John Keats' Ideas - The Keatsian Theology

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

leafBeauty and the Imagination

To Benjamin Bailey
Nov. 1817

'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

leafSenses 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.

leafNegative Capability

To George and Thomas Keats
Dec 1817

'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
Oct 1818

'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.

leafPoetic Beliefs

To John Taylor
Feb 1818

'I think poetry should surprise by a fine excess'

- Poetry should involve the element of surprise, with the use of excessive imagery, but in a refined way; pure yet bold and dazzling.

'The setting of imagery should like the sun come natural to him'
'If poetry comes not as naturally as the Leaves to a tree it had better not come at all'.

- Poetry should be a natural thing, not forced but fluid and inspired.

leafVale of Soul Making

To George and Georgiana Keats
April 1819

'The common cognomen of this world among the misguided and superstitious is 'a vale of tears' from which we are to be redeemed by a certain arbitrary interposition of God and taken into Heaven- What a little circumscribed straightened notion! Call the world if you please 'The Vale of Soul- making. Then you will find out the use of the world'
'I say 'soul making' Soul as distinguished from an Intelligence- There may be intelligences or sparks of divinity in millions- but they are not souls until they acquire identities, till each one is personality itself'
'I think it a grander system of salvation than the Christian religion- or rather it is a system of Spirit Creation'
'I will call the world a school instituted for the purpose of teaching little children to read. I will call the human heart the hornbook used in that school. And I will call the child able to read, the soul made from that school and its hornbook'.
'Do you not see how necessary a world of pains and troubles is to school an intelligence and make it a soul? A place where the heart must feel and suffer in a thousand diverse ways'
'As various as the lives of men are- so various become their souls, and thus does God make individual beings, souls, identical souls of the sparks of his own essence'

(In this same letter was an original of 'La Belle Dame Sans Merci')
The poem is a story that leaves questions unanswered, but in this letter he seems to finding an answer to what his life means, trying to come to terms with his impending death.
- Keats does not deal with conventional religion in his poems.
- States that he does not believe in Christianity, or in any of the other received faiths of his era. 'cosmology' and 'ontology' (cause-belief system)
- As he faced death, it's clear that Keats did struggle to find meaning in life, but in this letter he finds an answer.
- Rejects Christian 'Valley of Tears' and accepts 'Vale of Soul Making'
- The Romantics in general were spiritual rather than religious.
- Says religion is a process by which a soul is made- described as human heart going to school.
-States there are different stages a soul passes through: Copes with experiences, discovers misery and oppression. Compared to chambers in a mansion'
- The final stage the soul passes through recognising the burden of the mystery.

leafQuotes from Keats:

'I would rather give women a sugar plum than my time'

Suggests that he thinks women are shallow, and that they'll accept something so meaningless instead of attention. 'Sugar plum' is also a sickly reference, and perhaps suggests that women are like this too, sweet but with slightly sinister connotations; we already know that Keats didn't trust women.

About Fanny Brawne in a letter to his brother George, Dec 1818:

'she manages to make her hair look well- her nostrils are fine though a little painful- her mouth is bad and good... Her arms are good and her hands badish- her feet tolerable.. She is ignorant- monstrous in her behaviour flying out in all directions. I am however tired of such style and shall decline any more of it'

Keats' words in this letter make him out to be a 'nitpicker' frequently finding faults and making harsh and unfair judgments about Brawne. It makes one wonder if this letter was meant to be comical, because many of the comments are too ridiculous to be taken seriously. It is ironic that the following year he becomes engaged to the woman he scrutinized so meticulously.

On Keats' grave:

'Here lies one whose name was writ in water'

- Ripples go on forever, he'll always be remembered. This may sound a little arrogant, or just insecure, possibly depressed. Most likely interpretation is that the water as ripples are in fact fleeting, and get less and less definite as time goes on. Keats is referencing the brief effect we all have in this life, as the water will return to its previous state. One could add that the past tense, "was writ", emphasises this further, as it implies his fame was a thing of the past that has now ceased.

Link to the poem 'When I have Fears'



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