The Romantic Definition of Immortality According to John Keats (Academic)
If John Keats were to be questioned posthumously on the effect of death on his status as one of the six most famous British Romantic poets, he would do nothing more than praise and thank death itself for awarding him such a position. Dying at the age of twenty-five of tuberculosis, Keats learned through his illness that the traditionally romantic ideals associated with death were frustrating and limited; Wordsworth presented death with the naivety of a child, while Byron glorified its escapist capabilities. Keats survived several of his family members, including his brother, Tom, who met his demise by the hands of the same consumption as Keats; he understood and had suffered the pains of loss and sickness. A more tender heart, Keats formulated a self-therapeutic theory, which he labeled negative capability, in order to endure and understand life; developed in the progression of his odes is a sentiment of acceptance and necessity of pain and death. This “negative capability” allows there to be a connection between these two sentiments. Through this acceptance, Keats discerns the true romantic definition of immortality.
Although it is commonly acknowledged by many interpretations that the idea of immortality is the sense that one will live forever on an earthly plane, and retain the demeanor of youth, Keats’s words and theory exemplifies an alternative explanation of immortality. In his movement from “Ode to a Nightingale” to “Ode on a Grecian Urn”, Keats describes a thought progression that ultimately provides an explanation of his romantic idea of immortality; by embracing negative capability through the pain, suffering and perplexity caused by death, Keats is able to see the beauty of experience and the experience of beauty in the mortal life as the true sense of immortality.
In December of 1817, Keats wrote a letter to his brothers, George and Tom, explaining a concept he had essentially theorized, which would elucidate men like Shakespeare’s genius and success. “At once, it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in Literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without an irritable reaching after fact & reason”(Mellor 1263). Keats’s theory seemed to expound on the simple act of acceptance. While this can be criticized as apathy, in a sense, Keats supported his idea by explaining its effect on the artistic individual, in his case, the poet: “that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration or rather obliterates all consideration”(Mellor 1263). It is not apathy or negligence that Keats encouraged; rather it was a prioritization, placing the experience of beauty at the top.
Keats’s initial conflict with the concept of mortality versus immortality is displayed in his “Ode to a Nightingale”. The nightingale, used creatively by Keats for a multitude of reasons, has always been a factor of debate in many of the poem’s criticisms, in particular that the “vexed issue of the bird’s immortality which is still, despite much discussion, a stumbling block to satisfactory interpretation…”(Kappel 270). The famed line, “Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!”(Mellor 1296) brings about the question concerning the claim for the bird’s immortality. In accordance with the “[speculation] that the immortality is only relative”(Kappel 270), the debate can be settled by looking into Keats’s purpose in using the nightingale specifically, and its connection to the aims of the ode itself. At a glance, the ode represents the speaker’s struggle with immortality and the acceptance of death; he desires to descend into oblivion with the nightingale, to forget all the woes of his mortal life, including old age and its ending. However, the focus should be on the launch of this epiphanic journey that leads to Keats’s theoretical immortalization.
Something to remember about the British Romantics was their affinity, or obsession, really, with nature and its influences and characteristics. Not just the romantics, actually. The reverence of nature goes back centuries; nothing spoke to literary figures like the sensations engendered by it. The great German mystic of the twelfth century, Hildegard of Bingen, received the word of God through her connection with nature: “Humanity, take a good look at yourself. Inside, you’ve got heaven and earth, and all of creation. You’re a world – everything is hidden in you”(Butcher 130). Hildegard understood this connection that Keats would eventually see, and its vital role in the development of an earthly immortalization. “As everyone knows, poetry originates for Keats in a contemplation of the natural world and in a full awareness of the various sense impressions it affords. Indeed, poetry both arises from and distills a heightened sense of external reality,” (Sperry 268). The nightingale represents that connection between humanity and nature, the connection that Keats uses to claim not only its immortality, but his own, the poet’s. “To begin with, then, Keats’s nightingale is an actual bird in an actual tree, a comfortable inhabitant of the natural world whose song, heard through the poet’s sensual ear, has drawn him from the human ceremony of breakfast,”(Kappel 272). Keats’s friend, Charles Brown’s account of the composition of the poem tells specifically that he was inspired by a corporeal bird’s song. The naturalization of the nightingale in the ode is a direct yet unobtrusive correlation to humanity; it is something that truly exists just as the speaker himself. This correlation emphasizes the romantic accentuation of the sensual; animals that are not human beings rely more heavily on the senses because they do not necessarily experience thoughts, complaints, etc. “Man can approach the natural only through the senses whose heightened activation as the mind fades can establish for the human consciousness…”(Kappel 274). Keats’s “negative capability” encouraged something very primitive for the human mind: experiencing solely based on the sensual and not the cognitive.
In regards to the claim of the immortality of the bird, it is best to evaluate what aspects of the nightingale Keats chooses to elaborate upon and uses to defend his statement indicating such a claim. In the first stanza, the speaker confesses that his desire to descend into oblivion is “not through envy of thy happy lot/But being too happy in thine happiness,”(Mellor 1296). Initially a confusing concept, the speaker is again referring to the nature, as in organic nature, of the nightingale. He does not wish to follow for the sake of jealousy, but for the perplexity of the nightingale’s circumstances. The “happiness” he is referring to is not the mainstream ideal, but a different sort of oblivion, or transcendence rather, that is brought about by the bird’s inherent “negative capability”. Through the relationship of the bird with humanity, and thus through the distinct claim of said bird’s immortality, Keats “ends up asserting a type of human immortality”(Kappel 271); his depiction of the bird and its song as directly correlative to the words and life of a poet indicate an earthly immortality based upon the senses as experienced through the natural.
An important aspect of Keats’s theory that is often left behind is the explanation he provides for its necessity: “that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration or rather obliterates all consideration.” Keats is explaining that the true artists and geniuses of the literary world are those whose inspiration comes from the “Beauty” of the source, and no other external factors, not even one’s human thoughts. In regards to his “Ode on a Grecian Urn”, this statement could easily be misconstrued and lead to an inaccurate analysis. On the surface, the ode is a questioning of the benefits and detriments of the conventional sense of immortality, or even more specifically, eternality. The speaker observes and describes the urn, and gradually personalizes it with his perception of its figures; the Romantics’ focus on beauty envelopes the realizations discovered throughout. More than the others, “Ode on a Grecian Urn” “reveal[s] the poet’s desire to escape the painful actual and [the desire] to seek repose in beauty, in the ideal”(Wigod 113).
Beauty is a difficult word to define, especially in regards to nature. Aesthetically, beauty is subjective; however, to deduce an idea of the word in regards to Keats’s purpose it would be irrelevant to look anywhere other than the things that he so intently focused on explicating: nature and art.
The two views emphasizing alternately abstraction from immersion in the world of material phenomena are equally central to Keats’s conception of the nature of aesthetic experience. Yet they raise certain basic questions, in particular the problem of how two such different ideals of the imagination can be thought compatible. (Sperry 268) While generally at odds in regards to definition, these two terms both come together in Keats’s “Grecian Urn” to represent the beauty that humanity is capable of experiencing. “What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?/What mad pursuit? What struggle escape?” (Mellor 1297). Keats explores the concept of art by toying with the suppositions of the urn’s characters and “accepts the anonymity of these figures, men or gods; indeed takes pleasure in their anonymity and silence, since the keen delight of imagining is left to him”(Wigod 114). Meanwhile, we’re left to wonder: what is his purpose in these delineations? In his second stanza, Keats discreetly gives his underlying message, which leads back to his promotion of negative capability, in that he negates the influence of the cognitive; he not only emphasizes the observation of the experiences, but also encourages the use of the senses to enhance them without any further rational analysis. In the case of the urn, “the graceful movement and living action of human creatures – moments of being and becoming, aspiration and growth – have been caught and held, suspended permanently in art”(Wigod 114).
For many observing the ideals of the Romantics, the way in which Keats initially discusses the figures on the urn would seem like a yearning for this conventional immortality. Keats goes on, however, to prove that art is not beautiful because of its timelessness and its ability to hold its demeanor forever; it is beautiful because it is a representation of the experiences of life, “Forever panting, and for ever young;/All breathing human passion far above,/That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy’d,/A burning forehead, and a parching tongue”(Mellor 1297). Keats rejoices in the ripeness, so to speak, that has been rescued from time in observing these figures, however, he does so with mixed feelings. Does he long for the things represented on the urn? Eventually, he realizes he does not long for the sense of “Forever wilt thou love, and she be fair!”(Mellor 1297). Love, warmth and youthfulness are the things Keats enjoys most about life, the mortal life, and not as art. Art, he realizes, although beautiful, is only a representation of life, not allowing the experience or the passion: “Yet even when absorbed in the urn, he knew that art was not so fine as life, just as marble men and maidens are not so fine as breathing human beings”(Wigod 116). Keats is ultimately portraying the same message of immortality in “Grecian Urn” as he does in “Nightingale”; finding the connection between humanity and nature, as well as the connection between humanity and art allows for that immortal journey as a mortal. He deduces that “man can perpetuate himself and win the same immortality in art that the nightingale achieves by its song”(Wigod 119), however, not by the legacy of the beauty of the song or piece of art, but by what each of these ultimately represents: the beauty of mortal experience.
The last line of the ode has been discussed heavily, and numerous attempts have been made to interpret it accurately: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, - that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know”(Mellor 1297). A weighted statement, it is very indicative of the worldly knowledge Keats bestowed. It was said that “there [could] be no doubt that Keats’s attraction to history was as genuine as his passion for poetry”(Eggers 990). Keats had not only delved into the world of medicine before entering the world of literature, but as a dedicated writer, he made sure to exhaust himself with historical information to help him understand philosophies of life, including his own. Through the societal, intellectual and religious changes that occurred in England during and long before Keats’s time, he unwittingly figured out the psychology of the genius notions. “Keats became hopeful, along with the Enlightenment historians he read, that the human race would move in the direction of ever-widening freedom”(Eggers 990). Many Romantic notions are said to have been a response to Enlightenment ideals, just as the Enlightenment had been a response to the movements preceding it. Through the administration of negative capability, the acceptance of the uncertain, Keats moves to express a desire for not only freedom from cognition, but also history. While a retractable memory was vital for experiencing life for someone like Wordsworth, Keats relied more heavily on the experience itself than the memory of it. “History no longer seem[ed] exclusively a monument by which heroic individuals gain[ed] immortal names. That history exists for the sake of life and not the reverse…”(Eggers 992). Even explicitly in “Nightingale” does the speaker wishes for “release into the river of forgetfulness”(Eggers 993).
Be that as it may, Keats’s purpose was never to find oblivion for the sake of self-satisfaction. The ups and downs he experiences which are displayed in theses odes are not his quest for a conventional immortality, a selfish one in which his name and works would be remembered. Keats’s true incentive was the acceptance of death and the ultimate evaluation of our mortal experiences. In reality, none of the Romantics had any knowledge or relatively concrete belief of what lay beyond the closed doors of mortality. In “Nightingale”, he confesses to his listener that he is not necessarily fearful of death, but was confused, suspicious and most definitely intrigued by it: “for many a time/I have been half in love with easeful Death/Call’d him soft named in many a mused rhyme/To take into the air my quiet breath/Now more than ever seems it rich to die/To cease upon the midnight with no pain,”(Mellor 1296). Keats understood the vulnerability of humans in the face of death, and realized that as a poet, his job was to make something elucidative out of it. As Shelley writes in his A Defense of Poetry, “a Poet participates in the eternal, the infinite, and the one; as far as relates to his conceptions, time and place and number are not”(Mellor 1169). Keats’s negative capability is one of the most genius forms of acceptance to ever be derived from common circumstances; it gives to the human what is most often sought, peace of mind, while it also allows for the flourishing of genius and romance in those who seek an alternative to the traditions of Heaven and Hell, of mortal and immortal, of question and answer. Keats proved himself to be the ultimate transcendentalist, the ultimate existentialist, and in all facets of the word, the ultimate Romantic.