From The Short Oxford History of English Literature, by Andrew Sanders.
Despite the anonymity of the 'author of Waverley', a ruse which was maintained on the title-page of all of Waverley's fictional successors, the 'secret' of Scott's authorship was a thoroughly open one. In January 1821 Byron, an unstinted admirer, claimed, without a glimmer of doubt as to their authorship, to have read 'all W. Scott's novels at least fifty times'. Scott was, he noted in his journal, the 'Scotch Fielding, as wll as a great English poet', and, he characteristically added, '—wonderful man! I long to get drunk with him'. It was Byron, properly George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788-1824) who alone managed to eclipse Scott's primacy as the best-selling poet of the second decade of the nineteenth century, but he never attempted to rival him as a novelist. If the poetic eclipse was far from total, the appearance of the first two cantos of Childe Harold in 1812 gave Byron an immediate celebrity, or, as he famously remarked, 'I awoke one morning and found myself famous'. Byron, like Scott, struck the appreciative hordes of his original readers as the most articulate voice of the post-revolutionary era, the writer who most fluently expressed the spirit of the age, its discontents as well as its often frenetic energy. But if Scott was the insider explaining the evolution of the past into the present and reeconciling historic contradictions, Byron was, by his own choice, the outsider, vexed and amused by the anomalies of his own time and culture. Byron's least effective poetry may be 'modern', theatrical, and extravagant, but his best work is generally rooted in an established satiric tradition in which, as he himself acknowledged, it was better to err with Pope than to shine in the company of the contemporary writers he despised and often deliberately undervalued. His poetry is informed not by nature or by the contemplation of nature, but by public life and by recent history, by British politics, and by the feverish European nationalisms stirred by the French Revolution. It ranges in its geographical settings from Russia to the Mediterranean, from Portugal to the Levant, and it moves easily between different modes of telling and feeling, from the self-explorative to the polemic, from the melancholic to the comic, from the mock-heroic to the passionately amorous, from the song to the epic. Byron the libertarian and Byron the libertine readily assumed the public role of a commentator on his times because he both relished his fame and enjoyed the later Romantic pose of being at odds with established society. HIs role-plahing, both in his convoluted private life and in his poetry, had a profound impact on his fellow-artists throughout Europe, and the sullen, restless 'Byronic' hero took on an international currency as if all societies had universally conspired to complicate his destiny.
Byron's international celebrity helped to render his life a work of art which interrelated and interfused with his poetry and his plays. Despite this iconic status, in his own time and far beyond it, his verse is idiosyncratic. It is radical only in thesense that it exhibits a distinctively patrician individualism. If in 1820 he could blame 'the present deplorable state of English poetry' on 'the absurd and systematic depreciation of Pope', he never cast himself in the role of a latter-day spokesman for a received culture. He speaks instead as an outsider and exile, an articulator of disdain rather than simply dissent. His first work, the precociously self-indulgent schoolboy exercises published in 1806 as Fugitive Pieces, was revised and expanded no less than three times. Its second transmogrification, Hours of Idleness (1807), was selected for a particularly scathing critical attack by the Edinburgh Review, an assault which in turn provided the impetus for Byron's explosive broadside against the accepted culutre of his times, English Bards and Scotch Reviewers (1809). This verse satire, written in somewhat old-fashioned rhyming couplets, suggests a poet at odds with the present, with its literary innovators (such as 'turgid' Coleridge and 'simple' Wordsworth) as much as with the conservative literary establishment which he identified with the dogmatic Edinburgh reviewers. His parise, which is faint enough, is reserved for Scott and 'Monk' Lewis. Byron's departure from England in 1809 for an extended visit to Portugal, Spain, and the Levant signalled both a rejection of England and a determination to explore alternatives to insular attitudes. The multifarious impressions left by thies tour provided the material out of which the first two cantos of Childe Harold were shaped. Childe Harold, expanded by two further cantos in 1816 and 1818, offers a view of the western Mediterranean scarred by war and of the 'sad relic' of Greece decaying under Ottoman misrule, but it also introduces as a central observer and participant a splenetic aristocratic exile, 'sick at heart' and suffering strange pangs 'as if the memory of some deadly feud / Or disapppointed passion lurk'd below'. The memories of feuds and passions in the poem were as much historic and public as they were present and private.
In the 1812 Preface to Childe Harold Byron quotes James Beattie's praise of the flexibility of the Spenserian stanza which Beattie (1735-1803) had used in his once celebrated poem, The Minstrel (1771, 1774). 'The style and stanza of Spenser', Beattie had remarked, could be 'either droll or pathetic, descriptive or sentimental, tender or satirical'. Such flexibility is evident neither in Beattie's own work nor especially in the often morose self-consciousness of Childe Harold. Nevertheless, Byron clearly aspired to experiment with a verse form which would allow for a variety of both expression and mood, for satire as much as for sentiment. He discovered such a form in the eight-line, eleven-syllable ottava rima of the Italian poets Tasso, Arioso and Pulci and he adapted it to his own English purposes by shortening the verse-line to ten syllables. In Beppo (1818) and in Don Juan (1819-24) he did more than simply relish the disciplined freedom that ottava rima gave to his verse; he also shifted his poetic focus away from Childe Harold's melancholy and incipient misanthropy. Taking leave of his 'sketch of a modern Timon', he proclaims to his readers in an 'Addition to the Preface' that it would have been 'more agreeable, and certainly more easy, to have drawn an amiable character.' Although the characters of privileged, intelligent, arrogant, and accursed heroes continue to fascinate him in his highly original and daring poetic dramas (notably in the two tragedies Sardanapalus and The Two Foscari and in his superb 'mystery' Cain, published together in 1821), Don Juan introduces a new kind of central character, one who is at once more passive and more vivacious. The scheme of Don Juan allows for colloquy and polyphony, the voice of the often cynically droll narrator being the dominant one. Byron's narrator casts himself as relaxed and speculative, digressive and discursive—'never straining hard to versify, / I rattle on exacly as I'd talk / With anybody in a ride or walk' (Canto XV, 19). The ease of telling is matched by the hero's indeterminate peripateticism, an often disrupted, circuitous wandering across the Mediterranean world ending in a movement to the Russia of Catherine the Great and finally westwards to the amorously frivilous world of aristocratic London society from which Byron had attempted to distance himself. Byron's perhaps fanciful notion of dramatically ending his career with a guillotining in Jacobin Paris was never realized. Juan's adventures and misadventures, and the narrator's worldly-wise commentary on them, serve to debunk a series of received ideas and perceptions ranging from the supposed glory of war and heroism to fidelity in love and oriental exoticism. Byron is also undermining the myth a a picturesque and educative journey across Europe, the Romantic idea of a splendidly benevolent, fostering nature, and the Rousseauistic faith in basic human goodness. These challenges are especially evident in his vivid and varied description of a sea-storm and shipwreck and in the blackly comic account of the cannibalism of the survivors in Canto II:
The lots were made, and mark'd, and mix'd, and handed,
In silent horror, and their distribution
Lull'd even the savage hunger which demanded,
Like the Promethean vulture, this pollution;
None in particular had sought or plann'd it,
'Twas Nature gnaw'd them to this resolution,
By which none were permited to be neuter—
And the lot fell on Juan's luckless tutor.
He but requested to be bled to death:
The surgeon had his instruments, and bled
Pedrillo, and so gently ebb'd his breath,
You hardly could perceive when he was dead.
He died as born, a Catholic in faith,
Like most in the belief in which they're bred,
And first a little crucifix he kiss'd
And then held out his jugular and wrist.
The poem veers easily, and often comically, between extremes of suffering and luxury, hunger and excess, longing and satiety, ignorance and knowingness, shifting appearance and an equally shifting reality. Both the art and the artfulness of the narrator are frequently concealed under a pretence of purposelessness and self-deprecation—''tis my way, / Sometimes with and sometises without occasion / I write what's uppermost, without delay; / This narrative is not meant for narration, / But a mere airy and fantastic basis, / To build up common things with common places' (Canto XIV, 7). Byron's earnestness, evident enough in his earlier poetry and in the urgently fluent lyric 'The Isles of Greece' which he introduces into Canto III, is now steadily qualified, or, in the case of the lyric, framed by comments on the supposed 'trimming' nature of its imagined singer. The 'earnest' poet is reduced to the level of the despised, time-serving pliable Southey, the chief object of ridicule in The Vision of Judgement (1821). Byron's poetry, like his letters and the surviving fragments of his journals, emerges from an energetic restlessness tempered by an amused detachment, not from a carefully formulated theory of literature, a determining philosophy, or a desire to enhance and improve public taste. 'I have written', he told his publisher in 1819, 'from the fullness of my mind, from passion—from impulse—from many motives—but not for their [his public's] "sweet voices?.—I know the precise worth of public applause.'
Byron's friend and sometime companion in self-imposed exile, Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) had an equally low view of 'public applause' and an equally distinct distaste for the British Establishments, literary and political. Unlike Byron's, his work derives from a consistent, if malleable, ideology, one determined by a philosophical scepticism which questions its Platonic roots as much as it steadily rejects Christian mythology and morality. Shelley's first public diatribe against Chrsitianity, the undergraduate pamphlet The Necessity of Atheism, so antagonized the authorities of University College at Oxford in 1811 that its author was expelled from the University. Although Shelley's rejection of 'revealed' religion and its dogmas remained a cardinal element in his thought, and though he systematically maintained his faith in the principle that 'every reflectin mind must allow that there is no proof of the existence of a Deity', his later work suggests both a steady qualification of arguments based purely on 'reason' and a search fro the source of the mysterious 'Power' that he acknowledged to be implicit in wild nature and in the inspiration of poetry. This complex and intellectually demanding aspiration is paralleled by, and to some extent married to, Shelley's abiding interest in the politics of revolution and evolution and to the idea of a gradual and inevitable social awakening.
Shelley's political thought, informed as it is with experimental scientific theory and with the social ideas of his father-in-law Godwin, elucidates more than simply an opposition of liberty and tyranny; it explores future possibilities and not past defeats and, in attempting to adduce the nature of egalitarianism, it moves beyond the general disillusion resultant from the defeat of the ideals of the French Revolution. As Shelley wrote to Godwin in 1817, he felt himself 'formed . . . to apprehend minute & remote distinctions of feeling whether relative to external nature, or the living beings which surround us, & to communicate the conceptions which result from considering either the moral or the material universe as a whole'. He recognized the significance of details, but as a poet and a theorist of poetry and politics he tended to concentrate on 'wholes' and on the possibilities of new perceptions and new orders. The radicalism, which led him with an almost adolescent enthusiasm to espouse a whole range of worthy causes from Irish nationalism to vegetarianism, was more than simply a reaction against the conservative triumphalism which marked post-Napoleonic Europae and more than an instinctive rejection of the restrictive political, religious, and moral formulae of his aristocratic English background; it was at once the root and the fruit of his aristocratic English background; it was at once the root and the fruit of his intellectual idealism. The direct and graphic quatrain poem, The Mask of Anarchy (1819), inspired by Shelley's disgust at the so-called 'Peterloo' massacre, is perhaps his most effective and unadorned statement of protest against contemporary British repression. Earlier, in Queen Mab: A Philosophical Poem (1813) he had moulded 'the fairies midwife', the dream-maker of Mercutio's speech in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, into the midwife of a broader revolutionary dream and the instructor of the soul of Ianthe in the principles of historical change. 'Kings, priests, and statesmen', Ianthe learns, 'blast the human flower / Even in its tender bud; their influence darts / Like subtle poison through the bloodless veins / Of desolate society.' Society, consoled by a purgation of its historic oppressors, and the human spirit, freed from the taint of a despotic tradition, are finally allowed to see the prospect of following 'the gradual paths of an aspiring change'. Shelley's original notes to Queen Mab make explicit the particular aspects of the present tyranny which threaten the fairy vision of a regenerated future humanity.
Imperative hope also marks the epic poem originally entitled 'Laon and Cythna; or, The Revolution of the Golden City: A Vision of the Nineteenth Century' but discreetly and topically renamed The Revolt of Isalm for its publication in 1818. The poem describes the doomed but heroic struggle for liberation of a brother and sister (originally also lovers) against the manifold oppressions of the Ottoman Empire; at the poem's conclusion the defeated and immolated revolutionaries take on the posthumous role of inspirers of a continuing and multilateral struggle. The Revolt of Islam is more than a condemnation of distant Oriental despotism, for it reflects both on the temporary failure of the liberating impulse of the French Revolution and on the present state of Britain. It was written, Shelley inssited, 'in the view of kindling within the bosoms of my readers a virtuous enthusiasm for those doctrines of liberty and justice, that faith and hope in something good, which neither violence nor misrepresentation nor prejudice can ever totally extinguish among mankind'. Shelley's play with archetypes and with a syncretic mythological system by means of which he dramatizes a revolutionary process equally determines the structures of his two 'lyrical' dramas, both reworkings of, and developments from, Aeschylean models. Both Prometheus Unbound (1820) and Hellas (1822) show a diminution of theatrical action in favour of a dramatic representation of imaginative motivation (the 'lyric' as opposed to the 'dramatic', a distinction which Shelley possibly derived from the German critic, August von Schlegel), and both form substantial and intense verse discourses on the nature of liberation. Hellas, inspired by the Greek rebellion against its Ottoman rulers, prophesies 'upon the curtain of futurity' the triumph of the Greek cause 'as a portion of the cause of civilisation and social improvement' but it ends with a far from triumphant final chorus which foresees the possibility of a return of 'hate and death' and of a cyclical succession of bloody revolution upon bloody revolution. Prometheus Unbound is ostensibly more confident in its view of historical necessity for it links the idea of revolution more closely to the radical reordering of human vision and to the processes of perceiving, imagining, and articulating thought as speech. To some extent the characterization of Prometheus derives from the figure of Milton's Satan, whom Shelley, like Blake, saw as 'a moral being . . . far superior to this God', but his is essentially a heroic struggle concerned with more than self-vindication. Prometheus is seen battling against despair and arbitrary tyranny, and his achievement is presented as a liberation of both body and spirit and as a heightened state of consciousness which implies a wider liberation from enemies which are both internal and external. With the summary overthrow of Jupiter at the beginning of Act III, and the reunion of the unchained Prometheus with Asia, the final act of the drama is given over to lyrical celebration; the triumph of the revolution is marked by the triumph of song.
Shelley's often passionate discussions of poetry are closely related to his idea of the interconnection of the process of the liberation of the soul, the growth of altruism inspired by love, and the ultimate extermination of tyrants. In Alastor; or, The Spirit of Solitude (1816) he had presented an account of the quest of a young poet, led by idealism, who discovers 'the spirit of sweet human love' too late. The poem may also be a protest against the Wordsworthian egotism which Shelley so distrusted in The Excursion. In his Preface he outlines his scheme as showing 'the Poet's self-centred seclusion . . . avenged by the furies of an irresistible passion' and he adds that 'those who love not their fellow-beings, live unfruitful lives, and prepare for their old age a miserable grave'. He may have wilfully misread Wordsworth, but the protest against an indulgence in solitude derives much of its force from his unforgiving awareness of the older poet's retreat from political action into an alternative contemplation of nature. The idea of recoil and recuperation which informs much of Wordsworth's finest lyric poetry is certainly absent from Shelley's two searching, if ultimately ambiguous, meditations on the natural world, the 'Hymn to Intellectual Beauty' and 'Mont Blanc' (both 1816). In the latter poem, the mountain seems to command action against 'large codes of fraud and woe' rather than represent a silent, God-imbued check to human activity.
It is, however, in his essay A Defence of Poetry (written in 1821 and published posthumously in 1840) that Shelley most confidently proclaims the essentially social function of poetry and the prophetic role of the poet. His assertions, like Sidney's before him, are large, even at times outrageous, but his examination of the idea of political improvement as a criterion of literary value and his idea of poetry as a liberator of the individual moral sense carry considerable intellectual force. The artument of the Defence opens with the development of a distinction between the workings of the reason and the imagination, with the imagination seen as the synthesizer and the unifier which finds its highest expression in poetry. Shelley dismisses as 'a vulgar error' the distinction between poets and prose writers, and proceeds to dissolve distinction between poets, philosophers, and philosophic historians. Thus Shakespeare, Dante, and Milton emerge as 'philosophers of the very loftiest power' and Plato and Bacon, Herodotus and Pluttarch are placed among the poets. Essentially, the essay seeks to demonstrate that poetry prefigures other modes of thought and anticipates the formulation of a social morality—'ethical science arranges the elements which poetry has created, and propounds schemes and proposes examples of civil and domestic life.' Love, 'or a going out of our own nature, and an identification of our selves with the beautiful', is projected as the 'great secret of morals' and, by feeding the imagination, poetry 'administers to the effect by acting upon the cause'. Shelley's argument continues to circulate around these propositions; poetry enhances life, it exalts beauty, it transmutes all it touches, and it tells the truth by stripping 'the veil of familiarity from the world' and laying bare 'the naked and sleeping beauty which is the spirit of its forms'. The poet is priest and prophet to a world which can move beyond religion and magic; he is an 'unacknowledged legislator' for a future society which will learn to live without the restrictions of law; he is, above all, the liberator and the explorer. Shelley's projection of the poet as hero, as the leader and representative of society, is more than veiled self-aggrandizement, it is a reasonable assertion of the irrational power of the imagination against a purely utilitarian view of art.
Adonais (1821), Shelley's elegiac tribute to the dead Keats, pursues the idea of the poet as hero, here triumphant even in the face of death and 'awakened from the dream of life'. If Keats/Adonais is 'one with Nature' and has become 'transmitted effluence' which cannot die 'so long as fire outlives the parent spark', the earth-bound survivor yearns, almost suicidally, for a part in the same life-transcending immortality. The unfinished The Triumph of Life, derived metrically and thematically from Dante and Petrarch, suggests an alternative, if phantasmagoric, vision of life. The poem opens with a dawn and an ecstatic evocation of the sublime amid a mountainous landscape.:
Swift as a spirit hastening to his task
Of glory and of good, the Sun sprang forth
Rejoicing in his splendour, and the mask
Of darkness fell from the awakened Earth.
The smokeless altars of the mountain snows
Flamed above crimson clouds, and at the birth
Of light, the Ocean's orison arose
To which the birds tempered their matin lay
All flowers in field or forest which unclose
Their trembling eyelids to the kiss of day,
Swinging thir censers in the element,
Which orient incense lit by the new ray
Burned slow and inconsumably . . .
This initial celebration of energy and renewal is countered by the darkness of the narrator-poet's 'strange trance', a 'waking dream' of a haunted past and an allegory of death in which the processing participants appear fascinated by their mortality. When the poet recognizes and confronts the figure of Rousseau, the central questions of the poem are raised. Rousseau, in a self-indulgent probing of his own memories, describes too a circuitous process of forgetting and erasing which necessarily evades answers as to the meaning of life. When, finally, the bewildered poet demands 'Then what is Life?' no answer is forthcoming. The poem breaks off, and with it the search for responsive definitions of the inspiring 'Power' behind creation; the fallacy of an egotistic solitude has been exposed, but the offer of alternative assertion remains a hiatus.
John Keats (1795-1821), ever sensitive to criticism and ever open to the influence of other poets, both living and dead, was also extraordinarily able to assimilate and then transform both criticism and influence. In 1817 he had declined to visit Shelley on the grounds that he preferred to keep his distance, fearing a too immediate challenge to his 'unfetterd [sic] Scope'. His development as a poet was rapid, particular, and individual and it was articulated in the bursts of energetic self-critical analysis in his letters. Keats's background and education denied him both the social advantages and the ready recourse to classical models shared by those contemporaries to whose work he most readily turned (though not always favourably)—Wordsworth and Coleridge, Scott, Byron, and Shelley. The enthusiasm which marks his discovery in 1816 of George Chapman's sixteenth-century translation of The Iliad, a discovery celebrated in one of his finest sonnets, is notable not simply for its sense of release from the limitations of Alexander Pope's couplet version, but also fro the very fact that Homer's Greek was not directly open to him. Throughout his working life Keats had recourse to Lemprière's Classical Dictionary and not to a classical memory fostered at school or university. He was, however, extremely well read and his letters record a series of new, excited, and critical impressions formed by his explorations of English seventeenth-century drama, of Chaucer, Spenser, Milton, and Dryden, of Dante, Boccaccio, Ariosto, and Tasso (whose Italian he was beginning to master towards the end of his life) and, above all, of Shakespeare. It is to the example of Shakespare that he habitually refers in his letters when he seeks to demonstrate a sudden insight into the nature of poetic creation, notably in 1817 in his definition of what he styles 'Negative Capability' ('when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fat and reason') and in his attempt in October 1818 to distinguish between the 'Wordsworthian or egotisical sublime' and the 'poetical Character' that 'lives in gusto' and has 'as much delight in conceiving an Iago as an Imogen'.
In this same letter of 1818 Keats famously remarks that what shocks the virtuous philosopher 'delights the chameleon Poet'. The nature of this particular chameleon lay, for Keats, in its ability to assimilate impressions and temporarily, but totally, to identify with external objects, both animate and inanimate. He felt himself, he adds, 'a creature of impulse'. In some ways his development as a poet confirms his self-analysis, moving as he does from impulsie attraction to a dedicated absorption and adaptation of stimuli through a process of intellectualizationand poetic articulation. He draws his immediate experience into his verse, finding metaphors in the natural world, in his responses to architecture, painting, and sculpture or his magpie reading. His ambition to be counted worthy of a place in the English poetic tradition drove him as much into a succession of creative experiments with form and metre as into the high-flown essays in sub-Shakespearean historic drama so favoured by his contemporaries. To the end of his short career he seems to have experienced a dissatisfaction with his own achievement which stretched beyond its lack of critical and public appreciation; it was a disappointment which inspired the notions of self-denigration and disintegration implicit in his choice of epitaph: 'Here lies one whose name was writ in water'. The work contained in his first two volumes, the Poems of 1817 and Endymion: A Poetic Romance of 1818 was, in his own terms, transcended before it had made any impact on readers beyond the poet's own immediate circle. The 1817 collection contains much immature work, imitations of an reflections on The Faerie Queene as much as the somewhat shapeless effusions 'Sleep and Poetry' and 'I Stood Tip-Toe Upon a Little Hill', bot chiefly memorable for the minute observation crystallized in their delicate imagery. In Endymion Keat's consistent ambition to move beyond the lyrical to the narrative and the epic finds its first significant expression, but it is an experiment with which he had evidently become restless before he had completed it. The strengths of the poem are most often occasional and lie chiefly in the introduction of the lyrical hymns and songs which enhance the meandering narrative line. Although he was pained by the unfavourable reviews accorded to the poem, Keats himself readily recognized its shortcomings and what they had come to imply to him. 'I have written independently without Judgment', he writes in October 1818, 'I may write independently, & with Judgment hereafter . . . In Endymion, I leaped headlong into the Sea, and thereby have become better acquainted with the Soundings, the quicksands, & the rocks, than if I had stayed upon the green shore, and piped a silly pipe, and took tea & comfortable advice.—I was never afraid of failure; for I would sooner fall than not be among the greatest.'
Keats's Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes, and other Poems was published in July 1820 when his mortal sickness had fully declared itself. The majority of the poems in the volume had been written in a period of fertile hyperactivity between the spring of 1818 and the early autumn of 1819. Apart from the three substantial narrative poems named in the title, the 'other poems' include the five odes which have since become his best-known words and the fragmentary Hyperion which he had abandoned in April 1819 and which was printed, as the publishers were obliged to acknowledge, 'contrary to the wish of the author'. The earliest of the narrative poems, 'Isabella; or, The Pot of Basil', was originally intended to form a contribution to a collection of verse-tales based on stories by Boccaccio. Keats's version of the story of two tragic lovers elaborates on the original by introducing a complex scheme of natural imagery, an interpolated social and moral commentary, and elements of the Gothic. It became in the poet's own opinion 'too smokeable . . . "A weak-sided poem" with an amusing sober-sadness about it'. 'The Eve of St. agnes', written some eight months later, shares a medieval setting with its predecessor but moves far beyond it in what it reveals of Keats's new mastery of dramatic and verbal effect and of narrative shape and tension. The poem is shaped around a series of intense contrasts, of cold and warmth, of dark and light, of hardness and softness, of noise and stillness, and, above all, of cruelty and love, but it is ultimately as ambiguous and uncertain as the superstition on which its heroine, Madeline, sets her hopes. As Madeline anxiously enters her chamber her taper flickers out and the moonlight falls on her through a stained-glass window:
The poem is emphatically concrete in the variety of its clustered, sensual suggestion, but both abrupt and elusive in its final wrench away from the lovers' escape 'into the storm' and its return to suggestions of sickness, death, and penitence. A far greater ambiguity marks the retelling of a classical haunting in 'Lamia', an ambiguity which begins with Keats's omission of the associations of vampirism with the figure of his half-serpent 'lamia' (according to Lemprière such monsters 'allured strangers . . . that they might devour them'). His serpent is beautiful, agonized by her transformation into a lover and enchanting rather than devouring. The narrative pits her against an aged, rational philosopher, Apollonius, in a comptetition for the attention of Lycius, but if Lycius is finally the victim of the piercing of the illusion on which his world becomes centred, the poem allows little sympathy with the reasoning dream-breaker. Lamia builds fairy palaces, Apollonius demolishes them; she fosters the imagination, his filosophy clips angels' wings and will 'conquer all mysteries by rule and line, / Empty the haunted air and gnomed mine— / Unweave a rainbow'. The poem does not manœuvre a reader into taking sides, but its juxtapositions of illusion and reality, fo the ideal and the actual, of feeling and thought, remain tatalizingly unresolved.A casement high and triple-arched there was,
All garlanded with carven imag'ries
Of fruits and flowers, and bunches of knot-grass,
And diamonded with panes of quaint device,
Innumerable of stains and splendid dyes,
As are the tiger moth's deep-damaked wings;
And in the midst, 'mong thousand heraldrics,
And twilight saints, and dim emblazonings,
A shielded scutcheon blushed with blood of queens and kings.
A related debate about contraries informs the five odes included in the 1820 volume (a sixth, the 'Ode on Indolence', written in May 1819, was published posthumously in 1848 in a collection which also included a reprinting of Keats's most famous lyrical treatment of the idea of fairy enthralment, the ballad 'La Belle Dame sans Merci'). The earliest of the odes in terms of composition, that to Psyche, has often been seen as an enactment of a ceremonial dedication of the Soul—'as distinguished from an Intelligence'—and as a variation on the idea of the world as 'the vale of Soul-making' which Keats outlined in a long letter of April 1819, a letter which also included a draft of the poem. The odes to a Nightingale and on Melancholy, both of which slightly vary the metrical structure evolved in the earlier poem, were composed in May 1819. The former takes as its subject the local presence of a nightingale, and the contrast of the 'full-throated ease' of it singing with the aching 'numbness' of the human observer, the rapt and meditative poet. The ode progresses through a series of precisely delicate evocations of opposed moods and ways of seeing, some elated, some depressed, but each serving to return the narrator to his 'sole self' and to his awareness of the temporary nature of the release from the unrelieved contemplation of temporal suffering which the bird's song has offered. The more succint 'Ode on Melancholy' opens with a rejection of traditional, and gloomy, aids to reflection and moves to an exploration of the interrelationship of the sensations of joy and sorrow. The perception of the transience of beauty whicvh haunts the poem also informs the speculations derived from the contemplation of the two scenes which decorate an imagined Attic vase in the 'Ode on a Grecian Urn', one showing bucolic lovers, the other a pagan sacrifice. Both scenes are frozen and silent, images taken out of time and rendered eternal only by the intervention of art. 'The image of the sacrifice, in particular, has something of the sculptural patterning and spatial imagination of Poussin:
The poem allows for the high compensations offered by art, but its vocabulary steadily suggests the loss, even the desolation, entailed in the 'teasing' process of contemplating eternity. The latest of the odes, 'To Autumn', was written in September 1819. Here the tensions, oppositions, and conflicting emotions are diminished amid a series of dense impressions of a season whose bounty contains both fulfuilment and incipient decay, both an intensification of life and an inevitable, but natural, process of ageing and dying.Who are these coming to the sacrifice?
To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
Lead'st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,
And all her silken flanks with garlands dressed?
What little town by river or sea shore,
Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
Is emptied of this folk, this pious morn?
And, little town, thy streets for evermore
Will silent be; and not a soul to tell
Why thou art desolate, can e'er return.
Keats's two extensive draftes of the fragmentary Hyperion—the second of which, known as The Fall of Hyperion: A Dream, was published only in 1856—confront the problems of transience, transition, defeat, and progressive revolutionary change in an attempt to retell the story of the resistance of the last of the Titans to the coming new order of the Gods. In his reconstruction of his poem in the second half of 1819 he attempted to reduce the pervasive influence of Milton on his own blank verse, both because he sought a more personal expression and because he was beginning to suspect Milton's aesthetic ('Miltonic verse cannot be written but in the vein of art—I wish to devote myself to another sensation'). But the remodelling also entailed a radical shift in perspective by allotting the main narration of the fall of the Titans to Moneta, the veiled priestess and prophetess encountered in a prefatory vision. This vision, Dantean rather than Miltonic in its inspiration, explores the idea of the influence of suffering on the imagination of a modern poet, requiring the visionary to experience pain and the 'giant agony of the world' before being vouchsafed an understanding of both the power and the limitation of art; Moneta's tale of the past, as it begin to emerge, serves to illuminate and reinforce what the poet has already partially discovered in his vision. The Fall of Hyperion begins with the clear distinction between dreaming 'fanatics', the representatives of and apologists for the Christianity which Keats had rejected, and the figure of the poet-prophet seeking a new cosmology. The poem does more than counter Milton's example with a pagan scheme, or adjust Dante to suit post-Christian arguments about the nature of evolution; it seeks to balance the darkness, the misery, the ruin, and the disillusion with the still uncertain hope that the suffering and responsive poet may yet find his voice. It is Keats's most triumphant declaration of his independent self-hood as a poet.