Keats is a mystic of the senses and not of thoughts as he sought to apprehend the ultimate truth of the universe through aesthetic sensations and not through philosophical thoughts.
Sensuousness is a quality in poetry which affects the senses i.e. hearing, seeing, touching, smelling and tasting. Sensuous poetry does not present ideas and philosophical thoughts. It gives delight to senses, appeals to our eyes by presenting beautiful and coulourful word pictures to our ears by its metrical music and musical sounds, to our nose by arousing the sense of smell and so on.
Keats is the worshiper of beauty and peruses beauty everywhere; and it is his senses that first reveal to him the beauty of things. He writes poetry only out of what he feels upon his pulses. Thus, it is his sense impressions that kindled his imagination which makes him realize the great principle that:
‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’
Keats loves nature for its own sake. He has a straightforward passion fro nature by giving his whole soul to the unalloyed enjoyment of its sensuous beauty.
Poetry originates from sense impressions and all poets are more or less sensuous. Sense impressions are the starting point of poetic process. It is what the poet sees and hears that excites his emotions and imagination. The emotional and imaginative reaction to sense impressions generate poetry.
The poets give the impressions receive by their eyes only. Wordsworth’s imagination is stirred by what he sees and hears in nature. Milton is no less sensitive to the beauty of nature, of the flowers in “Paradise Lost” in a sensuous manner. But Keats’ poetry appeals to our sense of sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch and sense of hot and cold. He exclaims in one of his letters:
O for a life of sensation than of thoughts
He is a pure poet in sense of seeking not sensual but sensuous delight.
SENSE OF SIGHT: Keats is a painter of words. In a few words he presents a concrete and solid picture of sensuous beauty.
“Her hair was long, her foot was light
And her eyes were wild.”
And in “Ode on Grecian Urn” again the sense of sight is active.
“O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede
Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;”
SENSE OF HEARING: The music of nightingale produces pangs of pain in poet’s heart.
“The voice I hear this passing night was heard
In ancient days, by emperor and clown:”
In “Ode on Grecian Urn” he says:
“Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;”
SENSE OF TOUCH: The opening lines of “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” describe extreme cold:
“The sedge is withered from the lake
And no birds sing.”
SENSE OF TASTE: In “Ode to Nightingale”, Keats describes different kinds of wine and the idea of their tastes in intoxication.
“O for a beaker full of the warm South
Full of the true the blushful Hippocrene,”
SENSE OF SMELL: In “Ode to Nightingale”, the poet can’t see the flowers in darkness. There is mingled perfume of many flowers.
“I cannot see what flowers are at my feet,
Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs,
But, in embalmed darkness, guess each sweet.”
Perhaps the best example of Keats sensuousness is “Ode to Autumn”. In this ode the season of autumn is described in sensuous terms in which all senses are called forth.
“Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness
Close bosom friend of the maturing sun;”
For Keats Autumn is the season of apples on mossed cottage tree, of fruits which are ripe to the core and of later flowers for bees. Thus autumn to Keats is full of pictures of delights of sense. There is the ripe fruit and ripe grains and also there is music that appeals to the ear.
The redbreast whistles from a garden-croft.
Keats is a poet of sensations. His thought is enclosed in sensuousness. In the epithets he uses are rich in sensuous quality – delicious face, melodious plot, sunburnt mirth, embalmed darkness and anguish moist. Not only are the sense perceptions of Keats are quick and alert but he has the rare gift of communicating these perceptions by concrete and sound imagery.
As time passes Keats mind matured and he expresses an intellectual and spiritual passion. He begins to see not only their beauty but also in their truth which makes Keats the “inheritor of unfulfill’d renown”.
Keats is more poet of sensuousness than a poet of contemplation. Sometimes he passes from sensuousness to sentiments. In his mature works like Odes or the Hyperion, the poet mixes sensuousness with sentiments, voluptuousness with vitality, aestheticism with intellectualism. However the nucleus of Keats’ poetry is sensuousness. It is his senses which revealed him the beauty of things, the beauty of universe from the stars of the sky to the flowers of the wood.
Keats’ pictorial senses are not vague or suggestive but made definite with a wealth of artistic detail. Every stanza, every line is replete with sensuous beauty. No other poet except Shakespeare could show such a mastery of language and felicity of sensuousness.