Keats on Poetry (Poesie) and being a Poet
"Quitting the hospital did not mean rejecting medicine altogether. Hitherto, Keats had been directed to heal the body. Henceforth he would heal the mind - by addressing the nature and purpose of suffering, - by developing the Wordsworthian idea that 'Poetry depended upon a condition of positive health in the poet.' and by regarding poetry itself as a salubriously redemptive force - "a friend / To soothe the cares, and lift the thoughts of man.'" "Sleep and Poetry" Andrew Motion "Keats"
Keats' poetry is not intended to be merely a salve for the troubles of the world, something to cheer the reader when depressed. There is a far more profound purpose to it than this. He argues, "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!"
Keats combines the central Romanticist belief in Nature with his own medical background in "I stood tip-toe upon a little hill" to combine erotic release with medicinal anxiety.
The breezes were ethereal, and pure,
And crept through half-closed lattices to cure
The languid sick; it cool'd their fever'd sleep,
And soothed them into slumbers full and deep.
Soon they awoke clear eyed: nor burnt with thirsting,
Nor with hot fingers, nor with temples bursting:
And springing up, they met the wond'ring sight
Of their dear friends, nigh foolish with delight;
Who feel their arms, and breasts, and kiss and stare,
And on their placid foreheads part the hair.
Young men, and maidens at each other gaz'd
With hands held back, and motionless, amaz'd
To see the brightness in each other's eyes;
And so they stood, fill'd with a sweet surprise,
Until their tongues were loos'd in poesy.
Keats interprets writing as a humanitarian mission and wants to ensure that the richness of his language is not seen as merely the vehicle for his mission but a part of it:
"What though I am not wealthy in the dower
Of spanning wisdom; though I do not know
The shiftings of the mighty winds that blow
Hither and thither all the changing thoughts
Of man: though no great minist'ring reason sorts
Out the dark mysteries of human souls
To clear conceiving - yet there ever rolls
A vast idea before me, and I glean
Therefore from my liberty; thence too I've seen
The end and aim of Poesy.
He recognises the contribution that poetry per se can make to the enhancement of human life and feels that he is ministering to physical needs just as much as if he had pursued his life as a physician. However the ambivalence that is evident in Keats' work reflects his longing to believe in the consolation offered by poetry and the imagination, whilst being set against a suspicion of their insufficiency as an answer to human suffering. Moneta in "Fall of Hyperion. A Dream" seems to articulate this dichotomy when she taunts the poet in response to his question,
"What am I then?...
Sure a poet is a sage;
A humanist, physician to all men
The Poet and the dreamer are distinct,
Diverse, sheer opposite, antipodes.
The one pours out a balm upon the world,
The other vexes it."
It is no coincidence that Keats' deliberations on poetry occur early in his work and run throughout it. His preoccupation with the place of "Poesy" is a genuine one and is reflected in the serious subjects for his work. Apart from verses written for family and friends, there are no trivial matters in his work and the classical and theological themes suit the seriousness with which he viewed his vocation. At the start of "Sleep and Poetry" he lists the most pleasant elements of the natural world but then ends this tribute with "But what is higher beyond thought than thee?" before going on to answer his own question.
"It has a glory, and naught else can share it:
The though thereof is awful, sweet, and holy,
Chasing away all worldliness and folly;"
The target of his tribute becomes clearer a few lines further on:
"O Poesy! For thee I hold my pen
That am not yet a glorious denizen
Of thy wide heaven - Should I rather kneel
Upon some mountain-top until I feel
A growing splendour round about me hung
And echo back the voice of thine own tongue?"
Prophetically, he feels the need to plead for ten years of life so that:
"I may overwhelm
Myself in poesy; so I may do the deed
That my own soul has to itself decreed"
Sadly, he died five years after making this plea. He returns to praising the natural world before questioning once again his place and role within it:
"And can I ever bid these joys farewell?
Yes, I must pass them for a nobler life,
Where I may find the agonies, the strife
Of human hearts"
The 'nobler life' is dependent upon the inspiration of poetry;
"A drainless shower
Of light is Poesy; 'tis the supreme of power;" and he reminds himself that the
"great end Of Poesy, that it should be a friend
To soothe the cares, and lift the thoughts of man."
He returns to this theme in Ode on Indolence where he describes Love and Ambition in terms that suggest he can do without them but describes the third interrupter of his sojourn in the late spring sunshine in language that reflects his obsession with poetry:
"The last, whom I love more, the more of blame
Is heaped upon her, maiden most unmeek -
I knew to be my demon Poesy."
He recognise and values the ability of Poetry to disturb as well as to soothe and his personification of poetry as a "maiden most unmeek" indicates his own awareness of the ability of the genre to unsettle and provoke.
Keats refers to the enduring quality of Poetry in Ode to a Nightingale. Here, Poetry, imaginative vision, is offered as something that not only can transcend history but also the human condition.
"No hungry generations tread thee down,
The voice I heard this passing night was heard
In ancient days by emperor and clown:
Perhaps the self same song that found a path
Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,
She stood in tears amid the alien corn."
There are many other references to how Keats sees Poetry and himself as a poet throughout his work. Very often these perceptions will be expressed in the form of a metaphor, such as the Nightingale so try and think carefully about other works that you might be able to refer to.