Sunday, 10 December 2017

Total Impression/Common Themes in Keats' Poetry


The total impression of Keats’ odes constitutes a very solid and compact whole. There is an element of unity in the final impression that they leave upon the reader and this unity springs primarily from the oneness of theme in these odes. The basic theme underlying all these odes can be summed up very briefly like this: ‘The Odes deal with the fundamental human problems of finding a solace from the naked and merciless realities of life. The solace can be found in the objects and beauties of nature, in the world of art, in the world of imagination and in a wish for death, but with Keats the solace is always temporary in character and a final come back into the world of realities is very important and essential’.

Ode to a Nightingale

In Ode to Nightingale, we find that Keats has been deeply grieved by the mental strains of humanity at large. These strains have resulted from the intricate complexities of human life. Some are suffering from palsy, the others are dying young. Men sit and hear each other groan’. Man is suffering from so many problems that the world has become a place where but to think is to be full of sorrow’. In order to find relief from the heavy burden of human worries, Keats wants to fly far away into the world of the Nightingale who, ‘among the leaves hast never known’ as to how miserable is the life of man in the world of reality. The natural beauty of the world of Nightingale also subdues Keats’ mental strain to a large extent. The happy lot of the Nightingale generates a death wish in Keats and he puts it very clearly‘Now more than ever seems it rich to die’.

But finally Keats comes back into the world of reality with the sound of just one word ‘forlorn’, a word that reminds him of the human lot.

Ode on a Grecian Urn

More or less the same thing happens in Ode on a Grecian Urn. Here the world of art becomes a substitute for the world of nature (as in Ode to Nightingale) as an agency providing shelter against extreme human misery. Again, the Urn is as immortal as the Nightingale and this is in direct contrast to the transitory values of human life. The world of art enjoys complete permanence. The Urn is an ‘unravish’d bride of quietness’. So much so, it has given a touch of permanence even to the objects of earthly nature. The trees carved on the Urn are not going to shed its leaves. The piper will always continue to pipe sweet melodies. Keats says to the lover on the Urn, ’for ever wilt thou love, and she be fair’.

But with all this, towards the end of the poem, the realization dawns upon Keats that the permanence of the Urn made it a silent, speechless ‘Cold Pastoral’. It lacks the organic warmth of life. In spite of its permanence, it is dead like a machine. The realization marks the return of Keats from the world of art to the world of man and the realities of man.

Ode to Autumn

‘Ode to Autumn’ reveals not Keats’s pictorial quality only; but also a deep sense of purpose underneath. Although the first impression may be that John Keats is simply describing the main characteristics of autumn, and the human and animal activities related to it, a deeper reading could suggest that Keats talks about the process of life. Autumn symbolizes maturity in human and animal lives. Some instances of this are the ‘full-grown lambs’, the sorrow of the gnats, the wind that lives and dies, and the day that is dying and getting dark. As all we know, the next season is winter, a part of the year that represents aging and death, in other words, the end of life. However, death does not have a negative connotation because Keats enjoys and accepts ‘autumn’ or maturity as part of life, though winter is coming. Joys must not be forgotten in times of trouble. Blake’s dictum, ‘Under every grief and pine/Runs a joy with silken twine.’ The two are the part of life. Thus ‘thou has thy music too’ is the right approach to life showing the process of maturity and optimism.

Ode on Melancholy

Ode on Melancholy is yet another poem dealing with the strange dilemmas of human life. We have beauty and joy as a source of pain because both beauty and joy have only a fleeting value. The hand of joy is ‘ever at his lips---bidding Adieu’, and beauty is a thing ‘that must die’.

At the same time the poem also means that man must enjoy the pleasures of life to their full intensity because these pleasures can be over any moment, but one must prepare himself well in advance for the gloomy period of his life also.

From the above discussion we find that there are actually three main themes in Keats’ Odes:

1.   The Inevitability of Death

Even before his diagnosis of terminal tuberculosis, Keats focused on death and its inevitability in his work. For Keats, small, slow acts of death occurred every day, and he chronicled these small mortal occurrences.

The end of a lover’s embrace, the images on an ancient urn, the reaping of grain in autumn—all of these are not only symbols of death, but instances of it.

Examples of great beauty and art also caused Keats to ponder mortality, as in ‘On Seeing the Elgin Marbles’ (1817). As a writer, Keats hoped he would live long enough to achieve his poetic dream of becoming as great as Shakespeare or John Milton. In ‘Sleep and Poetry’ (1817), Keats outlined a plan of poetic achievement that required him to read poetry for a decade in order to understand—and surpass—the work of his predecessors. Hovering near this dream, however, was a morbid sense that death might intervene and terminate his projects; he expresses these concerns in the mournful 1818 sonnet ‘When I have fears that I may cease to be’.

2.   The Contemplation of Beauty

Keats possessed what Bradley calls ‘the Shakespearean strain’, and submitted to the truth of life. He knew that the cold wind and the hot sun were as essential as the fresh blown rose. The poetry of Shakespeare reveals the beauty of life. ‘Truth is beauty’, it says. It accepts the world of men and women as it is. This is also true of Keats. He accepted life as in it joy and sorrow, happiness and melancholy-both exist side by side. If there is discord in life it has its music too.

3.   Escapism

Almost in all of his odes we find him escaping from the realities of the present world and life. Sometimes he gets escape in the world of nature as in Ode to Autumn, some times in the world of art as in Ode to a Grecian Urn and at some other times he moves to an imaginary place to seek pleasure and satisfaction as in Ode to a Nightingale. But ultimately he has to come back into the world of realities with all of its fever and fret. 

1 comment:

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