Paradoxical life

Two sides of the same coin 

The Keats scholar, Jack Stillinger, has summed up the ways in which Keats’ poetry responds to life’s paradoxes, as follows:

Under the richly sensuous surface, we find Keats' characteristic presentation of all experience as a tangle of inseparable but irreconcilable opposites. He finds melancholy in delight and pleasure in pain; he feels the highest intensity of love as an approximation to death; he inclines equally towards a life of indolence and 'sensation' and toward a life of thought; he is aware both of the attraction of an imaginative dream world without 'disagreeables' and the remorseless pressure of the actual; he aspires at the same time to aesthetic detachment and to social responsibility.

For Keats, pleasure and pain, joy and sorrow, happiness and melancholy, life and death are two sides of the same coin and are inextricably linked.

In a letter to his brother George and sister-in-law Georgiana (in May of 1819), Keats wrote:

Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an Intelligence and make it a soul?

In a world without pain, pleasure could never be experienced fully and so it is not surprising that Keats’ poems are full of this apparent paradox.

The Odes

In the Ode to Autumn personified Nature is seen as abundant but unconscious: humans alone can understand the significance of all this profusion; only they can lament the passing of the year at the same time as looking forward to the future rebirth and renewal. As so often in Keats, there is a fusion of joy in present beauty and also pain, as the poet serenely contemplates the transience of everything in nature.

In the Ode on a Grecian Urn Keats dwells on the pleasure and pain of art. In stanza 4 the beautiful procession is made permanent by the artist’s skill, so the people cannot return to a town now made eternally desolate by their absence. The image also reminds us that the real people who inspired the image are now dead in the remote past. In the very act of art transfixing things, seeming to make them eternal, it also reminds us that we have to live in a world of inevitable decay.

Bright Star!

In Bright Star! Would I as Steadfast as Thou, the star personifies a quiet and universal fixedness, the limitations of which are implied even as the star itself is praised. It may be unchangingly lovely but it has a ‘lone splendour’, whereas the poem also celebrates the lovers’ union. As so often in Keats’ poems, there is a tension between what is ‘still steadfast, still unchangeable’ and the restlessness of romantic passion. The permanent and the eternal may constitute an ideal but Keats is also aware that to attain such a state is impossible. The human heart can never be tranquil like the star, for human emotions know the conflict of joy and pain. Ultimately desire and death are inseparable. Humans may desire the steadfastness of the stars only in a paradoxical ’sweet unrest’, an ecstasy of passion both intense and annihilating, a kind of ‘swoon to death’, fulfilling but inhumanly ‘unchangeable’.

The Eve of St Agnes

The Eve of St Agnes celebrates human imagination and the warmth of love over cold piety and hatred. It also develops familiar Keats’ oppositions such as art/reality, and dream/awakening. The poem celebrates the idea of enchantment – as if waking life needs some degree of magic or fantasy if it is to be humanly fulfilling.

To Fanny

To Fanny is another poem that contains confused, conflicting and paradoxical emotions. Keats is overwhelmed with love for Fanny - and yet he fears that the intensity of this love threatens to displace his poetic ambitions.

La Belle Dame Sans Merci

In La Belle Dame Sans Merci Keats confronts the destructive power of love. In this narrative, evil and beauty, love and pain are not so much balanced as interwoven in ways which defy understanding. The young poet was acutely aware that the more we try to imagine beauty, the more painful our world may seem. This deepens our need for art, which in turn opens us up to more pain.

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