness. The Odes show an amazing sense of proportion in the Greek manner and present a well-designed evolution of thought. They have a close texture and are marked by severe restraint, but at the same time they have all the spontaneity and freedom of imagination that characterizes romantic poetry. In his Ode to a Nightingale, the luxuriance of his fancy carries him far away from the fever and fret of the world to a fairyland, where the song of the nightingale can be heard through “charming magic casements opening on the seas”. He is carried away by his imaginative impulse, but his artistic sense soon prevails. The exuberance of his fancy does not blind him to his classical sense of form and order. He realizes that “fancy cannot cheat so well as she is famed to do,” and he comes back to the world of realities:

Forlorn; the very word is like a bell
That dolls me back from thee to my sole self.

      Thus we find here a happy blending of the romantic ardor with Greek restraint—of romantic freedom with classical severity.

Greek maimer of personifying power of Nature

      Keats is a Greek in his manner of personifying the powers of nature. The attitude of the ancient Greeks in the presence of nature was one of childlike wonder and joy, and they defined the powers of nature. This imaginative attitude of the Greeks created their “beautiful mythology”. They felt the presence of Proteus in the sea, of Dryads in the trees and of Naiads in the brooks. Keats’s instinctive delight in the presence of nature led him to the heart of Greek mythology. What the Greeks felt, Keats also felt. The rising sun for Keats is not a ball of fire, but Apollo riding his chariot. He sees the moon as the goddess with a silver bow coming down to kiss Endymion. In fact, the world of Greek paganism lives again in the poetry of Keats, with all its sensuousness and joy of life, and with all the wonder and mysticism of the natural world, Autumn to Keats is not only a season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, but a divinity in human shape. Autumn sometimes appears as a thresher:

Sitting careless on granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind:

      Sometimes, as a reaper, sound asleep on a half reaped furrow, or as a gleaner, steadying the laden head across a brook. This is the typical attitude of the Greeks, who attributed human qualities and shapes to gods and demi-gods. The Pan of Greek myth was half-human—any one wandering in the lovely woods, may expect to meet him playing on his pipe. The Pan of Keats’s ode is also half-human, and he sits by the riverside, or wanders in the evening in the fields and meadows.


      The qualities and characteristics of Keats’s Hellenism or “Greekness” may be thus summarised:

his love of beauty—his spontaneous response to it in all forms.
his pagan delight in Nature and in the physical side of life.
his manner of personifying the phenomena of Nature.
his interest in the subject matter of the old Greek writers, and in the Greek mythology.
his feeling for form, and clearness and directness of expression.
concrete imagery instead of abstract ideas.

University Questions

“Keats is essentially a Greek among the English poets.” Discuss.

Write a critical note on the Hellenism of Keats.
Shelley said of Keats: “He is Greek”. Analyze the statement with reference to Keats’s poems you have studied.

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