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21 Feb 2016

Keats' Sensuousness

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. 

Keats' concept of beauty

Keats was considerably influenced by Spenser and was, like Spenser, a passionate lover of beauty in all its forms and manifestations. The passion of beauty constitutes his aestheticism. Beauty was his pole star, beauty in nature, in woman and in art.

“A thing of beauty is a joy forever.”

He writes and identifies beauty with truth. Of all the contemporary poets Keats is one of the most inevitably associated with the love of beauty. He was the most passionate lover of the world as the career of beautiful images and of many imaginative associations of an object or word with a heightened emotional appeal. Poetry, according to Keats, should be the incarnation of beauty, not a medium for the expression of religious or social philosophy. He hated didacticism in poetry.

“We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us.” 

He believed that poetry should be unobtrusive. The poet, according to him, is a creator and an artist, not a teacher or a prophet. In a letter to his brother he wrote: 

“With a great poet, the sense of beauty overcomes every other consideration.”

He even disapproved Shelley for subordinating the true end of poetry to the object of social reform. He dedicated his brief life to the expression of beauty as he said:

“I have loved the principle of beauty in all things.”

For Keats the world of beauty was an escape from the dreary and painful life or experience. He escaped from the political and social problems of the world into the realm of imagination. Unlike Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron and Shelley, he remained untouched by revolutionary theories for the regression of mankind. His later poems such as “Ode to a Nightingale” and “Hyperion” show an increasing interest in human problems and humanity and if he had lived he would have established a closer contact with reality. He may overall be termed as a poet of escape. With him poetry existed not as an instrument of social revolt nor of philosophical doctrine but for the expression of beauty. He aimed at expressing beauty for its own sake.

Keats did not like only those things that are beautiful according to the recognized standards. He had deep insight to see beauty even in those things that are not thought beautiful by ordinary people. He looked at autumn and says that even autumn has beauty and charm:

“Where are the song of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too, – 
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue.”

In Keats, we have a remarkable contrast both with Byron on the one side and with Shelley on the other. Keats was neither rebel nor utopian dreamer. Endowed with a purely artistic nature, he took up in regard to all the movements and conflicts of his time, a position of almost complete detacher. He knew nothing of Byron’s stormy spirit of hostility of the existing order of things and he had no sympathy with Shelley’s humanitarian and passion for reforming the world. The famous opening line of “Endymion”, ‘A thing of beauty is a joy forever’ strikes the keynote of his work. As the modern world seemed to him to be hard, cold and prosaic, he habitually sought an imaginative escape from it. He loved nature just for its own sake and for the glory and loveliness which he found in it, and no modern poet has ever been nearer than he was to the simple “poetry for earth” but there was nothing mystical in love and nature was never fraught for him, as for Wordsworth and Shelley, with spiritual message and meanings.

Keats was not only the last but also the most perfect of the Romantics while Scott was merely telling stories, and Wordsworth reforming poetry or upholding the moral law, and Shelley advocating the impossible reforms and Byron voicing his own egoism and the political measure. Worshipping beauty like a devotee, perfectly content to write what was in his own heart or to reflect some splendour of the natural world as he saw or dreamed it to be, he had the noble idea that poetry exists for its own sake and suffers loss by being devoted to philosophy or politics.

Disinterested love of beauty is one of the qualities that made Keats great and that distinguished him from his great contemporaries. He grasped the essential oneness of beauty and truth. His creed did not mean beauty of form alone. His ideal was the Greek ideal of beauty inward and outward, the perfect soul of verse and the perfect form. Precisely because he held this ideal, he was free from the wish to preach.

Keats’ early sonnets are largely concerned with poets, pictures, sculptures or the rural solitude in which a poet might nurse his fancy. His great odes have for their subjects a storied Grecian Urn; a nightingale; the goddess Psyche, mistress of Cupid; the melancholy and indolence of a poet; and the season of autumn, to which he turns from the songs of spring. What he asked of poesy, of wine, or of nightingale’s song was to help him:

“Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget, 
What thou amongst the leaves hast never known,
The weariness, the fever and the fret,
Here, where men sit and hear each other groan.”

“I Stood Tiptoe Upon a Little Hill” and “Sleep and Poetry” – the theme of both these poems is that lovely things in nature suggest lovely tales to the poet, and great aim of poet is to be a friend to soothe the cares, and lift the thoughts of man. Perhaps Keats would have said that he attempted his nobler life of poetry in poems like “Lamia” and “Hyperion” but it is very doubtful whether he believed that he had done justice to this elevated type of poetic creation.

Keats’ love of beauty is not ‘Platonic’ in nature. He loves physical objects and takes interest in human body. He does not become obscene but his love of beauty gives us very attractive and suggestive picture of women:

“Yet still steadfast, still unchangeable,
Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast, 
To feel forever its soft fall and swell,
Awake forever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender taken breath,
And so live ever.”

Religion for him took definite shape in the adoration of the beautiful, an adoration which he developed into a doctrine. Beauty is the supreme truth. It is imagination that discovers beauty. This idealism, assumes a note of mysticism. One can see a sustained allegory in “Endymion” and certain passages are most surely possessed of a symbolical value. Sidney Colvin says:

“It was not Keats aim merely to create a paradise of art and beauty discovered from the cares and interests of the world. He did aim at the creation and revelation of beauty, but of beauty whatever its element existed. His concept of poetry covered the whole range of life and imagination.”

As he did not live long enough, he was not able to fully illustrate the vast range of his conception of beauty. Fate did not give him time enough to fully unlock the ‘mysteries of the heart’ and to illuminate and put in proper perspective the great struggles and problems of human life. 

John Keats "Ode To Autumn"

The Composition of "To Autumn"
Keats wrote "To Autumn" after enjoying a lovely autumn day; he described his experience in a letter to his friend Reynolds: 

"How beautiful the season is now--How fine the air. A temperate sharpness about it. Really, without joking, chaste weather--Dian skies--I never lik'd stubble fields so much as now--Aye better than the chilly green of the spring. Somehow a stubble plain looks warm--in the same way that some pictures look warm--this struck me so much in my Sunday's walk that I composed upon it." 

General Comments

This ode is a favorite with critics and poetry lovers alike. Harold Bloom calls it "one of the subtlest and most beautiful of all Keats's odes, and as close to perfect as any shorter poem in the English Language." Allen Tate agrees that it "is a very nearly perfect piece of style"; however, he goes on to comment, "it has little to say." 
This ode deals with the some of the concerns presented in his other odes, but there are also significant differences. (1) There is no visionary dreamer or attempted flight from reality in this poem; in fact, there is no narrative voice or persona at all. The poem is grounded in the real world; the vivid, concrete imagery immerses the reader in the sights, feel, and sounds of autumn and its progression. (2) With its depiction of the progression of autumn, the poem is an unqualified celebration of process. (I am using the words process, flux, and change interchangeably in my discussion of Keats's poems.) Keats totally accepts the natural world, with its mixture of ripening, fulfillment, dying, and death. Each stanza integrates suggestions of its opposite or its predecessors, for they are inherent in autumn also.

Because this ode describes the process of fruition and decay in autumn, keep in mind the passage of time as you read it.

Stanza I:
Keats describes autumn with a series of specific, concrete, vivid visual images. The stanza begins with autumn at the peak of fulfillment and continues the ripening to an almost unbearable intensity. Initially autumn and the sun "load and bless" by ripening the fruit. But the apples become so numerous that their weight bends the trees; the gourds "swell," and the hazel nuts "plump." The danger of being overwhelmed by fertility that has no end is suggested in the flower and bee images in the last four lines of the stanza. Keats refers to "more" later flowers "budding" (the -ing form of the word suggests activity that is ongoing or continuing); the potentially overwhelming number of flowers is suggested by the repetition "And still more" flowers. The bees cannot handle this abundance, for their cells are "o'er-brimm'd." In other words, their cells are not just full, but are over-full or brimming over with honey.

Process or change is also suggested by the reference to Summer in line 11; the bees have been gathering and storing honey since summer. "Clammy" describes moisture; its unpleasant connotations are accepted as natural, without judgment. 

Certain sounds recur in the beginning lines--s, m, l. Find the words that contain these letters; read them aloud and listen. What is the effect of these sounds--harsh, explosive, or soft? How do they contribute to the effect of the stanza, if they do?

The final point I wish to make about this stanza is subtle and sophisticated and will probably interest you only if you like grammar and enjoy studying English:

The first stanza is punctuated as one sentence, and clearly it is one unit. It is not, however, a complete sentence; it has no verb. By omitting the verb, Keats focuses on the details of ripening. In the first two and a half lines, the sun and autumn conspire (suggesting a close working relationship and intention). From lines 3 to 9, Keats constructs the details using parallelism; the details take the infinitive form (to plus a verb): "to load and bless," "To bend...and fill," "To swell...and plump," and "to set." In the last two lines, he uses a subordinate clause, also called a dependent clause (note the subordinating conjunction "until"); the subordinate or dependent clause is appropriate because the oversupply of honey is the result of--or dependent upon--the seemingly unending supply of flowers. 

Stanza II
The ongoing ripening of stanza I, which if continued would become unbearable, has neared completion; this stanza slows down and contains almost no movement. Autumn, personified as a reaper or a harvester, crosses a brook and watches a cider press. Otherwise Autumn is listless and even falls asleep. Some work remains; the furrow is "half-reap'd," the winnowed hair refers to ripe grain still standing, and apple cider is still being pressed. However, the end of the cycle is near. The press is squeezing out "the last oozings." Find other words that indicate slowing down. Notice that Keats describes a reaper who is not harvesting and who is not turning the press. 
Is the personification successful, that is, does nature become a person with a personality, or does nature remain an abstraction? Is there a sense of depletion, of things coming to an end? Does the slowing down of the process suggest a stopping, a dying or death? Does the personification of autumn as a reaper with a scythe suggest another kind of reaper--the Grim Reaper?

Speak the last line of this stanza aloud, and listen to the pace (how quickly or slowly you say the words). Is Keats using the sound of words to reinforce and/or to parallel the meaning of the line?

Stanza III
Spring in line 1 has the same function as Summer in stanza I; they represent process, the flux of time. In addition, spring is a time of a rebirth of life, an association which contrasts with the explicitly dying autumn of this stanza. Furthermore, autumn spells death for the now "full-grown" lambs which were born in spring; they are slaughtered in autumn. And the answer to the question of line 1, where are Spring's songs, is that they are past or dead. The auditory details that follow are autumn's songs. 
The day, like the season, is dying. The dying of day is presented favorably, "soft-dying." Its dying also creates beauty; the setting sun casts a "bloom" of "rosy hue" over the dried stubble or stalks left after the harvest. Keats accepts all aspects of autumn; this includes the dying, and so he introduces sadness; the gnats "mourn" in a "wailful choir" and the doomed lambs bleat (Why does Keats use "lambs," rather than "sheep" here? would the words have a different effect on the reader?). It is a "light" or enjoyable wind that "lives or dies," and the treble of the robin is pleasantly "soft." The swallows are gathering for their winter migration.

Keats blends living and dying, the pleasant and the unpleasant, because they are inextricably one; he accepts the reality of the mixed nature of the world.

John Keats" Ode to a Nightingale"

Like most of the other odes, "Ode to a Nightingale" is written in ten-line stanzas. However, unlike most of the other poems, it is metrically variable--though not so much as "Ode to Psyche." The first seven and last two lines of each stanza are written in iambic pentameter; the eighth line of each stanza is written in trimeter, with only three accented syllables instead of five. "Nightingale" also differs from the other odes in that its rhyme scheme is the same in every stanza (every other ode varies the order of rhyme in the final three or four lines except "To Psyche," which has the loosest structure of all the odes). Each stanza in "Nightingale" is rhymed ABABCDECDE, Keats's most basic scheme throughout the odes.

With "Ode to a Nightingale," Keats's speaker begins his fullest and deepest exploration of the themes of creative expression and the mortality of human life. In this ode, the transience of life and the tragedy of old age ("where palsy shakes a few, sad, last grey hairs, / Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies") is set against the eternal renewal of the nightingale's fluid music ("Thou wast not born for death, immortal bird!"). The speaker reprises the "drowsy numbness" he experienced in "Ode on Indolence," but where in "Indolence" that numbness was a sign of disconnection from experience, in "Nightingale" it is a sign of too full a connection: "being too happy in thine happiness," as the speaker tells the nightingale. Hearing the song of the nightingale, the speaker longs to flee the human world and join the bird. His first thought is to reach the bird's state through alcohol--in the second stanza, he longs for a "draught of vintage" to transport him out of himself. But after his meditation in the third stanza on the transience of life, he rejects the idea of being "charioted by Bacchus and his pards" (Bacchus was the Roman god of wine and was supposed to have been carried by a chariot pulled by leopards) and chooses instead to embrace, for the first time since he refused to follow the figures in "Indolence," "the viewless wings of Poesy."

The rapture of poetic inspiration matches the endless creative rapture of the nightingale's music and lets the speaker, in stanzas five through seven, imagine himself with the bird in the darkened forest. The ecstatic music even encourages the speaker to embrace the idea of dying, of painlessly succumbing to death while enraptured by the nightingale's music and never experiencing any further pain or disappointment. But when his meditation causes him to utter the word "forlorn," he comes back to himself, recognizing his fancy for what it is--an imagined escape from the inescapable ("Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well / As she is fam'd to do, deceiving elf"). As the nightingale flies away, the intensity of the speaker's experience has left him shaken, unable to remember whether he is awake or asleep.

In "Indolence," the speaker rejected all artistic effort. In "Psyche," he was willing to embrace the creative imagination, but only for its own internal pleasures. But in the nightingale's song, he finds a form of outward expression that translates the work of the imagination into the outside world, and this is the discovery that compels him to embrace Poesy's "viewless wings" at last. The "art" of the nightingale is endlessly changeable and renewable; it is music without record, existing only in a perpetual present. As befits his celebration of music, the speaker's language, sensually rich though it is, serves to suppress the sense of sight in favour of the other senses. He can imagine the light of the moon, "But here there is no light"; he knows he is surrounded by flowers, but he "cannot see what flowers" are at his feet. This suppression will find its match in "Ode on a Grecian Urn," which is in many ways a companion poem to "Ode to a Nightingale." In the later poem, the speaker will finally confront a created art-object not subject to any of the limitations of time; in "Nightingale," he has achieved creative expression and has placed his faith in it, but that expression--the nightingale's song--is spontaneous and without physical manifestation.

In this meditation on poetic experience, the poet attempts to conceptualise a reconciliation of beauty and permanence through the symbol of the nightingale The poet begins by explaining the nature and cause of the sadness he is experiencing, a sadness translated into a physical ache and a drowsy numbness. He feels as he might if he had taken some poison or sedating drug. This feeling is in fact the result of a deep awareness of the happiness of the nightingale he hears singing. His resulting pleasure is so intense it has become painful. He longs for some intoxicant that will let him achieve union with the nightingale, take him out of the world, and allow him to forget human suffering and despair and the transience of all experience. Wine, however, is rejected in favour of the poetic imagination. He enters some twilight region of the mind. While he can see nothing, the other senses feed his imagination, constructing within his mind what cannot be seen in fact. This prompts him to contemplate leaving the world altogether. He realises, however, that the ultimate form of forgetfulness, of escape from the troubles of life, would be death. Death at such a moment, listening to the nightingale pouring forth its soul in ecstasy, would be the supreme ending. And yet death is rejected. As the poet realises, the bird would sing on, and he would be unable to hear it. While all humans must die, the nightingale is, in some sense, immortal. The poet, thinking back to the classical world of the Roman emperors and to the Old Testament world of Ruth, considers how its song has been heard for so many centuries. Keats takes us even further back, into a fairy world, a landscape both magical and yet forlorn. With this word `forlorn', the spell is broken: the poet returns to the self, to the present. Fancy, he claims, has failed him once more. He again becomes aware of the landscape around him and the bird's song begins to fade, leaving him wondering whether his experience was a vision or a waking dream.

The nightingale has traditionally been associated with love. The influential myth of Philomela, turned into a nightingale after being raped and tortured, stresses melancholy and suffering in association with love. It has also been associated with poetry. Keats no doubt knew Coleridge's two poems `To the Nightingale' (1796) and `The Nightingale: "A Conversation Poem"', and, according to his letters, only days before writing this ode he had talked with the older poet on such subjects as nightingales, poetry and poetical sensation.

Why did Keats choose the nightingale's song as the basis of meditation in this poem? Is he drawing upon its traditional associations or not? Such critics as Helen Vendler believe that in the choice of music Keats finds a symbol of pure beauty, non-representational, without any reference to ideas, to moral or social values. The nightingale's song is vocal, but without verbal content, and can serve as a pure expressive beauty. Others have argued that it represents the music of nature, which can be contrasted with human art, verbal or musical.

The poem is basically structured around the contrast between the poet, who is earthbound, and the bird, which is free. A related opposition is that between the mortal world, full of sorrow and marked by transience, and the world of the nightingale, marked by joy and immortality. One of the points that has troubled many critics is this claim of immortality for the nightingale: 'Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!' (line 61). The nightingale is, after all, a natural creature. It has been suggested that Keats is referring not to the individual bird, but to the species. This solution has been strongly criticised, however, as humanity, the `hungry generations' (line 62), could also be credited with such immortality as a species. An alternative suggestion is that the nightingale addressed in stanza 7 is purely symbolic; is this solution more convincing? If so, what does the nightingale symbolise? A further interpretation might be that, since the nightingale sings only at night and was traditionally thought of, therefore, as invisible, it, through its `disembodied' song, transcends the material world (so in that sense is immortal); and here Keats is talking of `embalmed darkness', an atmosphere of death.

Another problematic point is Keats's final question on the status of his experience: `Was it a vision, or a waking dream?' (line 79). Some critics have decidedly affirmed that the poem is about the inadequacy of the imagination, a rejection of the `deceiving elf' (line 79). Others see more ambivalence in Keats's attitude. After the possibility of joining the bird in its immortal world has been rejected as a trick of the fancy, they would argue, Keats still suggests through his final question that such vision or transcendent experience is possible, or, at least, still something for which he longs. Is this, ultimately, an escapist poem, or is Keats emphasising the need to accept the human condition, with all the suffering that is associated with it? Compare the ode, in this respect, with the `Ode on Melancholy'.

Language is effectively used to create mood. In the opening of the poem, for example, a sense of sluggish weightiness is suggested by the heavy thudding alliterative `d', `p', and `m' when Keats describes his own dull ache. Compare this with the effects created in the second half of the stanza by the light assonantal sounds in such words as `light' and `Dryad' and the sensuous assonantal sounds of 'beechen', `green' and `ease' when Keats turns to the joy of the nightingale. Compare the vitality and the jubilant tempo of stanza 2 with the dull heaviness and monotony in stanza 3. How are these different effects created? Consider, for a start, the use of repetition, with devices like parallelism and anaphora. There is a dense concentration of sense impressions in this ode, and a frequent use of synaesthesia. In stanza 1, for example, the `plot' where the bird sings is itself `melodious' and the song contains `summer': the visual evokes the aural and the aural the visual. In stanza 2, Keats conveys the taste of wine with reference to colour, action, song and sensation. When Keats says, in stanza 5, `I cannot see what flowers are at my feet, / Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs', the suggestion that the incense could be seen emphasises the density and headiness of the perfume: it is so strong it seems visible, tangible. This is often said to be the most personal of the odes. Perhaps it would be better to say that from the abrupt opening of :"My heart aches' onwards, it creates the impression of being the most subjective. Leaving aside the claim by many critics that it is personal in an autobiographical way, how is this impression of subjectivity achieved? It is the processes and movement of the poet's mind that are the central focus of `Ode to a Nightingale', and the personal `I' is very much in evidence. In this respect compare the poem with the `Ode on a Grecian Urn'.

Lethe-wards (Greek myth) Lethe is one of the rivers of Hades; the dead are obliged to drink from it in order that they may forget everything said and done when alive
Dryad a tree nymph
Hippocrene (Greek myth) the fountain of the Muses on Mount Helicon and therefore associated with poetic inspiration; here the term is used to suggest red wine as another source of inspiration
Bacchus and his pards (Roman myth) the god of wine; the pards are the leopards which draw his chariot
Fays fairies
Darkling in the dark
Synaesthesia: A sensation that usually only affects one sense is used to trigger a response in another. 

John Keats "Ode on a Grecian Urn"

Stanza I.
Stanza I begins slowly, asks questions arising from thought and raises abstract concepts such as time and art. The comparison of the urn to an "unravish'd bride" functions at a number of levels. It prepares for the impossisbility of fulfillment of stanza II and for the violence of lines 8-10 of this stanza. "Still" embodies two concepts--time and motion--which appear in a number of ways in the rest of the poem. They appear immediately in line 2 with the urn as a "foster" child. The urn exists in the real world, which is mutable or subject to time and change, yet it and the life it presents are unchanging; hence, the bride is "unravish'd" and as a "foster" child, the urn is touched by "slow time," not the time of the real world. The figures carved on the urn are not subject to time, though the urn may be changed or affected over slow time. 

The urn as "sylvan historian" speaks to the viewer, even if it doesn't answer the poet's questions (stanzas I and IV). Whether the urn communicates a message depends on how you interpet the final stanza. The urn is "sylvan"--first, because a border of leaves encircles the vase and second because the scene carved on the urn is set in woods. The "flowery tale" told "sweetly" and "sylvan historian" do not prepare for the terror and wild sexuality unleashed in lines 8-10 (another opposition); the effect and the subject of the urn or art conflict. Is it paradoxical that the urn, which is silent, tells tales "more sweetly than our rime"? Twice (lines 6 and 8) the poet is unable to distinguish between mortal and immortal, men and gods, another opposition; is there a suggestion of coexistence and inseparableness in this blurring of differences between them? 

With lines 8-10, the poet is caught up in the excited, rapid activities depicted on the urn and moves from observer to participant in the life on the urn, in the sense that he is emotionally involved. Paradoxically, turbulant dynamic passion is convincingly portrayed on cold, motionless stone.

Paradox and opposites run through the rest of the poem. As you read and reread the poem, you should become aware of them.

Stanza II.
The first four lines contrast the ideal (in art, love, and nature) and the real; which does Keats prefer at this point? What is the paradox of unheard pipes? Is this an oxymoron?

The last six lines contrast the drawback of frozen time; note the negative phrasing: "canst not leave," "nor ever can," "never, never canst" in lines 5-8. Keats says not to grieve; whom he is addressing--the carved figures or the reader? or both? Then he lists the advantages of frozen time; however, Keats continues to use negative phrasing even in these lines: "do not grieve," "cannot fade," and ""hast not thy bliss." Keats may have made a mistake, or there may be a reason for this negative undertone, a reason which will become clear as the poem continues.

Stanza III.
This stanza recapitulates ideas from the preceding two stanzas and re-introduces some figures: the trees which can't shed leaves, the musician, and the lover. Keats portrays the ideal life on the urn as one without disappointment and suffering. The urn-depicted passion may be human, but it is also "all breathing passion far above" because it is unchanging. Is there irony in the fact that the superior passion depicted on the urn is also unfulfillable, that satisfaction is impossible?

How does he portray real life, actual passion in the last three lines? Which is preferable, the urn life or real life? Note the repetition of the word "happy." Is there irony in this situation?

Stanza IV.
Stanza IV shows the ability of art to stir the imagination, so that the viewer sees more than is portrayed. The poet imagines the village from which the people on the urn came. In this stanza, the poet begins to withdraw from his emotional participation in and identification with life on the urn.

This stanza focuses on communal life (the previous stanzas described individuals). What paradox is implicit in the contrast between the event being a sacrifice and the altar being "green"? between leading the heifer to the sacrifice and her "silken flanks with garlands drest"?

In imagining an empty town, why does he give three possible locations for the town, rather than fix on one location? Why does he use the word "folk," rather than "people"? Think about the different connotations of these words. The image of the silent, desolate town embodies both pain and joy. How is it ironic that not a soul can tell us why the town is empty and that the vase communicates so much to the poet and so to the reader? Is this also paradoxical?

In terms of the theme of pain-joy, what is Keats saying in lines 1-4, which describe the procession? in the rest of the stanza which describes the desolate town? Is he describing a temporary or a permanent condition?

Is the viewer, who is the poet as well as the reader, pulled into the world of the urn?

Stanza V.
The poet observes the urn as a whole and remembers his vision. Is he emotionally involved in the life of the urn at this point, or is he again the observer? What aspect of the urn is stressed in the phrases "marble men and maidens," "silent form," and "Cold Pastoral"?

Is there a paradox in the phrase "Cold Pastoral"?

Yet the poet did experience the life experienced on the urn and comments, ambiguously perhaps, that the urn "dost tease us out of thought / As doth eternity." Is this another reference to the "dull brain" which "perplexes and retards" ("Ode to a Nightingale")? Why does Keats use the word "tease"? By teasing him "out of thought," did the urn draw him from the real world into an ideal world, where, if there was neither imperfection nor change, there was also no real life or fulfillment? Or, possibly, was the poet so involved in the life of the urn that he couldn't think? Was the urn an escape, however temporary, from the pains and problems of life? One thing that all these suggestions mean is that this is a puzzling line.

In the final couplet, is Keats saying that pain is beautiful? You must decide whether it is the poet (a persona), Keats (the actual poet), or the urn speaking. Are both lines spoken by the same person, or does some of the quotation express the view of one speaker and the rest of the couplet express the comment upon that view by another speaker? Who is being addressed--the poet, the urn, or the reader? Are the concluding lines a philosphical statement about life or do they make sense only in the context of the poem? Click here to read the three versions of the last two lines.

Some critics feel that Keats is saying that Art is superior to Nature. Is Keats thinking or feeling or talking about the urn only as a work of art? Your reading on this issue will be affected by your decision about who is speaking.

No matter how you read the last two lines, do they really mean anything? do they merely sound as if they mean something? or do they speak to some deep part of us that apprehends or feels the meaning but it is an experience/meaning that can't be put into words? Do they make a final statement on the relation of the ideal to the actual? Is the urn rejected at the end? Is art--can art ever be--a substitute for real life?

What, if anything, has the poet learned from his imaginative vision of or daydream participation in the life of the urn?

Explanation Of Ariel Poem By Sylvia Plath

"Ariel," the title poem of Sylvia Plath’s posthumous volume of the same name is one of her most highly regarded, most often criticised, and most complicated poems. The ambiguities in the poem begin with its title, which has a three fold meaning. To a reader uninformed by Plath’s biography "Ariel" would probably most immediately call to mind the "airy spirit" who in Shakespeare’s The Tempest is a servant to Prospero and symbolizes Prospero’s control of the upper elements of the universe, fire and air. On another biographical or autobiographical level, "Ariel," as we know from reports about the poet’s life, was the name of her favorite horse, on whom she weekly went riding. Robert Lowell, in his forward to Ariel, says, "The title Ariel summons up Shakespeare’s lovely, though slightly chilling and androgynous spirit, but the truth is that this Ariel is the author’s horse." Ted Hughes, Plath’s husband, adds these comments,

ARIEL was the name of the horse on which she went riding weekly. Long before, while she was a student at
Cambridge (England), she went riding with an American friend out towards Grantchester. Her horse bolted, the stirrups fell off, and she came all the way home to the stables, about two miles, at full gallop, hanging around the horse’s neck.

These two allusions, to The Tempest and to her horse "Ariel," have often been noticed and pointed out, with the emphasis, from a critical perspective, being placed on the biographical referent. But there is another possible referent in the title of the poem which no one has yet noted, although the poet, apparently, went out of her way to make reference, even obvious reference, to it. I refer to "Ariel" as the symbolic name for Jerusalem. "Ariel" in Hebrew means "lion of God." She begins the second stanza of the poem with the line "God’s lioness," which seems to be a direct reference to the Hebrew or Jewish "Ariel."

Plath’s obsession with Judaism and the Jewish people is clearly indicated in many of her poems.


Indeed, some of the imagery which informs the passage concerning "Ariel" in the Book of Isaiah (29:1-7) appears to have been drawn on directly by Plath for her imagery in her poem "Ariel." In Isaiah 29-5-6 we read,

And in an instant, suddenly,
You will be visited by the Lord of hosts
With thunder and with earthquake and great noise,
With whirlwind and tempest,
And the flame of a devouring fire

In short, then, the poet seems to be combining these three references to "Ariel" in her poem, and creating a context where each of the possible meanings enriches the others. She even seems to imply this when she says, in the second stanza, "How one we grow." Each of the three "Ariel’s" contributes its part to the totality of the poem, and each of them merges into the others so that, by the end of the poem, they are all "one."

Now, of these three references to "Ariel," the two that seem most fruitful in terms of an analysis of the poem appear to be the autobiographical and the Biblical In terms of the autobiographical overtones, the poem can be seen as what apparently it is in fact—an account of the poet’s going for a ride on her favorite horse. Each of the details she mentions with respect to the ride (at least through the first six stanzas) can be seen as exact reporting of what it is like to ride a horse. The last five stanzas of the poem obviously move beyond the literal telling of taking a horseback ride and move into something which partakes of the mystery whereby the rider experiences something of the unity which is created between horse and rider, if not literally, at least metaphorically. This change in the theme of the poem is signaled both by a change in tone and by a change in technique, and specifically by the break in the rhyme scheme.

In talking of the rhymes in Plath’s poetry, John Frederick Nims points out that in The Colossus, Plath’s first book, she chooses to rhyme "atonally" using one of several variations:

The same vowel-sound but with different consonants after it: fishes-pig-finger-history; worms-converge. Different vowel-sounds but with the same final consonant: vast-compost-must; knight-combat-heat (this is her most characteristic kind of rhyme in The Colossus). Unaccented syllable going with accented or unaccented: boulders-wore: footsoles-babel. She considers all final vowels as rhyming with all others: jaw-arrow-eye (perhaps suggested by the Middle-English practice in alliteration). Or she will mate sounds that have almost anything in common: ridgepole-tangle-inscrutable.

Nims goes on to say,

In Ariel, the use of rhyme is very different. In some poems it is ghostlier than ever. But more often it is obvious: rhyme at high noon. The same sound may run on from stanza to stanza, with much identical rhyme. "Lady Lazarus" illustrates the new manner. The poem is printed in units of three lines, but the rhyme is not in her favorite terzarima pattern. Six of the first ten lines end in an n-sound, followed by a sequence in long e, which occurs in about half of the next twenty-two lines. Then, after six more a’s, we have l’s ending eleven of fourteen lines, and then several r’s, leading into the six or more air rhymes that conclude the sequence. Almost Skeltonian: the poet seems to carry on a sound about as long as she can, although not in consecutive lines.

Now up to the seventh stanza of the poem (and continuing on through the remainder of the poem once the transitions has been made in the seventh stanza, "White / Godiva, I unpeel— / Dead hands, dead strigencies"), the rhyme scheme has been, for the most part, "regular" in terms of the slant rhymes Nims has suggested, each stanza having two lines which rhyme, given Plath’s approach to rhyme. "darkness" / "distance," "grow" / "furrow," "arc" / "catch," "dark"

/ "Hooks," "mouthfuls" / "else," "air" / "hair," "I" / "cry," "wall" / "arrow," and "drive" / "red." It is true that the rhymes do not all fit the categories Nims has set forth, although some of them do. Where the rhymes do not fit his scheme, another scheme, equally justifiable, could be suggested—one which the poet apparently used equally often, here as well as in other poems in Ariel. For instance, in the case of the rhymes "darkness" / "distance," the rhyme works on the duplication of the initial "d’s" and the final "s’s"; in "arc" / "catch," "arc" ends in the consonant "c" which is picked up as the initial letter in "catch" (also the sequence "ac" in "arc" is reversed in "catch" to "ca"); the "k" in "dark" and "Hooks" carries the rhyme for the lines ending in these two words; in the "wall" / "arrow" rhyme Plath has apparently worked the words so that the letters of the one word become inverted and duplicated backwards in the letters of the other, thus "w" begins "wall" and ends "arrow" and the double "1" in "wall" is duplicated by the double "r" in "arrow," each of the double consonants following the vowel "a"; and the initial "d" of "drive" goes with the final "d" of "red," and so forth.

But, to show the change in theme in the Godiva stanza, Plath breaks the rhyme within the stanza itself, while, and at the same time, she joins this transitional stanza to what has gone before and to what will follow by interlocking its rhyme with the dangling or unused line in both the preceding and following stanzas. Thus "heels" from the preceding stanza is made to rhyme with "unpeel" in the Godiva stanza, and "seas" of the following stanza is made to rhyme with "stringencies." The unity of the poem as a whole has thus been maintained while the shift in its theme is signaled both thematically and structurally by a shift in the rhyme scheme.

In addition to this rather complex patterning of rhyme, Plath also has her own alliterative-devices to bind together individual lines and, at times, larger units of her poems. In "Ariel," for instance, we find lines like, "Pour of tor and distances," "Pivot of heels and knees," and "Of the neck I cannot catch." In each of these lines, the internal rhyme ("pour" / "tor") or the alliteration ("cannot catch") or the assonance ("heels and knees") creates a kind of music which takes the place of exact or even slant rhyme.


On at least two other occasions, then, Plath has set forth similar experiences to the one she details in "Ariel," and in each case she has communicated her experience in terms of horses and horseback riding. All demonstrate a desire to have her reader feel, if not see, the unities of the interconnected emotions which she is attempting to express in these poems. Particularly in "Ariel," she is careful to link the thematic and rhyme devices already mentioned to an overall structure which suggests the special kind of fusions that she intends. The poem is written in three line stanzas, and, in the sense that two of the lines in each stanza rhyme, the poem might be considered to fall into a loose terza rima. Another way in which the form works to complement the meaning is in the stanzaic form itself. The very fact that the stanzas are tri-fold parallels the tri-fold allusions to horse, Ariel in Shakespeare, and "Ariel" as a reference to Jerusalem, Therefore, the stanzaic structure as well as the structure of the individual stanzas corroborates the theme of the poem.

But perhaps the most important structural, as well as thematic, line in the poem is the last line, which is also the final stanza of the poem. This line is important in a three-fold way: first, the "ro" of "cauldron" is inverted to "or" in "morning," thus continuing the duality of the double, and here internal, rhyme that occurs throughout the poem, but at the same time tightening the rhyme even further into the space of a single line; second, the words "eye" and "morning," carrying as they do the overtones of "I" and "mourning," at once incorporate the personal activity (riding a horse) with the communal concern of the Biblical passage (where "Ariel" comes to signify the whole history of the Hebrew race and the suffering, the "mourning" so immediately identified with that history); and, thirdly, the word "cauldron" mixes all of the foregoing elements together into a kind of melting pot of emotion, history and personal involvement. Thus, the poem takes on the richness and complexity we have come to expect from the poet, and, not without reason, stands as the title poem of the book. As A. Alvarez has said, "The difficulty with this poem lies in separating one element from another. Yet that is also its theme." Indeed, Plath seems to have always had a similar difficulty in separating one element of her life from another. But, that, too, was also, and always, her theme.