You are currently viewing Odes by John Keats: Dominant Themes and Images

Odes by John Keats: Dominant Themes and Images

The odes by John Keats, on the level of superficial reading, may be seen as brilliant rendering of a scene, a season or a mood; the final perfection of English landscape poetry. His urge to establish such a balance is carried out through the trilogy of odes namely “Ode to Nightingale”, “Ode on a Grecian urn” and “To Autumn”. The poems appeal directly to the physical senses through a recognition of the physical reality of experience. However, such simplified conclusion is misleading as it disregards the poet’s complex thought process- where sensuousness and contemplation get unified.

The central themes of the three odes are neither a nightingale nor an urn or a season, but, the poet’s eternal search for a centre of refuge in a world of flux. It is through such a conception that Keats sets to resolve the dichotomy between the world of the ideal and that of reality within the order of experience.

Ode to a Nightingale

odes by john keats

In “Ode to a Nightingale”, the poet addresses a bird which appeals to his physical senses and seeks to unite with it. In the beginning, the poet is seen in a state of trance, happy beyond human endurance in his empathy with the bird’s song. Yet, he oscillates between the world of imagination and reality unable to reconcile them. At this moment, the wine, “cool’d a long age in deep delv’d earth” becomes an agent to carry him to the platonic ideal state of perfection but ironically fails to make him win over his mortality. His desire to escape grows and seems almost fulfilled in the fourth stanza- he feels himself placed with the nightingale- amidst the forest which is so dark’ that even the presence of a throned moon is conjectural. “Already with thee”- he exclaims in recognition of an identification of himself with the spirit of the bird.

However, the very same statement presupposes “I” and “Thee” and indicates that this is not a true union, since, in a perfect union, the individual entities fuse to form a whole. The poet fails to become one with the bird, he can only “accompany” the bird (be with it). He realizes, as he returns to reality and relates his enrapturing experience with it—that man with his quality of transience cannot participate in the world of Imagination forever. He mentions, “fancy” and calls it “deceiving elf”, perhaps as a foil to Imagination. The experience of merging with the nightingale is based on sensual physicality and lacks the elevation of spiritual awareness. He is left perplexed regarding his state of consciousness while the receding music discards him from the world of ideal at a moment when he is not ready to confront reality.

Ode on a Grecian Urn

odes by john keats

This conflict is carried on to “Ode on a Grecian Urn”, where Keats acknowledges that “heard melodies are sweet but those unheard are sweeter”. In the beginning of this ode there is recognition of permanence in art. The poem is a sober and disciplined work of art, where passion and intellect fuse in a rounded perception, just like the urn which it talks about. He uses a series of imagery inspired by the carvings on the urn. Interestingly, he reflects on the presence of “absence”- the music unheard, the empty streets waiting for the people to return, the unfelt communion of the lovers who never unite. Thus, despite recognizing the superiority of Imagination over reality, he is troubled by the “cold pastoral” lifelessness of the moment frozen on the urn.

In both the odes, Douglas Bush observes, “… is a belief that whereas the momentary experience of beauty is fleeting, the embodiment of that moment in art, in song or in marble… is an imperishable source of joy.” However, this embodiment is not infused with life. The beauty of the maiden is eternally true, but equally true is the lack of satiation of the lovers. Keats’ sensuousness reaches a greater level of perfection through this recognition of absence.

Therefore, one might feel that it is easy to bring all the senses in ones poetry. However, as far as Keats is concerned it is not just how he mentions various sensations of sight, sound, touch, taste and smell—it is about the flowers that he “can not see”, the music that he can not hear, the mystery that he can not unravel. His negative capability does not remain just a means to achieve objective distance from his own self, by negating himself to experience the world from a different viewpoint, but also to attempt to understand these sensations that even the inhabitants of that “different” point cannot experience.

This conflict between the present sensation and “absence”, fancy and imagination, transience and permanence is finally resolved in “To Autumn”. In this poem Keats understands that true fulfillment does not come from permanence but from maturation: “Ripeness is all”. However as he pens down the first two odes, this recognition does not dawn on him. He is still unable to solve the riddle of reality but his sensuousness makes him understand the disparity between the ideal and real and his contemplation makes him all the more eager to solve the riddle.

Ode to Autumn

odes by john keats

“Ode to Autumn” by John Keats is a short poem which is considered to be the culmination of the poet’s concerns about beauty, truth and permanence. The poem immediately appeals to the physical senses through a voluptuous description of autumn. Nature is seen to bring forth her fruition, leading to a final seasonal maturity, through a subtle yet steady progress. The entire scene extends over the realm of visibility. A series of relaxed and languorous movements follow through the stanzas culminating in the recognition of the autumnal music which is a bliss in itself.

However, such an apparently simple impression of the poem is quite misleading as it conceals the poet’s complex thought processes. The central theme of the poem is not just autumn as a natural phenomenon but as an embodiment of the poet’s conception of maturity. It is an unflawed centre of refuge in a world of flux. It is through such a conception that Keats sets to resolve the dichotomy between the world of the ideal and that of reality, within the order of experience.

In “Ode to Autumn”, Keats tries to hold on to this belief firmly. Instead of linking the fine autumnal day to the chain of seasons, or contrasting its falling beauty to the deathly winter or the happy rebirth of spring (as does Shelly in his “Ode to the West Wind”), he captures the season in its entirety. The season of autumn is, as if, frozen irrespective of time and change. Such a conception of the season is far beyond the actual physical experience of it. There is however, a realistic acceptance of the summer that has passed and the winter that is approaching: “While the barred clouds bloom the soft dying day.”

Maturity does not imply only ageing and extinction but also fulfillment. The entire structure of the poem is symbolic of transience, opening at a high noon and ending at dusk. The transitive and somewhat rare use of the verb “bloom”, with its obvious association with spring is also quite original. Moreover, the conjunction of “stubble plain” with “rosy hue” directs at a similar incongruity despite the convincing use of the image itself.

There is, evidently, a movement from maturity to death, operating at the background. Keats was obviously preoccupied with the idea of permanence even while he was well aware of its price. Middleton Murray understands this and observes, “It is a perfect utterance of truth contained in the magic words ‘ripeness is all’”. This truth is not accessible through fancy but through the spiritual elevation of Romantic Imagination. This is not merely a recognition of transience, but an acceptance of it and a celebration of its virtue of fulfillment. He does not look beyond the present moment for vernal music, he finds the music of Autumn equally pleasant and unique: “Thou hast thy music too.”

Such a celebration is presented implicitly in the description of autumn. All four images are characterized by the same timeless repose: “thou watchest the last oozings, hours by hours”. Autumn, personified, sits careless of time and change; her hair soft lifted by an almost imperceptible breeze which is too feeble to shake her statuesque composure. She is “drows’d in the fume of poppies”. If time exists, she steadfastly chooses to ignore it. It is this ability to ignore temporality that renders autumn a permanence which the poet sought so much to access all throughout.

Permanence, which is beyond the grasp of physicality, is an essence. On the other hand, transience is an experience which is felt through the senses. Only through the sensuous world of reality can one reach the ideal world of permanence. For a young romantic like Keats, who felt the anxiety of extinction even at a young age for his failing health and consumptive lungs, this alone provided the breath of sustenance. “To Autumn” sets his agonized heart at peace, helping him reach a calm recognition of the true order of things. From his fears of extinction he reaches the recognition of the worth that his lifetime, no matter how short, can contain.

Additional Reading

Leave a Reply