Keats as a Writer of Odes

Keats as a Writer of Odes

What is an Ode?

An ode is a rhymed lyric, often in form of an address, generally dignified or exalted in subject, feeling and style. It is a strain of enthusiastic and exalted lyrical verse directed to a fixed purpose, and dealing progressively with one dignified theme. It is more elaborate than a lyric both in form and language.

Keats’ Odes

Keats is one of the greatest masters of this form of poetry. In fact, his Odes are decidedly the best of his poetry. It is in his odes that Keats achieves that maturity, that ripeness, that sureness of touch, that mastery of form, which has made many a critic see in him the promise of another Shakespeare. His odes show him to be a consultimate artist and a great craftsman. It is in them that he achieves his ideal and touches the highest point of his career. Into them he put his most consummate work, and they stand out, “not more by poignancy of feeling than by the fixedness of their meditative texture.” The poet Bridges said of them. “Had Keats left us only the odes, his rank among the Poets would not be lower than it is.

A brief review of his Odes-

To a Nightingale and To a Grecian Urn-have a common starting point-a mood of deep despondency. The poet is oppressed by the fact that beauty perishes and passion cloys. The transient nature of life, its flux, haunts him. In the first of these poems he finds a refuge in the magic of Romance, while in the second (Urn) he seeks consolation in the permanence that art gives to life. Ode to Melancholy, too, is oppressed with the feeling that is short-lived. In ode to Psyche the poet returns to freedom of the pagan world in a half playful mood. In To Autumn we, find a rich, mellow contentment. The poet sees beauty in Autumn-its sights and sounds. There is no regret for spring no foreboding of winter.

The common characteristics of his odes-

In all these odes there is a note of sadness, of melancholy, if regret, of wistful contemplation, so that Carrod calls them odec elegies. They have in them the joy of life, the love for beauty. But they also have, along with this love of life, the feeling, that life is fleeting and joy short lived. This feeling of the fugitiveness of life beauty, love and joy haunts Keats’ poetry, and especially his odes. The mutuability of life and the transience of pleasure weight upon the poet’s mind in the odes as they do in his beautiful sonnet “when I how fears…” All of these beautiful poems are reflective in spirit- there is in them no rhetoric. The poet broods in them-softly and gently.

The Structure of Keats’ Odes-

Keats experimented with both the Petrarchan Miltonic and Shakespearian forms of sonnets and structurally his odes are the result of these experiments. They are a variation on the Shakespearean sonnet.

Keats, odes combine in them the peculiar excellences of the form with absolute freedom from its characteristic draw backs which disfigure the odes of Dryden, Gray, Collins, Wordsworth, Coleridge, even of Shelley. They are, as they should be, always inform of an invocation. The language is singularly exalted and dignified in tone, and they are long enough to be distinguished from lyric proper. The evolution of though in them is always measured, distinct and logical. They are distinguished by their poignancy of feeling, their richly meditative texture, their solemn splendor of imagery, and their flawless workmanship. They are remarkable for their Hellenic clarity, their chiseled beauty. They surprise us with their brooding sweetness, their long drawn out melody and their glorious independence. No wonder that Prof. Selin-court goes in raptures and says, ‘In the odes he has no master; and their indeniable beauty is so direct and so distinctive an effluence of his soul that he can have no disciple.”

All the Odes of Keats are modern; one or two are irregular and intricate, but the rest and the best of them are regular and comparatively simple. He has attempted no classical variety of the ode, Pindaric or Horatian. His odes are not choric but purely personal and subjective. They are the most harmonious and the riches expression of the full current of his soul, his keen sense of beauty of nature and the significance of art and mythology, his impassioned recognition of the fundamental mystery of beauty, fleeting yet permanent, his love of permanence, his all-embracing sensuousness, his profound sense of the mutability of life and his almost Shakespearean receptivity of openness of mind.

The note of sadness sound through all his odes and the vivid joy, the ideal permanence of art, the glamour of romance are contrasted with the mutability of life and the transience of pleasure-

Joy whose hand is ever at his lips,

Bidding adieu

‘She cannot die, though thou hast not thy bliss

For ever wilt thou love and she be fair’

“Where beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes

Or new love pine at them beyond tomorrow”

are thrilled with the aching hopelessness of Keats’ love for Fanny Browne. As Murry remarks “The hopelessness of Keats’ love for Fanny is the heart-knowledge that inspires and colours his odes.”

His odes are not merely decorative and descriptive poems as parts of them appear to be; nor yet poems of luxurious self-abandonment, not yet mere manipulation of feelings. The deep conflict from which they spring is both emotional and intellectual; yet they proceed solely by the methods peculiar to poetry, not by the aid of speculative intelligence. They are in fact, the perfect examples of Negative Capability, ‘when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.’ According to Brooke, ‘they are above criticism, pure gold of poetry, virgin gold.’

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