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Saturday, 26 February 2011

Keats’ Hellenism in his odes

Keats, as is well known, was not a classical scholar, yet he has been famous for his Hellenism, a term which may be defined as a love of Greek art, literature, culture and way of life. Keats had an inborn love for the Greek spirit,-their Religion of Joy and their religion of Beauty. He once wrote to one of his friends that he never ceased to wonder at ‘all that incarnate delight’ of the Greek way of life. In fact, he was driven to the world of Greek Beauty because he wanted to escape imaginatively from the harsh realities of his present. It should, however, be noted that ‘Keats was a Greek’ because he could enter lovingly and imaginatively into the world of the ancients, and not because his knowledge of it was accurate and scholarly. His presentation of Hallas is romantic and not realistic.

Keats’ mind was saturated with Greek literature and mythology. He habitually chooses Greek stories for his poetry. Endymion. Hyperion, Lamia, Grecian Urn, Psyche etc,- all have the themes borrowed from the Greeks. The Grecian Urn is a monument of the poet’s power of entering imaginatively into another world. We as readers feel that we have been transported entirely to the Hellenic world of beauty, love, festivity and ritual. It is permeated through and through with the Greek spirit. It may also be noted that the ‘Ode’ form, which he made particularly his own and in which he excels all other English poets, is typically a Greek verse form.

Moreover, there are countless allusions to Greek legends and stories in poems which are not directly based on Greek themes. He frequently refers at all places to Muses, Apollo, Pan, Narcissus, Endymion, Diana, and a number of other classical gods and goddesses. In Ode to Nightingale, we have references to Dryads (That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees), the goddess Flora (Tasting of Flora and the country green), and Bacchus and his pards (Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards). In Ode on Melancholy, references are made to the river Lethe, goddess Proserpine and Psyche. These allusions are not mere conventional personifications as with other poets; there is a tone of enjoyment in these allusions which shows that Greek mythology had really taken possession of his mind.

The Greek temper of Keats is also revealed particularly in his joy in the Beauty of nature and his zest for an out of door life lived in her midst. Like the Greeks, Keats also takes a sensuous, childlike pleasure in the forms, colours, scents and sounds of nature and sees a god or goddess behind every object and phenomenon of the external world. The following lines can be cited in this regard-

And haply the Queen –Moon is on her throne,

Cluster’d around by all her starry Fays;

The Greeks had a zest for life in nature and loved the activities of such life; but they also loved the serenity and quiet of pastoral life. Both these aspects are combined vividly in the Ode on a Grecian Urn. For example, the scenario of the Bacchanalian procession consisting of the flute players, the youth singing under the tree, and the lover about to kiss represent the joy of youth and its energy. On the other hand, the picture of the lowing heifer being led to the sacrificial altar represents the charm of a serene and quiet life. In fact, in his worship of Beauty, Keats justifies the remark of Shelley that he was a Greek.

The Hellenic spirit was re-incarnated in Keats. Through his contact with Greek sculptures, he imbibed, as if by instinct, the classical discipline, simplicity and austerity. He was basically a romantic, and in the beginning his art is characterized by the romantic excess. But at times, he could achieve the clearness of outline, the directness and restraint and the austerity and finish of the classics. As Matthew Arnold points out, the last three lines of the Ode on a Grecian Urn, ‘is as Greek as anything from Homer or Theocritus’. Similarly the stanza of this Ode beginning, ‘Who are those coming to the sacrifice’ has been described as having ‘the clear radiance of Greek style’.

In his description, Keats often achieves not only clarity, directness and simplicity, but also the happy combination of movement with repose which characterizes Greek art. For example, in the Ode on Melancholy we get;

‘Beauty that must die

And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips bidding adieu’

Keats also has the passion for perfection of the Greeks. He has the epigrammatic terseness and brevity of the Greeks. Phrases like ‘drowsy numbness’, ‘leaden-eyed despair’, ‘leaf-fringed legends’, ‘cold pastoral, ‘wakeful anguish of the soul’ etc bear enough testimony to this. The opening two lines of the Ode on a Grecian Urn have even been called by Rossetti as the ‘Pillars of Hercules of the human language’.

However, this Greek note in Keats’ poetry should not be exaggerated. He surely has the romantic melancholy, romantic exuberance and the love of colour and pageantry of the romantics. As a matter of fact, he got his knowledge of Greek mythology and literature through the study of the Elizabethans and in the process also imbibed their romanticism. In his poetry, we find a rare combination of classicism with romanticism. As Legoius and Cazamian put it, ‘ Keats affects the rare union of classical discipline, guided by the examples and precepts of the ancients, with the more intrinsically precious matter, which the artist finds in romanticism’. We may also add that he is not always content with the enjoyment merely of the beauty of form. He often tries to penetrate to the real significance and truth which may lie at the back of formal beauty.


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  6. Keats' Hellenism is probably more difficult than what most people understand. Good attempt, nevertheless.

    1. Keats is one of the most admired of English poets, perhaps the greatest after Shakespeare.

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