Exploring the Poetry of Keats: A Unification of Themes in His Odes

Categories: Poems

This essay will work in unifying themes of Keats’ poems, Ode to a Nightingale, Ode to Melancholy, Ode to Psyche, Ode to Indolence, and Ode on a Grecian Urn. The paper will analyze these poems and then apply thematic links. In Keats’ poem Ode to a Nightingale, the first stanza begins with the narrator describing heartache. The following emotions each illustrate this main point through the use of words such as ‘drowsy numbness’, and ‘dull opiate’ (Lines 1-3). The first stanza introduces the reader to the natural element of the nightingale, ‘light-winged Dryad of the trees’(Line 7).

This nightingale juxtaposes the narrator’s emotion in a contrasting point of happiness, and thus elicits of the narrator a response of envy (Crawford 478). The narrator’s intent on comparing their lot with the happiness of the nightingale is one full of earnest just as much as envy. The narrator wants to have the nightingale’s happiness as is proven with the lines, ‘O for a draught of vintage…That I might drink, and leave the world unseen, And with thee fade away into the forest dim’(Lines 11-20).

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Thus, the desire of escape is an established theme in Keats’ poem Ode to a Nightingale (Crawford 476). This idea of escapism is further established in the third stanza as it reads, ‘Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget…The weariness, the fever, and the fret’ (Lines 21-23). The wish to be a nightingale, of the thins in life the speaker wishes they could own is all tied up in this tiny songstress, and its life is envied all that much more because of the unattainable nature of the speaker to become like the bird (Columbia Encyclopedia 12356).

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It is a different world that the speaker desires, one in which heartache, loss, and fretful worries of the mundane world are too heavy to bear, and so their escape is not only to leave society, to wander off into the woods, or even to leave the country, but to transmogrify into another creature, a bird, in which the very symbolism of flight alludes to escape, and a fast one. Not only is escape the ideal of the speaker but to be able to forget about the worry enough to create a beautiful song is the other objective in desiring to become a nightingale.

These illusions, and ponderings of transformation is the theme which runs throughout Keats’ poems. For, in the speaker’s present state in this poem, because, presumably, of their inability to see the world before them, as is interpreted in the lines, ‘I cannot see what flowers are at my feet, Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs’(Lines 41-42). Thus, in becoming a nightingale, the narrator will shed the worries of his present human state in society and be able to engross themselves in the natural world (Stillinger 595).

In the same mood of transformation the speaker suggests that perhaps death is a great escape, ‘I have been half in love with easeful Death, Call’d him soft names in many a mused rhyme, To take into the air my quiet breath’(Lines 52-54). Here then is seen the ultimate escapism theme; Death. These two themes, that of escape through nature (nightingale) and through supernatural (Death) run in opposing directions, as Keats points out in the poem, “Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird! ’(Line 61).

Thus, the bird is proven to be an eternal symbol and thus, the poem’s narrator must find which persuasion; the natural or the supernatural will win them over (Smith 400). In Keats’ poem Ode to Melancholy, the theme of wanting joy is read throughout the poem. The poem seems to be an inspirational change from Ode to a Nightingale as the poem illustrates a sort of derision from death in the lines, ‘For shade to shade will come too drowsily, And drown the wakeful anguish of the soul’ (Lines 9-10).

Thus, death’s personification is in the shadows which the narrator portends to be the end of life, where a person should not go (Lethe). The struggle of depression between happiness is a very simple theme in all of Keats’ poems, and one that is no different in this poem, yet its syntax is more intricately woven (Stillinger 596). The poem states that happiness cannot be gotten without melancholy and the greater the depression the greater the happiness.

The desire of the narrator in this poem, as in Ode to a Nightingale is to be joyous, although the pathway to this joy is complicated with desperate thoughts, and the dragging of reality. This compare and contrast of melancholy and happiness is best seen in the lines, ‘ She dwells with Beauty-Beauty that must die’ (Line 21). Thus, the transcendence of the ethereal of Beauty, as with the nightingale’s song, is something that is captured once, and then is gone, either changed into a memory, a dream, an illusion, or death.

The achievement of beauty, joy, and happiness is the main objective for Keats’ poems. This objective is perfectly illustrated in his poem Ode to Psyche in which the narrator professes the beauty of the goddess. The narrator is questioning the beauty of Psyche, not to test its reality but to wonder whether or not they truly did see her, ‘Even into thine own soft-conched ear: Surely I dream’d to-day, or did I see, The winged Psyche with awaken’d eyes? ’ (Lines 4-6). Thus, Psyche’s beauty is not contested, but the vision of her beauty is by the speaker.

The speaker goes on to elaborate on the forest scene as had been done with the escapist route imagined in Ode to a Nightingale. The narrator goes on to discuss the nature of their vision as two nymphs embracing arm in arm, a winged boy and Psyche. Thus, the element of the supernatural is combined with that of the natural, which was clearly defined in Ode to a Nightingale with the bird and death; in this poem they collaborate with the goddess being seduced in a forest glen. Thus, these elements, natural and supernatural, work together to form a collaborating image for the reader.

This poem dwells more on the illustration of a scene of Psyche being made love to, and the extreme beauty of her, while the previous poems were mainly focused on the narrator’s interpretation of their world in terms of escape and melancholy. The escapist route taken in this poem may best be described as escapism through beauty. The divine is predominately seen in this poem that its presence in comparison to the melancholy wishes found in the previous poems points the decisive reader towards the viewpoint that in beauty, especially of mythological proportions, is found a different form of escape.

The belief in the ethereal realm, the realm found beyond the mundane, banal, and real, and into the heavens. The desperation found in the previous cited Keats’ poems is found in Ode to Psyche in the element of wanting Psyche, of desiring her in this (the narrator’s) modern day, ‘Too, too late for the fond believing lyre, When holy were the haunted forest boughs, Holy the air, the water, and the fire’ (Lines 37-39). The dedication to this mythological realm is fully witnessed with the narrator in the final stanza, ‘Yes, I will be thy priest, and build a fane’ (Line 50).

Thus, the narrator professes to want to be in servitude to the goddess and makes many vows, and paints a pretty picture of what such a life of servitude would be like. This picture involves a lot of natural settings of the forest with trees, bees, birds, streams, stars, flowers, etc. Thus, the image of the real, the natural, is given to support the claim of making the supernatural as real as possible; the theme of the natural and supernatural are seen once again.

It does not seem as though Keats is writing with personification; that is, making a woman into the image of the goddess Psyche, but he is using the actual image of the goddess to fulfill a desire. Ode to Indolence deals with temptation and innocence. The poem begins, again, with a very Keats’ hallucination involving robed figures, with urns. The connotations of death, and of mythology are seen in this imagery. This poem has the narrator ask the three figures why did not leave the speaker alone; this means that the speaker wishes to remain in their state of indolence as Keats writes, ‘my pulse grew less and less’.

When the speaker is done questioning the figures, and they leave the narrator, the poem takes a different turn, as the speaker state, ‘Then faded, and to follow them I burn’d And ached for wings, because I knew the three: The first was a fair maid, and Love her name; The second was Ambition, pale of cheek, And ever watchful with fatigued eye; The last, whom I love more, the more of blame Is heap'd upon her, maiden most unmeek, - I knew to be my demon Poesy’ (Lines 22-31).

The speaker then is preoccupied with wanting something of the supernatural world, as is seen in the previous poems discussed, ‘They faded, and, forsooth! I wanted wings’ (Line 32). The desiring of a different world, the world with the shadows is felt just as strongly in this poem as was analyzed in the previous poems. The dream world also survives in this poem as a theme for Keats. It is in the dream that the soul exists more fully than in the actual world, that is the fact that the soul is the conduit through which joy is realized, and so it is in a dream, or a dreamlike world that the speaker is able to find happiness.

The longing for the shadows in this poem is the final image which Keats leaves the reader with, ‘Fade softly from my eyes, and be once more In masque-like figures on the dreary urn’ (Lines 57-58). With the image of the urn in this poem, the obvious allusions to death cannot be misinterpreted, and so, death as a supernaturally desired figure as with Ode to a Nightingale is seen by the reader (Mauro 290). The theme of escapism, although quite obvious in the other poems analyzed in this paper is undoubtedly seen in the poem Ode on a Grecian Urn.

The idea of negative capability is also read in this poem, or uncertainties. The reader is not given the identities of the figures on the urn, although their impact on the speaker is obvious. The figures are representational of Keats’ own uncertainty (Negative Capability). The poem serves to focus the use of the imagination as a gateway into the supernatural realm which in itself, and its mysterious are not always known in the corporeal realm. The relationship of art to real life is the inspiration for this poem.

The same idea of negative capability, or mystery as was seen in Ode to Indolence with the hazy three figures, and the reader’s own ignorance on their identity is once again seen in Ode to a Grecian Urn. This ‘mystery’ or ignorance is most importantly read in the last three lines of the poem, ‘Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st, ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,--that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know’ is said by the urn or is the poet’s, Keats own view.

Each poem analyzed and compared and contrasted in this paper has had an underlying theme of truth; that is, the speakers attempt to find out their own soul, their own personal truth in the realm of the supernatural while at times either forsaking the natural, or dwelling more in the natural in order to make the supernatural seem that much more tangible as is seen in Ode to Psyche.

The theme of escape was very strong in Keats’ poems, it was not all together the main focus of the poet’s viewpoint; instead the focus may also be the singular point of desiring a change. The idea of transformation is what truly captures the reader’s imagination with Keats, and it is with transformation that a true concurrent theme is found.

Works Cited

Crawford, A. W. Keats’s Ode to a Nightingale. Modern Language Notes. Vol. 37, No. 8. (Dec. , 1922). pp. 476-481. John Keats Selected Poetry. 3 April 2009.

< http://englishhistory. net/keats/poetry. html> Mauro, Jason. The Shape of Despair: Structure and Vision in Keats’s ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’. Nineteenth-Century Literature. Vol. 53, No. 3. (Dec. , 1997). pp. 289-301. Smith, Hillas. John Keats: Poet, Patient, Physician. Reviews of Infectious Diseases, Vol. 6, No. 3. (May-June 1984). pp. 390-404. Stillinger, Jack. Keats and Romance. Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900. Vol. 8, No. 4. (Autumn 1968). pp. 593-605. The Columbia Encyclopedia. Criticism. 6th Edition. 2007.

Updated: Apr 29, 2023
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Exploring the Poetry of Keats: A Unification of Themes in His Odes. (2016, Dec 22). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/keats-ode-poems-essay

Exploring the Poetry of Keats: A Unification of Themes in His Odes essay
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