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Examining The Romantic Poet John Keats

English Literature Essay


Published: 23, March 2015
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)

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"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 nave
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

lambhaving 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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