Death and Rebirth in major Romantic Odes

The life of John Keats the man: his family, his friends, and his contemporaries.

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Death and Rebirth in major Romantic Odes

Postby soumya » Thu Jan 20, 2005 7:49 am

Verse, Fame, and Beauty are intense indeed,

But Death intenser - Death is Life's high meed.”

-John Keats

I will start this essay with To Autumn, though it is not an Ode but it is a prayer and can be said to be close to an Ode. To Autumn portrays Keats's attitude as almost in appreciation or awe of the inevitability of change and death due to the re-birth that follows as shown with the unexpected lively sounds of crickets and red breasts whistling. Structurally, the apostrophe follows a definite pattern of gradual time change with distinct imagery used in each stanza. In our younger years, we feel our way through situations and move with our sensations but it isn't till we get old that we see and understand what life is about. Peace is gained leading to death where we believe nothing is left but to hear the songs of our youth (spring) until re-birth occurs and this cycle begins once again. The theme of John Keats’ poem, To Autumn, is that change is both natural and beautiful. The speaker in the poem acknowledges that time passes by, but also asserts that this change usually yields something new and better than what came before.

Auditory senses are tapped into in the third and final stanza of To Autumn beginning with "Where are the songs of spring? Ay, where are they?" (23). Proposal of this question parallels the unfolding of death when one question where his youth went, regretting wasted moments. Spring in the above line has the same function as summer in stanza I; they represent process, the flux of time. In addition, spring is a time of a rebirth of life, an association that contrasts with the explicitly dying autumn of this stanza. Furthermore, autumn spells death for the now "full-grown" lambs which were born in spring; they are slaughtered in autumn. And the response to the query of line one, where are spring's songs, is that they are past or dead. The auditory details that follow are autumn's songs.

The day, like the season, is dying. The dying of day is presented favourably, "soft-dying." Its dying also creates beauty; the setting sun casts a "bloom" of "rosy hue" over the dried stubble left after the harvest. Keats accepts all aspects of autumn; this includes the dying, and so he introduces sadness; the gnats "mourn" in a "wailful choir" and the doomed lambs bleat (Why does Keats use "lambs," rather than "sheep" here? would the words have a different effect on the reader?). It is a "light" or enjoyable wind that "lives or dies," and the treble of the robin is pleasantly "soft." The swallows are gathering for their winter migration.

Keats in his poem To Autumn blends living and dying, the pleasant and the unpleasant, because they are inextricably one; he accepts the reality of the mixed nature of the world.

In the Ode to the West Wind, the first two stanzas contain images of violence, death, and the coming Winter: the West Wind itself; the "leaves dead"; the colours yellow, black, pale, and "hectic red"; the "corpse within a grave"; the "angels of rain and lightning"; the Mænad, and the "approaching storm." In short, these first two stanzas describe images of evil: the West Wind brings death, cold, and hardship. The third stanza describes images of peace and serenity: the "blue Mediterranean," "summer dreams," "sleep," "old palaces and towers," the "azure moss and flowers," and the "oozy woods." Only the coming of the West Wind, which threatens to disturb the balance of the peaceful life, disturbs these images and serenity.

‘O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn's being,

Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead.”

The West Wind is, as this phrase suggests, a manifestation of spiritual or supernatural energy, associated with breath, respiration and inspiration, the Holy Ghost or Spirit, the spirit of life itself. This is important in a stanza that contains so many references and allusions to death and decay, reaffirming the energy and vitality of the west wind. The phrase also carries neo-platonic associations, with the wind as visible expression of the abstract and intangible Nature itself, "Autumn's being": the reference to "unseen presence" in the next line carries on this sense of an order beyond the visible. This neo-platonic imagery is recurrent throughout Shelley's poetry, and is vital to an understanding of Shelley's own developing ideas about nature and the “unseen”. ‘Leaves’ here refer to trees and the wind-borne seeds, but the phrase also carries associations with paper, the "withered leaves" (and "dead thoughts") referred to in stanza V, which are driven across the universe by the power of the wind. There is a further suggestion that "leaves", in the poem, may refer to Shelley's own fears of losing his own hair. The leaves here are dead and fall to the Earth, a recurrent theme in this stanza, but there they may give rise to new life.

“Vaulted with all thy congregated might

Of vapours, from whose solid atmosphere.”

The image is of the darkened sky liked to a vast cathedral's interior, with the solid clouds forming the roof, and further images of death and also of the apocalypse: "vast sepulchre", "dying year", etc.

“The trumpet of a prophecy! O, Wind,

If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?”

There is a conscious echo here back to the clarion call of stanza I: there the call was associated with Spring, and there are similar suggestions here of the proclamation of a new era in human society, preceded by the apocalyptic energy symbolised by the West Wind. The poem ends it with a question, which might appear rhetorical, but is more probably intended to indicate Shelley's own uncertainty. It is important to note that Shelley did not advocate the willing application of force and revolution, as his defence of the doctrine and strategy of passive resistance in The Mask of Anarchy indicates. Clearly hoped that radical social change, or a rebirth of personal inspiration, could be accomplished without violence. The unanswered question in this poem is whether or not the same cyclical inevitability will apply to social and political change as it does to the changes within Nature.

In "Ode to the West Wind," Percy Bysshe Shelley tries to gain transcendence, for he shows that his thoughts, like the "winged seeds" (7) are trapped. The West Wind acts as a driving force for change and rejuvenation in the human and natural world. Shelley views winter not just as last phase of vegetation but as the last phase of life in the individual, the imagination, civilization and religion. Being set in autumn, Shelley observes the changing of the weather and its effects on the internal and external environment. Shelley can only reach his sublime by having the wind carry his "dead thoughts" (63), which through an apocalyptic destruction, will lead to a rejuvenation of the imagination, the individual and the natural world.

In Ode to a Nightingale, Keats explores the paradoxes of death and its function as the consummation of life's endeavours. Keats described in his letter to Bailey (22nd November 1817) that his ‘favourite speculation’ was ‘that we shall enjoy ourselves here after by having what we call happiness on Earth repeated in a finer tone’. This explains the poet's dissatisfaction at being ‘too happy in thine happiness’; he is unable in this life to experience ‘a Life of Sensations rather than Thoughts’. His earthly sensations are expressed as ‘a drowsy numbness pains/ My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk’. Having proposed and rejected ‘a draught of vintage’ the symbol of earthly delectation and indeed found ‘the viewless wings of Poesy’ unsatisfactory because he ‘cannot see what flowers are at my feet’, the poet contemplates the idea of death: ‑‑ he is ‘half in love with easeful Death’. The bird symbolizes a Nightingale that to many, depicts the happiness
and vibrancy of life with the way it seems to gracefully hover over brightly
colour flowers to get nectar but, to Keats death, because his was becoming.
“Shadows numberless” at the end of the paragraph signifies the angel of death
and spirits that had surrounded Keats. Keats vividly and beautifully described
wine: … for a beaker full of the warm South… With beaded bubbles winking at
the brim, and purple stained mouth; that I might drink, and leave the he used
to bury his fears and emotions about death. In verse three, Keats expressed that most people enjoy a full life and die old, when he pens: “Here, men sit and hear each other groan; …last grey hairs, Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies…” (24-26) He felt that youth was a time in one’s life to enjoy. According to him, being rich, popular, beautiful, funny and smart didn’t matter because the angel of death was blind. Keats was afraid of death because of the loved one’s he had to leave behind. He expresses that with the phrase:

“And with thee fade away into the forest dim” (20) Keats explained that he had wanted to wander off into the forest so no one would’ve had to be bothered by him.

In paragraph four, Keats had spoken to the Nightingale and told it to go off and leave him alone because he already had known that death was coming and didn’t want to be reminded of his sad fate. Keats went on to say: “I cannot see what flowers are at my feet, Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs, But, in embalmed darkness…” (41-43) This meant he didn’t know what was about to happen, only that he was going to die. He then illustrated all the creatures and things that would live long past him; “The grass, the thicket, and the fruit-tree wild…” (45) In paragraph six, Keats had listened to the “Darkling” or Nightingale singing and this had reminded him of how at one time in his life he questioned death and was even infatuated by it because death was an unknown universe when he composed: “…for many a time I have been half in love with easeful Death, Call’d him soft names…” (51-53) But quickly after he had recalled that memory he stated: “Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain- To thy high requiem become a sod.” (59-60) Here he was saying how the “Darkling” sounded beautiful when it sang but that was just a mask for the fate that it was taking him to; death. “Thou was not born for death, immortal Bird!” (61) The immortal Nightingale wasn’t put on this earth to bring people to their deaths, according to Keats. Over generations, the bird has warned “emperors and clowns” “that death can not be cheated. …the fancy cannot cheat so well As she is fam’d to do…” (73-74)

Here he had stated that the rich could not buy their way out of death because that was the entire Nightingale had come to do. The song of the Nightingale had faded and Keats composed, “…thy plaintive anthem fades…and now ‘tis buried deep” (75 & 77) and he didn’t know if it was real or if he had dreamed the whole thing. Keats wasn’t sure if he was still alive or had died. “–Do I wake or sleep?” (80)

``If winter comes can spring be far behind,’’ says Keats at the height of his optimism. There is always hope for a better future, maybe in this world or maybe in the next world. Bad days are certainly to be followed by good days, like day follows night.

Ode on a Grecian Urn was written only about two years before his death. In this poem he discusses immortality and things frozen forever in a state of perfection, such as the urn. It seems he is longing for the immortality that is possessed by the urn. He knows he can never have this immortality.

At first glance, John Keats’s Ode on a Grecian Urn presents images of happiness through its flowery language and imagery. However, when one examines this poem more closely, one discovers that the deeper meaning of the poem is one of sorrow and death. Keats uses his flowery language as a façade for his deeper meaning. The reason he wants to present this idea is because he is dying and he knows it. Therefore, Ode on a Grecian Urn is not happy, as it seems. The deep, underlying meaning is death.

"More happy love! more happy, happy love!” (25). When one reads lines such as this, one cannot help but think that the poet must have been very, very happy, and that, in fact, the tone of the poem is light and filled with joy. However, this is not the case in John Keats’s poem, Ode on a Grecian Urn. At first glance, the tone of the poem seems light and flowery. However, when one looks deeper into the poem to find its underlying meanings, one discovers that the tone of the poem is very morbid. This is because the poem has two separate levels. Keats’s Ode on a Grecian Urn has a superficial level of happiness and joy, which acts as a façade for a deeper level of morbidity and death, most likely because of the fact that Keats, was dying as he wrote this poem. First of all, when one starts to read this poem, one cannot help but think that the tone is one of happiness. In fact, in the third stanza, Keats uses the word happy five times. The language of the poem is very flowery and beautiful, and it has the effect of lightening the deeper mood of the poem. For example, in the line “A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:” (4), Keats is talking about the tale told by the urn. He is disguising it as sweet and flowery when, in reality, it is dark. The urn is symbolic of death. Another example is the lines “Forever warm and still to be enjoyed. Forever panting, and forever young:” (26-27). In these two lines Keats is talking about the immortality established on this urn. However, he realizes that true immortality does not exist.

In this poem there are many references to death and sorrow. These are more difficult to find than the flowery images and ideas, and that is why they are said to be at a deeper level. One example is the lines,

“What little town by river or seashore, Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel, Is emptied of this folk, this pious morn? And, little town, thy streets forevermore Will silent be; and not a soul to tell Why thou art desolate, can e’er return.” Keats (35-40). When one first reads these lines, one gets a sense of peace and tranquillity. However, these lines are really rather bleak. They talk of a depressing, barren place. Another example is the line, “When old age shall this generation waste,” (Keats, line 46). In this line Keats is referring to his own mortality as well as the mortality of all his readers.

The most likely reason for the morbid undertones in this poem was the fact that Keats was dying at the time he wrote it. Keats died a very young man, at the age of 26 of tuberculosis. He knew he was dying, so the idea of death was reflected in many of his works. Ode on a Grecian Urn was written only about two years before his death. In this poem he discusses immortality and things frozen forever in a state of perfection, such as the urn. It seems he is longing for the immortality that is possessed by the urn. He knows he can never have this immortality.

This explication of Keat's poem unearths the aspect of Death and lacking immortality. What also stands in the poem is the senselessness of immortality. One can imagine the triteness and redundancy in living a never-ending tale, such as that on the Urn. The man never to kiss the woman he constantly sought after, the town never to know the cause of it's fateful end...etc.

This is why a pragmatist sounds a note of caution for the future and says: ye all, who have lived life, now should be prepared to court death. All major religions of the world agree on the inevitability of this life coming to an end in this world. One who is bound is bound to die.

“The soul never takes birth and never dies at any time; nor does it come into being again when the body is created. The soul is birth less, eternal, imperishable and timeless and is never destroyed when the body is destroyed.”

-Lord Krishna

Soumya Bhattacharya
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