The History Of English Literature English Literature Essay

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The paper attempts to look at the works of three major writers in the History of English Literature namely John Keats, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Lloyd Fernando by using the historical approach. The very popular historical approach based on Taine's "moment-milieu-race" sees literature as both a reflection and product of the times and circumstances in which it was written. The approach takes into account the biographical and historical backgrounds when introducing a work besides arranging a literature course in chronological order. It is believed that the history of a nation has some telling effects on its literature and that it can be better understood and appreciated if one has the knowledge about the times around its creation. ( ). One thus, one needs to have an understanding of the formative periods of a country and the impact of these periods on communities and individuals because they will enable a thorough understanding of a literary work

Literary critics have often declared that great literature is timeless, and that great writers transcend the particular outward forms of history because their works give us a universally valid account of human nature (Selden,1988, p.419). As such, if one intends to understand and comprehend a literary work, he must among others study deeper about various aspects of the author's life including his experience, personality and the society during the time of the creation. This is because these aspects have important roles to play in shaping the author's personality and influenced his works

Selden, R. (ed). (1988). The Theory of Criticism From Plato To The Present. London and New York: Longman

N.A. (N.A). Approaches To Literature, In N.A, Retrieved December 15, 2012, from ( ).

John Keats

John Keats (1795-1821) is known as one of the Big Six Romantic poets representing the Romanticism Movement in the History of English Literature, The first generation of the Romantic poets are William Blake (1757-1827), William Wordsworth (1770-1850) and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834). Keats belonged to the second generation together with Lord Byron (1788-1824) and Percy Shelley (1792-1822). Born on October 31, 1795 to Thomas and Frances Jennings Keats, John Keats was the first child of five siblings. He was sent to a school in Enfield because his family could not afford to send him to any other good school. Here Keats benefited not only from the liberal atmosphere which encouraged his independence of character but also from his friendship with the headmaster's son, Charles Cowden Clarke (Garret, p.1).

There was so much sadness faced by Keats throughout his life which includes the death of his father who was a stableman in April 1804, when Keats was just eight. The cause of the death was a skull fracture when he fell from his horse. His mother remarried only after two months of his husband's death, but left her new husband soon afterwards. Keats and his siblings went to live with their grandmother, Alice Jennings in the village. In March 1810, when Keats was 14, his mother died of tuberculosis, leaving the children in the custody of their grandmother. Richard Abbey the guardian of the children later took him out of the school and bound him apprentice to Thomas Hammond, a surgeon and apothecary who was a neighbour and the doctor of the Jennings family (The Norton Anthology of English Literature, p.766). Having finished his apprenticeship with Hammond, Keats joined Guy's Hospital, London as a medical student in 1815. Within a month of starting, he was accepted as a dresser at the hospital, assisting surgeons during operations. He was rather industrious at the beginning but slowly began to lose interest and finally made up his mind to totally give up medicine for poetry. Charles Cowden Clarke who became Keats tutor during his early years at Enfield was responsible in introducing him to great writers such as William Hazlitt, John Hamilton Reynolds, Leigh Hunt and Shelley. "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer"published in 1817 became Keats first sonnet followed by "Sleep" as well as "Poetry" (p.767).

Keats tours broadened his acquaintance with the environment and various people and inspired his writing. In 1818 for example, Keats went for a walking tour through the Lake of Country up into Scotland and Ireland with his best friend Charles Brown. However, the tour was actually not a pleasant one and as such contributed to the Keats' illness. Towards the end of 1818, Keats nursed his brother Tom, who had contracted tuberculosis while his other brother George got married and immigrated to America. For the first time in their young lives, the brothers were split apart.  Keats felt the separation keenly because their orphaned upbringing had made them extraordinarily close before.

Tom's fatal illness added depth to his perception of its sorrow (Garret, p.4)

Later, Keats started on a long poem Hyperion which he never finished. Hyperion revealed that Keats had become a first class poet due to his firm use of language.

Domestic instability may account for Keats's mercurial temperament to the extent that he even attacked a master for some perceived injustice to his brother George. His volatile personality found release later in violent switches of mood from luxurious ecstasy to profound depression and also in one of the most essential characteristics of his poetry: a continual vacillation between the attractiveness of an escape-world, a paradise created by li

Although regarded as one of the "Big Six" of Romantic poetry and probably best known for his sequence of six lyric odes written in 1819, Keats was actually looked down as belonging to the "Cockney School" of poets. Lord Byron for example saw the Cockney School to which Keats was said to belong as an "under-Sect" of the Lake School. Byron even ridiculed and called Keats "a tadpole of the lakes, a young disciple of the six or seven new schools. In fact Shelley also shared part of Byron's view of Keats and criticized all his works except "Hyperion" (Dawson in Keach, p.204-205). His "lack of education" as compared to any other major Romantic poets may lead to the errors which were evidenced in his poetry "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer". Although the poem tells of his astonishment at being able to read the works of the ancient Greek poet Homer as freely translated by the Elizabethan playwright George Chapman, he had inadvertently mistaken the Cortez with the Balboa explorers- it was actually the Balboa who caught his first sight of the Pacific Ocean from the heights of Darien in Panama (The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 2nd ed., p.826), not Cortez like what Keats had written. Boys who had been educated at the prestigious schools were all taught Latin and Greek, and they read the works of Homer in the original Greek. It was a real lack in one's education at that time if one did not read classical works especially in their original language. Keats did not have such an education, and he also never knew there was an English translation of Homer's works done by Chapman, until his friend gave him a copy. Another major error can be found in Keats's "Ode on Melancholy", in which he refers to the river Lethe when he actually really means Styx. The sonnet itself is a celebration of education; the poet is aware of his lack of education. He likens himself to an explorer.

Soon after his brother's death, Keats was running out of money and

was in love with Fanny Brawne. He became unofficially engaged to

Fanny Brawne and produced some of his greatest works like Ode

to Psyche, Ode on Melancholy, Ode on Grecian Urn and Ode on

Indolence (1819).

On the following year he managed to write his most perfect narrative poem The Eve of St. Agnes.

Later, his friend Brown suggested that they write a tragedy together. He worked on part one of Lamia and Otho the Great, a play which Brown encouraged as a way for he and Keats to enter the playwriting business.  It was their hope that plays might be more profitable than poetry. 

In August, Keats left the Isle of Wight for Winchester.  Here he wrote the second part of Lamia and the beautiful ode To Autumn.

Unfortunately, Keats developed tuberculosis just like his mother and brother before. In February 1820, his doctor advised him to travel to a warmer climate country.

Keats borrowed money and travelled to Italy with his friend Servern, where he died the following February at the age of 25.

Keats was full of intense passion and desire, yet shy and reserved. He was a young man with all the determination and melancholy of a teenager on a romantic quest to be among the English poets when he died. He wanted to be famous, and he has well and truly lived up to his dream.

Ode to a Nightingale was written easily and quickly, completed , according to Brown, in two or three hours(KC 2, 65)…. Within a new auspicious form, Keats arranges a host of themes, images and practices from the work of previous three years. P.90

The rich ambiguities of Nightingale are apparent in the three characters of its unfolding drama: the bird , the speaker-poet and the "fancy".

The model of fancy as a female agent of vision and escape, but also as mischievously disobedient, a "deceiving elf like Shakespeare's Puck.

Keats'influences on others

Keats is considered as one of the "Big Six" of Romantic poetry, although he was looked down upon as belonging to the "Cockney School" of poets. He is probably best known for his sequence of six lyric odes written in 1819.

Along with Shelley, Keats was a major influence on later poets, particularly the Victorian poet like Alfred Tennyson and the poet Wilfred Owen.

He is considered one of the greatest of the Romantic poets and remains one of the most popular poets studied today.


Like Shelley, Keats used poetic forms in untraditional ways. For example, he uses the sonnet form in "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer"-a poem in which he talks about his experience of first being able to read a classic work for himself.

Many of his poems, among them "La Belle Dame sans Merci", are written to sound archaic.

Keats is famous for his odes. However, unlike odes written before his time which were often public statements, Keats' odes distinguish themselves by being private meditations of the writer concerning his thoughts and emotions, in line with Romantic attitudes.

Themes in Keats's works

Most of Keats' poems talk about life and death, especially the transience of life. This theme runs especially throughout his odes.

This could be because so many of his family members died(father died of accident, his mother and brother suffered from tuberculosis and died and he himself is also dying at a young age due to the same disease)

Keats's important poems are related to, or grow directly out of...inner conflicts." For example, pain and pleasure are intertwined in "Ode to a Nightingale" and "Ode on a Grecian Urn"; love is intertwined with pain, and pleasure is intertwined with death in "La Belle Dame Sans Merci," "The Eve of St. Agnes," and "Isabella; or, the Pot of Basil."

Cleanth Brooks defines the paradox that is the theme of "Ode to a Nightingale" somewhat differently: "the world of imagination offers a release from the painful world of actuality, yet at the same time it renders the world of actuality more painful by contrast.


      Other conflicts appear in Keats's poetry:

transient sensation or passion / enduring art

dream or vision / reality

joy / melancholy

the ideal / the real

mortal / immortal

life / death

separation / connection

being immersed in passion / desiring to escape passion

Keats and Romanticism

Romantic poets, because of their theories of literature and life, were drawn to lyric poetry; they even developed a new form of ode, often called the romantic meditative ode.

      The literary critic Jack Stillinger describes the typical movement of the romantic ode:

"The poet, unhappy with the real world, escapes or attempts to escape into the ideal. Disappointed in his mental flight, he returns to the real world. Usually he returns because human beings cannot live in the ideal or because he has not found what he was seeking. But the experience changes his understanding of his situation, of the world, etc.; his views/feelings at the end of the poem differ significantly from those he held at the beginning of the poem. "

"Negative Capability"

Keats was an admirer of Shakespeare, and his reading of Shakespeare's work was insightful and intriguing, illustrating the genius of Shakespeare's creativity.

In a letter to his brothers, Keats describes this genius as 'Negative Capability':

Excerpt from Keats's letter to his brother:

" . . several things dovetailed in my mind, & at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in Literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously--I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason--Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half knowledge. This pursued through Volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.

It is the idea that man is capable of being in uncertainty or doubt without striving to change this condition through searching for conclusions or reasons.


the ability to contemplate the world without the desire to try and reconcile contradictory aspects or fit it into closed and rational systems.'

For Keats, uncertainty or doubt is not a negative thing.

Negative Capability (the willingness to remain in doubt or not to resolve conflicts or ambiguities) may be seen in his poetry; for instance, in the concluding questions of "Ode to a Nightingale.

"Was it a vision, or a waking dream?

      Fled is that music: - Do I wake or sleep?"

What is an Ode?

Ode: usually a lyric poem of moderate length, with a serious subject, an elevated style, and an elaborate stanza pattern.There are various kinds of odes, which we don't have to worry about in an introductiory course like this. The ode often praises people, the arts of music and poetry, natural scenes, or abstract concepts. The Romantic poets used the ode to explore both personal or general problems; they often started with a meditation on something in nature, as did Keats in "Ode to a Nightingale" or Shelley in"Ode to the West Wind.

Keats' Odes are based on his persistent kind of experience which

dominated his feelings, attitudes, and thoughts during that time.

Each of them is not only unique, but also a facet of his larger experience.

This larger experience is an intense awareness of both the joy and pain, the happiness and the sorrow, of human life. It is a feeling and also a thought, a kind of brooding as the poet sees them in others and feels them in himself.

According to him, human beings must satisfy their desire for happiness in a world where joy and pain are inevitably and inextricably tied together. This union of joy and pain is the fundamental fact of human experience that Keats has observed and accepted as true.

Keats's odes are considered to be his masterpieces and one of the major achievements in English literature.

"Ode to a Nightingale" is usually taken to be the first ode written in this sequence of odes, while "Ode to Melancholy" is taken to be the last.

"Ode to a Nightingale" shows how suffering and awareness of beauty are inextricable linked.

The "Ode on a Grecian Urn" centres around the transience of life and the permanence of Art.

"To Autumn" and "Ode to Melancholy" show beauty at its purest. Both poems are highly descriptive.

Throughout the odes, the theme is that true beauty must be transient in order to be beautiful; life is beautiful because it is transient.

The use of Imagery

      Keats's imagery ranges from physical sensations: sight, hearing, taste, touch, smell, temperature, weight, pressure, hunger, thirst, sexuality, and movement. Keats repeatedly combines different senses in one image, that is, he attributes the trait(s) of one sense to another, a practice called synaesthesia.

Among others synaesthetic imagery functions as a part of the sensual effect, and the combining of senses normally experienced .


"Ode to a Nightingale"

In some MELODIOUS plot


Combination of sound ("melodious") and sight ("beechen green")

But here here is no LIGHT,

Save what from heaven is with the BREEZES BLOWN (stanza IV)

Combines sight ("light") with touch/movement ("breezes blown"). This image describes light filtering through leaves moved by the wind.

Ode on a Grecian Urn

by John Keats

The poem portrays the persona's attempt to engage with the static immobility of sculpture.

The Grecian urn, passed down through countless centuries to the time of the speaker's viewing, exists outside of time in the human sense-it does not age, it does not die, and indeed it is alien to all such concepts.

In the persona's meditation, this creates an intriguing paradox for the human figures carved into the side of the urn: They are free from time, but they are simultaneously frozen in time.

They do not have to confront aging and death (their love is "for ever young"), but neither can they have experience (the youth can never kiss the maiden; the figures in the procession can never return to their homes).

1) Thou still unravish'd 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:

What leaf-fring'd legend haunts about thy shape

     Of deities or mortals, or of both,

          In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?

     What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?

What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?

          What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?

The speaker stands before an ancient Grecian urn and addresses it.

He is preoccupied with its depiction of pictures frozen in time.

-It is the "still unravish'd bride of quietness," the "foster-child of silence and slow time."

-describes the urn as a "historian" that can tell a story.

-wonders about the figures on the side of the urn and asks what legend they depict and from where they come.

-looks at a picture that seems to depict a group of men pursuing a group of women and wonders what their story could be: "What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape? What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?"

2) Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard

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

Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear'd,

     Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:

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,

          For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

*the speaker looks at another picture on the urn of a young man playing a pipe, lying with his lover beneath a glade of trees.

*The speaker says that the piper's "unheard" melodies are sweeter than mortal melodies because they are unaffected by time.

*He tells the youth that, though he can never kiss his lover because he is frozen in time, he should not grieve, because her beauty will never fade.

3) Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed

      Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;

And, happy melodist, unwearied,

      For ever piping songs for ever new;

More happy love! more happy, happy love!

      For ever warm and still to be enjoy'd,

           For ever panting, and for ever young;

All breathing human passion far above,

      That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy'd,

           A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.

He looks at the trees surrounding the lovers and feels happy that they will never shed their leaves.

. He is happy for the piper because his songs will be "for ever new," and happy that the love of the boy and the girl will last forever, unlike mortal love, which lapses into "breathing human passion" and eventually vanishes, leaving behind only a "burning forehead, and a parching tongue."

4) 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?

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

           Why thou art desolate, can e'er return.

The speaker examines another picture on the urn, this one of a group of villagers leading a heifer( a young cow) to be sacrificed. He wonders where they are going ("To what green altar, O mysterious priest...") and from where they have come.

He imagines their little town, empty of all its citizens, and tells it that its streets will "for evermore" be silent, for those who have left it, frozen on the urn, will never return

5) 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

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

           Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."

The speaker again addresses the urn itself, saying that it, like Eternity, "doth tease us out of thought."

He thinks that when his generation is long dead, the urn will remain, telling future generations its enigmatic lesson: "Beauty is truth, truth beauty." The speaker says that that is the only thing the urn knows and the only thing it needs to know.

Ode to Nightingale

Stanza 1-The speaker opens with a declaration of his own heartache. He feels numb, as though he had taken a drug only a moment ago. He is addressing a nightingale he hears singing somewhere in the forest and says that his "drowsy numbness" is not from envy of the nightingale's happiness, but rather from sharing it too completely.

Stanza 2- the speaker longs for the oblivion of alcohol, expressing his wish for wine, "a draught of vintage," that would taste like the country and like peasant dances, and let him "leave the world unseen" and disappear into the dim forest with the nightingale.

Stanza 3-he explains his desire to fade away, saying he would like to forget the troubles the nightingale has never known: "the weariness, the fever, and the fret" of human life, with its consciousness that everything is mortal and nothing lasts. Youth "grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies," and "beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes.

Stanza 4- the speaker tells the nightingale to fly away, and he will follow, not through alcohol ("Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards"), but through poetry, which will give him "viewless wings." He says he is already with the nightingale and describes the forest glade, where even the moonlight is hidden by the trees, except the light that breaks through when the breezes blow the branches.

Stanza 5-the speaker says that he cannot see the flowers in the glade, but can guess them "in embalmed darkness": white hawthorne, eglantine, violets, and the musk-rose, "the murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves.

Stanza 6-the speaker listens in the dark to the nightingale, saying that he has often been "half in love" with the idea of dying and called Death soft names in many rhymes. Surrounded by the nightingale's song, the speaker thinks that the idea of death seems richer than ever, and he longs to "cease upon the midnight with no pain" while the nightingale pours its soul ecstatically forth. If he were to die, the nightingale would continue to sing, he says, but he would "have ears in vain" and be no longer able to hear.

Stanza 7-, the speaker tells the nightingale that it is immortal, that it was not "born for death." He says that the voice he hears singing has always been heard, by ancient emperors and clowns, by homesick Ruth; he even says the song has often charmed open magic windows looking out over "the foam / Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.

Stanza 8-the word forlorn tolls like a bell to restore the speaker from his preoccupation with the nightingale and back into himself. As the nightingale flies farther away from him, he laments that his imagination has failed him and says that he can no longer recall whether the nightingale's music was "a vision, or a waking dream." Now that the music is gone, the speaker cannot recall whether he himself is awake or asleep

Charles Brown, a friend with whom Keats was living when he composed this poem, wrote,

"In the spring of 1819 a nightingale had built her nest near my house. Keats felt a tranquil and continual joy in her song; and one morning he took his chair from the breakfast table to the grass-plot under a plum-tree, where he sat for two or three hours. When he came into the house, I perceived he had some scraps of paper in his hand, and these he was quietly thrusting behind the books. On inquiry, I found those scraps, four or five in number, contained his poetic feeling on the song of our nightingale.

A major concern in "Ode to a Nightingale" is Keats's perception of the conflicted nature of human life, i.e., the interconnection or mixture of pain/joy, intensity of feeling/numbness or lack of feeling, life/death, mortal/immortal, the actual/the ideal, and separation/connection.

 Keats focuses on immediate, concrete sensations and emotions, from which the reader can draw a conclusion or abstraction.

To Autumn

Keats describes early autumn, when all the products of nature have reached a state of perfect maturity.

Autumn is personified and is perceived in a state of activity.

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,

   Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;

Conspiring with him how to load and bless

   With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;

To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees,

   And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;

      To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells

   With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,

And still more, later flowers for the bees,

Until they think warm days will never cease,

      For summer has o'er-brimm'd their clammy cells.

In the first stanza, autumn is a friendly conspirator working with the sun to bring fruits to a state of perfect fullness and ripeness.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?

   Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find

Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,

   Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;

Or on a half-reap'd furrow sound asleep,

   Drows'd with the fume of poppies, while thy hook

      Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:

And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep

   Steady thy laden head across a brook;

   Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,

      Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.


In the second stanza, autumn is a thresher sitting on a granary floor, a reaper asleep in a grain field, a gleaner crossing a brook, and, lastly, a cider maker.

Where are the songs of spring? Ay, Where are they?

   Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,-

While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,

   And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;

Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn

   Among the river sallows, borne aloft

      Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;

And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;

   Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft

   The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;

      And gathering swallows twitter in the skies


In the final stanza, autumn is seen as a musician, and the music which autumn produces is as pleasant as the music of spring - the sounds of gnats, lambs, crickets, robins and swallows.