Lines to Fanny: Imagery, symbolism and themes

Imagery and symbolism in Lines to Fanny

The poetic muse

In line 11 Keats refers to his muse, or his source of inspiration. In the past the poet feels he was free to direct it; now he feels that, although Fanny is his 'muse' (and indeed the inspirer of this poem), his creative powers are in danger of being entirely consumed by thoughts of her to the exclusion of all else. 

Taking flight

The metaphor Keats uses to depict poetic inspiration is largely drawn from the imagery of bird and flight: ‘My muse had wings’, ‘What sea-bird o’er the sea’. He refers to regaining his poetic energy and focus as getting ‘anew / Those moulted feathers…’.

The religion of love

When he considers whether he should seek inspiration in alcohol, Keats uses religious imagery to reject the idea. He calls it ‘A heresy and schism, / Foisted into the canon law of love’, referring to the bitter wrangles that almost destroyed the witness of the church at various points in its history.

Classical allusions

In lines 32-43 Keats refers to the challenges that his brother George was facing in America. For a nation renowned for its great natural wealth, ironically its environment is depicted by Keats as one of natural hostility, even destructive of the impulse for life. Keats uses imagery drawn from the pastoral poetry of Virgil and Theocritus, referring to zephyrs (or rather their absence), dryads and ‘weedy-haired gods’. In line 35 the image of urns refers to those depicted in classical art and literature as the source of rivers or streams.
However, in America the guardian spirits of landscape are frightened, gentle winds are turned into 'scourging rods', rivers spring from ‘sordid’ sources. For Keats the classical landscape symbolises an ideal environment. It is far distant from the harshly alien landscape of America, which Keats appears to regard as the worst possible environment for the creative life. It is like a dungeon and a place that produces only wreckage.

Investigating imagery and symbolism in Lines to Fanny

  • To what use does Keats put the traditional image of the ‘muse’ in this poem?
  • What is Keats conveying when he draws on imagery of birds and flight when writing about poetic inspiration?
  • Why do you think Keats suddenly invokes religious imagery?
  • Explore the images Keats uses to convey his feelings about America. 
    • How is its alien nature suggested?
  • Urns are important symbols for Keats. What role do they play in this poem?

Themes of Lines to Fanny

Escaping - and embracing - love

The poem is an expression of confused and conflicting emotions. Keats is overwhelmed by love for Fanny, and yet he fears that the intensity of this love threatens to displace his poetic ambitions. The absent Fanny is both a source of inspiration as well as the woman from whom the poet seems, paradoxically, to be running away. However, he seems to achieve integration by accepting inspiration provided by the ‘new dawning light’ of love. The power of love is overwhelming and the poet is inextricably bound to it, unable to erase passion from either his conscious or his unconscious mind.

The vision which inspires

Another theme is that of vision/dream versus reality. The poet’s ability to remember his lover does not depend on actual physical sight. Instead it is ‘enough’ to conjure up mental images of her. Such is the intensity of his desire for her that his mind becomes a mirror of what is not actually there.
This vision inspires the poem. Although the focus is principally on Fanny, Keats also refers to another muse and does so using religious imagery, as if Fanny is not simply a woman but also the archetypal inspirational female.

Investigating themes in Lines to Fanny

  • How successful do you think Keats is at conveying the idea that Fanny is both the source of his inspiration and the distraction from whom he should be running away?
  • Explore the theme of dream/vision versus reality. Where else would you find this theme amongst Keats’ poems?
  • How important is the theme of love in this poem? 
    • Could it be the central theme?
  • What exactly do you think Keats means by poetic inspiration? 
    • How does Keats present Fanny as his muse?
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