John Keats' letters and ideas
Written by Stephanie
Italics= quotes from letters sent by Keats to others
Normal= notes on Keatsian ideas (developed from his poetry) related to these quotes
Beauty and the Imagination
To Benjamin Bailey
'I am certain of nothing but of the holiness of the Heart's affections and the truth of Imagination- What the imagination seizes as beauty must be truth'
-The beauty and truth paradox
From 'Ode on a Grecian Urn':
'Beauty is truth and truth beauty,- that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know'.
Keats could be saying that pain is beautiful. There is the issue of whether it is the poet (a persona), Keats, or the urn speaking. Also which of them is being addressed? It could be a philosophical statement about life or it may only make sense in context of the poem,
As in 'Ode to a Nightingale, Keats wants to create a world of pure joy. In this poem the world of fantasy is the life of the people on the urn. Keats sees them, simultaneously, as carved figures on the marble vase and live people in ancient Greece. Existing in frozen time, they cannot move or change, their feelings cannot change, yet the sculptor has succeeded in creating a sense of action. As in 'OTAN' the real world of pain contrasts with the fantasy world of joy.
Some critics feel that Keats is saying art is superior to nature. Is Keats thinking, feeling or talking about the urn only as a work of art?
The last 2 lines may merely sound as if they mean something, or speak to some deep part of us that apprehends the meaning but it's an experience/meaning that cannot be put into words.
A final statement is made on the relation of the ideal to the actual. The urn is rejected at the end because art can't and will never be a substitute for real life.
- He's saying that the Imagination can make things real: 'Sleep and Poetry' and you can dissolve the harsh reality in escapism
- Anything that is beautiful to him is his own truth and beauty is truth. But to Keats, the truth was horrible, painful due to his impending death. So is he saying beauty is horrible and painful, and that it must end at some point?
-Every time he sees beauty, it's tainted, transient- won't last
- Relevant poems: Ode on Melancholy, Ode to Autumn, Le Belle Dame
Senses over thoughts
'O for a Life of Sensations rather than of thoughts!'
'Imagination and its empyreal reflection is the same as human Life and its spiritual repetition'
- Idea of escapism again
- Senses over thoughts
- Saying life, in a sense, is unreal? Purely Imagination
- Thoughts worry the mind, but with sensations, there is no worry, you can escape into feeling without concern.
- Life as a repetition- Buddhist idea of cycle of life, reincarnation.
To George and Thomas Keats
'Negative Capability, that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason'
'With a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration'
To Richard Woodhouse
'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- The Sun, the Moon, the Sea and Men and Women who are creatures of impulse are poetical and have about them an unchangeable attribute'
- Negative Capability
'being capable of eliminating one's own personality, in order imaginatively to enter into that of another person, or, in extreme cases, an animal or an object.'
The phrase was coined by Keats in the very letter to his brothers, as quoted above.
The whole concept is a bit hazy, probably because his own identity is precarious, and he was continually being invaded by the identities of others. The person of fixed opinions, such as Wordsworth, enjoys/suffers from the 'egotistic sublime'
In his letter to Bailey, Nov 1817, Keats affirmed that 'Men of Genius' do not have 'any individuality' or 'determined character'
Another letter to Woodhouse Oct 1818 defines 'the poetic Character' as taking 'as much delight in conceiving an Iago as an Imogen' adding: 'What shocks the virtuous philosopher delights the chameleon poet'
Chameleon poet: You can change to your surroundings temporarily, and you can move to different identities to hide from the world. Let your imagination take you away- Negative Capability is the way Keats escapes- possibly allowed him to cope with the knowledge that he didn't have long to live. But you are still a chameleon even when you have changed your colour. Underneath, Keats is still Keats, no matter what he does to escape the harsh reality.
- Negative capability is 1. the ability to engage. To see beauty in things that are seen as negative, and experience everything; good or bad. You can get inspiration from everything. Sublime. Solitary- staring at the world (Chapman's Homer) Passive, contemplating, waiting.
- Negative capability is 2. Being at one with nature. Keats told Woodhouse that he could conceive of a billiard ball taking a sense of delight in 'its own roundness, smoothness and rapidity of its motion'. When in a room with the dangerous, leopardess-like woman Jane Cox, he felt her identity pressing in upon him- letter in Oct 1818: 'I forget myself entirely because I live in her'.
- You can detach yourself and become something else without being limited.
- However, you can't get rid of your own personality, because for example, the billiard ball is still your subjective view, and another poet would see it in a different way.
- Many writers have identified themselves as having 'negative capability', even if they have not always used the phrase. Coleridge speaks in a letter Nov. 1819 of 'a sort of transfusion and transmission of my consciousness to identify myself with the object'. This suggests an actual movement to something else, with extreme personification by losing actual consciousness.
Danger and pain --> Terrible --> Distanced --> Modified --> Delightful --> Experience
Poems with the idea of negative capability:
- Eve of St Agnes: the passive poet, waiting. Also because of the half-states, dreamlike.
'While legioned faeries paced the coverlet, And pale enchantment help her sleepy-eyed'. Sensory experience, dreamlike half-state, voyeuristic tendency.
- La Belle Dame sans Merci. A Ballad: Beauty and negativity- beauty must die
'Alone and palely loitering, though the sedge is withered from the lake and no birds sing'. Loitering- half-state, between being with nature and elsewhere. A sense of unawareness but sensory knowledge makes up for it.'Palely'- reference to Keats' tuberculosis.
- On First Looking into Chapman's Homer: passive observer
'He stared at the Pacific- and all his men looked at each other with a wild surmise- silent, upon a peak in Darien'. Solitary character, engaging in world, but from a distance.
- Ode on Melancholy: depression is positive, use it.
'Whose strenuous tongue can burst Joy's grape against his palate fine'. Sensory experience, personifying beauty and melancholy. Hard to achieve, requiring great effort, but when you do, its satisfying.
- When I have Fears: Moulding into the landscape
'Of the wide world I stand alone, and think Till love and Fame to nothingness do sink'. Sensory, solitary. Separated from landscape- half-state.
Ode to Autumn- nature, life and death
'Close bosom friend of the maturing sun'- contrast between giver of life and dying of nature makes a half-state.