John Keats, a literary legend, lived during the Romantic Period. He had a poignant short life in which he accomplished more than even he knew at the time. Upon his death bed he was sure he would not be remembered and therefore he had, “here lies one whose name is writ in water,” wrote on his tombstone. The specific genre to which the legendary poet John Keats belongs to is a much disputed debate among modern critics. Many critics believe that Keats was more than just a Romantic; that he was the translator into another or the next, era. It can never be know what his true intentions were; he could have been intentionally deviating from his own style, with the sole purpose of growing as a writer, or even only using the Romantic style in ways like no other poet in the genre. Keats not only uses Romantic themes like emphasis on the imagination, transcendentalism, mutability, but is also influenced by the time, in which he lived; that is why he belongs in the Romantic genre even though other aspects of his poetry may ever so slightly deviate from the normal Romantic styles.
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Likewise, the historical context of a poet and his work are important for other reasons; they determine the size of the literary burden the writer must carry. Poets like Keats and his contemporaries inherited the humiliation of Wordsworth’s prominence along with Milton’s vast notoriety. (Bloom, 2) Keats longed to have his works listed among the great English poets; to have is name live on through his poetry alongside those whom inspired him. He like the many others did not believe that he had what it took to be remembered, perhaps wishing as Harold Bloom believes all new poets wish. “Somewhere in the heart of each new poet there is a hidden, dark wish that the libraries be burned in some new Alexandrian conflagration, that the imagination might be liberated from the greatness and oppressive power of its own dead champions” (Bloom, 1); if Keats had not felt as if he was righting with the constant hovering shadow of the Canon he may have been more confident in his own accomplishments. On the other hand, whom would have inspired him to write at all if the ‘greats’ did not exist or were completely forgotten.
An example of a specific work of John Keats’ in which the historical context is not only relevant, but Romantic is, “On Seeing the Elgin Marbles.” The Elgin Marbles are a collection of Grecian sculptures created before Christianity; they were brought to the British Museum, a beloved place of inspiration for Keats, in the beginning of the Nineteenth Century. The Seventh Earl of Elgin literally had the statues detached from the Parthenon in Athens, Greece; he then sold them to the British government where they were placed in the museum for public viewing. (Esterhammer, 29) At first glance the poem only seems to be concerned with the physical appearances of the sculptures, but there is more to be seen upon closer examination. The aesthetic qualities of the statues are magnificent and arouse many effects in their viewers; therefore, it is obvious many poets found them to be a successful muse for a few lines of verse. Keats work about the art is deeper than simple aesthetic descriptions, and is consequently the most famous work about the Elgin Marbles. (Esterhammer, 30)
“On Seeing the Elgin Marbles,” is concerned more with the Romantic poet’s conflicting bias than with the actual sculptures according some critics. Somehow, Keats very subtly includes a great deal in this succinct, conceptual poem. Through means such as diction and imagery he defines the argument concerning the appropriation of the Grecian property, and how a piece of history came to be a commodity, for sale. The reader must be aware of the time in which the poem was written simply by reading the title; it directly gives possession of the Marbles to the source of the controversy, the man whom brought them to England, verses their original owners, the Greek. It is as if the marbles are inseparable from the time period in which Keats is viewing them. (Esterhammer, 30)
“That mingles Grecian Grandeur with the rude
Wasting of old Time – with a billowy main,
A sun, a shadow of a magnitude.” (Keats, 60)
The examination of an inanimate object through poetry invokes many familiar Keatsian sensations; art is immortal, this is a melancholy reminder of mutability and the corporeal agony associated with humanity. This transcendent contrast is common in Keats works as well as the works of all Romantic poets. The juxtaposition of ‘sun,’ and Grecian landscapes with ‘shadow,’ and ‘Grecian grandeurs’, along with Keats’s use of fragmented sentence structure seems to actually imitate the marbles’ state. This is indivisible from the phrase, ‘Rude/ wasting;’ which emphasizes not only the idea of time and deterioration, but also the destruction of ancient monuments in order for the marbles to be brought to England. Mutability’s inevitably along with the ‘Rude/wasting,’ is paradoxical for Keats: it provides him with a Romantic muse for his poetry through the Marbles, and it reminds him of impending death and all things connected with volatility. (Esterhammer, 30)
Like all Romantic poets Keats desired to transcend mortality and find everlasting peace, but unlike other Romantic poets he also recognized the value in reality. David Harian(identify) says that works that have became part of the literary canon “have revealed themselves to be multi-dimensional and omni-significant – generate way of seeing old things and new things in we have never seen before. No matter how subtly or radically we change our approach to them, they always respond with something new- they are inexhaustible perpetually new, and for all these reasons, permanently valuable.” (Stillinger, Bloom 217-218) Keats’s versatility and complexity is what has solidified his place in the hearts of his readers and ‘among the English poets’ he admired so dearly. Jack Stillinger, who has studied Keats’s life and works for a half century or more, believes that he possesses a ‘psychic link’ with Keats and that it originates somewhere within the “complex character” that is Keats and his value of “factual reality”. (Stillinger, 140)
These tendencies to t return to realism are the qualities that distinguish him and make critics question if he his placement in the Romantic section of Anthologies is proper. “Ode to a Nightingale,” efficiently represents Keats as a Romantic and as the more Modern realist that Stillinger relates so well to. The Ode’s theme is thoroughly Romantic, escapism. The speaker desires to escape the realities of mutability through whatever means possible: sedatives, poetry, and even death. Is Keats’ skeptical of the imaginations actual ability to escape from his catalogue of human woes that appears in the third stanza; his return to reality in the end of the poem could be said to suggest so. Reality for Keats is never as beautiful as the imaginary and often implies Romantic ideas involving death; this is due to Keats awareness of his own impending death as a part of his personal bleak reality.
“And happily the Queen Moon is on her thrown
Cluster’d around by all her starry Fays,
But here there is no light,” (Keats, 291)
The speaker is forced back to reality by the “sobering (pun intended)” (Richardson, 234) lack of light, but he is questions reality and whether or not he is really experiencing it or sleeping. The very last line of the poem reads: “Do I wake or sleep?” (Keats, 293) This can be seen in two lights, as Keats leaving fantastical Romantic poetry for more a more modern mode, or Keats using a Romantic mode in a complex and unique manner. His tendency to return to reality implies that he recognizes the impossibility of actual transcendence, but in no way does his knowledge of this unfeasibility change his desire to escape or his consistent use of if it as a theme in his poetry. Keats has conquered the pleasures and pains of humanity and uses them in his works in delicate and detailed manners that offer the reader an array of interpretations. “At the time Keats wrote, no one had created such palpable finely detailed pictures in poetry since Spenser and Shakespeare;” (Stillinger, 139) these details often facilitate the complexity of his works.
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Keats poetry changes as he grows as a poet, the beginning of his career he writes “with an assured Romantic belief in the transcendent value of poetry.” (Pettet, 29) He became a ‘leviathan’ devoted to poetry unable to live without it; he worked toward what he believed to be a poet’s goal “to create himself”. (Pettet, 30) Stillinger is attracted to the Keats’s reality, but Keats was originally and more often focused on fictional ideas. He distinguished himself from Byron stating that, “He describes what he sees – I describe what I imagine.” (Pettet, 30) Pettet argues for Keats continuing belief is in the supremacy of the imagination as his defining Romantic characteristic; he states that Keats chastised the poets of the Eighteenth century for their lack of imagination, and dedicated himself to its revival. Imagination is a predominate characteristic of Romantic poetry; if Keats believed in it with a fragment of the passion Pettet trusts he does, and used it in his works, then he must be a Romantic.
In agreement with E.C. Pettet, another critic, Robert Kern points out the innocence of Keats early works. He describes them as “remarkable precisely for its unguarded and perhaps naÃ¯ve willingness to embrace a definition of poetry as romance in an exclusive and oversimplified way, a definition that exacerbates the otherwise inescapable differences between poetry and life.” (Kern, 70) At this point in his short poetic career he is writing poetry because of his love of the art and many of his works are literally about poetry, and his poetic goals. Poems like “Sleep and Poetry” juxtapose his hopes and dreams, with his current inadequacy as a poet. (Kern, 70) Even in the beginning where few to no critic find evidence of the non-Romantic Keats cannot escape reality; he uses his imagination to see a bright romanticized future that starkly contrasts his reality to which he must always return.
Pettet does agree with Stillinger on Keats being unique compared to other Romantic poets; his idea of where that particular uniqueness lies, and its effect differs though. The quality Pettet identifies does not take away from his Romantic traits as much as it adds to them, unlike Stillinger’s emphasis on reality. His work was not a straight forward confession in the customary Romantic style; he combined classical and medieval dreams, used remote places and times, and showed a partiality for the foreign. These are all ways in which E.C. Pettet differentiates him from others of his genre; in no way does he say these are non-Romantic tendencies only that they are not used by all Romantics. All these characteristic of Keats poetry somehow involve the major themes of Romantic poetry: dreams imply imagination, remoteness suggests transcendence, and partiality for the foreign commutates escapism; yet they are all uniquely Keatsian. (Pettet, 31)
Some of the features of Keats’s works that define him as Romantic are the “abundance of imagery drawn from nature, recurrence of destructive love -, the continued not of the ‘joy of grief’, and obsession with sleep, dreams, and death.” (Pettet, 31) Robert Kern questions our understanding of the word Romance; he sees it as more than a literary genre, it is a type or quality of experience for him. He directly argues with Stillinger’s views of Keats disgust with the genre and states that Keats is for all intents and purposes struggles with it, but does not leave its essential confines. (Kern, 68, 69) Keats desires to create a bridge or a connection between the beauty of Romantic ideals and the unsympathetic truthfulness of reality. Texts that are both Romantic and anti-Romantic, like the Odes, are evidence of this. (Kern, 69)
Furthermore, Kern cites, “On Sitting Down to Read King Lear Once Again,” as exemplifying his definition of Romance. In the sonnet Keats is using romance as a mode of perception only apparent to him when he considers reading William Shakespeare’s, “King Lear.” Those who see the anti-romantic Keats believe this to be his “most serious attempt, thus far in his career, to shake himself free of the seductions of romance, to break his addiction to the mode and an outlook once prized.” (Kern, 74) The “King Lear” perspective does not hold kilter though, because this poem that is often considered as his least Romantic was actually referred to by Keats himself as, “a poetic romance.” Also, it is unlikely a poet would strive to denounce a genre that only a few days after writing the sonnet he is known to have written another poem asserting is fears about his death coming too soon and not have sufficient time to accomplish his poetic aspirations which included, “tracing the shadows of ‘high romance’.” (Kern, 74)
It is in a paradoxical manner that the views of scholarship change over time; not long ago Keats’s medical training was used frequently as evidence for his low cultural standing, now it is used as confirmation for a source of Keats sophistication and complexity. Many scientific advancements and discoveries are always being made; the Romantic era was awash with them. He did not have the means to study as he pleased; which would have been at a university, but did excel in the medical field even if he decided it was not his forte in the end. He attended Guy’s teaching hospital it was one of the most advanced at the time; a time when medical edification was suffering considerable reformations. (Richardson, 230)
Traditionally scholars assume the Romanticism and science cannot co-exist peacefully; consequently, undermining Keats education. Ironically it is Keats is responsible for this misunderstanding. He is quoted at the ‘immortal dinner’ -with William Wordsworth and Charles lambâ€•having joined in toasting, “Newton’s health and confusion to mathematics,” in agreement that Newton had, ” destroyed all the poetry of the rainbow by reducing it to the prismatic colors.” (Richardson, 230-231) Contrary to his evening toast, Science and medicine began to take on a Romantic character for Keats because of the changes brought on by scientists like Sir Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin. Incidentally features such as pharmacological associations, and naturalistic philosophy, become more than surface similarities; they are Keatsian hallmarks that facilitate his omni-significance as a Romantic poet. It allows him to incorporate the vast amount of detail so few poets achieve, and is vital to Romantic themes. (Richardson, 231)
John Keats was a literary legend who lived, and wrote during the Romantic Period, the Nineteenth century. He accomplish more in his short poetic career that many poets have in a life time; dyeing in his early twenties to tuberculosis and only writing for around three years total. When he died he was not aware that he had solidified his place in the Canon, and feared he would be forgotten. Not all critics believe all of his poetry belongs to the same genre. Some believe that he and his contemporary William Wordsworth were precursors to the nest literary era. Was Keats purposely deviating from Romantics or was he stretching it boundaries; a little of both he doubted Romantics limits and in trying to rise above them he single handedly managed to stretch them further than anyone else could. Keats uses Romantic themes: emphasis on the imagination, mutability, transcendentalism, and is influenced by the time in which he lived. He belongs in the Romantic genre, emphasis on reality included.
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