The Romantic Imagination According to Keats
"There is a lurking sense that the imagination is not just a luxury, but an absolute necessity as well. For the poets, the very possibility of (spiritual, etc.) redemption hinges on the faculty of the imagination." (1) The imagination plays a key role in romantic poetry. From the raising of the woman-figure to the pedestal, to the embellishing of natural scenes, the object of the poem invariable is illustrated to be larger than life, or unlife, in the case of more morbid romantic poetry. Flights of fancy and daydreams frequent the pages of the romantic poets, both as escape mechanisms and as devices by which to deeper examine the soul. Nowhere is this more true than in the works of John Keats.
For Keats, the imagination featured as a method by which to escape reality. A reality he, as a man dying of tuberculosis, saw as not only drab, but dead and barren of all life. The world of the mind's fancies was where true life flourished. This is illustrated in a visible pattern within his poetry wherein, as he walks further and further into the dream-world, approaching the apex of the poem, his vision becomes more fantastic, more colourful, and his joy is heightened; until, at such point, he seems to return to reality, described invariable as stark and harsh. For him, reality is so dire it brings him even to question his vision:
Forlorn! The very word is like a bell
To toll me back from thee to my sole self!
Adieu! The fancy cannot cheat so well
As she is famed to do, deceiving elf.
Adieu! Adieu! Thy plaintive anthem fades
Past the near meadows, over the still stream,
Up the hillside, and now 'tis buried deep
In the next valley-glades:
Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
Fled is that music - do I wake or sleep? (2)
Keats desperately wants the vision to become reality, but is unable to find it once "Fled is that music." Perhaps this is what causes him to question his visions, as he seems to have been nigh desperate to exchange reality with his daydreams. This desire to exchange the two was frequently expressed in the description of reality as a "barren dream." For surely, the horrid reality of his wasting body could not have been but a dream. Or, at least, so would Keats' desire make it. But time and again, he would come down from his visions back to the reality he so desired to escape.
This desire to escape reality became so strong for Keats that he even began to question the validity of reality. Just which realm was real? His waking realm, or dreaming? And, when, in fact, was he in each? This line frequently becomes blurred in his works, vanishing as his career progressed. Indeed, "La Belle Dame Sans Merci" even questions this line, with Keats completing the circle and making the reader wonder just who is doing the dreaming:
I saw their starved lips in the gloam
With horrid warning gaped wide,
And I awoke and found me here
On the cold hill's side.
And this is why I sojourn here,
Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is withered from the lake,
And no birds sing. (3)
There exists within Keats' works a certain morbidity in his desire to escape reality. He toyed with thoughts that, perhaps, through death he could attain the dream-world he so often walked within his poetry. At times, he alludes to reality as a sort of walking purgatory, a baptism of fire, by which he was being cleansed, and that, upon death, he might arise from to attain the heavenly realm of visions:
When through the old Oak forest I am gone,
Let me not wander in a barren dream;
But when I am consumed in the fire,
Give me new phoenix wings to fly at my desire.(4)
As Keats' disease progressed, this morbidity began to seep into his dream-world, twisting his visions into things more dour, reflecting more his reality. He began to address the agonies of the human condition, began to allude to his vision as deceptive, the veritable Will-o-Wisp which leads the traveler astray, tantalizing him with it's beauty until it vanishes, emphasizing the dreariness of reality when once he realizes how lost he has become. Such is illustrated "La Belle Dame Sans Merci, wherein he is lured by the beautiful Dame, only to be trapped within a "barren dream." He also addresses this in his "Ode to Melancholy:"
She dwells with Beauty - Beauty that must die;
And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips
Bidding adieu; and aching Pleasure nigh,
Turning to poison while the bee-mouth sips.
Aye, in the very temple of Delight
Veiled Melancholy has her sovran shrine,
Though seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue
Can burst Joy's grape against his palate fine;
His soul shall taste the sadness of her might,
And be among her cloudy trophies hung. (5)
To Keats, he was he "whose strenuous tongue/Can burst Joy's grape." And he did so with consistency. Always, as dearly as he desired to retain his visions of beauty, they became shattered in his eyes, only to be replaced with harsh reality, or visions of even direr straits.
When questioned about the validity of imagination, Keats leapt to its defense. He believed the imagination to be holy, that in it only was truth to be found. He believed that beauty lay only in vision, and that all love and passions are derived therefrom. However, he seems to separate thought from imagination, associating imagination more with the sense than with cognitive processes. He spurned cognitive processes and yearned to live of life of simple imagination, delighting only in sensations:
The imagination may be compared to Adam's dream: he awoke and found it truth. I am the more zealous in this affair because I have never yet been able to perceive how anything can be known for truth by consequitive reasoning... However it may be, oh for a life of sensations rather than of thoughts! It is 'a vision inn the form of youth,' a shadow of reality to come... And yet such a fate can only befall those who delight in sensation, rather than hunger as you do after truth; Adam's dream will do here, and seems to be a conviction that imagination and its empyreal reflection is the same as human life and its spiritual repetition. (6)
This attempt to escape reality through the use of his imaginative faculties influenced even Keats' vision of the nature of the Poet. It seems all who profess the craft of verse at one point or another must address exactly what it is that makes a Poet. Either through their own introspection, or in response to the questions of the public, each craftsman has attempted to express his views on this subject, and each has described it in a different light. John Keats tackled this question in response to a letter from his friend Richard Woodhouse. He stated that the nature of the Poet is, in effect, to have no nature. He believed that the best Poet is capable of so totally losing himself in the object of his work that one can determine no character of the Poet whatsoever in the writing. That the writing is, in effect a perfect mirror of the object in words. He described the perfect poet as a Chameleon, and, ironically, as "the most unpoetical of any thing in existence, because he has no identity, he is continually in for - and filling - some other body. " (7) This lack of self identity, this malleability of the Poet, was termed "negative capability."
At this point, one must argue on whether Keats lived up to his image of the ideal poet. Did his imagination allow him to adapt to fill the vessel that was his object, allow him to reflect the object, to become it, and to pour that reflection upon the printed page? Certainly it was his intent and desire. To take his own words, he seemed to believe, at least in part, that he was capable of attaining the great heights that he felt Shakespeare also attained through negative capability:
It is a wretched thing to confess, but is a very fact that not one word I ever utter can be taken for granted as an opinion growing out of my identical nature - how can it, when I have no nature? When I am in a room with people, if I ever am free from speculating on creations of my own brain, then to myself goes home to myself: but the identity of everyone in the room begins so to press upon me, that I am, in a very little time, annihilated - not only among men; it would be the same in a nursery of children.
But even now I am perhaps not speaking from myself, but from some character in whose soul I now live. (8)
However, I would have to disagree with Keats on this point. Though it is difficult to argue that one long dead was writing from character rather than self, I believe that such an argument is possible. The majority of the poetry of Keats is written from the first person perspective. This can also be said of Shakespeare. However, the difference lies in that it seems the speaker in each of Keats' works seems to possess a common world-view. The fantasy world centers on Greco-Roman mythos, while the world of reality is the frequently mentioned, and maligned, "barren dream." The speaker frequently expresses the desire to escape reality, to walk amongst the creatures of his visions:
The driver of those steeds is forward bent,
And seems to listen: O that I might know
All that he writes with such a hurrying glow. (9)
Certainly, if Keats were truly capable of negative capability, would he be expressing this desire to know what the charioteer were writing and hearing? Would he not already know? It seems, with these very lines, that he contradicts his on boasting of his ability to fill the cup of his object with the water of his being.
It is of note, however, that, in "Sleep and Poetry," he predicted this shift in his work. He stated, quite plainly, his intent to write more optimistic, pastoral poetry in the beginning years of his career, changing his mood to one more focused upon the pain of existence in the latter years of his life:
O for ten years, that I may overwhelm
Myself in poesy; so I may do the deed
That my own soul has to itself decreed.
Then will I pass the countries that I see
In long perspective, and continually
Taste their pure fountains. First the realm I'll pass
Of Flora, and old Pan:
And can I ever bid these joys farewell?
Yes, I must pass them for a nobler life,
Where I may find the agonines, the strife
Of human hearts.... (10)
Whether Keats lived up to his own ideals as to the nature of the Poet, whether he truly managed to lose himself in his verse, there is no doubt that his imagination molded his poetry in every manner. He was a Poet of the imagination, a Poet of fantasy. His poems speak of lands of fantasy where elves dance about and the Greco-Roman Gods shape the world, both blessing, cursing, and deceiving mortals. Medieval chivalry comes to life in his verse, and lovers bask in the glow of romance. The flora of the world are more vividly green, the sky more azure, the sun brighter. In his verse he was able, if only for a short time, to escape the pains of his own reality, to forget for a moment about the disease that ate away at his body, and to step out of his "barren dream" into "realms of gold."
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He stared at the Pacific, and all his men
Looked at each other with a wild surmise -
Silent, upon a peak in Darien. (11)
(1) Wai-Leung Kwok, on the interpretation of the romantic imagination in the works of Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Blake.
(2) Ode to a Nightingale, Verse 8
(3) La Belle Dame Sans Merci, Verses XI & XII
(4) On Sitting Down to Read King Lear Once Again
(5) Ode to Melancholy, Verse 3 (I find the allusion to She Walks in Beauty intriguing....)
(6) From a letter to Benjamin Bailey dated 22 November, 1817
(7) From a letter to Richard Woodhouse dated 27 October, 1818
(8) From a letter to Richard Woodhouse dated 27 October, 1818
(9) Sleep and Poetry, Verse 7
(10) Sleep and Poetry, Verse 6
(11) On First Looking into Chapman's Homer