Poetry of the Soul: The Sublime and Wondrous Odes of John Keats

John Keats relentlessly strived to achieve the 'sublime' in life and in poetry since he sensed that only this could help him to reach a stage of refined sensibility and heightened consciousness.

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Two hundred years ago, when the English poet John Keats died on February 23, 1821 at the early age of 25, the general consensus about his literary legacy was that his poetry had shown promise of a great poet of the future. By the mid-twentieth century, however, he came to be hailed as a major Romantic poet, four of whose odes — Ode to Psyche, Ode to a Nightingale, Ode on a Grecian Urn, and To  Autumn — are now universally accepted not only as his supreme achievements but also as the poetic glories of English literature.

The pinnacle of Keats’ imagination 

The Ode to Psyche is Keats paean to imagination and creativity, as he avows in it that since no temple exists dedicated to Psyche, the Greek goddess of the soul, he would build in his mind a shrine consecrated to her:

Let me be thy choir,

Thy voice, thy lute, thy pipe;

Thy shrine, thy grove, thy oracle;

Yes, I will be thy priest, and build a fane [shrine]

In some untrodden region of my mind,

With all the gardener Fancy e’er could feign,

Who breeding flowers, will never breed the same:

In these lines ‘the gardener Fancy’ stands for the poetic imagination that will tend the shrine by composing hymns celebrating Psyche – hymns that stem from pure spirituality and imagination.

In the Greek legend, Psyche is unable to resist her overwhelming desire to see the face of Cupid even though she has to go against his wishes, and once she gets a glimpse of the perfect beauty of Cupid’s face, she is dazzled by it. For Keats, the situation of the artist is similar as he tries to get a glimpse of the ideal and the spiritual by transgressing through his vocation, the limitations of his situation. As Psyche wandered for her love Cupid, disowned by him and by everyone else, so does the poet in the quest for his unique vision rejecting all conformity, till he finds it through suffering and striving, and reaches a heightened state of being.

Poetic expression to the ephemeral nature of human existence 

The transience of life and mortality are the constant concerns in the Ode to a Nightingale. On hearing a nightingale singing in his grove, the poet becomes convinced that since similar melodious notes had been heard by humans, for eons the bird is immortal. This makes him remember the tragic truth that decay, disease, aging and death are the essential aspects of the human condition:

The weariness, the fever, and the fret

Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;

Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs,

Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;

The bird’s song however provides the poet an illusion of the ethereal world, raising him even though for a few moments above the bounds of time, space and an imminent sense of his mortality – thus letting him have a glimpse of ‘an intimation of immortality’. Somewhat similar to G.M. Hopkins’s epiphanic experience in The Windhover  (My heart in hiding/ Stirred for a bird), Keats is granted a consecrated experience — the  Proustian ‘privileged moment’ — in which he becomes one with nature as he feels absorbed in the moment of bliss.

A spiritual awareness

In  Ode on a Grecian, Keats invokes the tradition of ekphrastic poetry by apostrophising a Greek Urn. The early stanzas of this ode describe the pictures inscribed on an imaginary vase: two lovers about to kiss, a scene in spring, a flautist playing a melody, and a ceremonial procession. The scenes suspended eternally, as it were, in an infinitesimal moment in time stir in the poet sentiments and thoughts he has never experienced before:

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: 

          Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought

          As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!

In this new state of spiritual awareness, the poet meditates and reflects on a host of ideas: life, death, transience, permanence, truth, beauty, and of course art:

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.” 

Thus Keats envisages in the ode that art and life interpenetrate to provide an intense aesthetic experience that makes human existence meaningful and less quotidian.

A visual image of autumn 

Keats’s final ode To Autumn uses realistic vignettes of ripening grain and fruits to depict autumn as full of nature’s bounty and plenitude. The opening lines are famous:

 Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,

Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun; 

Conspiring with him…

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.

 Consider the following stanza that has an iconic quality unmatched in the English language:

     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.

These are amazing lines conveying rare complexity of thought and depth of feeling as the figure described in the lines can be interpreted in realistic terms representing either the reaper or the gleaner. For the poet any attempt to differentiate the season from the reaper is an act of sacrilege, as he believes that autumn reaches and lives its vitality in the reaper’s activities and being.

The most striking aspect of To Autumn, however, is that it inverts what happens in the Ode on a Grecian Urn. Keats paints visual images of autumn weaving a verbal tapestry, and by doing so transmutes the temporality inherent in the season into a spatial form like that of the urn.

The subliminal 

By the time Keats came to write his odes, he had accepted the Greco-Roman thinker Longinus’ idea that true art and literature always aspired towards spirituality and aesthetic grandeur, a quality that he called the ‘Sublime’. Longinus had identified the source of the Sublime as the inner being of the artist by writing in his treatise On the Sublime that “Sublimity is the echo of greatness of soul”, essentially implying — what became the cornerstone of the Romantic aesthetics — that only pure and noble souls could produce great art.

It must be emphasised, however, that as Keats wrote his odes he also added new aspects to the   Sublime, aligning it with imagination, as Wordsworth had done in The Prelude. He discovered that it was the Sublime that enabled his poetic imagination to transform ‘time into eternity’ and ‘finite into infinite’.

Keats, therefore, relentlessly strived to achieve the Sublime in life and in poetry since he sensed that only this could help him to reach a stage of refined sensibility and heightened consciousness. As he was increasingly convinced that “whatever the imagination seizes as Beauty must be Truth”, the urgent need of his Self to enfold and absorb the beauty of the physical world around him into the creative cosmos of his being became insistent and compelling.

This led Keats in his odes to eventually compose a kind of poetry that while mirroring his noble soul could at the same time embody the Sublime in its intellectual, ethical and spiritual dimensions.

Shikoh Mohsin Mirza teaches English at the University of Lucknow, Lucknow.