Beauty Of Poetry Essay

By David Bellemare Gosselin

Today, seldom is Edgar Allan Poe’s voice heard as it’s drowned out by the popular notions of Poe as some sort of deranged man whose stories and poetry are simply the product of his own sick mind.

The myth of Poe as some sort of mad man genius is largely the creation of his personal enemy Rufus Wilmot Griswold, who wrote the first Poe biography. The myth to this day is kept alive by popular culture such that much of the true meaning and clairvoyance of Poe’s thinking is drowned out by people’s own thoughts on the subject. However, rather than going into the details of Poe’s biographies and trying to debunk myth after myth, let us take his poetry as the evidence of where Poe’s mind actually dwelt.

Many accuse Poe of ‘morbidity’, however those who make such accusations have most likely not come face to face with their own mortality. Take for example Socrates, who said that the true philosopher is always concerned with ‘dying’; that is, they are concerned with freeing themselves from all those obstacles of the earthly world like the blindness of the flesh, the fear of the unknown and the sobering frailty of life itself. Only if one overcomes those earthly obstacles, does one find the courage to explore those unknown realms, finding their own thoughts no longer anchored in the usual places, and now ready to explore that which their instincts for self-preservation and the condition of their mortality had predisposed them to fear.

Thus the secret of Poe’s method of composition and for following the trail of clues left by his own mind, lies precisely in the fact that he never lets you escape Death, he never allows you to avoid the paradox of your mortality.

Here is where many feel their instincts are challenged, “That’s so morbid” says the Romantic. Yet only by crossing this path can one attain a higher realm, the realm of what Poe terms supernal beauty – that which lies beyond the pretty flowers and singing skylarks, where the haunting beauty of the sublime takes over.

Take the Conqueror Worm as a simple and early example of his mind:

Lo! ‘tis a gala night
__Within the lonesome latter years!
An angel throng, bewinged, bedight
__In veils, and drowned in tears,
Sit in a theatre, to see
__A play of hopes and fears,
While the orchestra breathes fitfully
__The music of the spheres.

Mimes, in the form of God on high,
__Mutter and mumble low,
And hither and thither fly—
__Mere puppets they, who come and go
At bidding of vast formless things
__That shift the scenery to and fro,
Flapping from out their Condor wings
__Invisible Wo!

That motley drama—oh, be sure
__It shall not be forgot!
With its Phantom chased for evermore
__By a crowd that seize it not,
Through a circle that ever returneth in
__To the self-same spot,
And much of Madness, and more of Sin,
__And Horror the soul of the plot.

But see, amid the mimic rout,
__A crawling shape intrude!
A blood-red thing that writhes from out
__The scenic solitude!
It writhes!—it writhes!—with mortal pangs
__The mimes become its food,
And seraphs sob at vermin fangs
__In human gore imbued.

Out—out are the lights—out all!
__And, over each quivering form,
The curtain, a funeral pall,
__Comes down with the rush of a storm,
While the angels, all pallid and wan,
__Uprising, unveiling, affirm
That the play is the tragedy, “Man,”
__And its hero, the Conqueror Worm.

As the great German poet Friedrich Schiller said, while the sublime is a mixed feeling, which comes almost as a shudder, it is yet more powerful; one feels a degree of freedom incomparable to that which the attachment to any sensual thing or its appearance can offer.

While perhaps a bleak idea for someone who defines their existence as solely a question of what they can touch, taste, hear, see or smell, for a humbled person, it has the power to bring them to that higher realm, the realm of supernal beauty, where one finds themselves no longer troubled by the worldly concerns, which ensnare most people.

Think of the ‘Conqueror Worm’ as a tragedy like one of Shakespeare’s, where the real stage lies in the audience’s mind, watching the characters, the choices they make, seeing the entire system of axioms that shapes their fate, and that of their society, unfold.

Take Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar for example. In it, Shakespeare puts the lines “The fault my dear Brutus, is not in the stars, but in ourselves” in Cassius’ mouth. By saying this, Shakespeare allows the audience to contemplate the question of where the power to decide one’s own fate lies.

However, can those unwilling to contemplate their own mortality have the courage to choose their own fate? That is, when the curtain falls, will the worms have the final say or will their lives from the start have been directed towards a higher realm – the one which Poe now eternally inhabits?

With this in mind we take the opportunity to list Poe’s top 5 poems. As we read some of Poe’s greatest poems like The Raven, Annabel Lee or To Annie, let us consider: were such poems really driven by despair, or does a higher order of beauty exist?

 

Appendix: Top 5 Poems

1. Annabel Lee (1849)

It was many and many a year ago,
In a kingdom by the sea,
That a maiden lived whom you may know
By the name of Annabel Lee;—
And this maiden she lived with no other thought
Than to love and be loved by me.

I was a child and She was a child,
In this kingdom by the sea,
But we loved with a love that was more than love—
I and my Annabel Lee—
With a love that the wingéd seraphs of Heaven
Coveted her and me.

And this was the reason that, long ago,
In this kingdom by the sea,
A wind blew out of a cloud by night
Chilling my Annabel Lee;
So that her high-born kinsmen came
And bore her away from me,
To shut her up, in a sepulchre
In this kingdom by the sea.

The angels, not half so happy in Heaven,
Went envying her and me;
Yes! that was the reason (as all men know,
In this kingdom by the sea)
That the wind came out of the cloud, chilling
Annabel Lee.

But our love it was stronger by far than the love
Of those who were older than we—
Of many far wiser than we—
And neither the angels in Heaven above
Nor the demons down under the sea
Can ever dissever my soul from the soul
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee:—

For the moon never beams without bringing me dreams
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And the stars never rise but I see the bright eyes
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side
Of my darling, my darling, my life and my bride
In her sepulchre there by the sea—
In her tomb by the side of the sea.

In justifying this first poem, much of the reasoning for the ones that follow will have been addressed. We can hear people protesting “why is the Raven not number one!” The Raven is Poe’s most popular poem, and without doubt one of his best, but just because it is the most popular and well known, in fact ubiquitous within the culture, that does not mean there are not reasons to put some of Poe’s later compositions before it.

The Raven put on display all the elements of a perfect poetic composition, all weaved into one artless piece of narrative poetry. However, it is arguable that Poe was able to reach a more profound level of idea, using those skills he put on display in the Raven, in some of his later pieces, employing many of the same strophic and metrical principles used in The Raven and treating the same theme, but doing all that in a slightly different light.

Annabel Lee was the last completed poem Poe wrote. It was in its own sense, a kind of Mona Lisa of poetry, the same Mona Lisa, which for too many people too often, after having seen it, seem to have nothing to say other than “It was smaller than I thought.” In introducing this theme of the death of a young woman, he uses some of the most well-crafted meter ever employed. With anapests, iambs and spondees coming together in a manifold of meters, breaking his own rules, much like late Beethoven, and thus breaking out from any standard form, Poe created, while perhaps a less popular and accessible piece, a more haunting and a more profoundly moving piece, for those who are willing to follow him into ‘the night’s Plutonian shores.’

The death of a youthful maiden is a theme, which Poe called “the most poetical topic one could conceive of,” which had been so brilliantly showcased in The Raven. The difficulty for many in understanding Poe’s poetry, or only apprehending a more Romantic conception of it, thus preferring those Poems like the Raven, lies in where he is taking you with it.

While The Raven is an artless masterpiece and has perhaps more ability to thrill and entertain, it yet has less power to deeply move, to grip one from the depths of the soul to the effect that the person experiences a fundamental transformation within themselves.

Moreover, for much of that magic to come alive, such poems have to be recited (which is all together an art form on its own, aided by those familiar with dramatic performance and bel canto singing), they are not dead scores like those of some post-modernist composer utilising all sorts of combinations and virtuosity merely for the purpose of effect, or for titillating the senses, without any real commitment to truth or sense of higher purpose – Poe is creating a rhythm and musicality, which as Saint Augustine wrote of poetry: ‘It is the ascent from rhythm in sense, to the immortal rhythm which is in truth’.

It has the power to carry us beyond the realm of just pretty images and singing skylarks, bringing the reader who is courageous, to the utmost depths of the soul, and experiencing one of the most profound and at the same time frightening of human experiences – the loss of our beloved. It is a loss no man or woman can escape. In being confronted with this greatest and most moving of mortal experiences, only then does life become ever sweeter, sweeter than anything any of us might have been willing to accept, before such an experience. Still living, having walked with Poe, we now re-enter our daily lives with a profound sense of appreciation for the sweetness of life – having been made sweeter only by death.

In a word: the ultimate difference between Annabel Lee and The Raven is the tone. With The Raven, theatrics, drama, characters all come to life, which while haunting, still manages to have a playful feeling to it – it cannot be taken too seriously or it loses its magic. With Annabel Lee, the feeling of loss is a lot more personal, and the announcement that this beautiful woman is not just some special love interest, but that it is his bride – the feeling felt is truly painful. It is a pain, which no person who has ever experienced the true meaning and beauty of life can ever deny knowing.

 

2. The Raven (1845)

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore —
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
“ ’Tis some visiter,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door —
Only this and nothing more.”

Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December;
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.
Eagerly I wished the morrow; — vainly I had sought to borrow
From my books surcease of sorrow — sorrow for the lost Lenore —
For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore —
Nameless here for evermore.

And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me — filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;
So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating
“ ’Tis some visiter entreating entrance at my chamber door —
Some late visiter entreating entrance at my chamber door; —
This it is and nothing more.”

Presently my soul grew stronger; hesitating then no longer,
“Sir,” said I, “or Madam, truly your forgiveness I implore;
But the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came rapping,
And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door,
That I scarce was sure I heard you” — here I opened wide the door; ——
Darkness there and nothing more.

Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before;
But the silence was unbroken, and the stillness gave no token,
And the only word there spoken was the whispered word, “Lenore?”
This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the word, “Lenore!” —
Merely this and nothing more.

Back into the chamber turning, all my soul within me burning,
Soon again I heard a tapping somewhat louder than before.
“Surely,” said I, “surely that is something at my window lattice;
Let me see, then, what thereat is, and this mystery explore —
Let my heart be still a moment and this mystery explore;—
‘Tis the wind and nothing more!”

Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,
In there stepped a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore;
Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he;
But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door —
Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door —
Perched, and sat, and nothing more.

Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore,
“Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou,” I said, “art sure no craven,
Ghastly grim and ancient Raven wandering from the Nightly shore —
Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night’s Plutonian shore!”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”

Much I marvelled this ungainly fowl to hear discourse so plainly,
Though its answer little meaning — little relevancy bore;
For we cannot help agreeing that no living human being
Ever yet was blessed with seeing bird above his chamber door —
Bird or beast upon the sculptured bust above his chamber door,
With such name as “Nevermore.”

But the Raven, sitting lonely on the placid bust, spoke only
That one word, as if his soul in that one word he did outpour.
Nothing farther then he uttered — not a feather then he fluttered —
Till I scarcely more than muttered “Other friends have flown before —
On the morrow he will leave me, as my Hopes have flown before.”
Then the bird said “Nevermore.”

Startled at the stillness broken by reply so aptly spoken,
“Doubtless,” said I, “what it utters is its only stock and store
Caught from some unhappy master whom unmerciful Disaster
Followed fast and followed faster till his songs one burden bore —
Till the dirges of his Hope that melancholy burden bore
Of ‘Never — nevermore’.”

But the Raven still beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
Straight I wheeled a cushioned seat in front of bird, and bust and door;
Then, upon the velvet sinking, I betook myself to linking
Fancy unto fancy, thinking what this ominous bird of yore —
What this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous bird of yore
Meant in croaking “Nevermore.”

This I sat engaged in guessing, but no syllable expressing
To the fowl whose fiery eyes now burned into my bosom’s core;
This and more I sat divining, with my head at ease reclining
On the cushion’s velvet lining that the lamp-light gloated o’er,
But whose velvet-violet lining with the lamp-light gloating o’er,
She shall press, ah, nevermore!

Then, methought, the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer
Swung by seraphim whose foot-falls tinkled on the tufted floor.
“Wretch,” I cried, “thy God hath lent thee — by these angels he hath sent thee
Respite — respite and nepenthe, from thy memories of Lenore;
Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe and forget this lost Lenore!”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”

“Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil! — prophet still, if bird or devil! —
Whether Tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore,
Desolate yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted —
On this home by Horror haunted — tell me truly, I implore —
Is there — is there balm in Gilead? — tell me — tell me, I implore!”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”

“Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil! — prophet still, if bird or devil!
By that Heaven that bends above us — by that God we both adore —
Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn,
It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore —
Clasp a rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore.”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”

“Be that word our sign of parting, bird or fiend!” I shrieked, upstarting —
“Get thee back into the tempest and the Night’s Plutonian shore!
Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken!
Leave my loneliness unbroken! — quit the bust above my door!
Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”

And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming,
And the lamp-light o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted — nevermore!

The Raven was Poe’s most popular poem, and to this day, even people who have almost no familiarity with poetry are most likely familiar with The Raven, much in the same way those who have virtually no knowledge of painting, renaissance art and history are yet still familiar with the Mona Lisa.

Like Da Vinci, Poe produced very few masterpieces in the art for which he was unique. The Raven stands out as something of a Mona Lisa (if The Raven is his Mona Lisa, then Annabel Lee is his Last Supper) of poetry because of the fact all the elements of a poetic master are displayed to create something of a miracle in poetic composition. From the elements of strophic poetry, intricate meter with the use of multiple rhymes including middle rhymes hearkening back to the ancient Greek poets, the narrative excellence and mastery of diction which makes the vowels ‘dance’ as Dante said they should, to the superb and haunting musicality, the Raven stands out as a masterpiece like none other.

The theme of the death of a beloved, of a beautiful maiden is on full display. While many tend to view much of Poe’s work as autobiographical, an obsession with Death, if one only considers that we are all mortal, and that we will all die, by Poe treating the question of Death and our mortality in his most famous poem, is this really some sign of deviance from healthy and ‘common’ place thoughts?

Poe is in fact provoking us to explore the most profound paradoxes of the human condition, not through some sort of thesis, but by getting us to experience the concept directly, which only great poetry and great art can do. While perhaps some people would prefer Poe just focus on happier thoughts like the Romantic’s skylarks and daffodils, he is challenging us to go deeper.

See here for more on The Raven’s mechanics.

 

3. For Annie (1849)

Thank Heaven! the crisis—
The danger is past,
And the lingering illness
Is over at last—
And the fever called “Living”
Is conquered at last.

Sadly, I know,
I am shorn of my strength,
And no muscle I move
As I lie at full length—
But no matter!—I feel
I am better at length.

And I rest so composedly,
Now in my bed,
That any beholder
Might fancy me dead—
Might start at beholding me
Thinking me dead.

The moaning and groaning,
The sighing and sobbing,
Are quieted now,
With that horrible throbbing
At heart:—ah, that horrible,
Horrible throbbing!

The sickness—the nausea—
The pitiless pain—
Have ceased, with the fever
That maddened my brain—
With the fever called “Living”
That burned in my brain.

And oh! of all tortures
That torture the worst
Has abated—the terrible
Torture of thirst,
For the naphthaline river
Of Passion accurst:—
I have drank of a water
That quenches all thirst:—

Of a water that flows,
With a lullaby sound,
From a spring but a very few
Feet under ground—
From a cavern not very far
Down under ground.

And ah! let it never
Be foolishly said
That my room it is gloomy
And narrow my bed—
For man never slept
In a different bed;
And, to sleep, you must slumber
In just such a bed.

My tantalized spirit
Here blandly reposes,
Forgetting, or never
Regretting its roses—
Its old agitations
Of myrtles and roses:

For now, while so quietly
Lying, it fancies
A holier odor
About it, of pansies—
A rosemary odor,
Commingled with pansies—
With rue and the beautiful
Puritan pansies.

And so it lies happily,
Bathing in many
A dream of the truth
And the beauty of Annie—
Drowned in a bath
Of the tresses of Annie.

She tenderly kissed me,
She fondly caressed,
And then I fell gently
To sleep on her breast—
Deeply to sleep
From the heaven of her breast.

When the light was extinguished,
She covered me warm,
And she prayed to the angels
To keep me from harm—
To the queen of the angels
To shield me from harm.

And I lie so composedly,
Now in my bed
(Knowing her love)
That you fancy me dead—
And I rest so contentedly,
Now in my bed,
(With her love at my breast)
That you fancy me dead—
That you shudder to look at me.
Thinking me dead.

But my heart it is brighter
Than all of the many
Stars in the sky,
For it sparkles with Annie—
It glows with the light
Of the love of my Annie—
With the thought of the light
Of the eyes of my Annie.

On march 23rd, 1849, Poe wrote in a letter to Nancy L. Richmond (to whom the poem was dedicated to) “I think the lines ‘For Annie’ (those I now send) much the best I have ever written.” Annabel Lee would come only slightly later.

Poe’s understanding of strophic poetry, and its use in a seemingly almost startlingly excessive manner, repeating like a symphonic theme, demonstrates where Poe’s mind was, and how he viewed music and poetry as inextricably woven together. Was it excessive, or is our general notion of poetry perhaps incomplete? Do we too often have the tendency to try and grapple with some idea directly, rather than just let the beauty happen to us?

The idea for this poem, as with the others previously mentioned, is felt so profoundly, because it comes as that of a musical idea, there is absolutely no literal statement, no telegraphing of one’s thoughts, just pure beauty and musicality, again moving us to contemplate the most profound paradoxes of human existence, all the while being moved by the sheer beauty of the whole thing, when we otherwise might not have dared.

 

4. The Bells (1849)

I.

HEAR the sledges with the bells—
Silver bells!
What a world of merriment their melody foretells!
How they tinkle, tinkle, tinkle,
In the icy air of night!
While the stars that oversprinkle
All the heavens, seem to twinkle
With a crystalline delight;
Keeping time, time, time,
In a sort of Runic rhyme,
To the tintinnabulation that so musically wells
From the bells, bells, bells, bells,
Bells, bells, bells—
From the jingling and the tinkling of the bells.

II.

Hear the mellow wedding-bells
Golden bells!
What a world of happiness their harmony foretells!
Through the balmy air of night
How they ring out their delight!—
From the molten-golden notes,
And all in tune,
What a liquid ditty floats
To the turtle-dove that listens, while she gloats
On the moon!
Oh, from out the sounding cells,
What a gush of euphony voluminously wells!
How it swells!
How it dwells
On the Future!—how it tells
Of the rapture that impels
To the swinging and the ringing
Of the bells, bells, bells—
Of the bells, bells, bells, bells,
Bells, bells, bells—
To the rhyming and the chiming of the bells!

III.

Hear the loud alarum bells—
Brazen bells!
What tale of terror, now, their turbulency tells!
In the startled ear of night
How they scream out their affright!
Too much horrified to speak,
They can only shriek, shriek,
Out of tune,
In a clamorous appealing to the mercy of the fire,
In a mad expostulation with the deaf and frantic fire,
Leaping higher, higher, higher,
With a desperate desire,
And a resolute endeavor
Now—now to sit, or never,
By the side of the pale-faced moon.
Oh, the bells, bells, bells!
What a tale their terror tells
Of Despair!
How they clang, and clash, and roar!
What a horror they outpour
On the bosom of the palpitating air!
Yet the ear, it fully knows,
By the twanging
And the clanging,
How the danger ebbs and flows;
Yet, the ear distinctly tells,
In the jangling
And the wrangling,
How the danger sinks and swells,
By the sinking or the swelling in the anger of the bells—
Of the bells—
Of the bells, bells, bells, bells,
Bells, bells, bells—
In the clamour and the clangour of the bells!

IV.

Hear the tolling of the bells—
Iron bells!
What a world of solemn thought their monody compels!
In the silence of the night,
How we shiver with affright
At the melancholy meaning of their tone!
For every sound that floats
From the rust within their throats
Is a groan.
And the people—ah, the people—
They that dwell up in the steeple,
All alone,
And who, tolling, tolling, tolling,
In that muffled monotone,
Feel a glory in so rolling
On the human heart a stone—
They are neither man nor woman—
They are neither brute nor human—
They are Ghouls:—
And their king it is who tolls:—
And he rolls, rolls, rolls, rolls,
Rolls
A pæan from the bells!
And his merry bosom swells
With the pæan of the bells!
And he dances, and he yells;
Keeping time, time, time,
In a sort of Runic rhyme,
To the pæan of the bells—
Of the bells:—
Keeping time, time, time,
In a sort of Runic rhyme,
To the throbbing of the bells—
Of the bells, bells, bells—
To the sobbing of the bells:—
Keeping time, time, time,
As he knells, knells, knells,
In a happy Runic rhyme,
To the rolling of the bells—
Of the bells, bells, bells:—
To the tolling of the bells—
Of the bells, bells, bells, bells,
Bells, bells, bells—
To the moaning and the groaning of the bells.

Musically, it is hard to even begin describing The Bells. As one reads Poe, one begins to feel more and more like Poe’s poetry steers further and further away from simple literature or poetry, and towards full-fledged music! Just like a piece by Beethoven or Schubert or any of the great composers (when properly performed), there is no discrete or tangible ‘message’ as such, and there lies the rub – we are moved more than we could ever possibly put into words.

While the theme may be lighter in some respects with this poem, the elements of musicality, and their potentialities for communicating the most profound ideas is made clear. With the Bells, Poe just has a lot of fun doing it!

 

5. El Dorado (1849)

Gaily bedight,
A gallant knight,
In sunshine and in shadow,
Had journeyed long,
Singing a song,
In search of Eldorado.

But he grew old—
This knight so bold—
And o’er his heart a shadow
Fell, as he found
No spot of ground
That looked like Eldorado.

And, as his strength
Failed him at length,
He met a pilgrim shadow—
‘Shadow,’ said he,
‘Where can it be—
This land of Eldorado?’

‘Over the Mountains
Of the Moon,
Down the Valley of the Shadow,
Ride, boldly ride,’
The shade replied,—
‘If you seek for Eldorado!’

Before Poe died, despite all of life’s hardships, he had found and relished the key to true happiness. He sought for this El Dorado in nothing but the principle of beauty and all that which lies beyond what we can touch, taste, hear, see or smell: “Over the Mountains of the Moon, down the Valley of the Shadow.”

David Bellemare Gosselin is a young linguist, translator and poet based in Montreal. His website is TheChainedMuse.com

 

 

Related Post

Inhalt

1. Introduction

2. Interpretation
2.1. Keats’s thought
2.1.1. Keats and Beauty
2.1.2. Keats and Nature
2.2. Keats’s Odes
2.2.1. Ode on a Grecian Urn
2.2.2. Ode to a Nightingale
2.2.3. To Autumn

3. Conclusion

1. Introduction

This writing focuses itself on John Keats, who lived a short time between the 18th and the 19th century (he was born in 1795 and died in 1821), and his conception of Beauty and Nature. He is considered to have been of great importance at his time, since, by exalting Beauty, he grew as a source of inspiration to many English 19th-century poets, becoming the idol of such writers as Tennyson, Rossetti and the Pre-Raphaelites, as well as Oscar Wilde and the aesthetes, who saw in his cult of Beauty the exaltation of Art for Art’s sake. Like most of the literature of the Romantic period, Keats’s poetry mirrors the tension between actuality and ideal perfection, always trying to reach it.

After providing a short summary of Keats’s thought, three of his Odes will be analized, both from the point of view of their content and of their structure, thus letting the reader find the aspects already discussed and helping him to have them clarified.

2. Interpretation

2.1. Keats’s thought

2.1.1. Keats and Beauty

Keats’s life was imbued with family tragedies (both his father and his brother Tom died), financial problems, hopless love affair (he was unable to marry Fanny Brawne because of his ill health) and professional setbacks. Moreover, he himself was killed by tubercolosis at the early age of twenty-five (in 1818 he accompanied his friend Charles Brown on a walking trip through Northern England and Scotland, but the physical fatigue, the rain and the strict diet porvoked him a violent cold which resulted in tuberculosis).

His poetry was influenced by the events occurred to him and, in fact, most of his poems are imbued with a sense of melancholy, death and mortality. In these moments of need, Keats turned instinctively to poetry, which he conceived as something absolute, his only reason for life (“I cannot exist without poetry”), and through which he might achieve a kind of divinity. Poetry, he thought, should spring naturally from his inner soul and should reproduce what his Imagination suggested to him; and what struck his Imagination most was Beauty, not the “intellectual beauty” of Shelley, but the one which reveals itself to his senses. Beauty, in fact, became the central theme of all Keats’s poems, since it was the only consolation he found in life. The memory of something beautiful brought him joy, as he wrote in the opening lines of Endymion: “A thing of beauty is a joy forever”. Beauty could be either physical (women, nature, statues, paintings) or spiritual (friendship, love, poetry), though they were to be considered together, since physical beauty was simply the expression of spiritual beauty and, even if the former might be subject to time and decay, the latter was eternal and immortal. Imagination recognizes Beauty in existing things, but also it is the creative force of Beauty. In the letter to his friend Benjamin Bailey[1] Keats wrote: “I am certain of nothing but of the holiness of the Heart’s affections and the truth of Imagination. What the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth – whether it existed before or not”. The worship of beauty is the clue to everything in Keats and it is quite usual to find that Beauty and Truth often unite (see closing lines in “Ode on a Grecian Urn”).

2.1.2. Keats and nature

Nature was one of the greatest sources of inspiration for Keats. Like Wordsworth he had a cult of nature, though, unlike him, he did not see an immanent God in it. He simply saw another form of Beauty, which he could transform into poetry without the aid of memory; he only enriched it with his Imagination. While Wordsworth thought that “sweet melodies are made sweeter by distance in time”, Keats believed that “heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter”, i.e.: beauty imagined is superior to beauty perceived, since the senses are more limited than the Imagination and its creative power. While Wordsworth´s love for nature is well explained by the fact that he grew up in the Lake District, thus being influenced by the suggestive landscape, it is harder to understand the connection between Keats and nature, since he was a city boy. For this reason, unlike Wordsworth, whose relationship with nature was spiritual, he looked at nature with the eye of the aesthete, recreating the physical world, including all living things.

Nature was a major theme among the Romantics, but Keats turned natural objects into poetic images. When he already knew that he was gonig to die, he looked back at childhood and realized that concrete contact with natural objects at that time was responsible for the postitive associations they continued to communicate in adulthood[2].

Nature led Keats to the formulation of a concept he called “negative capability”, described as the ability to experience “uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact or reason”, managing to negate personality and opening to the reality around. It is an intuitive activity of mind, a metaphysical process in which nature is a potential source of truth. That of the poet is a visionary activity, which uses natural objects as means to represent the poet’s ideas. Though a great number of images connected with nature in Keats’s poems are used only to represent experiences, thus becoming a symbol of the psyche.

2.2. Keats’s Odes

In some sonnets we find in Keats’s journal-letter to George and Georgiana in spring 1819, he already wrote about the theme chosen for the great odes and in the poem Letter to Charles Cowden Clarke in 1816 he had already an idea of how to stucture an ode, since he described the “grandeur of the ode, / Growing, like Atlas, stronger from its load”. Prior to 1819 he had wrote some odes: “Ode to Apollo” (1815), “God of the golden bow” (1816) and “Mother of Hermes! And still youthful Maia” (1818), but 1819 was Keats’s “annus mirabilis”, when, in the spring, he composed almost all his greatest poems, published in 1820, except “To Autumn”, which was written in September. Most of these poems were impromptus, the result of a sudden inspiration, like an autumn afternoon, a nightingale’s song or a mood of dreamy relaxation after sleep.

2.2.1. Ode on a Grecian Urn

Already at the age of fifteen, Keats began to be attracted by books and particularly by classical antiquity. Five years later, his friends the poet Leigh Hunt and the painter Robert Haydon took him to see the famous Elgin Marbles, the sculptures brought to England by Lord Elgin from the Acropolis in Athens and kept in the British Museum. Greek plastic art enchanted him and deeply influenced his poetry. He could sit for hours in front of the Elgin Marbles, since ancient Greek and poetry ment to him Beauty. Thus he turned to the classical world for inspiration, but he interpreted it through the eyes of a Romantic. Keats is inspired by an ancient Greek vase, which he sees or imagines, to investigate the relationship of art and life. The urn is a symbol of ideal Beauty captured by art, above all classical art. It has remained unchanged through time, just as ideal Beauty never changes. The figures on it are immortal too, but only at the price of remaining frozen at a particular moment in time, without completing their lives. The poet, though, does not try to identify with them; he only contamplates a work of art, as the romantic tradition of the ut pictura poesis stated, deriving meditation from it.

Keats seems to be saying that art, beacuse it can capture the ideal and the eternal, is, in a sense, superior to life, which must come to and end, and that man, who is naturally mortal, can only express his sense of the ideal and eternal through art. Nevertheless, precisely because art is not subject to the cycle of life and death, it remains curiously unsatisfying since it can never be made a concrete part of people everyday’s lives.

The trees, boughs, leaves (i.e.: natural elements) are functional; they suggest both permanence and absence of the variety and richness of seasonal change.

I

Thou still unravished bride of quietness,

Thou foster-child of silence and slow time,

Sylvan historian, who canst thus express

A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:

5 What leaf-fringed legend haunts about thy shape

Of deities or mortals, or of both,

In Tempe ot the deals of Arcady?

What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?

What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?

10 What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?

II

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard

Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;

Not to the sensual ear, but, more endeared,

Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:

15 Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave

Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;

Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,

Though winning near the goal – yet, do not grieve:

She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,

20 For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

III

Ah, happy, happy boughs! That cannot shed

Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieau;

And, happy melodist, unwearied,

For ever piping songs for ever new;

25 More happy love! More happy, happy love!

For ever warm and still to be enjoyed,

For ever panting, and for ever young;

All breathing human passion far above,

That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloyed,

30 A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.

IV

Who are these coming to the sacrifice?

To what green altar, O mysterious priest,

Lead’st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,

And all her silken flanks with garlands drest?

35 What little town by river or sea shore,

Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,

Is emptied of this folk, this pious morn?

And, little town, thy streets for evermore

Will silent be; and not a soul to tell

40 Why thou art desolate, can e’er return.

V

O Attic shape! Fair attitude! With brede

Of marble men and maidens overwrought,

With forest branches and the trodden weed;

Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought

45 As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!

When old age shall this generation waste,

Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe

Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty, - that is all

50 Ye know on earth, and all ye need yo know.”

[...]



[1] Nov. 22, 1817

[2] „I muse with the greatest affection on every flower I have known from my infancy (...) It is because they are connected with the most thoughtless and happiest moments of our lives“, Letters to James Rice, 16 Feb. 1820.

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