Keats wrestled with the change in poetry that Wordsworth represented. He understood that Wordsworth, and poets like him, were turning the focus of poetry inward, to the poet’s mind. The subject of poetry would now not be the outward world, but the processing of internal experience, “emotion recollected in tranquility.” Keats both admired and feared this change. On the one hand, he understood the power and complexity of Wordsworth’s art, calling him “deeper” than Milton. Yet he worried about the dark side of this inward turn. If a poet began to interrogate his own thought and imagination, would this impair the natural capacity to perceive and enjoy the world? Would one find, as one explored deeper into the workings of the human imagination,
This Chamber of Maiden Thought become gradually darken’d and at the same time on all sides of it many doors are set open – but all dark – all leading to dark passages – We see not the balance of good and evil. We are in a Mist – We are now in that state – We feel the “burden of the Mystery,” To this point was Wordsworth come, as far as I can conceive when he wrote ‘Tintern Abbey’ and it seems to me that his Genius is explorative of those dark Passages.
Keats also suspected that too much interest in the subjective self led to small, trivial poetry. Not everyone had sufficient genius to drink from Wordsworth’s cup. Keats’s his famous phrase, “negative capacity”—the idea that a poet should take in the world without judging, able to entertain multiple viewpoints without choosing one, inhabiting others’ perspectives far more vividly than his or her own—is in part a description of the virtues he found in Shakespeare, and in part an attack on his contemporaries (Wordsworthian poetry is the opposite of “negative,” as it charts the poet’s own sensibility in great and moving detail).
Keats’s poetry instinctively praises pleasure, the sensory being-in-the-world that has little to do with intellect or a cultivated sense of self.
Oh for a draught of vintage! that hath been
Cool’d a long age in the deep-delvèd earth,
Tasting of Flora and the country green,
Dance, and Provençal song, and sunburnt mirth!
But this simplicity wasn’t simple to acquire. Keats admired Milton and Shakespeare so much that he taught himself their style. Helen Vendler charts how Keats learned paradoxical images like “Joy, whose hands is ever at his lips / Bidding adieu,” from the study of Shakespeare’s sonnets, and WJ Bate’s biography discusses how Keats worked out how to insert pauses (caesurae) in same manner as Milton. To Keats’s contemporaries, this was his singular achievement: he was could write, in his unfinished epic Hyperion, more like Milton than anyone since Milton himself.
DEEP in the shady sadness of a vale
Far sunken from the healthy breath of morn,
Far from the fiery noon, and eve’s one star,
Sat gray-hair’d Saturn, quiet as a stone,
Still as the silence round about his lair;
Forest on forest hung about his head
Like cloud on cloud. No stir of air was there,
Not so much life as on a summer’s day
Robs not one light seed from the feather’d grass,
But where the dead leaf fell, there did it rest.
Virginia Woolf considered Keats to be one of the exemplars of great writers who effaced themselves from their work. The result of Keats’s separation of himself from his work, she argued, was that, just like in Shakespeare, one does not experience Keats as a “male” writer.
One must turn back to Shakespeare then, for Shakespeare was androgynous; and so were Keats and Sterne and Cowper and Lamb and Coleridge.
Keats, it should be pointed out, might not have much liked her argument: he considered the poetry of Milton and Shakespeare that he was rediscovering to be “manly,” in the sense that it was indifferent, unbiased, grand in scale—and the poetry of his time too feminine, trivial, gossipy.
Yet, the difficulty that Keats discovered was that one could not become a sixteenth century poet simply by wishing it. Keats could begin a Miltonian epic, but he couldn’t finish one—he tried twice, and considered his inability the proof of his failure as a writer. A nineteenth century poet, whatever his or her conscious beliefs, cared most deeply about the imagination, the nature of poetry, the interior life, the sweep of ideas and sensations, and once Keats had got those parts of Hyperion and its sequel down, he had nothing left to write. Much of Paradise Lost much have seemed childish to him, just as it seemed to Shelley and Blake. One could not simply banish the modern awareness of one’s interior life by decree, and so Keats lived his last year of health unsure how to proceed, or even whether to give up poetry although.
And yet. One reason why the Odes, Keats’s last poems, feel so heroic is that if you read them in the order they were written, in them one can see the increasing triumph of “negative capacity,” the increasing disappearance of the speaker. Keats seems to have achieved his synthesis (of the verse of past and present) without completely realising it. In the first ode, “to Psyche,” one is clearly listening to a person, but by the last, “Autumn,” the speaker has merged with all that is surveyed. The world itself is where meaning will be found.
I thought I would conclude with a little more from Virginia Woolf. This ideal of the writer, from A Room of One’s Own, may explain why she so much admired Keats’s poetry.
Some collaboration has to take place in the mind between the woman and the man before the art of creation can be accomplished. Some marriage of opposites has to be consummated. The whole of the mind must lie wide open if we are to get the sense that the writer is communicating his experience with perfect fullness. There must be freedom and there must be peace. Not a wheel must grate, not a light glimmer. The curtains must be close drawn. The writer, I thought, once his experience is over, must lie back and let his mind celebrate its nuptials in darkness. He must not look or question what is being done. Rather, he must pluck the petals from a rose or watch the swans float calmly down the river.
Next: Were the Romantics romantic?
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