Sleep and Poetry: Imagery, symbolism and themes

Imagery and symbolism in Sleep and Poetry

Classical allusion

Keats uses much imagery from the classical past in the poem as a way of conveying his direct criticism of - or great admiration for - certain practices. As an example of the former, in lines 233-5 he describes poets whose themes ‘Are ugly clubs, the poets Polyphemes / Disturbing the sea.’ The lines mean that the poets are like superhumanly strong giants, but like the eyeless Polyphemus, they lack the ability to direct their energies with any focus or precision. 
Thus their ‘clubs’ (i.e. the themes they write about) only succeed in disturbing the grand sea (by which Keats could mean either poetry or life itself) rather than illuminating it. It is not entirely clear to whom Keats is referring. The Keats scholar E. de Selincourt thought he was referring to Byron here, whereas Leigh Hunt thought Keats was attacking Wordsworth and his circle. 

Symbols of excellence

When defining what poetry should be, Keats uses the poets he most admires as symbols of poetry’s true purpose and potential. His view is that poetry was at its greatest in the Elizabethan era and in the seventeenth century, the years which produced his beloved Spenser, Shakespeare and Milton. He then describes how this greatness was betrayed by the artificiality of the neo-classical poets. He ends by firmly stating that his own time is a ‘fairer season’ where poetry can flourish again.

Hindrances to true verse

In contrast to the linguistic grandeur with which he endows the power of the greatest poetry, he uses trivialising imagery to dismiss the work of the Augustans. Despite utilizing it in this poem, Keats dismisses the Augustan heroic couplet as a ‘rocking horse’ in l. 186. Here he echoes what Hazlitt had said in The Examiner of 20 August 1815: ‘Dr Johnson and Pope would have converted his vaulting Pegasus [i.e. Milton’s versification] into a rocking horse.’ 
Keats’ reference to Boileau in l. 206 is to the French poet and critic whose Art poétique was very influential in formulating neo-classical critical attitudes. Keats’ views were shared by many of his generation: the neoclassical Augustans had broken the grand tradition of English poetry and had been too much influenced by French taste. This comment carries considerable political weight, considering that Britain had been at war with France throughout Keats’ lifetime.

Investigating imagery and symbolism in Sleep and Poetry

  • Why do you think Keats uses so much imagery taken from the classical past? 
    • Examine the effect of one or two specific examples.
  • How do individual writers become symbols of what Keats admires about poetry?
  • Why does Keats dismiss the Augustan heroic couplet as a ‘rocking horse’?
  • What is Keats’ purpose in referring to Boileau?

Themes in Sleep and Poetry

This poem is the young Keats’ manifesto. He distinguishes poetry from mere sleep (or dream) because poetry engages with ‘the strife of human hearts’; it explores life’s sorrows as well as engaging with the joys of sensation. He hopes to be ‘accounted’ one of the ‘poet kings / Who simply tell the most heart-easing things.’
Flora and ZephyrKeats places himself within a tradition of poetic training which stretched back to classical times. Just as Virgil had established the poet’s career as beginning with pastoral poetry and ending with the epic, so Keats decides to do the same – just as English poets such as Spenser and Milton had done. In Sleep and Poetry, Keats begins with the realm ‘of Flora, and old Pan’ (l.102) and states that within ten years he will climb up to the level from which he can write poetry which explores ‘the agonies, the strife / Of human hearts (l. 124-5). By ‘Flora, and old Pan’ Keats means the carefree pastoral world, Flora being the Roman goddess of flowers and Pan the Greek god of pastures, woods and animal life.
Keats identifies himself with the Romantics, aligning himself with nature and attacking what he sees as the ‘foppery’ of neoclassicism. Keats states that he will begin his poetic education by immersing himself in nature in order to comprehend the human heart. Poetry has a serious purpose: it should ‘be a friend / To soothe the cares, and lift the thoughts of man.’ 
The poem concludes with the idea of a ‘brotherhood’ of shared enthusiasm for literature and all the intellectual, artistic and social pleasures to be found in his friend Leigh Hunt’s library. For Keats, Hunt’s circle of friends offered the ideal example of literature fused with liberal social attitudes and generous lifestyle. Keats asserts that a new poetry has begun: it is far from being merely decorative; it lies at the heart of what it means to be human and its roots lie in nature and myth.

Investigating themes in Sleep and Poetry

  • In what ways is this poem Keats’ poetic ‘manifesto? 
    • What does it reveal about his values as an imaginative artist? 
    • What does he see as the role and purpose of poetry within his society?
  • Why do you think Keats places so much stress on the traditional progression of the poet from pastoral to epic?
  • Explore the theme of nature in the poem.
  • Why is the continuity of classical myth an important theme?
  • To what extent is the idea of ‘brotherhood’ a central theme?
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