Adoration of the ancient world

Classicism venerated

Keats was typical of the artists and thinkers of his age in his veneration for the intellectual and artistic achievement of Ancient Greece and Rome. The Classical world permeated almost every aspect of life, from political institutions and philosophical enquiry, to scientific method and the basic forms of architecture. The classics of Latin literature, such as Virgil’s Aeneid, the Odes of Horace and Ovid’s Metamorphoses, were standard texts at school and university for all those privileged to have an education.

Keats at school

Keats immersed himself in the great texts of the ancient world from a very early age. Cowden Clarke wrote about the breadth and depth of his friend Keats’ reading whilst at school. He recalled Keats’ fondness for history books, as well as novels and travel stories. However, the books:

that were his constant recurrent sources of attraction were Tooke’s Pantheon, Lemprière’s Classical Dictionary, which he appeared to learn, and Spence’sPolymetis. This was the store whence he acquired his intimacy with the Greek mythology.

Whilst at school Keats translated most of Virgil’s Aeneid.

The texts Keats started to encounter as a schoolboy opened up a world of imaginative richness that remained an essential influence on him for the rest of his life. Later he wrote about the ‘realms of gold’ he found in these books, not simply a world of escapism but a source of beauty that enriched the human experience and enlarged imaginative sympathy.

Chapman’s Homer

In October 1816 Cowden Clarke invited Keats to his rooms in Clerkenwell to show him a volume which was being passed round the Hunt circle. This was a 1616 folio edition of George Chapman’s translation of Homer. The two friends were absorbed by it and read it through the night. When Keats got home he immediately started to compose his sonnet On first looking into Chapman’s Homer. Keats posted it as soon as it was finished and it reached Clarke at 10.00am.

This response to the power and imaginative vision of another poet was Keats’ greatest poem so far; its technique, subject matter and ideas are typical of so much of the poetry that followed – as well as making it one of the finest of all nineteenth century sonnets. Poetry is here seen as an empire of the mind, something which sets free the imagination and which is, in fact, an imaginative conquest. The dominant images are those of travel and discovery: ‘realms of gold’, ‘states and kingdoms’, ‘islands’, ‘new planet’, ‘the Pacific’.

The poem marked a turning-point in Keats’ development. The full power of the god Apollo was revealed to him and there can be no doubt that Keats had found his literary vocation. He had discovered not only Chapman’s Homer but also his true poetic self.

Johann Winckelmann and the Elgin Marbles

Winckelmann (1717-1768) was an influential German art historian who wanted to recreate the Greek spirit and for art to reflect the classical ideals of noble simplicity and calm grandeur. An English translation of his work was published in 1765 called Reflections on the Painting and Sculpture of Greece. This interest in Greek art was intensified by the arrival of the Elgin Marbles in London in 1816.

Keats wrote his sonnet, On First Seeing the Elgin Marbles, in March 1817 after seeing the Marbles in the British Museum. It demonstrates just how profound their effect was on the young poet.

As in so much of his poetry, Keats is fascinated and disturbed by the fact that art can have such sharply contrasting effects: the beauty inspires and moves, but it also reminds him that everything is subject to change – and he feels his own mortality especially keenly when confronted by them, conscious that their beauty will remain long after his death.

The poem is a reflection on the pleasures and the pains of human creativity. The Marbles represent the best of human imagination. They are ‘glories of the brain’ that have endured through time - yet even they are subject to the wasting effects of time, displacement and decay.

The Marbles are emblems of a culture to which Keats (and many of his friends in the Leigh Hunt circle) thought it was noble to aspire. They believed that the infusion of such art works from Ancient Greece could only strengthen and enrich British culture.

Elgin Marbles, section of friezeA world of myth

Several of Keats’ longer poems, such as The Fall of Hyperion or Lamia, often take place in a mythical world not unlike that of classical antiquity. He borrowed figures from ancient mythology to populate poems, such as Ode to Psyche and the ode On a Grecian Urn. The latter was an ancient object whose apparent permanence and solidity contrasts with the fleeting, temporary nature of life. The urn is a ‘still unravished bride of quietness’: despite the many centuries that have elapsed since it was made, it remains intact, unravished as a bride and undamaged as an art object. 

In classical art, Keats saw the possibility of permanent artistic achievement: if an urn was still able to move and inspire several centuries after its creation, it was reasonable to suppose that a poem or artistic object from Keats’ time might continue to speak to readers or observers long after the brief lives of their creators.

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