This Strange and Contradictory Poet
In his early poem “I stood tip-toe”, Keats describes an effect of sunlight passing through water:
Where swarms of minnows show their little heads,
Staying their wavy bodies ’gainst the streams,
To taste the luxury of sunny beams
Temper’d with coolness. How they ever wrestle
With their own sweet delight, and ever nestle
Their silver bellies on the pebbly sand.
If you but scantily hold out the hand,
That very instant not one will remain;
But turn your eye, and they are there again.
At first glance, this seems to be nothing more than a delicate piece of observation. We know from Keats’s letters (as Nicholas Roe points out in his new biography, John Keats: A New Life, Yale University Press, £25) that as a boy he loved to explore the natural world of the countryside near Edmonton: “How fond I used to be of Goldfinches, Tomtits, Minnows, Mice, Ticklebacks, Dace, Cock salmons and all the whole tribe of the Bushes and the Brooks,” he wrote to his sister.
But Keats the poet gave those childhood memories an extra depth when he interpreted the movement of the minnows as a wrestling “with their own sweet delight”. That gloss makes the water both the minnows’ pleasurable element while, at the same time, something to be resisted or struggled against. It is a doubleness which retrospectively gives additional point to the word “wavy”. Initially one reads “wavy” as saying merely that the minnows’ bodies are undulating, because that is the motion fish use to stay “their . . . bodies ’gainst the stream”. But then, glancing back, one understands that the minnows’ bodies are also “wavy” in another sense. They are wavy, too, because they have an affinity with the waves in which the fish live. Resistance and assimilation are fused in a single word.
Critics have often fastened upon such passages as evidence for a vision of Keats as a thoroughly aestheticised figure. This is the Keats whose preoccupation was, above all, with beauty. The letter, both proud and mortified, that he wrote to Fanny Brawnewhen he was already mortally ill with con- sumption is often taken as an encapsulation of the whole life and work:
If I should die . . . I have left no immortal work behind me—nothing to make my friends proud of my memory—but I have loved the principle of beauty in all things, and if I had had time I would have made myself remember’d.The clew of beauty leads inescapably to certain lines of Keats’s poetry. It takes us to the opening lines of Endymion:
A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.
And it takes us to the gnomic closing lines of the “Ode on a Grecian Urn”:
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,”— that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
It also leads us to certain celebrated passages in Keats’s letters, in particular thosewhich touch on Keats’s ideas of poetic selflessness: for instance, when he famously imagines himself pecking among the gravel with the sparrows, or (most centrally) when he explains to his brothers his idea of the “negative capability” which he thinks is essential for any great literary achievement: “when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”. It is an idea Keats summarises by saying: “This pursued through Volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.”
This image of Keats as an acolyte of beauty is very familiar to us, yet there are problems with it. In particular, the poems which are most often cited as exemplifying this aestheticised Keats—that is to say, the odes published in 1820 (principally “Ode to a Nightingale”, “Ode on a Grecian Urn”, and “To Autumn”)—are, it would seem, not the kind of poetry Keats ultimately wished to write. If we take seriously what Keats says about “negative capability”—the great positive example of its possession being Shakespeare, and the great negative example of its lack being Coleridge—then this theory of literary selflessness seems to push Keats towards at least narrative poetry, if not even as far as poetic drama. But Keats’s dramatic works, Otho the Great and the fragmentary King Stephen, are usually passed over in awkward silence.