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The Mythological Attempt in John Keats’ Romanticism

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Although the Romantics are seen as breaking away from the classists and previous notions of idealism, Keats, however, amalgamated the very beginning ideas of the Greeks with the Romantic Philosophy. It is as if Keats united the two phenomenas- one of the past, and the other of his present.

The topic of my term paper is “The Mythological Attempt in Keats’ Romanticism.” Mythology is an untrue narrative that has been passed on generation after generation. It is a complex idea. Joe Campbell puts it in four contexts: ‘Metaphysical,’ ‘Cosmological,’ ‘Sociological,’ ‘Pedagogical.’ Chronologically speaking, firstly, it was a method to provide entertainment and wonderment to the people. Secondly, it was an attempt to discover the psychology of humans and make sense of one’s existence. Thirdly, it set standards for the humans to live with values. It was also an encouragement to live for the love and beauty around oneself. Lastly, it was a technique to provide models and ideals to the society. Keats has been immensely influenced by old mythologies. He understood their importance as “composed of societal fantasy which reflects impulse repression”.

Keats pursued the concept of negative capability i.e. “ …when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” Objectively speaking, mythology based on irrationality opened a gateway to uncertainty, while tapping into the infinite imagination of humans. Keats saw his concept in common with the Greek mythology therefore, incorporating it in his poetry.

Hsien Chuan Lin who wrote an analysis on the poem The Eve of St. Agnes by Keats as a myth writes, “myths are indispensable to human culture.” She quotes the anthropologist, Malinowski who says that myth, “…fill the universal needs of humans: social, moral, and psychological (Bidney 289).” Similarly, Keats’ main elements of poetry are ‘love’ and ‘beauty’. Hence, in order to represent these ideas he uses mythology. Lin proves this attempt of Keats to incorporate mythology in his poetry, by presenting the argument that components of ritual, dreams, magic and the creation of outlandish environment all contributes to irrationality- a phenomena prevalent in the Romantic Poetry. This shows not only that Keats referred to mythology in his poems, but also, tried to form a myth of his own. The narrative in The Eve of St. Agnes may seem typical to Classists, it should not be confused for classist opinion of virtue, instead it shows how man and woman’s love structures the harmony within the society. Lin adds, “It is the union of man and woman that composes the backbone of human society and stabilizes changes in the societal structure.” Another evidence of the mythological attempt is the presence of extraordinary human experience is through the role of imagination. Madeline dreams, following a certain prescription, to envision a union with Porphyro. “Willing suspension of disbelief,” creates myth, as put in words by Lin.

Similarly, Erin Sheley writes in her article Re-imagining Olympus: Keats and the Mythology of the Individual Consciousness that Keats with the help of three poetic techniques uses myth to discover the personal identity of human. The individuality- another phenomenon prevalent in the Romantics. For Sheley, the mythological attempt made by Keats was his way to encourage man to imagine by referencing to the myths that were already known to the world. He strived to take man back to the very beginning where creativity took roots. His end aim was only to connect the tangible with the intangible which might be what the Greeks tried to do through myths. Sheley writes, ‘For Keats, the self-exploration of a personal consciousness most closely approximates divinity, and such divinity depends upon interaction with the immediate, earthly space surrounding an individual.’ The three techniques that she recognizes in Keats’ poetry are as following: Use of ‘mythological sense’, ‘physical boundedness’, and ’embodied figures.’ Another reason for Keats to be attracted to mythology according to Sheley was the presence of using the ideal i.e.. God that in the the Greek myths had presence along the mortal man.

In the Keats’ poem Ode to a Nightingale, the title itself has myth present in it. Nightingale in Greek mythology is said to be Philomela, the princess of Athens, who was raped and mutilated by her sister’ husband. Whilst, Philomela and her sister, Procne, tried to avenge the rapist, they have to run for their lives. They pray to god for their protection, thus he transforms Philomela to a nightingale and Procne Proven to a Swoon. Therefore, nightingale is symbolized as an escapist from death. It is known to be carefree bird with no worries of life and death. Keats uses the song of this bird to be beautiful enough to throw him into his own imagination without the use of drugs. He may have tried to use this myth for the readers to get the effect of how listening to this bird made him carefree and connected him to the outer world that forms the basis of Romantic Philosophy. He further use Lethe as a reference. The river Lethe of Greek afterworld, Hades, water if drank by anyone forgets their past. To give the effect that in his imagination he forgets all his worries. ‘Dryad’ is another example from mythology. Reference of Hippocrene, may be his attempt to show the importance of gaining inspiration from the surroundings. ‘Bacchus’ the god of wine and drunkenness is also Greek reference.

Other than this, in his Ode to Melancholy, he uses mythological references like Lethe, Prosperina, Psyche to depict the emotions of joy and spirit. It can be said that Psyche, the mortal human who Venus was jealous of and with whom Cupid fell in love, thought sorrow and joy eventually discovered happiness and immortality. A lesson Keats’ forming to define Melancholy and give hope for a better future to the human. Believing in the immortality in the afterlife and fearlessness of death may have been prominent themes of this poem.

Another important lesson he teaches through the unification of Greek mythology and Romantic unity is in the Ode to Grecian Urn. Sylvain historian, the mythical deity that gained wisdom with time, depicts the eternity found within the urn and the wise message is reflects. All the references combined, again shows the attempt of Keats to elaborate on his distinct philosophy present in each poem.

Hence, Ode to psyche depicts the theme of love and immortality convey to man the truth of an afterlife. A phenomenal not visible to the eye, but bore roots in existence. It is this love that will bring man the immortality and worry less life. In order to better give the effect of the time of the day, he uses the example of ‘Aurora’ the Roman goddess of dawn. ‘Olympus,’ ‘winged boy,’ ‘Phoebe,’ and ‘Vesper’ all are Greek references.

Vision as presented again and again in the poetry of Keats was the core of his philosophy. What makes this vision important is the infinite possibilities to life it brings with itself. Bringing out the courage and creativity if a human, it strives to broaden horizons of human capability allowing progress towards man’s final destination. Keats main aim is to take his readers from the ordinary circumstances to an artistic vision that unifies the soul with it true identity that lies with his Creator.

The supernatural element in La Bella Dame San Merci can also be said to bore roots to Greek mythology. It is a narrative in which a Knight is carried by a fairy to a cave where he ends up dreaming about the victims of this beautiful spirit. Sibylle Baumbach suggests that it can be compared to the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Keats may have been influenced by this mythology to have written this poem of his. In the mythology of Orpheus and Eurydice were happily married. A prophecy by Hymen predicted a tragic end to their relationship. Later, Eurydice Either is bitten by a snake and does. Orpheus who played beautiful lyre dropped into the emptiness of depression and the music he then played with his lyre touched the hearts of the gods who have him access to the underworld while he was still a mortal man. Pluto allowed him to take Eurydice back into the living, but his disbelief in the promise of the gods lead him to loose Eurydice all over again. It again leaves the message with man to defy logics on order to realize bigger reality.

Likewise, in the Ode to Autumn, he personifies the season Autumn. His personification to give human shape to a season may be season as a concept taken from the Greek mythology in which human shape was at times taken up by gods. Describing the beauty of Autumn through human shape gives a better look to understand the beauty around man. His imagery of a women in granary floor could be a reference to Psyche and another indirect reference to Ceres when he writes, “on a half-reaped furrow sound asleep/ Drows’d with the fume of poppies.” Influence of Ceres could be to again incorporate grief into his writing. Ceres who lost her daughter to a lustful good, also cured a dying son of a peasant. Her elevated position, for she was worshipped through poppy offerings, may mean that man fighting the fears and frustrations of life may emerge as a great entity. It can be said, as Eva Dima, a literature student quotes in her article Greek mythology in Keats’ Odes that Edward B. Hungerford believes that Keats uses “new language” for exploring religious and spiritual themes.

Even in his poem Endymion: book one he sublimate themes of beauty and eternity. He provides with lessons that beauty is eternal and becomes part of anyone who admired and appreciate it. Beauty cleanses a soul and as the Romantics believed the beauty of nature is the closest possibility to the existence of heaven. Everything unites itself to everything else. Beauty persists “A thing of beauty is a joy for ever”.

It is of no doubt that Greeks were said to be so wise as to have initiated a lot of activities and philosophies. Rejection of these philosophies has still not occurred to this day. Imagination was what led them to be inventive. It was also the same imagination that the romantic poets especially Keats talked about. The poets of this era do not encourage men to be dropped down into the imagination and forget the reality. Even Wordsworth only suggested returning to nature for retrieval and then go back. Today’s rapidly evolving world, and the adaptation and our dependency on machinery may lead to the man losing his intellect and soul altogether. It is in times like these, humans need to connect to their past to find their origin, stick to it in the present, and progress in the future keeping their existence in view. Keats also belonged to this class of romantics who emerged as a reaction to the classicist and swift growth of industries that led to a major shift and change in the society. 

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