Medievalism in John Keats Poetry

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      The Middle Ages have been said to be a vast storehouse of romance, and some of the romantics freely drew upon this storehouse for their inspiration. Distance lends enchantment to the view, and so the distant days of the medieval past made a strange appeal to the romantics. Pater says that the romantic quality in literature is addition of strangeness to beauty, and this strangeness, the romantic poets—Coleridge, Scott and Keats—found in the medieval life and medieval legends. Keats is one of those, who reveled in the past in preference to the present, and the two periods of the distant past, in which his imagination loved to dwell are the Middle Ages and the days of ancient Greece, with its beautiful mythology.

What is Medievalism?—Coleridge and Keats

      Medievalism in literature denotes a recapture of the spirit and atmosphere of the Middle Ages. Among the romantics, Coleridge, Scott and Keats, dealt with medieval life, touching upon those aspects of it, which were romantic. The most important centers of influence in the Middle Ages were the Church and the Castle. The Romantics did not care much about the religion of the Church, though they felt attracted by its colorful aspects. They, therefore, let alone the religion and faith of the Middle Ages. They laid stress upon the romance of chivalry and love one on the hand, and, on the other, upon superstitions and legends with supernatural backgrounds. Coleridge dealt with the supernatural in his Ancient Mariner and Christable; his suggestion of the weird mystery of supernaturalism in these two poems is unequaled in English poetry. Keats struck the note of supernaturalism in La Belle Dame Sans Merci. Medievalism with all its paraphernalia of romance and legend, love and adventure, is most prominent in The Eve of St. Agnes.

“La Belle” and “Ode to a Nightingale”

      The setting of the poem, La Belle Dame Sans Merci is medieval. We have here also medieval accessories-the knight-at-arms, the cruel mysterious lady, ‘a faery’s child’, the elfin grot, and the spell and enchantment and general supernatural atmosphere. La Belle is one of Keats’s great achievements. It is medieval in its setting and atmosphere and has the simplicity of the medieval ballad. The of St. Agnes, on the other hand, is overloaded with excessive details and is marked by gorgeous, high-flown style. La Belle is in the simple style of a ballad, and tells a supernatural story with a medieval atmosphere.

      In the Ode to a Nightingale, while the imagination of the poet revels in the ideal world of the nightingale, it throws itself back, in a sudden sweep to the medieval past when also the nightingale had sung its enchanting song:

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

      These three lines condense within themselves the whole world of medieval romance. None Jived less in the present than Keats; in fact the present was to him full of weariness, fever and fret. His romantic imagination sought to escape from the present and found its heaven in the medieval world and in the world of classical mythology.

“The Eve of St. Agnes”

      The Eve of St. Agnes is a story of love and adventure in medieval setting. It is based upon the medieval legend of Saint Agnes. The legend was that if a maid were to do certain ceremonies, and go to bed supperless on The Eve of St. Agnes (21st of January) she would have delightful vision and receive soft adoration from her lover during the night. Madeline, a beautiful maid, went fasting to bed and dell “asleep in lap of legends old”. Madeline and Prophyro, her lover, belonged to two families in deadly feuds. Perphyro gained access to Made Line’s chamber through the help of an old nurse. He awakened Madeline by means of music and eloped with her, while the inmates of the castle were fast asleep* after their riotous feast.

      The Eve of St. Agnes is a glorious record of the fondness of Keats for all that is understood by the phrase, ‘medieval accessories’. “Here the poet throws his imagination back to the medieval past! and gives a medieval setting to a love story, which is full of daring and adventure. There are—all the medieval accessories—the adventurous knight, the beautiful love-lorn lady, believing in the medieval legend of St. Agnes, the beadsman saying prayers for sinners, the medieval castle and the ‘argent’ chivalry. As we read the poem, we seem to be borne away to a land of enchantment—a romantic world, full of love and adventure.

      In The Eve of St. Agnes, the curious beauty of the words, their natural selection, their out-of-the-world note, and their sweet, changeful and elfin music, are in the closest harmony with the romantic and wild scenery, with Porphyro riding across the moor with his heart on fire, with Madeline “asleep in lap of legends old.”

      All this is medievalism. “But it is medievalism seen through the magical mist of the imagination of Keats”.

University Question

Write a note on the medievalism of Keats,

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