The Narrative Poetry of John Keats

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      Narrative poetry is as old as the old literature in the world. It is of communal origin, full of action and dramatic vigor. Originally, it used to be recited to the accompaniment of music.

      We have four narrative poems these are: Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes, Lamia and The Eve of St. Mark—not counting Hyperion, which is epic rather than narrative. Isabella is taken from The Deacmeron of Bocaccio; The Eve of St. Agnes is based on the superstition traditionally associated with St. Agnes’ Eve; Lamia takes its inspiration from a medieval superstition; while The Eve of St. Mark deals with the superstition associated with St. Mark’s Eve.

      The objective element in the poems under consideration is unmistakable, Keats does have one of the essential characteristics of the story-teller; he successfully effaces himself in the story that he narrates. Yet though he does not obtrude his personality, the stories are intensely subjective in tone, for in them Keats gives his own idealistic interpretation of the legends and the superstitions he handles. Moreover, he never misses the opportunity of illustrating his favorite principle—the workship of beauty and the supreme delight that beauty brings to the minds and hearts of men. There is no denying the fact that Keats’s narrative poems are of a high order of excellence.

      Isabella, his first narrative poem, was a great success. The story in the early section of the poem suffers somewhat from a comparison with its original Boccaccio. In the latter part, however, Keats shows a greater mastery of his instrument, and his handling of the ghost and the gruesome details of the digging up of the body of the murdered lover, show a distinct improvement on Boccaccio. The pathos and the tenderness of the story are treated by Keats’s in proper manner. In the hands of Keats, the tale of Isabella gains all the best lyric loveliness of attendant detail and all the delicacy and wealth of music which it has gathered in Shakespeare and Marlowe.

      The story element is very slight in The Eve of St. Agnes yet; slight though it is, Keats handles it admirably. Its central impulse, however, is lyrical rather than narrative; and Keats makes the most of the opportunity given to him by the “slow-slipping, movement” of the Spenserian stanza, developing each picture leisurely, and loading “every rift with ore”. The background is memorably sketched, and everywhere the principle of contrast is effectively used. The Eve of St. Agnes is a perfect poem-though not a perfect narrative poem.

      The problem of matching Chaucer’s narrative power in modern English is more nearly solved in the unfinished tale of The Eve of St. Mark, written in eight-syllabled couplets with the sort of latitude that was advocated by Coleridge in Christabel. The fragment, though too short to be a complete experiment, is yet as successful as it can be; for the light verse carries the description of the Cathedral town on a showery Sunday evening in spring with an easy geniality, combining beauty with homeliness, and elements of mystery with the throb of real life. Apart from his playful affectation of the delicacies of Middle English, Keats gives us in The Eve of St. Mark the breath of Chaucer’s charm, and seems to show that he has hit a narrative form which he could have successfully perfected.

      In Lamia, however, Keats shows a greater mystery in the management of the narrative element. He takes the reader into confidence, and shows him almost in the beginning that Lamia is a serpent, and handles this in such a fashion that when the serpent is transformed into a beautiful woman, we are not at all conscious of sense of shock. Once Lamia is turned into a beautiful woman, the story moves authentically to its pre-destined end, without unnecessary or undue lingering. And we appreciate the economy of effort in the poem only when we remember that it is done by the author to The Eve of St. Agnes. The meter, too, helps in the unfoldment of the narrative and Keats shows in his handling of it that he has overcome his characteristic weakness, and has benefited by the example of Dryden.

      The Eve of St. Agnes and Isabella have created a tradition of such sheer beauty in narrative poetry as no subsequent poet has been able to ignore. The next generation, however, was inclined to a greater reserve and a more austere simplicity—the kind of reserve and simplicity we have in Lamia. The problem for the narrative poets has been to reconcile the claims of beauty as rich and imperious as Keats’s with the Greek ideals of simplicity and austerity. That is why Chaucer is still the master of all those who aspires to write narrative poetry.

University Question;

1. Critically examine the narrative poetry of Keats, with reference to “Isabella,” “The Eve of St. Agnes,” “Lamia” and “The Eve of St. Mark”

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