John Keats


Permanence and Mutability

Before 15 he had lost his parents, an infant brother an uncle and his grandfather. Apprenticeship at Guy's hospital exposed him to suffering. William Olser - they "carved limbs and bodies, in all stages of putrefaction." Nursed his brother until he died of TB and carried the same symptoms for the following 4 years before his death. Many of his poems attempt through the visionary imagination to identify with something essential and permanent, this is always met by the paradoxical recognition that what is of true value can only be found in the world of change. An awareness of mortality increases one's sense of beauty and joy.

Tuberculosis was rife during Keats' life, with poor sanitation, nutrition and unpasturised milk. No cure. Affected the lungs, joints and intestines, causing fevers, weakness, loss of appetite, weight loss and coughing up blood and phlegm.

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Imagination and Transcendence

Unlike many other Romantic poets he never formulated his ideas on the imagination in a systematic manner. In a letter he wrote "I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the Heart's affections and the truth of Imagination." There is some essential and unchanging beauty and truth that can be accessed through the imagination. The imagination provides us a link between the real and the ideal. In 'Endymion' beauty is seen as the sign of some truth. The opposition between the permanence that can be reached through the imagination and the transcience of the human condition forms the basic structuring of some of his most celebrated poems. They often follow the movement from vision to loss, from rapture to dissillusion. The imagination does not always appear positive, and often the fall from it is devestating as it highlights the horrors of mankind. Imaginitive vision may be an evasion of the real world and imaginative transformation a cheat and deception.

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A Life of Sensations

Keats writes, "O for a Life of Sensations rather than of Thoughts." this has been used to justify his mindless sensualism but it may instead be a version of Platonic idealism. For Keats, sensation is the literal information of the senses. The way to the ideal is through the real.

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Beauty and Truth

In early poems we find the belief that beauty must be the sensuous and temporal manifestation of some ultimate transcendent truth, this gives meaning to the world of experiences. Keats' growing awareness of evil and suffering gradually undermined this conviction, and beauty and truth become severed. Beauty is now one aspect of a contradictory reality

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Negative Capability

Negative capability is the ability to contemplate the world without the desire to try to reconcile its contradictory aspects, or fit it into closed and rational systems. He wrote to his brothers that Negative Capability is when "man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason." Many took this as at the heart of his achievement. His later poetry yearn for the comforts of certainties with a narrator tortured by the fear that his speculations may be useless illusions. The desire for imaginitive transcendence has been replaced by a desire to focus on the truth of human suffering. The poet, like the physician, is seen to have a duty to serve suffering humanity.

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The 'Camelion Poet' and the 'Egotistical Sublime'

'Egotistical sublime' - Keats is referring to poets who try to force their philosophy upon the reader, using their imagination to modify and create, and allow the self to obtrude upon the poetry. (Keats seems to enforce his own context within his poetry)

In a letter Keats distinguishes between the 'men of genius' and 'me of power' ("great as etheral Chemicals operating on the Mass of neutral intellect - but they have not any individuality, any determined Character. I would call the top and and head of those who have a proper self Men of Power.")

The camelion poet is based on the assumption that poetry should emerge from a disinterested, amoral, selfless contemplation. He wrote in a letter - "A Poet is the most unpoetical of anything in existence; because he has no Identity - he is continually in for - and filling some other Body." A camelion poet who is absent from his work links to the negative capability and in oposition to the egotistical sublime. Keats said in a letter that Poetry "should be great and unobtrusive, a thing which enters into one's soul, and does not startle it or amaze it with itself but with its subject."

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The camelion poet has the capacity for self-forgetfulness and for empathy, that is, strongly sympathetic imagination which entails being taken completely up into something other than the self. He recognises that empathy can rob us of any agency. The desire for imaginative transcendence comes into conflict with the desire to retain self-awareness.

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Knowledge and Identity

His early aesthetic ideal gave way to a need for knowledge and a stable identity, formed and disciplined by experience. He describes human life as a "large mansion of many apartments" each with different characteristics, we become aware that "the World is full of Misery and Heartbreak, Pain, Sickness and oppression." The 3rd chamber, that Keats admits to not having reached yet "shall be a lucky and a gentle one - stored with the wine of love - and the Bread of Friendship." Sensations are no longer enough for Keats.

He rejects that the world is a "vale of tears" and asserts instead that it is "the vale of soul-making" he focuses on the need for experience in order to form identity. Mutibility is now seen in a far more positive light, change is essential for development and identity.

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Susan Wolfson - Keats frequently uses an encounter with a female figure to represent visionary experience, but his deepest anxieties are revealed through confrontations with power represented in a female form. Associated with terms like "enthrall" and "ensnare" suggesting attraction and fear. In his letters to Fanny Brawne his expressions of love contain anxiety, "ask yourself my love whether you are not very cruel to have so entrammelled me, so destroyed my freedom." His ambivalent attitude towards women cements him as a man of his time. He once stated he will not spend "any time with Ladies unless they are handsome." It has been argued that in his earlier poems the temptation to escape the responisbility of adulthood is projected on to an entrapping female. His recognition that this tempation must be avoided is represented by his punishment of male lovers.

Keats also feminises many objects and concepts e.g. Romance in 'King Lear' and the urn itself in 'Ode on a Grecian Urn' in this poem the female urn is to be stared out and used for a purpose. The men are adventurous and active whilst the women are passive and stagnant

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First developed in 20th C France, typically deals with a sophisticated courtly world of chivalry; involves questing knights, tournaments, magic and maidens. An enchanted world,with strong moral content establishing codes and ideals of chivalric behaviour. The early Keats was attracted to romance the genre and its connotations of escape.

Critics debate whether Keats later repudiates romance of if there's a continual dialectical struggle between romance and antiromance which could reflect his ambivalence concerning imagination. (Shown in King Lear poem).

Eve of St Agnes is evidence of romance, but does he remain ambivalent or turn anti-romantic?

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A pleasant shady place under trees or climbing plants in a garden or wood.

The bower world of romance in which the early Keats revels is one of sentiment, luxuriant ease and delicate beauty, a world of feminine sensuousness, why they saw a feminine sensibility in him. He is obsessed with the green enclosed and sheltered space of the power where poetry and eroticism merge to suggest romantic escapism.

The early Keats recognises the harsh outside world of action and strife, the world of the masculine, needs to be engaged in.

He refers to bowers, sometimes mental, in 'Ode to Psyche' and 'Ode to a Nightingale' 

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Like 1st generation Romantics Coleridge and Wordsworth, Keats found imaginative inspiration in the natural world. Unlike them, poss due to his medical background, he did not find in nature a moral guide/philosophical doctrine. He sees nature as something cultivated and arranged for display. For him, nature is a social product. Keats begins with Wordsworthian wild nature, as in 'Psyche' and describes dark clustered trees and wild ridged mountains and cultivates it, turning it into a garden or park full of zephyrs and dryads. In the midst is a rosy sanctury with hybrid flowers that never breed the same. Keats' nature is the product of cultivation, of art.

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The Visual Arts

Links between his poetry and the arts can be found in his highly pictorial imagery. There are frequent iconic elements in his work, he often describes works of art, real or imaginary. The emphasis is not on faithful recreation but the examination of his responses to the art and the feelings and ideas it probokes.

'Ode on a Grecian Urn' - the love for Greek art began with Johann Winckelmann who wished for a recreation of the Greek spirit and the production of art according to the classical idea of noble simplicity and calm grandeur. It isn't clear if Keats had a specific piece of artwork in mind in this poem. Winckelmann has an idealised version of Greek art as being beyond history, presenting a world of unchanging beauty. This links to Keats' desire to find some eternal idea of truth and beauty.

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