The classic and medieval influence in Keats
Sharkey, Kathleen Frances
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Keats's letter to his brother Tom, dated May 1818, provides a key to an understanding of the prevailing interests which dominate his poetry. He wrote, "I know not how it is the Clouds, the Sky, the Houses all seem anti-Grecian and anti-Charlemagnish." Keats thought in terms of imagery taken from the literature of ancient Greece and the lore of medieval romance, which enabled him to create graphic pictures in verse whereby he expressed beauty and emotion, or delineated an abstract thought concerning life and its meaning. He had a peculiar ability to recreate the life of the past, endowing it with movement, color, and feeling. The best of Keats's poetry will be found to have settings of Grecian antiquity or medieval influence. The Ode on a Grecian Urn and The Eve of St. Agnes are two of his most beloved poems; the first recalls the life of ancient days in Greece and impresses the reader with the transient quality of life and the sadness of lost splendor; the second recreates the life of a medieval castle with its gloom, superstition, and mystery. In many poems Keats fuses these two influences, using classic reference in tales of the Middle Ages, and infusing some of the qualities of medieval romance into poems with classical backgrounds or themes. Keats's interest in classical mythology began when he was in school, where he was often seen studying the classical dictionaries. Later this interest was developed by independent reading and study. His former tutor and friend, Cowden Clarke, was instrumental in fostering this interest in Keats by reading aloud with him passages from Chapman's Homer and by lending him books upon the history of ancient Greece. Another friend, Benjamin Robert Haydon, introduced Keats to another source of classical inspiration, namely art. Keats's picture work shows definitely the influence of his many visits to the British Museum where he studied the sculpture of ancient Greece. The Musée Napoleon, a collection of art objects taken by Napoleon during his conquests, was also a source of pictorial inspiration to Keats. Ovid, Virgil, and historical treatises, such as the Archaeologia Graeca of John Potter, provided Keats with most of his knowledge concerning Grecian history and mythology. Keats used classic lore in three ways. There are constant references to classic literature in almost all of his poems, even in those devoted to medieval subjects. They are never mere names brought into the poem as a mark of erudition, but glow with life and color to enhance the beauty or emotional significance of the verse. He also used classic material to form the background of certain poems, such as Lamia, Hyperion, and the great odes. In these poems Keats uses antiquity to create artistic settings and graphic imagery; the classic material, however, is artistry used to embellish and illustrate concretely Keats's philosophy or some emotional mood. In Lamia the abstract thought is the struggle in life between the intellect and sensuous delight; in Hyperion the law of universal change and progress is portrayed; in the Ode on a Grecian Urn the sadness of mutilating time is presented. Keats also used the mere outline of a myth which he developed and endowed with sensation, using it as the central theme of a poem. Endymion and the Ode to Psyche are based on myths that were little known in antiquity. The mere recreation of an ancient era, however, in these poems is not Keats's primary concern; he uses the mythology to express in vivid imagery philosophical ideas and emotion. Endymion is a delineation of the poet's search for ideal beauty; the Ode to Psyche expresses a mood of delicate whimsey concerning the loneliness of a lovely goddess. Keats quite transformed the myths that he used. He endowed the figures with life and told their exploits in a manner to play upon every sense of the reader--sight, hearing, taste, smell, and feeling. Most of his poems are endowed with an atmosphere of haunting sadness. Under the influence of Keats's romantic mind the myths became softened and more beautiful. His gods and goddesses are soft, gentle, yielding, not cruel, avenging, determined, as in the original myths. Keats omits crude, ruthless incidents told in ancient mythology, choosing his material so that he makes the life of ancient Greece seem an era of ideal beauty, happiness, and love. In addition Keats uses elements of medieval romance to endow his classic tales with magic, wonder, and pensive thought. Keats also changed his mythical figures by giving them personality. They act and feel as individuals, not as type characters. Keats's interest in medieval romance also began early in his life. His friend, Cowden Clarke, interested Keats in this literature, by lending him a copy of Spenser's Epithalamion and by reading passages from Spenser aloud to Keats. Another friend, Charles Brown, averred that it was through the inspiration of Spenser's Faerie Queene^(1) that Keats began to write verse. Spenser's verse is smooth and musical and had a beneficial influence upon Keats's style. Keats also read Chaucer and Shakespeare. In fact he came to regard Shakespeare as a sort of guardian angel presiding over his career. Keats continued his interest in Shakespeare all his life, becoming at one time a dramatic critic of Shakespearean performances. Keats used the stories of medieval romance to form the theme of poems which vividly recall the life of the Middle Ages. These poems are The Eve of St.Agnes, the fragment The Eve of St. Mark, Isabella, and Belle Dame Sans Merci. Keats's historical data concerning the Middle Ages is not authentic. For example, the evenings before a religious festival were usually spent in riotous rejoicing, not in attending religious services. The atmosphere and feeling of the poems, however, are quite medieval. Keats recreates a sense of weirdness and enchantment; he makes old superstitions relive, imparting the same sense of supernatural wonder which the persons of that age must have felt, Keats softened the images that he culled from medieval literature. His knights are gentle, not hardy, ruthless warriors. Even the cruel brothers of Isabella, although they are murderers, talk in terms of "dewy rosary" and "eglantine", and overcome with remorse go into voluntary exile. The influence of medieval romance is found in Keats's poems based on classic mythology. This does not spoil the unity of the poems, but is felt in an enhanced atmosphere of enchantment, wonder, and heightened emotion. Endymion is a medieval lover, following the pattern of courtly love. Keats makes use of magic music in Endymion, Hyperion, and Lamia . He also uses spells. The nymph used strange "ayrops" to make her invisible, Lamia decreased the distance to her home by magic; her home wondrously appeared and disappeared. Keats also makes use of the dream motif, found so often in medieval romance. In classic poems he makes reference to such things as "faerie" happenings, "elves" and "fays". He described Hyperion as having "Druid locks". The manner in which Glaucus tore the scroll to pieces, scattered the fragments on the breeze, muttered to himself, and struck the air nine times with his wand, injects into a classic myth the atmosphere of a medieval charm. The feeling of mysterious wonder in creation found in the Hymn to Pan is Christian mysticism, not pagan rejoicing in the mere physical character of nature. The note of pensiveness pervading most of Keats's verse suggests medieval emotionalism rather than pagan stoicism. Keats's versification does not reflect the influence of classic antiquity. He used later verse patterns--the sonnet, ballad stanzas, Spenserian stanzas, and couplets with enjambment freely used in the manner of Chaucer rather than of the classicists. Some of Keats's versification was medieval in its pattern, that is his poetry which was based upon the Petrarchian sonnet or written in imitation of Chaucer's freely constructed heroic couplets. Keats's vocabulary included many words taken from the early English literature. The pattern of Keats's odes was not that of the Pindaric ode. He used the English stanzaic ode, which is flexible and free, not following a strict classical form. In fact, although images of ancient Greece and Rome crowd into the mind whenever the name of Keats is mentioned, he was not at all a classicist. He gave romanticised interpretations of life, using the ancient mythology for concrete imagery and beauty. The classicists believed in simplicity, clearness, and strict adherence to form. Keats's poetry is not clearly and simply told; in fact, it is often difficult to discover his meaning. He is never restrained in his expression; rather he errs at times in over-wrought emotionalism. His poetry was based upon imaginative intuition and not upon reason. Keats used the stories of old to create beauty, about which he wove his emotional response or philosophy of life. He softened and romanticised these crude old stories, endowing them with elements derived from medieval romance. The result was the creation of sheer beauty, glowing with sensuous delight, and bright with living thought, expressed in natural, melodious, sense-stirring verse. Keats is one of the best beloved poets of our age; the "melodious, full-throated ease" of his verse providing aesthetic and emotional satisfaction as well as cultural stimulation.
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