The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XII. The Romantic Revival.

IV. Keats

§ 8. Odes

It is natural to contrast with these light and sparkling improvisations the rich and concentrated style—“loaded with gold in every rift”—and the intricate interwoven harmonies of the majority of the contemporary odes. But, most of these were impromptus, too, born of the same sudden inspiration, and their crowded felicities were not studiously inlaid, but of the vital essence of the speech. A May morning, an autumn afternoon, a nightingale’s song in a Hampstead garden, a mood of dreamy relaxation after sleep—from intense, almost momentary, experiences like these sprang poems which, beyond anything else in Keats, touch a universal note. In the earliest of these, the fragmentary Ode to Maia (May, 1818), the recent singer of Endymion breathes yet another lyric prayer to the old divinities of antique Greece, seeking the “old vigour” of its bards, and, yet more, their noble simplicity, “content” to make “great verse” for few hearers. The author of the preface to Endymion already possessed that temper; and, if he ever won the pellucid purity of Greek speech, it was in these lines. The other odes belonged to the spring of 1819, save Autumn, the latest, written in September. Psyche, almost the last of the group, was, he tells his brother George, “the first and only one with which I have taken even moderate pains.” Yet this, like Indolence, falls somewhat short of the flawless art of the rest. In both, he is, at moments, luxuriant and unstrung like his earlier self. Psyche, “loveliest vision far” of faded Olympus, becomes now, like Maia, a living symbol of the beauty he worships, and he will be the priest of her sanctuary. The Miltonic reminiscences are palpable, and by no means confined to an incidental phrase or image. The passing of the gods of Greece, moving, in spite of himself, to the poet of the Nativity Ode, Keats mourned more naively than Schiller had done twenty years before; then, by a beautiful, perhaps “illogical,” transition, lament passes into a rapturous hymn to the deathless Psyche whose living temple was the poet’s mind. Indolence commemorates a mood, as genuine, indeed, but less nearly allied to the creative springs of Keats’s genius. Love and ambition and poetry itself appear as ghostly or masque-like figures on a “dreamy urn”; for them he builds no sanctuary, but turns away from their lure to the honied joys of sense—the sweetness of “drowsy noons,” his “head cool-bedded in the flowery grass.”

In the nearly contemporary Ode on a Grecian Urn, the symbolism of the urn-figures became far more vital. From the drowsed intoxication of the senses, he rises to a glorious clear-eyed apprehension of the spiritual eternity which art, with its “unheard melodies,” affords. The three consummate central stanzas have themselves the impassioned serenity of great sculpture. Only less noble are the daring and splendid imagery of the opening, and the immortal paradox of the close. “Their lips touched not, but had not bade adieu,” Keats later said of the sleeping lovers in Psyche, recalling, perhaps, with the carved figures of the Grecian Urn, the wistful joy of Melancholy. In both these great odes, however, the words imply a more spiritual and complex passion than the naïve bliss of Psyche and Cupid. They meant a stranger and rarer insight into the springs of both joy and sorrow than was thus conveyed. The worship of beauty is the clue to everything in Keats; and, as he came to feel that an experience into which no sadness enters belongs to an inferior order of beauty, so he found the most soul-searching sorrow “in the very Temple of Delight.” But the emotional poise is other than in the Grecian Urn: there, he contemplates the passing of “breathing human beauty” from the serene heights of eternal art; here, it fills him with a poignant, yet subtly Epicurean, sadness. Melancholy is thus nearer to the mood of Indolence, and, like it, suffers from some resurgence of the earlier Keats; but the closing lines are of consummate quality. In the Ode to a Nightingale, the work of a morning in his friend Brown’s Hampstead garden, the poignant sense of life as it is, “where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,” and the reaching out to a visionary refuge—the enchanted world created by the bird’s song—are present together, but with changing dominance, the mood’s ecstatic self-abandonment being shattered, at its very acme, by the knell-like “forlorn,” which “tolls” him back to his “sole self.”

In Autumn, finally, written after an interval of some months, the sense that beauty, though not without some glorious compensation, perishes, which, in varying degrees, dominates these three odes, yields to a serene and joyous contemplation of beauty itself. The “season of mellow fruitfulness” wakens no romantic vision, no romantic longing, like the nightingale’s song; it satisfies all senses, but enthralls and intoxicates none; everything breathes contented fulfilment without satiety, and beauty, too, is fulfilled and complete. Shelley, whose yet greater ode was written a few weeks later, gloried in the “breath of autumn’s being”—the wild west wind as the forerunner and “creator” of spring. Keats feels here no need either of prophecy or of retrospect. If, for a moment, he asks, “Where are the songs of spring?” it is only to reply, “Think not of them, thou hast thy music too.” This is the secret of his strength, if, also, of his limitation—to be able to take the beauty of the present moment so completely into his heart that it seems an eternal possession.