The Influence of Edmund Spenser on Keats
Keats was considerably influenced by Spenser and was, like the latter, a passionate lover of beauty in all its forms and manifestations. This passion for beauty Constitutes his aestheticism. Beauty, indeed, was his pole-star, beauty in Nature, in woman, and in art. “A thing of beauty is a joy for ever”, he writes and he identifies beauty with truth. “Of all the poets in his time, Keats is one of the most inevitably associated with the love of beauty in the ordinary sense of the term. He was the most passionate lover of the world as the carrier of beautiful images and of the many imaginative associations of an object or word with whatever might give it a heightened emotional appeal.” Poetry, according to Keats, should be the incarnation of beauty, not a medium for the expression of religious or social philosophy.
Keats’s Hatred of Didacticism
Keats hated didacticism in poetry. “We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us,” he wrote. He believed that poetry should be unobtrusive. The poet, according to him, is a creator and an artist, not a teacher or a prophet. In a letter to his brother, he wrote: “With a great poet the sense of beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.” He even disapproved of Shelley for subordinating the true end of poetry to the object of social reform. He dedicated his brief life to the expression of beauty. “I have loved the principle of beauty in all things”, he said.
Accused of Being a Poet of Escape
The world of beauty was for Keats an escape from the dreary and painful effects of ordinary experience. He escaped from the political and social problems of the world into the realm of imagination. Unlike Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron and Shelley, he remained absolutely untouched by revolutionary theories for the regeneration of mankind. His later poems such as the Ode to a Nightingale and Hyperion, no doubt show an increasing interest in humanity and human problems and, if he had lived, he would have established a closer contact with reality. As it is, he may on the whole be termed as a poet of escape. “With him poetry existed not as an instrument of social revolt nor of philosophical doctrine, but for the expression of beauty.” Critics accuse him of being indifferent to humanity but they should realise that he aimed at expressing beauty for its own sake.
The Contrast Between Him and Two of His Contemporaries
In John Keats, we have a remarkable contrast both with Byron on the one side and with Shelley on the other. Keats was neither rebel nor Utopian dreamer. Endowed with a purely artistic nature, he took up in regard to all the movements and conflicts of his time a position of almost complete detachment. He knows nothing of Byron’s stormy spirit of antagonism to the existing order of things and he had no sympathy with Shelley’s humanitarian real and passion for reforming the world. The famous opening line of Endymion—‘A thing of beauty is a joy for ever’—strikes the key-note of his work. As the modern world seemed to him to be hard, cold, and prosaic, he habitually sought an imaginative escape from it, not like Shelley into the future land of promise, but into the past of Greek mythology, as in Endymion, Lamia, and the fragmentary Hyperion, or of medieval romance, as in The Eve of St. Agnes, Isabella, and La Belle Dame Sans Merci. In his treatment of Nature, this same passion for sensuous beauty is still the dominant feature. He loved Nature just for its own sake and for the glory and loveliness which he everywhere found in it, and no modern poet has ever been nearer than he was to the simple ‘poety of earth’; but there was nothing mystical in the love and Nature was never fraught for him, as for Wordsworth and Shelley, with spiritual messages and meanings.
The Most Perfect of Romanticists
“Keats was not only the last but also the most perfect of the romanticists. While Scott was merely telling stories, and Wordsworth reforming poetry or upholding the moral law, and Shelley advocating impossible reforms, and Byron voicing his own egoism and the political discontent of the times, Keats lived apart from men and from all political measures, worshipping beauty like a devotee, perfectly content to write what was in his own heart or to reflect some splendour of the natural world as he saw or dreamed it to be. He had, moreover, the novel idea that poetry exists for its own sake and suffers loss by being devoted to philosophy or politics, or, indeed, to any cause, great or small.”
The Oneness of Truth and Beauty in His Opinion
Of the qualities that made Keats great and that distinguished him from his great contemporaries, the first is the disinterested love of beauty. He grasped the essential oneness of beauty and truth. His creed did not mean beauty of form alone. His ideal was the Greek ideal of beauty inward and outward, the perfect soul of verse as well as the perfect form. And, precisely because he held this ideal, he was free from the wish to preach.
His Early Sonnets; and His Later Poetry
It was poetry itself that first enlisted his enthusiasm—poetry and art. His early sonnets are largely concerned with poets or with pictures, sculptures, or the rural solitudes in which a poet might nurse his fancy. His great odes have for their subjects a storied Grecian urn; a nightingale (light-winged Dryad of the trees, a singer, throughout all ages made glamorous by poetry); the goddess Psyche, mistress of Cupid, in the flowery tale of Apuleius; the melancholy and indolence of a poet; and the season of autumn, to which he turns from the songs of spring—’for thou hast thy music too’. What he asked of poesy, of wine, or of nightingale’s song was to help him
Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget
What thou among the leaves hast never known,
The weariness, the fever and the fret Here,
where men sit and hear each other groan.
This was the burden of his earlier poems in which he meditated upon his business as a poet: I Stood Tiptoe Upon a Little Hill and Sleep and Poetry. The theme of both these poems is that lovely things in Nature suggest lovely tales to the poet, and the great aim of poetry is to
be a friend
To soothe the cares, and lift the thoughts of man
He also gives here a hint of sterner themes:
Where I may find the agonies, the strife
Of human hearts.
Perhaps Keats would have said that he attempted this nobler life of poetry in poems like Lamia and Hyperion, but it is very doubtful whether he believed that he had done justice to this more elevated type of poetic creation.
His Delight in a Life of Sensations
Love for him was a bed of roses into which one sinks with a delicious sense of release from pain, responsibility, and moral inhibition. He did try, in his long fantasy of Endymion, to rise above the notion of love as the “mere commingling of passionate breath” and to depict love as “a sort of oneness”, “a fellowship with essence”. But the delights of the senses, the free play of the fancy, and the relaxation of the tired nerves were still the most familiar marks with him.
An Intellectual Side to His Aestheticism
But, according to Cazamian, the aestheticism of* Keats has also an intellectual side. No one has ever reaped such a rich harvest of thoughts out of the suggestions which life-had to offer. Through reading, and a thirst for knowledge, he became acquainted with Greece, paganism, and ancient art. He became saturated with Hellenism, having nothing of the learned scholar about him, but rather the naviette, the trifling errors of a self-taught genius. He read the writers of the Renascence, loved and cultivated Spenser, Chapman, Fletcher and Milton. His letters show how closely the cult of Shakespeare was interwoven with his thinking. He admired Wordsworth most of all among contemporary writers, although the closest influence was that of Leigh Hunt, to whom he was indebted for something of his first manner.
An Adoration of Beauty, His Religion
From all these elements, continues Cazamian, Keats built for himself a personal store of reflections and ideas. Religion for him took definite shape in the adoration of the beautiful, an adoration which he developed into a doctrine: Beauty is the supreme Truth; it is imagination that discovers Beauty, and scientific reasoning is an altogether inferior instrument of knowledge. This idealism assumes a note of mysticism; one can see a sustained allegory in Endymion; and certain passages are most surely possessed of a symbolical value.
The View Expressed by Sidney Colvin
It was not Keats’s aim, says Sidney Colvin, merely to create a paradise of art and beauty divorced from the cares and interests of the world. He did aim at the creation and revelation of beauty, but of beauty wherever its elements existed. His conception of poetry covered the whole range of life and imagination. It is true that, because he did not live long enough, he was not able to fully illustrate the vast range of his conception of poetry. During the ‘ brief period of his creative work, he could only reveal the hidden delights of Nature, understand and express the true spirit of classical antiquity, and recreate the spell of the Middle Ages. Fate did not give him time enough fully to unlock the mysteries of the heart, and to illuminate and put in proper perspective the great struggles and problems of human life.