Painted Poesy: Dog Days

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Certainly without the transforming power of art, at least, growing self-consciousness implies knowledge of loss and death; perhaps even art does no more than deflect our attention.

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Keats was not overly hurt, however, since he saw Wordsworth several times more in London, dining with his family on 5 January For the time being, he was perplexed, and his poetry proceeded slowly. He continued to prepare Endymion for the press.

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The winter months were full of social activity, with visits to Haydon, dinner at the Hunts with the Shelleys and Peacock, and evenings at the theater. In early March, however, his brother George arrived in London to see Abbey, leaving Tom ill and unattended. Keats departed at once to stay with him in Teignmouth, Devonshire, where he remained until May.

With Tom feverish and coughing, with the news that George had decided to immigrate to America, with his sense of being obliged to be far from the stimulation of London but fearful of losing both his brothers, these were sad months. Romance also implies a quest for closure, for a realized or at least clearly envisioned dream, and Keats questioned whether modern poetry can embody such belief.

The romance he wrote in March , Isabella , based on a tale of Boccaccio, is an uneven poem, and though some of his contemporaries including Lamb admired it, Keats came to dislike it. It is best thought of as an experiment in tone, teetering uneasily between poignant, romantic tragedy and a dry, uneasy, narrational pose. This poem is a first attempt—and an interesting one—at that extraordinary poise he would achieve between romance and disillusionment almost a year later in The Eve of St.

The story from Boccaccio is simple, and Keats made few changes: Isabella, living with her two merchant brothers, loves Lorenzo, a clerk. The brothers, vile and materialistic, murder Lorenzo and bury him in the forest. Keats, of course, knew the Wordsworth of the reactionary Excursion , published in , but not of The Prelude , first published in Keats saw the working through of this challenge as his place in history as well.

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He seems to have discovered that the way to Negative Capability was an arduous one, a descent into pain rather than ascent into romance. On these matters he would meditate the better part of the summer, and though he wrote little throughout these months, these would now be his dominant concerns.

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One can see them in his great poem Hyperion , begun in October. Keats hoped this would be the first of a series of travels in England and abroad to prepare him to write. The trip through the Lake country was invigorating; Keats and Brown energetically hiked in the mountains around Rydal and Ambleside.

This illness was not connected to his later tuberculosis, but for the next year he would have occasional recurrences of the sore throat. Though he was always aware of the consumption that seemed to curse his family, and his bouts with illness this year were often depressing, there is no reason to believe he thought at this time that these sore throats were dangerous or that his poetic career would be cut short.

In early August, leaving Brown in Scotland, Keats returned home to Hampstead to find his brother Tom seriously ill with tuberculosis. In June, George, now married, had immigrated to America to try his luck as a farmer after several inevitable disasters he did prosper, in the s, as a miller in Louisville, Kentucky ; Keats was now alone with Tom, almost constantly, until his death on 1 December. But throughout the autumn of he began composing his most brilliant work yet, a poem even his critics saw as a major achievement, Hyperion.

This is the stuff of Hyperion , and its interest is its fresh engagement with these issues, as they cluster around a traditional Western icon: the fall into suffering of the mighty or good and the hope for compensatory redemption. Hyperion tells the story of the fall of the Titans and their replacement by the Gods, more beautiful than the Titans by virtue of their superior knowledge, and, so, by implication, their insight into the suffering of humanity.

The epic begins not with the battle between Titans and Gods but with its aftermath. Like so many romantic epics, however, this one begins with an extraordinary sense of stasis, of emotional confusion, pain, and paralysis from which there is no apparent exit. The speeches of the fallen Titans are useless. Hyperion tries in vain to force the sun to rise but falls back in impotent grief. The fall into self-consciousness would itself be redemptive if it formed the soul of a poet, whose creation of beauty is the more intense for his having felt and transcended tragic pain and the loss of faith.

Yet the poem proved too problematic, and for many reasons by April Keats had given it up. What would be the dramatic focus of the poem?

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What good, really, to speak of either inevitable human progress or the birth of a poet in the face of such pain? This indeed would be the subject of Hyperion when Keats attempted to revise it in summer as The Fall of Hyperion. Keats had spent the autumn almost constantly with Tom and saw few of his friends. It was a double house Brown had built with his friend Charles Dilke, who lived with his wife in one half.

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In the previous summer while he was away, Brown rented his side of the house to a widow, Mrs. Frances Brawne, and her three children, the oldest of whom, Fanny, was just eighteen. They later continued to visit the Dilkes at Wentworth. Here, probably in November, Keats met Fanny. Unfortunately, some key aspects of that relationship are, and will likely remain, obscure. It seems that on 25 December they declared their love; they were engaged though without much public announcement in October But Keats felt he could not marry until he had established himself as a poet—or proved to himself he could not.

What Fanny felt is hard to know.

Keats burned all but her last letters, which were buried with him. She later married and lived most of her life abroad; her written remarks about Keats reveal little about her feelings. But it would be wrong to judge Keats or Fanny by the letters of , written by a Keats at times desperate and confused, feverish and seriously ill. Almost certainly, as would have been conventional in their day for a couple so uncertain of their future, their relationship was not sexual. But it was passionate and mutual, certainly becoming the central experience of intense feeling in both their lives.

Keats explores these antinomies of human desire in one of his finest and best-loved long poems, The Eve of St. Agnes , a romance in Spenserian stanzas written in January The story recalls Romeo and Juliet , though its details are based on several traditional French romances see Robert Gittings, John Keats , It is framed by the coldness of eternity, by an ancient Beadsman whose frosty prayers and stony piety contrast with the fairytale-like revelry and warm lights within.

The heroine, Madeline, does not mix with the company but ascends to her own kind of dream, the superstitious wish that, by following various rites on this St. He does so, after watching her undress and sleep, spreading before her a feast of delicacies rather magically , and easing her into a wakefulness instinct with romance.

The lovers flee into the cold storm; and suddenly the poem shifts to a long historical vision, the tale acknowledged as a story far away and long ago, the Beadsman himself cold and dead. Today we see the poem more as a great achievement not only in style but also in thoughtful and carefully balanced tone. But most critics today see the poem as an extraordinary balance of these opposing forces, shrewdly and at times playfully self-aware of its own conventions, leading the reader to a continuous series of mediations between artifice and reality, dream and awakening.

The more we imagine beauty the more painful our world may seem—and this, in turn, deepens our need for art.


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The great odes of the spring and fall— Ode to Psyche , Ode to a Nightingale , Ode on a Grecian Urn , Ode on Melancholy , To Autumn written in September , Ode on Indolence not published until , and often excluded from the group as inferior —do not attempt to answer these questions. The order of the odes has been much debated; it is known that Ode to Psyche was written in late April, Ode to a Nightingale probably in May, and To Autumn on 19 September , but although Ode on a Grecian Urn and Ode on Melancholy are assumed to belong to May, but no one can be certain of any order or progression.

But, perhaps, a new kind of humanist paganism was possible to a modern world of self-consciousness and secular knowledge, emptied of Christian orthodoxy. Thus the poem turns from its questioned but spontaneous vision to a hope for a return of Psyche in a prepared consciousness. But despite the sense of achieved conclusion, Ode to Psyche begins with a question and ends with a hope. The unself-conscious and delightful initial vision can only be expectantly invoked. Instead what follows is a troubled meditation, one of the richest and most compressed in English poetry, on the power of human imagination to meet joy in the world and transform the soul.

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But imagination needs temporality to do its work. It then tantalizes us with a desire to experience the eternity of the beauty we create. But again, no real experience is possible to us—as the central stanzas suggest—apart from time and change. Imagination seems to falsify: the more the poet presses the bird to contain, the more questionable this imaginative projection becomes. For Keats, an impatience for truth only obscures it. If art redeems experience at all it is in the beauty of a more profound comprehension of ourselves not of a transcendent realm , of the paradoxes of our nature.

To expect art to provide a more certain closure is to invite only open questions or deeper enigmas. In Ode on a Grecian Urn this theme is explored from the perspective not of a natural and fleeting experience the bird song but of a work of pictorial art, a timeless rendering of a human pageant.

Perhaps more has been written on this poem, per line, than any other Romantic lyric. And today it is perhaps the best—known and most—often-read poem in nineteenth-century literature. The poem seems to be an imaginative creation of an artwork that serves as an image of permanence. But it is in the nature of poetry, unlike painting—a distinction we know Keats often debated with Haydon—to create its meaning sequentially. Human happiness requires fulfillment in a world of process and inevitable loss.

Others see the lines dissolving all doubts in an absolute aestheticism that declares the power of art to transform painful truths into beauty. In the Ode on Melancholy the subject is not the ironies of our experience of art but of intense experience itself.