John Keats Sensuousness in Poetry

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What is sensuousness?

      Sensuousness is that quality of poetry which is derived from or affects the sense—of sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste. By the term “sensuous poetry” is meant poetry which’ is devoted, not to an idea or a philosophical thought, but mainly to the task of giving delight to the senses. Sensuous poetry would have an appeal to our eyes by presenting beautiful and colorful word-pictures, to our ear by its metrical music and musical sounds, to our nose by arousing our sense of smell, and so on.

      All poetry proceeds originally from sense impressions, and all poets are more or less sensuous. Impressions of the senses are in fact the starting: point of the poetic process for it is what the poet sees and hears that excites his emotion and imagination, and his emotional and imaginative reaction to his sense-impressions generates poetry. Wordsworth’s imagination was stirred by what he saw and heard in nature—what he calls “the language of the eye and the ear”, and then he passed beyond his; sense-impressions and constructed his poetic view of life and nature. Milton was not less sensitive to the beauty of flowers than Keats; the description of flowers in Lycidas and of the Garden of Eden in Paradise Lost bear witness to Milton’s sensuousness.

“O for a life of sensations rather than of thoughts’’

      Keats said, “O for a life of sensations rather than of thoughts”. Sensuousness means appeal to our senses-eye, ear, nose, taste and smell, and sense of hot and cold. Other poets give only eye-picture. They are capable of giving other pictures.

Picture of the eye

      Keats is a painter in words. With the help of a mere few words, he presents a solid, concrete picture:

“Her hair was long, her foot was light
And her eyes were wild”.
“I saw their starved lips in the gloom with horrid warning gaped wide.”

      These pictures are statuesque (like a stone statute). They remain firmly fixed in our memory.

Sense of hearing

      The music of the nightingale produces pangs of pain in poet’s heart.

“Forlorn: The very word is like a bell,
To toll thee back from thee to my sole self.
“The voice I hear this passing night was heard
In ancient days, by emperor and clown.”

Sense of touch

      The opening lines of La Belle Dame Sans Merci describe extreme cold:

“The sedge is withered from the lake
And no birds sing.”

      Calvin called the line ‘And no birds sing’, as the best line in English literature.

Sense of taste

      In Ode to a Nightingale, Keats describes many wines. The idea of their taste is intoxicating:

(i) “O for a beaker full of the warm South:
Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,”
In La Bella Dame Sans Merce—
(ii) She found me roots of relish sweet
Of honey wild and manna dew.”

Pictures of smell

      The poet can’t see the flowers in the darkness. There is mingled perfume of many flowers:

Fast fading violets covered up in leaves
And mid May’s eldest child,
The coming musk-rose, full of dewy, wine
The murmurous haunts of flies on summer eves.

Technicolor pictures

      Keats paints colored pictures. The multi-colored wines and flowers are painted with a colorist’s delights:

Full of true, the blushful Hippocrene,
With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,
And purple-stained mouth.

      The red wine makes the mouth purple.

“Ode to Autumn”: A remarkable example of Keats’s Sensuousness

      In the Ode to Autumn, the season of autumn is described in sensuous terms, in which all the senses are called forth.

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun.

      Autumn to Keats is the season of apples on mossed cottage trees, of fruits which are rine to the core, and of later flowers for bees.

Until they think warm days will never cease.
For summer has o’erbrimmed their clammy cells.

      Autumn again is represented as a thresher, ‘sitting careless on a granary floor, and her “hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind’’ or as a reaper:

Or on a halfrcaped furrow sound asleep
Drowsed with the fume of poppies.

      There is nothing in the poem about autumn being the prelude to dreary winter or the symbol of old age; autumn to Reais is all ripe fruits and ripe grains. Autumn also has music that appeals to the ear:

The redbreast whistles from a garden-croft
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies

Keats’s epithets rich in sensuous quality

      Keats is pre-eminently a poet of sensations, whose very thought is clothed in sensuous images. The epithets he uses are rich in sensuous quality—watery clearness, delicious face, melodious plot, azure lidded sleep, sunburnt mirth, embalmed darkness, anguish moist. Not only were the sense perceptions of Keats quick and alert, but he had the rare gift of communicating these perceptions by concrete and sensuous imagery. How vivid and enchanting is the description of wine-bubbles in the line:

With beaded bubbles winking at the brim.

Keats’s Sensuousness in different colors in his matured poetry

      This delight in pure sensation was, however, but a passing phase with Keats. As his mind matured, his sympathies broadened, and he felt at one with the, human heart in travail. Sensuousness is still there, weaving its fairy tissues as before but the coloring is different. In his maturer poems, it is gradually manifested with the stirrings of an awakening intellect, and is founds charged with paint charged with the very religion of pain. His yearning for passing for the beautiful is transformed into an intellectual and a spiritual passion. He sees things, not only in their beauty, but also in their truth. And it is partly by reason of his perception of truth in sensuous beauty that Keats has become the, ‘‘inheritor of unfulfilled renown”.

      That “sensuousness is a paramount bias” in Keats’s poetry is largely true; even as it is true that he is more a poet of sensuousness than of contemplation.” Yet, like all generalized statements, these remarks are only partly true. “Keats’s mind is mainly sensuous by direct action but it also works by reflex action, passing from sensuousness into sentiment. Certainly, some of his works are merely, extremely sensuous; but this is the work in which the poet was trying his material and his powers, and rising towards mastery of his real faculty and his final function. In his maturer performances in the Odes, for example, and in Hyperion, sensuousness is penetrated by sentiment, voluptuousness is permeated by vitality, and aestheticism is tempered by intellectualism. In Keats’s palace of poetry, the nucleus is sensuousness; but the superstructure has chambers of more abiding things and more permanent colors”.

Sensuousness and principle of Beauty

      Keats was a worshipper of beauty and pursued beauty everywhere, and it was his senses that first revealed to him the beauty of things. The beauty of the universe—from the stars of the sky to the flowers of the woods—first struck his senses and then from the beauty perceptible to the senses his imagination seized the principle of beauty in all things. He could make poetry only out of what he felt upon his pulses. Thus, it was his sense impressions that kindled his imagination which made him realize the great principle that “Beauty is Truth and Truth Beauty”.


      The imagination of Keats came to be elevated by his sense perceptions and sense impressions. His poetry is not a mere record of sense impressions. It is a spontaneous overflow of his imagination kindled by the senses. He hears the song of nightingale and is filled, with deep joy which at once kindles his imagination. He has been hearing the actual song of a nightingale, but when his imagination is excited, he hears the eternal voice of the nightingale singing from the beginning of time. He sees the beauty of the Grecian Urn and of the figures carved upon it. His imagination is stirred, and he hears in his imagination the music of the piper:

Heard melodies are sweet, those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on
Not to the sensual ear, but more endeared, Pipe to the spirit, ditties of no tone.

University Questions

“Sensuousness is a paramount bias of Keats’s genius” Elucidate.

“Keats is a poet of perceptions rather than of contemplation.” Discuss.

“In his maturer works Keats’s sensuousness is penetrated by sentiment and vitality” Elaborate.

Write a critical note on the sensuousness of Keats.

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