John Keats is in many ways the most romantic of all romantic poets, Romantic poetry aims at the complete expression of the individual as compared to classical poetry, which aims at the expression of social experience. Other romantic poets have some political or social comments in their poetry. But the poetry of Keats is not a vehicle of any prophecy- any message. It is poetry for its own sake. It has no moral, no political or social significance. It is, therefore, the purest poetry.
Poetry of Escape
All romantic poetry is more or less escapist. Romantic poetry presents not the world of reality, but the world of dreams. The romantic poet seeks an escape from the hard realities of life in a world of romance and beauty. Keats is the most romantic of all the poets in the sense that he is the most escapist of them all. He wants “to fade far away, dissolve and quite forget… the weariness, the fever and the fret” of real life. He sees how men “sit and hear each other groan, ” how “youth grows pale, and spectre thin, and dies”. But this does not give rise to a desire to overthrow the tyrants, as it does in Shelley, nor does he think of a better world.
Love of the Past
Like all romantic poets, Keats seeks an escape in the past. His imagination is caught by the ancient Greeks as well as the glory and splendour of the Middle Ages. Most of his poetry is inspired by the past. It is rarely that he devotes himself to the pressing problems of the present. Endymion, Hyperion and Lamia are all classical in theme, though romantic in style. The Eve of St Agnes, Isabella and La Belle Dame Sans Merci are medieval in origin. Keats thus finds an escape into the past from the oppressive realities of the present.
The themes of Keats’ poetry are romantic in their nature. Most of his poetry is devoted to the quest of Beauty, Love, Chivalry, Adventure, Pathos – these are some of the themes of his poems. Another strain that runs through his poetry is the fear of death that haunts him constantly and which finds beautiful expression in his sonnet, When I have fear….. Another favourite theme of his poems is disappointment in love and its desolation as we find in La Belle Dame Sans Merci. Again, the rich and sensuous descriptions scattered all over his poetry are romantic in tone.
Love of Nature
Like all romantics, Keats loves nature and its varied charms. He has a vivid sense of colour, and he transfigures everything into beauty that he touches with “the magic hand of chance.
Cult of Beauty
In nothing else is Keats as romantic as in his frank pursuit of beauty. Beauty is Deity. Beauty for him is synonymous with Truth. A thing of beauty is for him a joy forever. Beauty is his religion. It is in this pursuit of beauty that he completely forgets himself and the world around him.
One of the most striking notes of romantic poetry is that of supernaturalism. Just as the romantic poet looks backward from the present to the distant past, so he looks beyond the seen to the unseen. His imagination is lured by the remote, shadowy and mysterious. Among the romantic poets, Coleridge felt the spell of the supernatural the most, and his Ancient Mariner and Christabel are two of his important poems which dealt with the supernatural. Keats dealt with the supernatural in his La Belle Dame Sans Merci, and in that little poem, he has condensed a whole world of supernatural mystery.
Addition of Strangeness to Beauty
The romantic quality in literature has been defined by Pater as “the addition of strangeness to beauty. All poetry, if it is genuine poetry, reflects, represents and deals with beauty, but romantic poetry goes a step ahead and imparts strangeness to beauty. When Wordsworth reads the message of eternity in the simplest flower, he reveals something strange and wonderful; this revelation of the strange and the mysterious imparts the essential romantic quality to the poetry of Wordsworth. Keats sees beauty in the ordinary things of nature. The earth to him is a place where beauty renews itself every day; the sky is full of huge cloudy symbols of a high romance. Keats loved beauty in the flower, in the stream and in the cloud, but he loved it in each thing as a part of the Universal beauty which is one, an infinite- “the mighty abstract idea of Beauty”
The song of the nightingale is sweet and he is enraptured by the song and there comes the touch of romance. Keats, while hearing the sweet song, passes from the world of time to the world of eternity.
Thou was not born for death, immortal bird.
The romantic imagination of the poet reveals in a flash a world beyond this world- the world of eternity where the nightingale sings forever and ever. The song of the nightingale becomes a symbol of tine universal spirit of Beauty. Pursuit of the unknown, the invisible and the infinite inspires the creation of all the romantic poetry of the world. It is born out of the craving for the unknown; it is born out of the desire not for limited happiness, but for the boundless joy and loveliness. The nightingale is, for Keats, the symbol of unlimited joy and infinite happiness.
Keats’ Poetic Style
Last but not least, both in terms of diction and metres, Keats’ poetic style is romantic. Though it has a classical finish, it possesses that romantic touch of suggestiveness by which “more is meant than meets the ear.” His poetry is full of such unique suggestive expressions:
Then green-robed senators of mighty woods.
How tip-top Night holds back her dark-grey hood.
My sleep had been embroidered with dreams.
Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips
The silver snarling trumpet
‘gan to chide.
Thou foster-child of Silence and Slow Time.
Keats has employed various kinds of metres and stanza forms in his poetic works. He is one of the great sonneteers in the English language and his Odes, with their musical flow in long stanzas, stand as unique specimens of romantic poetry.
Keats as a True Romantic
But true romanticism, though it sometimes flings our imagination far into the remote and the unseen, is essentially based on truth – the truth of emotion and the truth of imagination. Keats was a true romantic – not a romantic in the hackneyed sense of dealing with the unrealities of life. He loved not merely beauty but truth as well, and not merely the world of imagination but that of reality, and he saw beauty in truth and truth in beauty. He never escaped from the realities of life in pursuit of the beautiful visions of his imagination; in fact, the visions of his imagination are based on reality. He persistently endeavoured to reconcile the world of imagination with the world of reality. Therefore, Middleton Murry calls Keats “a true romantic.”
The brief span of Keats’ life fell within, what is known as the age of Romantic Revival in English Literature, and Keats fully imbibed the spirit of his age. His poetry is a fine example of highly romantic poetry; in fact, it touched almost all the aspects of romantic poetry- love for beauty, love for nature, love for the past, supernaturalism, glow for emotions, and last but not the least in importance, the revealing power of imagination.