An essay by Michael D’Itri
For Prof. Hanford Woods’ Literary Genres class
Mental Sensations: An Analysis of Keats’s Odes
The senses can be the most wonderful catalyst for our notions of art, nature and mythology. In 1819, six odes were written by the English Romantic poet John Keats, using rich imagery to evoke these ideas within the mind of the reader. The intoxication of Poetry comes to Keats through the world of the senses. This poetry, however, remains trapped within the confines of the artist’s mind. This thesis will be developed through a series of excerpts and analyses of five of his renowned odes: “Ode on Indolence” and “Ode on Melancholy” reveal and illustrate the curse of the poet; “To Autumn” more clearly demonstrates the poet’s movement from the senses to the mind, delving into the poet’s personification of the natural world as an eternal goddess; and “Ode to a Nightingale” and “Ode to Psyche” expose and detail the essential characteristic of poetic inspiration for Keats: that it is a cerebral event.
Although the course of this essay may not follow the chronological order of the odes, which is often disputed amongst literary scholars, it serves a thematic narrative to view the odes in the order that follows. Keats’s intoxication of Poetry can be illuminated if we begin by observing his “Ode on Indolence”. Poetry, personified as Poesy, is described as she “whom [Keats] love[s] more, the more of blame / is heap’d upon her, maiden most unmeek” (28-29). This reveals his admiration and respect for Poetry, as opposed to the other two figures in “Indolence”, who are described less adoringly. Love is, rather simply, a fair woman, while Ambition is pale and weary. The fact that Keats later refers to Poesy as his “demon” also demonstrates his bittersweet notions of poetry as a guiding force in life as well as a fatal attraction (30). It is a ‘curse’ that he seems unable to rid himself of.
In “Ode on Melancholy”, this curse is illustrated using Roman mythology, which Keats often alludes to throughout the odes. The speaker warns one suffering from melancholy to not “be kissed / by nightshade, ruby grape of Proserpine” (3-4). Proserpine, or Persephone in Greek mythology, was the goddess of spring and daughter of Ceres, the Olympian goddess of the harvest and fertility (“Persephone”). According to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Proserpine was kidnapped by Pluto, god of the Underworld, who saw her in a grove and grew mad with lust (V. 386-400). Ceres killed off all the crops of humanity and spread famine until her daughter would return (V. 464-483). Jupiter, king of the gods, promised she could return if she had not eaten anything while in the Underworld. Seeing as she had been tempted to eat some pomegranate seeds, Proserpine was cursed to remain in the Underworld for four months every year, during which Ceres would prevent the growing of crops (V. 535-551). It can be argued that this curse or “intoxication” is reminiscent of the affliction Keats feels from poetry. Just as she must remain in the Underworld, Keats must continue in his poetry. The fact that Proserpine experienced and tasted the cause of her curse also emphasizes the notions that poetry originates from the senses for Keats. The speaker in “Melancholy” warns those who are suffering from melancholy not to poison themselves, as Proserpine and Keats have, but to enjoy the emotions and experiences of the mind which has been gained through the senses.
The image of ingesting and experiencing reoccurs in “To Autumn”, in which the season of Autumn is personified as a goddess that fills up the objects of nature with a sort of ripeness or fulfillment. She is described as having her “hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind, / or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep, / drowsed with the fume of poppies…” (15-17). Here, Nature is intoxicated by the scent of poppies, which is an obvious allusion to opium. Britain was introduced to the opium trade in the 18th century and soon became one of the leaders in opium cultivation (“Opium Trade”). Opium was also popular amongst literary circles (Berridge), and so Keats may have consumed opium at some point in his life. Autumn, like Proserpine, takes part in pleasures of the world of the senses; however the former is also the source of Keats’s poetry. By extension, Keats’s poetry can thus be seen as deriving from the senses on many levels; his muse is Nature, who herself indulges in the pleasures of Nature.
In “Ode to a Nightingale”, the world of the senses is somewhat rejected; the speaker wishes to leave behind sight, taste, smell and touch for the sound of the nightingale’s melody (31-33). The song of the nightingale is an immortal and inspirational tune (61-62), which can be a metaphor for how Keats thinks about art; it is both eternal and able to make things eternal, however this is seen more clearly in “Ode on a Grecian Urn”. In the second stanza of “Nightingale”, the speaker wishes to taste wine “with beaded bubbles winking at the brim, / and purple-stained mouth; / that [he] might dink, and leave the world unseen” (17-19). Alcohol, here, is the inspiration for his poetry and brings him closer to the song of the nightingale (20). The use of the word “stained” to describe his mouth also holds connotations of pleasure and gluttony (18). This description of sensual pleasures as a “staining” experience foreshadows the dismissal of the senses in the fourth stanza, in which the speaker wishes to reach the nightingale’s song, “not charioted by Bacchus and his pards, but on the viewless wings of Poesy” (32-33). Although the senses are undoubtedly linked to Keats’s poetry, his art ultimately lies in the abstract dimensions of his own mind.
This abstraction is most evident in “Ode to Psyche”, in which Keats literally transforms his own mind into a temple for the contents of his poetry’s narrative. “Psyche” imagines the goddess lying in a bed of grass next to her lover Cupid, who is referred to as Love (20-21). In the third stanza, the speaker observes and laments the fact that Psyche seems to have no shrine or altar to worship her, no choir to sing for her, no incense burnt in her name and no oracles to prophesy through her (28-34). In the final stanza, the speaker takes it upon himself to be her “priest, and build a fane / in some untrodden region of [his] mind, / where branched thoughts . . . shall murmur in the wind” (50-52). The poet acknowledges that the prime seat of poetry should be in the mind; the imagination is, after all, what poetry fundamentally requires. This “rosy sanctuary [will be dressed] / with the wreath’d trellis of a working brain … / and a bright torch…to let the warm Love in” (59-67). Here, the poet himself is submitted into the narrative of Cupid and Psyche; Cupid will enter the mind of the poet, attracted by Psyche. In simpler terms, Psyche, or Keats’s poetry in general, literally and metaphorically rest in his own brain, housed by the ‘temple’ that he has created in order to enter and become Poetry itself.
“Ode to Psyche” provides an example of the way in which poetry is ultimately a mental event for Keats. This mentality can be first observed in “Ode to a Nightingale”, which initially demonstrates how the senses are linked to poetry, but concludes with focus being placed on the mind. “To Autumn” makes the senses explicit as the starting point of Keats’s poetry and the intoxication of the poet as necessarily having to write poetry is illustrated through images from Roman mythology in “Ode on Melancholy”. The “Ode on Indolence”, however, personifies poetry into a goddess, Poesy, in order to speak directly to the figure that, fortunately for us, plagued Keats all throughout his life.
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