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Study Of John Keats And History English Literature Essay

3437 words (14 pages) Essay in English Literature

5/12/16 English Literature Reference this

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John Keats, an English Romantic poet has generally been considered as an escapist poet due to his love of nature and his interest in the senses, eschewing any reference to the politics of his time. As a matter of fact, many established critics portrayed Keats in the ‘traditional’ way, ie. as a remarkably disengaged from the social and political issues of his time. Keats has been described to have travelled so far in the realm of romanticism and imagination, as to forget the intense political upheaval of his own time. This idea, is strongly reinforced within his poetry as, for example, some odes, suggest a deliberate omission of the realities of everyday life, while seeking imagination, portraying it as a crucial ideal of life, as seen in ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’, with the lover’s consummation through imagination. In fact, the poetry written during his days presents both a longing for the escapist world of romance and a sceptical view of romance, a belief in the imagination and an awareness of the deceptiveness of the imagination as seen in Keats’s ‘Ode to the Nightingale’ where the persona seeks imagination through the nightingale’s song in order to reach delight but he cannot recall whether it was a “a vision, or a waking dream.”. Moreover, in Keats we can also see an honesty reflecting from all sensations and a longing for fixed knowledge, the desire for both amoral detachment and the desire for a clear moral position and ultimately the yearning for some essential unchanging truth and beauty and acceptance of the impermanence of the human condition.

Curiously, although Keats lived through three movements of political uproar in England, it is only quite recently that he started to be seen as directly involved in politics. Paul de Man understands Keats’ poetry to have been ‘mainly literary.’ [1] Additionally, Sidney Colvin describes Keats as ‘ready to entertain and appreciate any set of ideas according as his imagination recognised their beauty or power’ [2] Moreover, Amy Lowell, like Colvin intrinsically believed that politics were absolutely of no interest to Keats as ‘active participation in such things was not his part;’ [3] despite his friendship with reformists like Hunt. Indeed, these were not the only critics blind to Keats’s politics, others including Walter Jackson Bate and Jerome McGann strongly argue this issue. Indeed McGann in ‘Keats and the Historical Method in Literary Criticism’ presented Keats as the escapist poet par excellence. Yet, finally critics started acknowledging Keats integration into politics as described by Aileen Ward, who revealed the social and political interests of Keats, together with Robert Gittings’s biography, directly connecting Keats’s life with the historical context. H. W. Garrod, studied Keats’s revolutionary ideas, while Clarence De Witt Thrope, discussed this issue in an essay entitled ‘Keats’s Interest in Politics and World Affairs’ [4] . Another critic, Andrew Motion in his biography, also presents the connection of Spenser with Hunt, describing it to be both a political vision and a poetic retreat, “a miniature England that belongs to a specific historical context […] the Peace between England and France, which was signed in Paris at the time it was written, and which Hunt also celebrated in an ‘Ode to Spring’ published in the Examiner in April 1814”. [5] Others include Jack Stillinger and Marilyn Butler, the latter claiming that although Hyperion, The Fall of Hyperion and To Autumn, are now not read as political, Hyperion ‘represents historical change as the liberal habitually sees it’. This idea was later reinforced in a special issue of 1986 of Studies in Romanticism, dedicated to ‘Keats and Politics’, with the participation of Morris Dickstein, William Keach, David Bromwich, Paul Fry and Alan Bewell, all suggesting Keats to be a radical, and discussing how his interest in politics affected his writings. For example, Keach suggested that Keats’s run-on couplets, also considered to be Keats’s signature, was a means to signify his liberal politics, while Fry argues that the neutrality found in To Autumn withdraws preoccupation with the ‘ontology of the lyrical moment’, thus the existence of personal feelings through poetry.

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Yet evidence of Keats’s interest in politics is constantly shown through his works. For instance, in his letters, dated 17-27 September 1819 [6] , Keats deliberately suggested that he shall discuss ‘a little politics’, showing his increasing interest in the politics of his day, his liberal ideals leading to ‘a continual change of the better’, his ultimate objective. Specifically, in these letters one can find an informed Keats showing an optimistic view of the current events through a historical evaluation of progress and turning back in history. In fact, these views are also seen in October, in particular in the letter to George and Georgiana Keats, October 1818 where he discusses politics as being ‘sleepy’ only for the fact ‘they will soon be too wide awake’ [7] . Yet, this term is commonly given to those poets who like Keats and Hunt sought liberation, due to the current war with France amongst others, Keats was urging for political liberty, this is shown in his letter:

You will see I mean that the French Revolution put a temporary stop to this third change, the change for the better – Now it is in progress again and I thing in an effectual one. This is no contest between whig and tory – but between right and wrong. [8] .

It is precisely in this letter which Keats confesses his interest in liberation in order to see a ‘progress of free sentiments in England … turning back to the despotism of the 16 century’.

Indeed this publication of Studies in Romanticism which marked, the turning point and depiction of Keats as a political poet writing about his political interests, priorities and commitments. It is while he was studying at Enfield, that according to Clarke, Keats first read Leigh Hunt’s Examiner, which ‘no doubt laid the foundation of this love of civil and religious liberty’. Quite surprisingly, in Clarke’s ‘Recollections of Keats’, short paragraphs touching upon Keats’s politics were severely emitted or revised in a way not typical of Clarke. Moreover, Clarke connects the poor sales of Poems, By John Keats with the political animus aimed at reformists after Waterloo ‘The word had been passed that its author was a Radical;’ [9] afterwards linking Keats’s dedication of Poems to Leigh Hunt, being the editor of the Examiner, ‘a radical and a dubbed’. Of course, Keats’s dedication to Hunt was a deliberate display of his political opinion, later reinforced by his sonnet Written on the Day that Mr Leigh Hunt left Prison and other such poems suggesting Hunt as Libertas. Indeed the former poem shows deliberate reference to the politics of his days:

What though, for showing truth to flattered state,

Kind Hunt was shut in prison, yet has he,

In his immortal spirit, been as free

As the sky-searching lark, and as elate.

Minion of grandeur! think you he did wait?

Think you he nought but prison-walls did see,

Till, so unwilling, thou unturnedst the key?

Ah, no! far happier, nobler was his fate!

In Spenser’s halls he strayed, and bowers fair,

Culling enchanted flowers; and he flew

With daring Milton through the fields of air:

To regions of his own his genius true

Took happy flights. Who shall his fame impair

When thou art dead, and all thy wretched crew?

Here we can see how Keats dedicates this sonnet to Hunt from the opening lines, showing his gratitude to Hunt for aiming to show the truth to a flawed state. Again, politics is shown through Keats’s interest in the state and Hunt’s spirit described as free as a joyful bird. Keats emphasizes that even though Hunt was in prison, not only did his spirit remain free, but he did not wait for the turning of the key as he continued to protest his cause for liberty through his writings. In the final sestet, we notice an alteration in tone and imagery as he revives the great English poet Spenser and Milton who through Hunt’s writings were depicted once again as free. Keats constantly recalls freedom by using ‘flew’, ‘air’ and ‘flight’, further suggesting his connection with liberalism. Once again, Keats suggest this liberation through nature, the bird, the field, the flower, the air, to reinforce his romantic side and ultimately suggest that in nature we should find freedom as the birds find their freedom, a typical convention of the time.

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Clarke admitted to the rumour that Keats was in fact a radical, also pointing out the synonymous terms used during those days ‘Libertas’ and ‘radicals’. Following up in Clarke’s ‘Recollections’ was the now endlessly discussed ‘Cockney School’ essays, published by Z for the Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, where Keats and other young poets where deliberately attacked because of their political point of view. These essays were only of social polemic as their purpose was only to disempower Keats and make him look ridiculous, portraying him as an upstart lacking higher education and being a member of the lower social class and culture. Keats’s youth also enforced Z’s criticism, ‘our youthful poet’, ‘uneducated and flimsy stripling’. In fact, Z constantly attacks Keats as being ‘without logic’ as he lacked ‘the smallest knowledge or feeling of classical poetry or classical history’. What Z means to say, is that because Keats did not receive a higher education and therefore did not know Greek or Latin, in order for him to read Homer, for example, he needed to first seek a translation. In fact, on this occasion, we know that Keats read his Homer from a translation of Chapman. Because ‘uneducated’ people were the common inhabitants of England during Keats’s times, he was considered to be of a lower class origin, likewise in his opinions, cultural life and most importantly politics.

Besides, it is now acknowledged that Keats’s interest in social and political history initiated at Enfield School through his reading of the Examiner and conversations with the Clarkes. Keats widened his readings in liberal and republican texts, influenced by the ideas of enlightenment. This is shown through one of his great sonnets On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer, where Keats refers to the Spanish conquests discussed in Robertson’s History of America.

Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold,

And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;

Round many western islands have I been

Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.

Oft of one wide expanse had I been told

That deep-brow’d Homer ruled as his demesne;

Yet did I never breathe its pure serene

Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies

When a new planet swims into his ken;

Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes

He star’d at the Pacific-and all his men

Look’d at each other with a wild surmise-

Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

This sonnet manages to integrate both history and politics, bringing to mind the discoveries of Cortez, triggering up the poetic imagination and revelation of the new worlds, indeed coinciding imagination with political history. The ‘realms of gold’ signify the restoration of history and imagination under imperialism. In fact William Robertson’s argued that Cortez’s triumph in his discovery of the new worlds, was also a typical example of imagination and the aggressiveness imposed by the imperial military. The integration of ‘states’ and ‘kingdom’ also suggest the passing of time, therefore the knowledge of a victory or downfall of a particular political movement or reign. However, the reinforcement of the Spanish conquistador is seen at the discovery of the ‘new planets’, won through military invasion, therefore denying a sense of freedom. These imperial ‘glories’ are also a measure of his own ambitions as a writer although acknowledging his own limitations. Ever since his school days, Keats recognised the liberal and progressive culture of dissent as the imperialism of European activities in South America. However Z also seemed to identify Keats’s Endymion with a ‘cockney rhymester’ defining the poet’s exclusion from the high culture of classical poetry and history:

From his prototype, Hunt, John Keats has acquired a sort of vague idea, that the Greeks were a most tasteful people, and that no mythology can be so finely adapted for the purposes of poetry as theirs. It is amusing to see what a hand the two Cockneys make of this mythology; the one professes that he never read the Greek Tragedians, and the other knows Homer only from Chapman; and both of them write about Apollo, Pan, Nymphs, Muses and Mysteries, as might be expected from persons of their education…As for Mr Keats’ ‘Endymion’, it has just as much to do with Greece as it has with ‘old Tartary the fierce’; no man, whose mind has ever been imbued with the smallest knowledge or feeling of classical poetry or classical history, could have stooped to profane and vulgarise every association in the manner which has been adopted by this ‘son of promise’ [10] 

This idea is reinforced by William Keach as he argued that being unschooled and his undisciplined poetry , he was not just ‘profane and vulgar’, in fact Z proclaimed Keats’s poetry as having the liberal values of the ‘Cockney School of Politics’. The term Cockney refers to a native Londoner, referring specifically to their English dialect, the Cockney. This then new-coined word, was the result of John Lockhart, a Scottish writer and critic, who also edited Blackwood’s Magazine. He referred this term to those artists who, according to him, had poor taste with regard to literary matters, diction and rhyme, including Hazlitt, Hunt, Keats and even Shelley. Lockhart proudly introduced the term ‘If I may be permitted to have the honour of christening it, it may henceforth be referred to by the designation of The Cockney School.’ [11] He also called the writers ‘the vilest vermin that ever dared to creep upon the hem of the majestic garment of the English muse”. [12] Furthermore, Lockhart famously attacked Keats because of his ‘bad’ verse, radical politics and his ‘lowly’ beginnings.

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Another poem which shows Keats’s integration into politics is Dedication. To Leigh Hunt, Esq. Keats manages to integrate the aesthetic and political objectives of Hunt by intertwining nature with classic mythology, the myth of “Flora, and old Pan”. Keats’ lament for lost ‘glory’ is more publicly tuned with the historical past and with the reform movement’s rhetoric of returning to earlier Constitutional values.

GLORY and loveliness have passed away;

For if we wander out in early morn,

No wreathed incense do we see upborne

Into the east, to meet the smiling day:

No crowd of nymphs soft voic’d and young, and gay,

In woven baskets bringing ears of corn,

Roses, and pinks, and violets, to adorn

The shrine of Flora in her early May.

But there are left delights as high as these,

And I shall ever bless my destiny,

That in a time, when under pleasant trees

Pan is no longer sought, I feel a free

A leafy luxury, seeing I could please

With these poor offerings, a man like thee

The first line of this poem shows the past glories and how Keats recalls them and looks up to them in order to achieve a better future. We see this process throughout the first octave yet a sudden change appears at the start of the sestet. The need for freedom is now reinforced by Keats, as he looks up at the day that his liberal ideas become common to all. Keats manages to substitute a modern ideal state of “freedom” through nature, thus expressing his liberal intentions. The use of nymphs and Flora suggest the classical history where order was established in nature and through the elements, yet in his days he is asking Pan to bring the order through spring and nature. This concept is here further reinforced to bring out the idea that in nature we are free as other creatures are through this same nature. In this poem, delight is only sought after through ultimately obtaining liberty. This poem is significantly political as the freedom discussed is a deliberate pun aimed at the liberty, the radicals and Keats himself discussed in their politics.

In ‘Endymion’, Keats used Greek mythology to create a new pastoral narrative. Referring to the Greek stories of classical gods, he was following the fashion of the time. Additionally Jeffery Cox in his book Poetry and Politics in the Cockney School: Keats, Shelley, Hunt and their Circle, investigates ‘mythologising drama’ in the Hunt circle. Cox asserts that Hunt and his circle reject the stage in order to remake it through ‘alternative sources of cultural authority’ (p.124). Indeed, Hunt in his Descent of Liberty, directed his “circle” with his ideals of freedom. In fact, Cox states that here Hunt made an attempt to ‘create- in life as well as in vision – a utopia of peace in a world at war, of pleasure in a culture of money-getting, of communality in a society deeply divided’ (p. 145). By emphasizing the ‘countercultural’ performance suiting Hunt, Cox demonstrates how adaptations were made to ‘extend the cultural franchise, cultural literacy, across traditional boundaries'(p.128). Thus showing the Hunt circle’s investigation of mythological drama, its rhythm and movement. Once again, Keats’ poems was heavily criticized by both The Quarterly and Blackwood’s which criticized him mainly because of his link to Hunt, his circle and their political views.

‘To see brightness in each other’s eyes;

And so they stood, fill’d with a sweet surprise,

Until their tongues were loos’d in poesy’

Once again nature plays a major part in this poem, being their source of inspiration. Yet the loosening which takes place and evolves into “poesy” connotes itself to an erotic liberty returning to pagan myth. However, Z identifies Keats’s Endymion as not being ‘a Greek shepherd, loved by a Grecian goddess; he is merely a young cockney rhymester, dreaming a phantastic dream at the full of the moon’ [13] . Since Keats’ mythology is earthbound, it reflects the healing generative powers of poetry with the dramatic resonance of the lovers healed through the bond of natural and imaginative forces. This implies Hunt’s poetry of cheerfulness, a successful liberation from oppression.

John Keats was indeed criticized by many, accused of bad language, being young, inexperienced and having the wrong ideals in politics, yet through his works we can see that Keats only aimed at the liberty or freedom sought by his fellow contemporary writers Hunt and Shelley. As a matter of fact, this is what Keats aimed for, a free country with radical beliefs.

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