Celebration of the five senses

Sensory appreciation

Many of Keats’ poems appeal richly to the senses. Indeed there are no half measures when it comes to language which can stimulate the reader’s inner sight, hearing, taste, touch and smell. Keats stated in a letter to John Taylor in 1818 that a poem should

surprise by a fine excess, and not by Singularity.

For Keats, the intensity of the experience lies in the poet’s ability to participate in things existing outside himself. Keats wrote about his own ability to watch a sparrow outside his window and

to take part in its existence and pick about the gravel

In a letter to his brothers George and Tom (1817), he described his concept of negative capability – a state of mind he believed distinguished great writers such as Shakespeare. He defined this concept as:

when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.

In other words a poet had to be intensely receptive to the world around him. By engaging through his senses with a particular object or moment, Keats rises above the ordinary to reveal an underlying meaning with which the reader can identify. His use of sensuous language therefore not only brings his world vividly into his reader’s imagination but also develops a mood of intellectual inquiry that moves beyond the self-absorption of some earlier romantic writing.

To Autumn illustration by W J NeatbyOde to Autumn

Many of Keats’ poems are multi-sensory. Take, for instance, the Ode to Autumn. The first stanza is primarily visual. Keats knows that sight is our pre-eminent sensory experience and so the first stanza creates the poem’s setting. But before its close, he dwells on sensation (touch): the warmth of the day, the ‘clammy’ cells. This continues in the second stanza with mention of the ‘soft-lifted’ hair. The alliteration of ‘winnowing wind’ creates a vividly onomatopoeic effect allowing the reader to both see and feel the wind.

The second stanza moves us back to the visual experience of autumn, but also engages our sense of smell with the ‘fume’ of poppies. In the third stanza Keats’ verse explodes with aural imagery as the countryside he depicts is filled with sound: the ‘wailful’ choirs of mourning gnats, the lambs’ ‘loud’ bleating, the singing of the crickets, the ‘treble-soft’ whistles of the redbreast as the ‘swallows twitter’. This cluster of aural imagery, beginning with the wailful choirs and mourning gnats, contributes powerfully to a sense of autumnal loss that could not have been communicated solely through visual imagery.

Ode to a Nightingale

In stanza 5 of Ode to a Nightingale the listing of natural elements such as ‘grass’, ‘thicket’, ‘fruit-tree’, ‘white hawthorn’, ‘eglantine’, ‘violets’ and ‘musk-rose’ helps to create a strong sense of the physical environment. Adjectives such as ‘soft’, ‘embalmed’, ‘seasonable’, ‘dewy’ and ‘murmurous’ then suggest a delicacy that is appropriate for the poet’s vision.

Keats allows us to hear the nightingale’s song in the music of his verse: the richness of the assonance (‘embalmed darkness’; ‘coming musk’) and the recurring long vowel sounds (‘flowers’/’boughs’, ‘feet’/’seasonable’, ‘fading’/’May’). As darkness renders the sense of sight ineffective, the sense of hearing and the power of the imagination take precedence.

The Eve of St Agnes

Similar techniques can be found in a very different poem, The Eve of St Agnes, in which the passionate love of Madeline and Porphyro is set against the cold, darkness and negativity of the beginning of the poem. When Porphyro enters Madeline’s bedroom, the superstitious beliefs surrounding this night of the year are transformed into a fully sexual encounter, as suggested by the richly sensuous detail of stanza 24 with its garlands of fruits and flowers. The windows are stained with ‘splendid dyes’ like the ‘deep-damask’d wings’ of the moth. This marks the progress from dream to fulfilment, marked by Madeline’s waking to find the lover of her sleeping fantasies embodied by the actual presence of Porphyro.

Ecstasy and perfection

In short, throughout his work Keats uses rich sensuous language as the medium through which the physical sensation of ecstasy can be communicated, so that readers can experience imaginatively the perfection of the moment he describes.

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