Sleep and Poetry: by John Keats - Analysis

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      The lines from Sleep and Poetry are, says Leigh Hunt, “a striking example of the young and poetical appetite, obtaining its food by the very desire of it, and glancing for fit subjects of creation from earth to heaven”.

      The very form of the lines suggests a commentary upon their meaning, for, according to Hudson, “they exemplify practically the poet's repudiation of the musty laws’ which he denounces”. Keats writes in the heroic couplet—yet nobody would have been more surprised than Dryden, who first used it, by the effect they produce and the new manner in which they are handled, for the couplets are of the purely romantic type.

      Sleep and Poetry is the first ambitious composition of Keats, hand is a vigorous expression of his own poetic aspiration as well as a vehement attack on the mediocre poetic ideals of the 18th century. The eighteenth-century poets were “dismaleoul’d handicraftsmen” who “wore the mask of poesy and blasphemed she bright lyrist to his face,” they “sway’d about upon a rocking thorse, and thought it Pegasus”.

      The passage chosen from the poem in the text is, as the Editor rightly points out, the most important, for it contains Keat’s central ideas about poetry. The first eleven lines give us a view of life which though "a fragile dew-drop on its perilous way from a summit," is yet the rose’s hope while yet unblown, the reading of an ever-changing tale. “Keats then sketches for us the lines of his own future development as a poet; but this prophetic insight into his own future development is necessarily blurred and indistinct, for it is but indistinctly understood by him. The two main ideas which Keats attempts to express in Sleep and Poetry are: (1) Complete communion with Nature and an understanding of her mystery and beauty are possible only after a sympathetic study of human nature, to which it inevitably leads, the one reacting on the other; (2) After an appreciation of the ideal as revealed by Nature, the harsh and ugly realities of the life come home to us more strongly and vividly, and they would be intolerable but for the sustaining power of the imagination which holds together the fabric of the poet’s ideal and reclaims him from despair.

      Keats then appreciates the splendid past of poetry, and launches an attack on the eighteenth-century poets—that “ill-fated and impious race” with a decrepit standard and flimsy mottos. This brings him to the realization of his legitimate pride and joy in the poetry of his own time—“a farmer season of fresh garlands and fine sounds”, and leads him to refer to “the Poets Polyphemes” disturbing “the grand seas”.

“forgetting the great end
Of poesy, that it should be a friend
To soothe the cares, and lift the thoughts of man”.

      Sleep and Poetry contain many fine lines, telling and suggestive images, and luscious descriptive snatches, as interesting as showing Keats’s mind, “and a sense of mission well begun. Yet there is much in that is faulty and immature. For example, when Keats writes about “a schism nurtured by foppery and barbarism” he forgets that “foppery” is the product of civilization and not of barbarism.

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