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Romanticism is a literary movement that has been expressed as "an extreme an assertion of the self and the value of individual experience". Throughout this essay I shall explore how far these characteristics are represented within romantic literature. I will analyse The Rime of the Ancient Mariner Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Ode to a Nightingale John Keats. To do this I will look at the poets as individuals and compare their work to the literary movement. I will also look at the themes and symbols that both writers use as a physical object of emotion. For instance Keats and Coleridge use a bird as a central symbol. The poems show different themes, as well as the psyches of the men who wrote them.
Starting with Ode to a Nightingale Keats presents a poem of despair and human strength. The poem itself could have been written in response to the death of the poet's brother, Tom, who died less then a year before from a tormented stretch of tuberculosis. Keats cared for his brother in his last days of life, even though he was ill himself (also from tuberculosis). Keats went on to squander money creating financial problems as a result of his capital being tied up by the trustee of the family's will. The family began to see Keats as a waster.
Similarly, when looking at The Rime of the Ancient Mariner Coleridge's experience of death and life are also apparent. Coleridge lost his father when he was nine, followed by his brother and sister who died within a year of one another. It was when Coleridge wrote The Mariner when death reappeared. It was in 1798 when the Wordsworth and Coleridge created Lyrical Ballads. In this year Coleridge's youngest son, Berkeley, died while he was away studying at the University of Göttingen. The baby had been given the brand-new small pox vaccination and died from a reaction to it. The journey of death and addiction followed Coleridge. Towards the end of his career he started to suffer from rheumatoid arthritis and became addicted to opium as a way to cope with the pain, a common thing to do in that era. During the following years he lived in London, on the verge of suicide.
Furthermore, both poets suggest that neither fulfilled their journey in life leaving an empty force. Coleridge died aged sixty-four. Coleridge left behind many unfinished yet still published famous pieces of work such as, Christabel and Kubla Khan. Whereas, when Keats died his last request was to be buried under a tombstone, without his name but the words "One Whose Name was Writ in Water"(Forman, 2008, p212) Both of these final acts are symbols of an uncompleted journey that represents the poet's lives and individuality.
Another romantic, Victor Hugo, once described romanticism as "liberalism in literature" (Hugo, 1972, p66); a poet was encouraged to write about their own experiences, rather than being just a passive narrator. Romanticism emphasises on passion rather than reason, imagination rather than logic and intuition rather than science. In addition, most romantic poets commonly use nature to define their emotions or life journey. Coleridge and Keats both use the image of a bird to tell a story of a journey in life and towards death. In both poems the bird represent the personality of what the poets were and brings the reader through an expressive journey arriving at the person the poets have become. It is known for certain that the narrator in Ode To Nightingale is Keats. According to Charles Brown (a friend of Keats) Keats was sat under a plum tree in a drunken stupor and noticed a nightingale burrowed within the tree. Keats felt a "tranquil continual joy in her song" (Brown, 2006,p1395) this inspired Keats to realise his own problems in life. The nightingale inspired Keats because he could escape a pessimistic world and see his emotions in a new innocent light. On the other hand, the same cannot be said for Coleridge because the identity of the Mariner has never been discovered.
In The Rime of the Ancient Mariner nature is a key theme, a natural form represents everyone and everything. Perhaps every natural phenomenon is a representation of only one character, the Mariner and narrator. A fictional representation of Coleridge's persona is brought to life in an epic tale. The sea represents nightmare and insanity relating to Coleridge's sorrowful depression, the reality of now. The bird (an Albatross) of good omen nests back on land. This is seen as a reassurance that the sane efficient world is not as far away as it seems and neither is good fortune. As a result
The Mariner shoots the albatross with a crossbow. It is never really explained why. Some critics have the theory that this was simply an immature selfish act and The Mariner simply did not think of the consequences. Coleridge becomes a depressive, living in the opium world. A depressive and cynical world represented by the vicious unforgiving sea. He rejects reality and becomes hostile towards it by shooting all that represents it. By killing the bird of good omen Coleridge as reached the full capacity for a cynical mind. The only thing left is insanity only to be restored through the natural process of living, teaching him to respect nature and therefore life. Similarly, Keats sees the Nightingale as a bird of good omen at first he describes the Nightingale with a negative viewpoint. Keats puts himself in the position of the sea; the first person narrative reflects the ideals of the same insanity and nightmarish state creating a negative outlook on life. The natural beauty of the nightingale's song is brought out in stanza two. Keats comes to the conclusion that depression is pretty much unavoidable. The only way Keats can mentally escape his pessimistic reality is through an imaginary dialogue with a nightingale. Keats begins to yearn for "Dance, and Provençal song, and sunburnt mirth!" (Keats, 2006, L15). The narrator wants to enjoy the comforting things in the world. To "drink, and leave the world unseen" (19) avoiding the negative aspects of reality. Much like Coleridge, Keats uses the bird of good omen to create a message of insanity but unlike Coleridge he does not kill his bird of good omen he uses it to enhance his emotions.
Selfishness is also a theme within Ode to a nightingale. The title suggests the poem is about a bird, a nightingale but the narrator is only concerned with his own state of mind. He wishes to "drink, and leave the world unseen" (19), drinking has always been a method to forget ones woes and the negative world. The narrator would rather "fade away into the forest dim" (20), In the forest he would be able to be in peace, he would not have to live never mind think about life. This may reflect a desire to die and forget about all being, and even living, to forget about life and start the journey of deathbr. The yearning of death has a strong presence in both poems in different manors. Coleridge's Mariner wishes to die because of the torture; death is all he can see. "More horrible then that/ is the curse in the dead man's eye! Seven days and Seven nights, I saw that curse, / and yet I could not die."(Coleridge, 2006, L260) The Mariner is cursed by LIFE-IN-DEATH, he is forced to see his punishment and yet the death would be his only release from the pain. A confused view is given about death, the Mariner describes the crew as "The many men, so Beautiful!"(235) It is an ideal to be desired. Yet the description "And the all dead did lie"(235) shows that this state is final. What is more, According to the marginalia, the Mariner 'despiseth' the living things because 'the beautiful men' are dead. Only when he recognises the beauty of living things can his redemption begin. Keats recognises the beauty but 'despiseth' living, he believes the beauty of the living is therefore immortal because it's an image that stays forever and there is nothing past perfection.
Coleridge's archaic ballad included complicated symbolism that cannot be translated in any single way. When combining the symbolism with the prose glosses the reader is offered a theoretical spiritual understanding of its meaning. Coleridge creates tension between the vague poem and the unambiguous marginalia. This exposes the gap between the 'old' and the poem and the 'new' so another understanding can be created twenty years later. Additionally, certain moral lessons from the past are still comprehensible "he liveth best who loveth best"(615) this is not hard to understand but other aspects of the narrative are. By adding the prose glosses the reader can start to understand Coleridge's true intention for creating the Rime of the Ancient Mariner rather than simply wanting to write a romantic poem. The marginalia determines the Mariners actions as a crime against hospitality or a "inhospitably killeth the pious bird of good omen"(79). Humphrey House claims the killing of the albatross is purely sinful. House says it is "a ghastly violation of a great sanctity"(House, 1987, p297) the sanctity relates to that of the sanctity of life and of all God's creatures. Coleridge himself frequently used the concept "the wings of love" (Brett, Coleridge, 1971, p50) as a metaphor for God so he too shared the killing as a crime against God.
In contrast, Keats never used such a method, he was never a religious man and yet the ideals are still the same. The same concept of the 'wings of God' shows Keat's beliefs toward the nightingale. Keats sees the nightingale as immortal "Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!" (Keats, 2006, L61). He thinks that the bird's song is everlasting in the memory, whilst he is not. The nightingale lives its life free of judgment and expectations from other "hungry generations" (62). Being suppressed down by these "hungry generations" may represent Keat's resentment at being forced into a guided professional life. The song is powerful enough to exist throughout time and is able to bring listeners joy and help through depressing, reducing the pain and suffering of a trivial human life.
In Ode to a Nightingale, the bird's song becomes a powerful fascination that excels the mortal world of Keats influencing his thoughts about death also creating conflict between the desire to live and to die. The reader learns that Keats has always "been half in love with easeful death"(52) this is due to the nightingale whom the narrator claims "wast not born for death, immortal Bird!"(61). Keats wants to die, and wants to be with the nightingale because he is currently experiencing a high ecstasy of enjoyment and love due to the nightingales beautiful song. Due to Keats never actually experiencing death it can only have a place in the mind through imagination. The reader is shown the physical emotional switch in Keats mind when he says "Darkling I listen; and, for many a time"(51). The world is no longer present in the poem, as the imagination has taken over. In this position clearly nothing separates life and death, self and nothingness. However, Keats is only "half in love with death" (52)by imagining death itself, he realises that eventually this emotion will "toll me [him] back from thee to my sole self"(72) to drift off to something that is desired but death would not allow him to experience a true requiem. This same teaching is given in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner .The Mariner begins to see salvation when he begins to look upon the 'slimy things' as creatures of strange beauty as he has no one else to turn to. "A spring of love gushed from my heart/ and I blessed them unaware"( Coleridge, 2006, L285) It was the need to respect life and open his eyes to living nature that saves the mariner and "tolls [him] me back from thee [his] to my sole self"( Keats, 2006, L72).
Richard Fogle describes Ode to a Nightingale as, "The principal stress of the poem is a struggle between ideal and actual . . . antitheses of pleasure and pain" (Fogle, 1968, p.32) this critical view is clearly seen with in LIFE-IN-DEATH. A full contrast of idolisation of lustful death and the reality of its fateful actions show how pleasure is always contrasted with pain. LIFE-IN-DEATH is described as "nightmarish" but the image "her lips were red, her looks were free/ her locks were yellow as gold/ her skin as white as leprosy" (Coleridge, 2006, L190) the contrasting images between sexuality and sickly death represents the state of mind of being "half in love with easeful death" (Keats, 2006, L52) some points seem attractive the red lips are almost lustful and yet the "skin as white as leprosy" (Coleridge, 2006, L190) there is something quite vile and yet contagious about this image. It cannot be escaped because it draws you into the immoral.
After sinning the Mariner is forced to enter purgatory in order to recompense his sins. He is punished as if he were in Hell. "All in a hot and copper sky"(107) the Mariner is condemned to a state of 'life-in-death' as all the sailors around him 'dropped down one by one' (211) dead. It could be argued that this is the state Keats finds himself in. The drunken state acts as a sort of LIFE-IN-DEATH. Keats is alive but feels that the life he is living is like a death. Unlike the Mariner, Keats is not condemned to this state but he lusts for it, he looks to death as a refuge. He 'muses' that death would be "rich" in the presence of the nightingale's song. Under this hypnotic, tranquil and yet pleasurable LIFE-IN-DEATH type condition, Keats claims that it would be simple to "Cease upon the midnight with no pain" (Keats, 2006, 56) and simply pass away "to thy high requiem" (60). If he has to die, this would be the way to go, with no pain, listening to beautiful music.
Claude Finney describes "the inadequacy of the romantic escape from the world of reality to the world of ideal beauty". (Finney 1936 p. 632) Keats uses the power of his imagination and uses it to escape the confines living reality; the difference being Coleridge is taught a lesson and discovers a positive outlook towards his current situation after his escape from death. Whereas, Keats only returns to his original state, from the same position and same life he left it. He is disoriented and unsure of reality questioning if he is sleeping or awake. However, Keats can often "escape from the world of reality to the world of ideal beauty" (Finey) he has tasted freedom and was happy for a while. This is a journey Keats can repeatedly go on by reading or thinking about the poem whenever he likes. It is chance to escape but unfortunately reality will always be waiting to "toll me [him] back"(Keats, 2006,72) unlike everlasting death. The Mariner on the other hand has to fight death every day as the "Mariner [must] continueth his tale."(Coleridge, 2006, 625) Travelling the world to react his tale to spread the good word.
What is clear is that both, Keats' Ode to a Nightingale and Coleridge's The Rime of The Ancient Mariner use detailed description to contrast natural beauty and reality, life and death. Both poems end in a typically romantic manner by questioning the world and all that we live for. The main lessons given are to live life to the full. The Mariner is left to "teach, by his [the mariners] own example, love and reverence to all things that God made and loveth"(610) death is a factor in everyone's life but by living life and showing "reverence", life will become more rewarding. The ending in Ode to a Nightingale leaves the reader observing Keats questioning whether to live or die. What is interesting about the two poets is how would they consider their life now? Would they now consider themselves like immortal like the Nightingale? These days both Keats and Coleridge will remain immortal within our books and education, their words are kept alive within their poetry through every teaching and every reading.