Celebrating the bicentenary of the great odes that assured John Keats of eternal fame

Keats’s 1819 odes explore the use of the imagination and the creative process to cope with the problems of time, change and the suffering and brevity of life

John Keats, by Joseph Severn

Taken together, John Keats’s six major odes, written 200 years ago this year, mark a highly significant moment in the history of English poetry and have become regarded widely as the greatest written in the 19th century.

They were to guarantee Keats the eternal fame (posthumous, of course) for which he had yearned; he had created a new kind of lyrical poem, a new form of ode, which was to influence poets of later generations. The odes are derived from the sonnet form with which Keats was always experimenting.

The most prevalent thematic thread running through all of these great odes, culminating in ‘To Autumn’, (see my previous essay, ‘It’s the 200th anniversary of John Keats writing his famous Ode to Autumn’) is that of a profound sense of loss coupled with adaptation to mutability and natural process, representing one of the most remarkable achievements in literature in this regard.

The five other odes are ‘To Psyche’, ‘On a Grecian urn’, ‘To a nightingale’, ‘On Melancholy’ and ‘On Indolence’, this being the probable order of their composition, in rapid succession over a period of about four weeks, in the spring of 1819. In them, the archetypal force of myth is brought to bear to allegorise the soul’s journey through life.

‘To Autumn’, written in September 1819, is a natural culmination of various strains of thought in the odes and, for that matter, in Keats’s poetry overall, where his central themes are love and strife — love in all its phases and personal suffering and struggle. The same themes recur time and again in classical mythology, explaining Keats’s extensive use of myth. In the odes, these themes intermingle.

One of the most important elements is the quest for a feminine and immortal presence cast in a dominant symbol: in the case of the odes, a goddess too late for antique vows, a Grecian urn of mystery, a bird whose song was heard in the ancient world, a goddess of melancholy, and a goddess of harvest and rebirth.

The odes demonstrate the power of the imagination to combat a sense of great inner loss and internalise the most self-sustaining aspects of the dominant symbols within the theme of the serenity and permanance of great art; thus to cope with the problem of time and change, and the suffering and brevity of life; and to pursue beauty and truth, but in the artist’s sense not the moralist’s.

Another key aspect is the exploration of the value and nature of the creative process as a protective force against the profane world.

Negative capability

It’s particularly instructive to consider the odes in the light of a question posed by the poet in a letter to his brothers George and Thomas in December 1817: ‘Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an Intelligence and make it a soul?’

It was in this letter that Keats defined his concept of negative capability, his phrase for the receptivity necessary to the process of poetic creativity. He regarded Shakespeare as the prime example of negative capability, seeing in him the ability to identify completely with his characters, and to write about them with empathy and understanding.

He contrasted this with partisan approaches of Milton and the ‘egotistical sublime’ of Wordsworth which involved extreme assertion of the self and the value of individual experience. Indeed, in a letter to his friend Benjamin Bailey in November 1817, Keats described how he identified with a sparrow by his window: ‘I take part in its existence and pick about the gravel.’

However, Keats displayed an ambivalence towards his own attitude, fluctuating between belief in the approach embracing negative capability and the active pursuit of rational knowledge and philosophical inquiry. I believe this ambivalence can be detected in the odes, which only partially bear out any insistence on negative capability; indeed how, as Andrew Motion suggests (in Keats, Faber & Faber, 1997), the odes, if read as a sequence, reveal a ‘steady evaporation’ of the concept.

In the odes ‘To Psyche’, ‘On a Grecian urn’ and ‘To a Nightingale’, Keats projects himself wholeheartedly into the subjects, or symbols, of his imagination, but in the odes ‘On Melancholy’, ‘On Indolence’ and ‘To Autumn’, he seems to move away from the embrace of negative capability towards a more rationalistic approach; there is a drawing back from the deliquescent abandon of the former odes.

In these three, rationality and intellect are held subdued in favour of intuition, creating the kind of balance between opposites that Keats envisaged under negative capability. Here, there is no ‘irritable reaching after facts and reason’, as Keats freely allows his unconscious to guide him, in his composition, in a veritable ‘poet’s reverie’.

‘Surely I dreamt today, or did I see …’, and ‘Was it a vision of a waking dream?’ he asks.

Mystic union

Choice of the myth of Psyche (Greek for ‘soul’), long regarded as an allegory of the soul’s troubled journey though life towards a mystic union with the divine after death, takes on an archetypal significance when considering Keats who regarded the ‘world of pains and troubles’ as the ‘vale of soul-making’.

In ‘some untrodden region’ of his mind, Keats proposes to build a temple to Psyche where thought is merely ‘shadowy’, and dreams — the ‘casement ope at night’ — will let in love.

In ‘Nightingale’, ‘magic casements’ are again the bridge between the conscious and unconscious minds which is made possible for the poet by the bird’s melodious song heard, once more, in a state between waking and sleeping conducive to ‘uncertainties, mysteries …’ and a reconciliation of fact with feeling, of thought with sensation.

‘Now more than ever seems it rich to die, / To cease upon the midnight with no pain …’ The thought/fact of death is balanced with the feeling/sensation of richness and absence of pain.

Again, in ‘Urn’, reverie takes Keats down the ruins of time, this time to empathise with the ancient world depicted on the urn, the silent form of which ‘dost tease us out of thought / As doth eternity …’, defeating attempts to reason, or raising us beyond merely intellectual speculation to an intuitive level.

The urn is silent, yet speaks — ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’ — the aphorism delivered up just as, upon the sudden realisation of ‘Cold Pastoral!’, Keats disengages his imagination.

By contrast, in ‘Melancholy’, ‘Indolence’ and ‘Autumn’, the free play of imaginative and unconscious forces is monitored by reason to a much greater extent, with a more searching scrutiny of mental states and/or processes. This is evidenced by particular images in the odes and their attendant attitudes.

Thought and sensation

Read as a sequence, the six odes, therefore, in their attempt to achieve a harmony, or balance, between dualities, to achieve that equipoise between thought and sensation, and to investigate the connections between the inevitable privations of human existence and the ability of art to act as a compensatory medium, suggest that the demands of outside events, in his personal life and in the wider (political) world, were beginning to invade Keats’s imagination with an urgency he could not ignore or resist.

In ‘Indolence’, the only one of the six odes concerned essentially with the poet himself rather than an external object, greater impartiality comes into play as he checks the progress of his reverie, a mood once more aided by an ‘open casement’, one that lets in warmth and birdsong. He would prefer ‘nothingness’ in his mind, in his present indolent state, to the images before him, and is led to question the allure of Love, Ambition and his ‘demon Poesy’, and to suggest it’s folly to pursue them.

The poet is able to order the disappearance of the figures for ‘upon your skirts had fallen no tears of mine’. The ambivalence of attitude is caught in the command ‘Vanish, ye Phantoms’, his desire for an age free of pain and the pressures of time and commonsense, and his expectations of other visions both by night and by day.

It seems that here there is almost an ‘irritable reaching after … reason’ in order to free himself from the ‘ripe … drowsy hour’.

The epigraph to the ode, taken from Matthew, seems ironic if Keats is comparing himself to the ‘lilies of the field’ which grow without toiling or spinning. Thus the poet may yet grow as an artist through his ‘visions’, despite his languor.

In ‘Melancholy’ and ‘Autumn’, the sense of reverie is largely absent, suggesting greater rational control of the subject matter and, consequently, a lessening of reliance on negative capability. At the opening of ‘Melancholy’, in contrast to ‘Nightingale’, the admonishment is ‘go not to Lethe’, that the ‘wakeful anguish’ of the soul should be preserved so as to sustain a certain objectivity, to come to terms with the realisation that ‘… in the very temple of Delight / Veiled Melancholy has her sovran shrine …’

Isolated symbol

The mood of this ode is one of confidence and persuasion, moving towards a reconciliation to the facts of mutability and process, and away from attempts to circumvent them by means of identification with an isolated symbol, Psyche, urn or nightingale.

Irony and scepticism accompany a more resigned, yet more reasoned, approach: melancholy dwells with ‘Beauty that must die’; Joy’s hand is ever at his lips ‘bidding adieu’.

Crucially, none can see Melancholy’s shrine except ‘him whose strenuous tongue / Can burst Joy’s grape against his palate fine’ — in other words, that the intensity, or intoxication, of joy (‘tipsy Joy’, perhaps, in Coleridge’s phrase) must be experienced sensually and to the utmost before it can be realised that its opposite state is integral to it.

Intensity is the prerequisite for the success of the quest for beauty which leads to the goddess Melancholy. Keats is at the climax here of the trend begun in ‘Psyche’ of internalisation of aspects of numinous symbols felt to be most beneficial, or sustaining, to the poet’s nature (while ‘Melancholy’ also anticipates the resolution of ‘Autumn’).

This intensity is received as an internalising experience especially in the second and third stanzas where it’s combined with images of ingestion, leading to a fusion, or reconciliation, of opposites.

In the major odes, Keats struggled to transcend time while being fully aware of time’s travails. In celebrating the bicentenary of these great works we can see that, in one sense at least, his struggle was not in vain.

Keats House, Hampstead, London, where John Keats lived 1818–20, and where he fell in love with Fanny Brawne who lived next door. The house became the Keats Museum in 1931.

Writer, poet, tutor and mentor in literature and creative writing (MA and BA Hons degrees in English literature), editor, journalist and musician.

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