Notes on John Keats
“St. Agnes’ Eve” (834-44)
Comments by Professor Albert O. Wlecke in a lecture from the 1990’s at UC Irvine:
“The Eve of St. Agnes” constructs a world of medieval romance and ritual. St. Agnes dreams of her future husband. It is a world of feuding families.
“Angela” is a rather ironic name for the old woman in “St. Agnes.” Angela tells Porphyro what Madeline is doing. She is supposed to protect Madeline, not lead the man to her. We get rather erotic descriptions of Madeline’s rites and dreams and of Porphyro’s entering into them, etc.
A central theme for Keats is that of the figure of the dreamer and the critical moment upon awakening. Reality is not the same as the dream; thus, Madeline’s tears. Porphyro is “pallid, civil, and drear” in comparison to the dream image. We can see a counter-movement here: reality works against idealization. In the dream, Porphyro is said to be possessed of “looks immortal.”
See Stanza 36: Porphyro is “beyond a mortal man impassioned far,” and he melts into Madeline’s dream. This act makes for an interesting blend of reality and the dream. The wind blows, and the moon sets. Nature, then, cooperates in the moment of consummation.
Throughout “The Eve of St. Agnes,” dreaming and idealization have been associated with freezing, with being frozen in opposition to the real world. Melting, therefore, is a crucial image here. The dream melts into reality. See Stanza 32: The speaker calls Madeline’s dream “a midnight charm/Impossible to melt as iced stream.”
So the setting of “The Eve of St. Agnes” is that of a cold, frozen night because it is a night for dreams, for practicing old traditions and rituals. The poem’s setting is oddly antithetical to the real world of human passion. Madeline’s first desire on waking is to return to the ideal or dream world, and, at that moment, to “enter” Porphyro. At this point, we are dealing with a world of process and becoming.
It is possible to take two different views of “The Eve of St. Agnes.” The first is that Porphyro is a bad man who takes advantage of Madeline. The second is that he is a hero who rescues Madeline (the damsel in distress) from a world of frozen fantasy, helping her to leave behind the castle and its inhabitants.
In conclusion, “The Eve of St. Agnes” claims that dreams do come true—the dream lover does indeed become Madeline’s husband; however, the whole poem suggests that we should be skeptical about dreams. Madeline may be a naïve fool, but she gets exactly what she wants.
“To a Nightingale” (849-51)
Comments by Professor Albert O. Wlecke in a lecture from the 1990’s at UC Irvine:
“Ode to a Nightingale” investigates the fundamental opposites of the ideal world of art and the empirical world of human experience. Notice the speaker’s strong imaginative response to the nightingale’s song, a song that brings to him an ideal world. The bird is “immortal,” and the speaker wants simply to disappear into its world. Nonetheless, the speaker is always held back in his attempt to join the bird. Stanza 3 shows his desire to dissolve into the immortal world, but then a long list of this world’s trials follows. The key reference here is to the poet’s death.
Thinking itself, in fact, produces sorrow. We cannot help but see the negative things inevitable in the world of experience. There is no way to “quite forget” this world. At this juncture, the speaker is an escapist because he wants to escape from the world below. The fourth stanza of “Ode to a Nightingale” refers not to wine but to the wings of poetry that the speaker wishes would carry him away to the ideal world. Imagination is the way to get to the ideal world, but the dull brain perplexes and retards the flight. The phrase “Already with thee!” signals an apparent moment of success, but the triumph does not last.
Stanza 6 of “Ode to a Nightingale” shows the speaker’s recognition, by contrast to his desire to escape, that such an attempt may be seeking a kind of death. Is all the foregoing in the poem no more than a death wish? If so, the bird may sing eternally, but he [i.e. the speaker] will be dead to that singing. The speaker is confronted with the split between the real world and the ideal world.
Al Drake’s additional comments on “To a Nightingale”: it’s worth contrasting Keats’ attitude towards the bird with that of Shelley in “To a Sky Lark.” While the latter’s relation is one of striving with the songbird, it seems that Keats neither vies with his nightingale nor “envies” its purity – he is “too happy” in the happiness of the bird: it just isn’t possible to stay with the nightingale in its happiness for the eternity the speaker would like to remain with it; indeed, this wish gives way to a wish for death itself, for absolute forgetfulness and nothingness. But he is left alone and “Forlorn” as the bird flies out of hearing range, and must return to his own sad thoughts and longings for forgetfulness. Imagination is at best only a temporary escape from these things, and “To a Nightingale” testifies to the limitations of poetry as an accomplice of imaginative liberation.
“Ode on a Grecian Urn” (851-53)
Pastoral is a sophisticated genre, one that has long attempted to remove desire to an ideal world beyond ordinary experience and mortality. The genre speaks to our “desire to desire” (to borrow a title phrase from critic Mary Ann Doane), and it seems to have been sophisticated even when Theocritus composed his works in the 3rd Century BCE. In Keats’ poem, the pastoral genre itself has become an object of critical reflection, almost as if it were an art object to be contemplated in splendid isolation. What is the purpose of pastoral representation—what does it do for us?
Keats’ urn represents scenes from ordinary life (from high erotic passion to daily activities and religious rituals). We don’t know whether the urn’s creation was an expressive act or simply something done to make a living. Yet the images themselves have the power to “eternalize” intense feelings and interesting scenes for us as objects of contemplation, frozen in space and detached from the decay inherent in the passage of time. The isolated art object provokes contemplation, and makes us study the emotions and events of human life in a detached way. What does this contemplation yield? The urn remains silent and “cold,” offering no answers to the questions it provokes. The real things, of course, must pass, and only the artistic representations can last forever. So which matters more—us or the works of art we create as acts of representation or expression? Even answers like Horace’s “art is long; life is short” don’t really answer this question, and in any case we seem compelled to keep asking it.
It is hard to believe the final lines about the equivalence of truth and beauty—”Beauty is truth, truth beauty—that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know”—are meant to initiate an abstract philosophical debate. By “truth” here the urn may refer generally to a felt sense of reality or authenticity, or even to “context.” The beauty of the work doesn’t lead you back to the motives and methods involved in its making. All you have is what you can see in front of you and your experience with the visual object. Keats brackets out all surrounding considerations and (perhaps—depending those much-debated quotation marks) personifies the urn, making contact with it as if it were another consciousness. And it seems to speak briefly to him, rebuffing him with enigmatic, chastening words about the limitations of his knowledge. When the speaker says to the urn, “Thou . . . dost tease us out of thought / As doth eternity!” he implies that the urn promises a glimpse of some ultimate truth or reality beyond time, beyond language and humanity. But the poet must return to the vicissitudes of language and “expression” since he can’t bear the silence of the realm that the art object offers. Like so many romantic poems, then, “Grecian Urn” is about its own failure to achieve an impossible task—the speaker has been trying to follow the urn where it would lead him, but in the end he must return to the realm of words, and the result we get is the poem. Art has great powers of suggestion, and its capacity to provoke the same unanswerable questions is infinitely repeatable, but in the end a work of art doesn’t offer us permanent escape from life’s cares or from the burden of being merely human. Perhaps we shouldn’t expect it to do that anyway, and should be satisfied with the urn’s statement about the kind of “truth” that is possible for us to live with. In a sense, the urn’s advice amounts to no more than “Hush!”—impossible as that command is for us to obey.
In the last stanza, the speaker goes to the work of art searching for meaning about something human -- the urn represents different sorts of pleasurable human activities, so shouldn’t it tell us something about “the meaning of life”? Well, what it tells us is that beauty is truth, end of story. It leaves us with a tautological statement. I think what the urn is saying is simply, “here I am.” In other words, it is a beautiful object, or more generally, beauty. The urn is asserting that it is its own reality, and, presumably would just keep repeating the very same thing forever. When personified, it tells us it cares nothing about what it represents or about the artist who made the representation. An urn should not mean, but be, to borrow a phrase from Archibald McLeish. Well, some may say that is a very limited, formalist, escapist opinion for the urn to hold. But it seems to me that sometimes limitation is perfection. Might the urn not be equated with the pure song of the Skylark in that Shelley poem, the little bird that defied the form/content, matter/spirit split? The irony here would be that the Skylark is not something made by human beings, but the urn is -- it is something human beings have created which then slips beyond their control. And what is more, this seems to be a good thing. We can create something pure and perfect, but the cost is that the pure and perfect thing then becomes alien to us. It becomes a “cold pastoral,” and even though the speaker describes the urn as “a friend to man,” there seems to be something forbidding about this beautiful object. It reminds us of our own mortality because the representations on the urn suggest that passion can only be eternal in the form of a lifeless representation. We can represent our immortality, but cannot experience it; we can only contemplate it from a distance. I think what Keats has accomplished in this ekphrastic poem is to make the experience of beauty almost as unsettling as the experience of the sublime. As so often, art is closely connected with death in Keats.
Further thoughts on “Grecian Urn”: What about the status of the urn as a work of art? Probably the thing was a commodity produced for sale at the local “pottery barn.” If I recall correctly, Keats was originally looking at a vase in a museum—most likely a work of art taken by the British from Greece around the time Lord Elgin took those famous fragmentary sculpture pieces from Greece in 1802. Elgin, as British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire fighting Napoleon alongside the British, managed to get permission to take casts of the Parthenon’s fine friezes and stand-alone statuary. Then he took the real objects, ruining some in the process, and shipped them back to England, wrenching them from their proper cultural context.
The plastic art medium contemplated by the speaker should be contrasted with music; music is sometimes praised by romantic poets as the best kind of art because it is pure form, or perfectly formalized expression. In a piece of music, all you have is a pleasing succession of notes that don’t point to anything in the real world and don’t imitate an object in nature. The composer may have poured his or her soul into the melody, but what is that to the listener? All the auditor has is the succession of notes and the pleasure they provide. Keats’ urn reminds us, I think, that other kinds of art are difficult to enjoy in such purely formal terms: the urn, even if intact, is a temporal and cultural fragment, an object that evokes the ruin of a glorious ancient culture. It’s hard to bracket out that kind of information. You see a piece of shaped pottery, and it leads you to wonder about the hand that shaped it, and why.
The kind of art object Keats has chosen poses a challenge to our formalist instincts. Perhaps, however, Keats is suggesting that the aesthetic appropriation of an object means detaching the thing from its original context as a social product and endowing it with a new and possibly more interesting meaning. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing to do—I don’t see anything inherently wrong with aesthetic contemplation. Still, to refer to contemporary arguments about the status of aesthetics, there is always a danger that aesthetic appreciation may slide into obliviousness to the bad things that may have been associated with an object’s production. In this instance, the bad thing probably has to do more with how such art objects ended up in Britain. A beautiful object can hide a multitude of sins. Walter Benjamin wrote in the 1930’s that the Nazis’ success lay partly in their ability to turn politics and violence into aesthetics, thereby disabling people’s ability to contextualize and criticize what was happening. The formal study of aesthetics has long been reproached by people who insist that art is always the bearer of ideology and that it must, therefore, be dealt with in a manner that allows us to “demystify” the sway beautiful objects have over us. The issue can become tiresome, but it is an important one: is the usual relationship between art and individuals simply a matter of escaping from “real life” into a make-believe world where we can dwell in isolation from other people and larger concerns? If so, what are the ethical implications of such escapism? Is it, for example, a necessary and healthy thing to do, or does it make us culpable indirectly for the evil others do in our name?
Notes on Selected Letters by John Keats, from the Norton Anthology of English Lit., Vol. E, 8th. edition.
“To Benjamin Bailey. The Authenticity of the Imagination, Nov. 22, 1817.”
“What the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth—whether it existed before or not.” Here is perhaps the meaning of that famous line in “Ode on a Grecian Urn” about the oneness of beauty and truth. Keats is suggesting that we live by what our imagination produces, first and foremost, just as surely as Adam “awoke and found [his dream] truth.” In this sense, I suppose, imagination might even be prelapsarian, something not subject to the Christian doctrine of the Fall.
“O for a Life of Sensations rather than of Thoughts!” This statement marks Keats’ way of being a romantic poet as different from the ways of Wordsworth, Coleridge, or Shelley. It isn’t even so much what he says here as what most of us will take as the tone or attitude of his statement, especially when combined with the vision of an earth-like paradise that follows the remark: “we shall enjoy ourselves here after by having what we called happiness on Earth repeated in a finer tone and so repeated.” There doesn’t seem to be a tone of wistfulness here, but rather a palpable excitement—maybe it is possible to come close to this ideal life of sensuous and sensual delight, the feeling seems to run.
For someone we think of as a tragic youth, Keats shows a remarkably sunny, even dispassionate quality in the second half of this letter: “I scarcely remember counting upon any Happiness—I look not for it if it be not in the present hour—nothing startles me beyond the Moment. The setting sun will always set me to rights—or if a Sparrow come before my Window I take part in its existence and pick about the Gravel.” And further, “I sometimes feel not the influence of a Passion or Affection during a whole week.” So much for Wordsworth’s ideas about the key role of the deepest passions in life. Keats is as happy as a lizard skipping around on a warm day, or a bird hunting for treats. What other Romantics consistently agonize over—their desire to escape from the curse of human self-consciousness—Keats suggests he is able to rid himself of, at least to a satisfying extent and for short periods. It seems to me that his attitude shows an understanding of nature’s power to draw us out of ourselves, and a healthy disregard for our need to come back to ourselves in some exalted or improved fashion. Nature, he says, simply “set[s] me to rights.”
“To John Hamilton Reynolds. Wordsworth’s Poetry, Feb. 3, 1818.”
“We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us—and if we do not agree, seems to put its hand in its breeches pocket. Poetry should be great & obtrusive, a thing which enters into one’s soul, and does not startle it or amaze it with itself but with its subject.” Keats simply doesn’t care for poetry that is mostly self-expression, especially if it calls attention to itself as such: Byronism, the Wordsworth of The Prelude (had Keats or the public known of this epic since it wasn’t published until 1850, after the author died), etc. This is rather an extreme statement since a fair amount of poetry is moral or has some design on us, yet pleases many: Milton’s Paradise Lost, for instance, is both deeply imaginative and yet determined to convey the author’s religious convictions. And John Bunyan is didactic, but no slouch as a writer of fiction. Understood generously, however, Keats’ remark makes good sense: we come to art expecting to be set free, liberated from harsh necessity or stultifying doctrine, not preached at.
“To John Taylor. Keats’s Axioms in Poetry, Feb. 27, 1818.”
I like Keats’ axiom that poetry should “strike the Reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost a Remembrance.” This suggests that poetry is all about our highest aspirations—it speaks to desire, but not in a condescending way. The author and reader are very close together, in this view, and the latter has a creative role to play in the after-making of the poem. Then, too, there’s a sense on this page that poetry is not so much good for inculcating feelings of sublimity or maddening suggestiveness or mystery as of spreading sunshine into our very being: “Its touches of Beauty should never be half way thereby making the reader breathless instead of content.” That’s a fine thought. No need to make it an all-encompassing model, but an excellent idea all the same.
“If Poetry comes not as naturally as the Leaves to a tree it had better not come at all.” It’s easy to interpret this as a silly pronouncement reducing to, “never revise.” But that’s perhaps not what Keats means. He may mean the remark in something like a Coleridgean sense: a poem is like a living being; it grows organically from successive and interrelated acts of imagination. In other words, one shouldn’t write poetry “by the rules” any more than one should paint by numbers and expect to be considered a great artist.
“To John Hamilton Reynolds. Milton, Wordsworth, and the Chambers of Human Life, May 3, 1818.”
Keats says he is able to describe only two chambers in life’s “Mansion of Many Apartments.” The first is the “infant or thoughtless Chamber,” and the second is the “Chamber of Maiden-Thought.” The latter is initially delightful, all light and atmosphere, but in this Chamber we also learn much about the “heart and nature of Man,” which causes us to become fixated on the world’s high quotient of “Misery and Heartbreak, Pain, Sickness, and oppression.” On the whole, at this stage we cannot see our way clearly; there seems to be no way out of our dark confusion, and we are caught up in the unhappy rhythms and dilemmas and burdens of life. Keats recalls Wordsworth’s line about “the burthen of the mystery” from “Tintern Abbey.” On the whole, Keats uses the distinctions he has made to praise Wordsworth, but only because that later poet’s depth is given him by the times in which he lives. Milton was a man of his era, and so is Wordsworth.
“To Richard Woodhouse. A Poet Has No Identity, Oct. 27, 1818.”
“As to the poetical Character itself . . . it is not itself—it has no self—it is every thing and nothing—It has no character—it enjoys light and shade; it lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated. It has as much delight in conceiving an Iago as an Imogen. What shocks the virtuous philosopher, delights the camelion poet.” Evidently, Keats would more or less agree with Oscar Wilde that “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book.” Art isn’t a species of moral discourse; art is simply art, something that is bound to “end in speculation” rather than action. And again, art isn’t primarily self-expression for Keats; it isn’t about shoring up our morals or our sense of self. It is about exploring our relation to objects, to the world beyond our solitary selves.
“To George and Georgiana Keats. The Vale of Soul-Making, Feb. 14 – May 3, 1819.”
Keats opposes moral abstractions of any sort: he construes life not as a “vale of tears” as in traditional Christian thought, but instead as a “Vale of Soul-Making,” where the main thing is to learn about the human “heart.” This line of thinking is in part a call for an almost pagan “openness to experience”: he writes that “Though a quarrel in the streets is a thing to be hated, the energies displayed in it are fine.” We may be reminded of Imlac’s remark in Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas, “To a poet nothing can be useless.”
“To Percy Bysshe Shelley. Load Every Rift with Ore, Aug. 16, 1820.”
Keats seems to be saying to Shelley regarding his play The Cenci, “more rich matter, more drama, and less morality, please.” Keats says an artist must, in a sense, serve not God (purpose) but Mammon – the particular needs of the work of art at hand. The Cenci is a play with an exciting Renaissance subject, so it should honor those qualities.