The poetry of John Keats | Daily News

The poetry of John Keats

The bicentenary of John Keats fell yesterday, February 23

I think John Keats’s great achievement, as a poet, is his intensely poignant vision of the world. That vision was never marred by political rhetoric. There’s no doubt that what comes out in his two poems on Leigh Hunt, for instance, is anger against his jailers. But look closer: far from using Hunt’s imprisonment to vent out frustration against the political order, what Keats achieves is something else:

Minion of grandeur! think you he did wait?

Think you he nought but prison walls did see,

Till, so unwilling, thou unturn’dst the key?

Ah, no! far happier, nobler was his fate!

Keats’s idealisation of Hunt here seems to me to undermine the reality of his imprisonment. A critic can argue this was in line with Hunt’s strength of will even while being punished — Jeremy Bentham found him playing battledore when visiting him in prison — but for me at least, it is not congruent with Keats’s elevation of that punishment as a sign of his maturity as a critic (“In Spenser’s hall he strayed, and bowers fair”). I may be wrong, but that is how I view his Leigh Hunt poems.

Notwithstanding that, however, Keats was without a doubt a nonconformist. He had a fairly liberal education: Nicholas Roe, in “Everyman’s” anthology of his poetry, has written that Enfield School, which the young Keats attended, was important for “transmitting to Keats the dynamic intellectual life of English dissent.” Roe does his best to overturn the popular view of him as an enigmatic romantic, a poet more concerned with beauty than with reality, and to his credit he does make a point when highlighting the allegory in “Hyperion: A Fragment.”

But what is it in “Hyperion” that merits such a point or comparison? To find out for myself I read it, and I came across these lines:

“Shut up your senses, stifle up your ears,

“My voice is not a bellows unto ire.

“Yet listen, ye who will, whilst I bring proof

“How ye, perforce, must be content to stoop:

“And in the proof much comfort will I give,

“If ye will take that comfort in its truth.

“We fall by course of Nature’s law, not force

“Of thunder, or of Jove.

The speaker of these lines is Oceanus, the God of the Sea. “Hyperion” (which Keats never completed) is about the overthrow of one order by another. The Titans are soothing their sorrow in the aftermath of their fall to the Olympians. Some of the Titans want to rebel, but Oceanus is the voice of reason here: not only must the old order pass to the new, but they must accept it as an eventuality. Roe must have seen in this an affirmation of revolution, especially at a time when portraying dethroned monarchs was “regarded in Britain as potentially an incitement to revolution.”

But I read these lines differently. “Nature’s law” presupposes a preconceived (and divinely ordained) history, a passage from the old to the new which maintains the same structure that sustained the old. Call it “parliamentary democracy”, call it a “coup”, to me the overthrow of the Titans was nothing more or less than a violent overthrow of one set of gods by another.

I am of course not suggesting that for Keats the most valid “overthrow of tyranny” was one which sustained the same political base (which by the way is what pretty much goes for democracy today!), but I do believe that Keats’s conception of history as an organic process of change followed by order is not in line with Roe’s reading of the poem. This is what imputes fresh nuances of meaning to Keats, and marks him out as probably the most idiosyncratic, atypical poet among the Romantics.

Not that he was an outsider to them. In his work we see that same Romantic idealisation of beauty and nature, because of which his poetry is often classed as “escapist.” That classification is crass, though. To consider Keats’s high regard for beauty (back when the chief quality of the Romantics was, yes, their high regard for beauty!) as “escapist” is to read his work wrongly. His masterpieces — which for me were his odes and tributes to such abstractions as Indolence, Beauty, Melancholy, Art — are marked out well by the intermingling of substantive reality and aesthetic delight. It is here that his real genius is to be found, and not (as is claimed by critics who clamour to read the political in his poetry) in “Hyperion.”

Consider, for instance, these lines from “Ode to a Nightingale”

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;

Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs,

Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;

Where but to think is to be full of sorrow

And leaden-eyed despairs,

Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,

Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow.

Here’s the motif that defines the intensity of his poetry: his constant yearning for tranquillity and solace in the face of tragedy (his brother died of tuberculosis, and he himself would succumb to it at the age of 25). This is what critics class as “escapist” in terms of imagery — the juxtaposition of the “weariness” and “fever” of mortal man with the immortal song of the nightingale, as well as the mortality of Beauty in the face of human suffering — but I prefer to class them as the anguish of a heart beset with tragedy, a microcosm of the tragedy of the world.

But to consider this as his strength is to consider Keats’s defining marks — his use of pastoral imagery, metaphor, and personification — as leading to a never-ending search for tranquillity. Wordsworth never faced this problem, because in his later years he could (thanks to his reactionary politics) afford to offer an easy way out: a contemplation of the mystical (which Regi Siriwardena called “inertia”). That is what I’d consider as “escapist”, and not Keats’s sustained quest for solace.

He weakened a little, in my opinion, when he deviated from his meditations on pain and pleasure. To be specific, when the experience he brought out was inadequate when compared with the form. I can think of one poem here specifically, the first of his I ever learnt: “La Belle Dame Sans Merci.” What we relate to in that poem is the knight and his harrowing ordeal. But the quickness of that ordeal — which critics read as contributing to its shocking appeal — leads to disappointment. We know the woman isn’t who she is when we hear these lines:

And there she lulled me asleep,

And there I dream’d — Ah! woe betide!

The latest dream I ever dream’d

On the cold hill’s side.

I saw pale kings and princes too,

Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;

They cried — “La Belle Dame sans Merci

Hath thee in thrall!”

We’re made to believe that it is this sudden experience that frightens and turns him to despair, when in the next verse we are told that

I saw their starved lips in the gloam,

With horrid warning gaped wide,

And I awoke and found me here,

On the cold hill’s side.

But the suddenness of that experience (“And I awoke and found me here”) and the economy with which Keats relates it to the reader deprive the poem of any subtlety. Call me a cynic, but when I read these lines now, I can’t understand why the knight should be disappointed, whether at the woman’s transformation or at the fact that his love for her wasn’t returned. Keats’s use of imagery is sparse, almost austere, and that deprives it of vitality. I rate it personally among his weaker work.

I must confess that at the time I first read Keats I was an incurable romantic, and that is what endeared his poetry to me. 10 years later, I find that position unchanged: regardless of whatever beliefs he may have held on to, Keats is the poet we look to when beset with personal tragedy, not because contemplation affords escapism, but because in it we realise that suffering and mortality are eternal, and that the quest for eternal(ised) abstractions like beauty may never end.

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