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Like all romantic poets, Keats seeks an escape in the past. His imagination is attracted by the ancient Greeks as well as by the glory and splendour ofMiddle Ages. He rarely devotes himself to the pressing problems of the present. Hyperion, Endymion and Lamia are all classical in theme, though romantic in style. Keats this finds an escape into the past from the oppressive realities of the present.
Also Keats' themes are romantic in nature. Most of his poetry is devoted to the quest of beauty. Love, chivalry, adventure, pathos --- these are some of the themes of his poems. Another strain that runs through his poetry is the constant fear of death, which finds very beautiful expression in his sonnet, 'When I Have Fears'. Another theme of his poetry is disappointment in love, which can be seen in 'La Belle Dam Sans Merci'.
Like all romantics, Keats loves nature and its varied charms. He transfigures everything into beauty that he touches with magic hand of chance. He says in 'Ode to Nightingale',
"Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,
But being too happy in thine happiness,"
Beauty is Keats' religion and he is very romantic is his frank pursuit of beauty and in that pursuit of beauty, he completely forgets himself and the world around him.
The romantic quality in literature has been defined by Pater as,
"The addition of strangeness to the beauty."
All sorts of poetry deals with beauty in one way or the other, but romantic poetry goes a step ahead and imparts strangeness to the beauty. Keats sees beauty in ordinary things of nature. Earth, to him, is a place of where beauty renews itself everyday, the sky is full of huge cloudy symbols of high romance. Keats loves beauty in the flower, in the stream and in the cloud but he loves it in each thing as a part of Universal Beauty, which is infinite --- 'the mighty abstract idea of Beauty'.
"Thou was not born for death, immortal bird"
The song of the nightingale becomes a symbol of the universal spirit of beauty. The nightingale is, for Keats, the symbol of unlimited joy, infinite happiness and universal spirit of beauty. Pursuit of the unknown, the invisible and infinite inspires the creation of all the romantic poetry of the world.
Last but not least, both in terms of diction and metres, Keats' poetic style is romantic. Though it has classical finish, it possesses that romantic tough of suggestiveness by which "more is meant than meets the ear." Keats has employed various kinds of metres and stanzaforms in his poetic work. He is one of the greatest sonneteers in English language and his Odes with their musical flow in long stanzas, stand as unique specimen of romantic poetry.
Keats was true romantic poet, because his attention was not only beauty but also truth. He saw beauty in truth and truth in beauty.
"Beauty is truth, truth beauty, --- that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."
He persistently endeavoured to reconcile the world of imagination with the world of reality. Therefore, Middleton Murray calls Keats "a true romantic."
A pure poet feels and expresses his joy in beauty, but when he feels this joy, he realizes also a new aspect of beauty, which is truth. In this identity of beauty and truth, lies the harmony of universe. Keats realizes this harmony when he says that "truth and beauty are the same thing."
"Wordsworth and Shelley both had theories but Keats has none. We cannot accuse Keats of any withdrawal or refusal; he was merely about his business and his business was that of a pure poet." (T. S. Eliot)
For Keats, the necessary quality of poetry is submission to the things as they are, without any effort to intellectualize them into something else. Keats often says that the poet must not live for himself, but must feel for others, and must do good, but he must do so by being a poet, not by being a teacher or moralist. There is no didacticism in Keats as there is in Wordsworth. He delivers what he sees; the pleasures of seeing nature and beauty.
"Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too."
At one time he regrets about the songs of Spring and but then he sees the beauties of Autumn and involves himself in them. He instantly forgets the pain of losing songs of Spring and starts admiring Autumn.
The idea of French revolution had awakened the youthful passions of both Wordsworth and Coleridge; they had stirred the wrath of Scott; they had worked like yeast on Byron. They had brought forth new matters for Shelley who re-moulded them and turned them into prophecy of the future. There was only one poet, Keats, of that age who they could not affect in any way whatsoever.
"Keats was so preoccupied with beauty that he turned a blind eye to the actualities of life around him." (Stopeford Brooke)
It is true that Keats' poetry does not express the revolutionary ideas of his age, but Keats was a pure who expressed in his poetry the most worth while part of himself and it was his vision of beauty, which was also truth to him. If his aim was to pursue beauty, which was also truth to him, he cannot be called an escapist, for in pursuing beauty, he pursued truth.
The poetry of Keats shows a gradual process of development. His earlier experiments in verse are products of youthful imagination, immature and overcharged with imagery. The young poet has abnormal sensibility, but lacks experience of life. Endymion opens with the famous line --- 'A thing of beauty is a joy forever', it is full of glorious promise but it is lost in shadows and uncertainties, because it is not based upon experiences of life. In the Odes, Keats' poetry assumes a deeper tone. There he faces the sorrows and sufferings of life. He would wish for a life of joy and happiness, like that of nightingale.
"Fade far away, and quite forget
What thou amongst the leaves hast never known,
The weariness, the fever, and the fret,
There, where men sit and hear each other groan;"
(Ode to Nightingale)
Thus he longed to escape from realities of life, but it was a passing mood that seized him when he was contrasting the lot of man with that of the nightingale. Sorrows and sufferings are inevitable in life and he fully realized that escape from realities of life was neither possible nor desirable. In Hyperion, he wrote:
"None can usurp the height â€¦.
But those to whom miseries of the world
Are miseries, and will not let them rest."
In a sonnet, he says:
"How fevered that man who cannot look
Upon his mortal days with temperate blood."
Keats was trying to attain serenity of mood in the midst of all the sufferings which he was undergoing in his own life and which he saw all around him. This mood of serenity is expressed in "Ode to Autumn", which accordingly to Middleton Murray,
"The perfect and unforced utterance of the truth contained in the magic words (of Shakespeare): Ripeness is all."
For Keats, earlier hankering for the world of Flora and Pan for unreflecting enjoyment of sensuous delights--- is past; he now subjected himself persistently and unflinchingly to life. He faced life with all uncertainties and contradictions, its sorrows and joys. The lines ---
"Where beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,
Or new love pine at them beyond tomorrow."
(Ode to Nightingale)
are thrilled with aching hopelessness. In 'Ode to Melancholy', he says,
"dwells with beauty --- beauty that must die"
Melancholy arises from transience of joy and joy is transient by its nature. Therefore Keats accepts life as a whole --- with its joys and beauty as well as its sorrows and despair.
To quote the words of Middleton Murray about 'Ode on a Grecian Urn',
"These lines contain deep wisdom purchase at the full price of deep suffering. They are symbol and prophecy of a comprehension of human life to which mankind can attain."
Keats' study of Lempriere's Classical Dictionary fully acquainted him with the Greek mythology; and he loved every bit of it, and freely used it in his poetry. The stories of Endymion, Lamia and Hyperion, are based upon Greek legends. In his Ode to Psyche and Ode on a Grecian Urn, the subjects are Greek, and the poet while expressing his passion for beauty transports himself in his imagination to the days of ancient Greeks.
But the most important factor is Keats' Hellenism was his own Greek temper --- the inborn temperamental Greekness of his mind. The power of seeing things with a child's amazement and forgetfulness was the temper of Keats, as it was the temper of Greeks --- i.e.; half-worship added half-joy.
The instinctive Greekness of Keats' mind lies in his passionate pursuit of beauty, which is the very soul of his poetry. His passion for beauty finds a concrete expression in his 'Ode to Psyche':
"Yes, I will be thy priest and buld a fane
In some untrodden regions of my mind,
Where branched thoughts, new grown with pleasant pain
Instead of pine shall murmur in the wind."
The Greek did not burden their poetry with philosophy or spiritual message. Their poetry was incarnation of beauty, and existed for itself. Similarly, Keats was pure poet. He enjoyed unalloyed pleasure in nature, which for him, did not carry any philosophical or spiritual message.
Concluding it, Keats, possesses the qualities of romantic and pure poet he loves nature, which is seen by him with Greek temper. He never thinks about past and future and his only concern is the present time; the present moment of beauty and truth. In his early poetry, one can perceive him as an escapist because there was joy and delight and overcharged imagination because of inexperience youth. But with gradual development of thought and experience, he comes to the conclusion that sorrows and joys are always together; rose cannot be taken without its thrones. One can clearly sees in his Odes that he is not an escapist but he is accepting the realities of life.
"There is something of the innermost soul of poetry in almost everything he wrote." (Tennyson)