Was John Keats as an Escapist?

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      “A thing of beauty is a joy forever”—this was the life-long creed of Keats. There was never a more ardent lover of beauty than Keats. But did his love and pursuit of beauty make him ignore the realities of life? In one of his early Sleep and Poetry, he says that he will first plunge into “the realm of Flora and Pan” (meaning the world of beauty free from pain and ugliness), and then he puts the question, ‘Can I ever bid these joys, farewell?’ Then comes the answer, ‘Yes I must bid these joys farewell—

Yes I must pass them for a nobler life
Where I must find the agonies, the strife
Of human hearts.

      These are not the words of an escapist. But did Keats follow this ideal of life, which he chalked out early in his poetic career?

The age of Keats

      Keats was born at a time when the whole of Europe was shaken by the ideas of revolution, and he grew up in this atmosphere, but in his poetry these ideas never found expression. All the poets of Keats’s time were influenced by the ideas and ideals of the French Revolution. “The ideas that awake the youthful passion of Wordsworth, of Coleridge, that stirred the wrath of Scott, that worked like yeast on Byron and brought forth new matter, that Shelley reclothed and made into a prophecy of the future—the excitement, the turmoil, the life and death struggle which gathered round the Revolution were ignored and unrepresented by Keats.....In Keats, the ideas of the Revolution have disappeared. He has, in spite of a few passages and till quite the end of his career, no vital interest in the present none in man as a whole, none in the. political movement of human thought, none in the future of mankind, none in liberty, equality or fraternity, no interest in anything but beauty.” Thus according to Stopeford Brooke, Keats was so preoccupied with beauty that he turned a blind eye to the actualities of life around him.

No revolutionary ideology

      It is true that his poetry does not express the revolutionary ideas of his time, as Shelley’s poetry does. But Keats was not a revolutionary idealist like Shelley, nor had he Shelley’s reforming zeal. Keats was a pure poet, who expressed in his poetry the most worth-while part of himself and this most worth-while part of Keats was his vision of beauty, which was also truth to him. Every great poet must follow the bent of his genius:—he has his own vision of life, and he expresses it in his own way. Wordsworth has a spiritual vision and he expresses it in simple style; Shelley has an idealistic vision and he expresses it in musical verse; Keats had the artist’s vision of beauty, and he expresses it in picturesque style. Keats pursued beauty everywhere in nature, in art, in the deeds of chivalry, and in the great tales of ancient Greece; and to Keats beauty and truth were identical. This was the profoundness and innermost experience of Keats’s soul, and he expressed it most emphatically:

‘Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty’, that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

      If his aim was to pursue Beauty, which was also Truth, he cannot be called an escapist, for in pursuing Beauty, he pursued Truth.

Gradual development

      The poetry of Keats shows a process of gradual development. His earlier experiments in verse are products of youthful imagination, immature and overcharged with imagery. The youthful poet has abnormal sensibility, but lacks experience of life. Endymion opens with the famous line—‘A thing of beauty is a joy forever’, it is full of glorious promise, but it is lost in shadows and uncertainties, because it is not based upon experience of real life. In the tale that follow—Isabella, Lamia and The Eve of St. Agnes, the poet has not come to grips with real-life: his imagination plays with the romance of love. In the Odes, Keats’s poetry assumes a deeper tone. There he faces the sorrows and sufferings of life. He would wish for a life of joy and happiness, like that of the nightingale:

Fade far away, and quite forget
What thou amongst the leaves hast never known,
The weariness, the fever, and the fret,
There, where men sit and hear each other groan;
Where palsy shakes a few, sand last grey hairs,
Where youth grows pale and specter-thin and dies,
Where but to think if to be full of sorrows And leaden-eyed despairs.

Sorrows and suffering are inevitable

      Thus he longed to escape from the realities of life. But it was a passing mood that seized him when he was contrasting the lot of man with that of the nightingale. Sorrows and sufferings were inevitable in life, and he fully realized that escape from the realities of life was neither possible nor desirable. In Hyperion he wrote:

None can usurp the height...
But those to whom the miseries of the world Are misery, and will not let them rest.

      In a sonnet he wrote:

How fevered that man who cannot look
Upon his mortal days with temperate blood.

      Keats was trying to attain serenity of mood in the midst of all the sufferings which he was undergoing in his own life and which he saw all around him in life. This mood of serenity is expressed in the Ode to Autumn, which according to Middleton Murry, is “the perfect and unforced utterance of the truth contained in the magic words (of Shakespeare): Ripeness is all”.

Melancholy and joys transient by their nature

      Keats remained untouched by the ideas of the Revolution which filled the atmosphere of Europe at the time; at least from his poetry, we do not find any indication of his interest in the Revolution. Though the contemporary facts of history have not left any impression on his poetry, he deeply realized and expressed in his poetry the fundamental truths of life. Keats was a pure poet, and would not allow any extraneous things like politics or morality to disturb the pure waters of poetry. And poetry is the expression of the poet’s own experience of life. Keats, as he developed mentally and spiritually—and his development was very rapid—was searching for truth in his soul. The earlier hankering for the world of Flora and Pan—tor unreflecting enjoyment of sensuous delights—is past; he now subjected himself persistently and unflinchingly to life. He faced life with all uncertainties and contradictions, its sorrows and joys. The lines—

Joy whose hand is ever at his lips
Bidding adieu.
Where beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,
Or new love pine at them beyond to-morrow.

      are “thrilled with aching hopelessness”. But this hopelessness, this despair, Keats met squarely. In the Ode to Melancholy, he points out how sadness inevitably accompanies joy and beauty. The rose is beautiful indeed, but we cannot think of the rose without its thorn. It is therefore impossible to escape from inevitable pain in life. Melancholy, he says,

“dwells with beauty—beauty that must die”

      Melancholy arises from transience of joy, and joy is transient. Melancholy arises from transience of joy and joy is transient by its nature. Therefore, Keats accepts life as a whole—with its joy and beauty as well as its pain and despair. It is this alternation of joy and pain, light and shadow, that gives life its harmony, his is the truth of life—and truth is beauty. This acceptance of life—this triumph over despair attained through deep spiritual experience is expressed most forcibly in his Ode, on a Grecian Urn:

When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shall remain in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty?” that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.


      To quote the words of Middleton Murry: “They (these lines) contain deep wisdom purchased at the full price of deep buffering. The Ode on a Grecian Urn is not a dream of unutterable beauty nor is the urn itself the song of an impossible bliss beyond mortality. It has a precious message to mankind, not as a thing of beauty which gives exquisite delight to the senses, but as a symbol and prophecy of a comprehension of human life to which mankind can attain. Keats was not an escapist from life, as he is sometimes supposed to be.

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