By the time John Keats began to write his great mythological works, the use of the classical world in poetry had become somewhat scorned in English literary circles, after the allegorical excesses of the eighteenth century. In Keats’ imagination, however, the Greco-Roman pantheon served not as a source of aesthetic embellishment but as part of a new, organic mythology of his own creation. 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. In this essay I explore Keats’ use of myth to access this personal identity, which he does frequently through three poetic techniques. The first I call “mythological sense,” meaning the apprehension of mythological allusions acting as a sixth sense for the narrator as he perceives his surroundings. The second is the physical boundedness that constricts mythological poems. The third is his use of embodied figures, initially anonymous mythological forms which appear first as objects in the narrator’s sensual experience, their mythological identifications secondary and often revealed only after their physical significance has been explored.
Corps de l’article
In a letter to his brother George in April of 1819, Keats observes, “as one part of the human species must have their carved Jupiter, so another part must have their palpable mediator” (Poems and Letters 289). In referring to the Olympian deity—specifically experienced as statuary—Keats seeks to explain the Christian salvation. The figure of savior serves as an intellectual simplification for what he describes as an individual process of “spirit-creation” (Poems and Letters 288). Earlier, he argued that human spirits solidify during earthly existence through the interaction of the intelligence, the heart, and the world or elemental space, an idea he attributed to classical philosophers. “What was his soul before it came into the world?” he asks. “An intelligence without identity? And how is this identity to be made? Through the medium of the heart” (Poems and Letters 289). In this scheme, the self-exploration of an individual consciousness is the closest proximity of divinity, and such divinity depends upon interaction with an immediate, earthly space. The gods—Christian or pagan—that humanity turns to for spiritual security act as “mediators”—facilitators of higher understanding but, according to Keats, merely adjuncts to this process of solitary realization.
All of Keats’ mythological poetry illustrates this premise. Gods—in fleeting allusions or enthroned at the center of an ode—are means of accessing something singular and personal: the “spirit creation” of an individual consciousness. Keats’ reference to a “carved Jupiter” demonstrates the manner of his mythmaking. The god is less important as an ideal than as an object in the physical world, acting upon the narrator’s evolving identity through his senses. The classical pantheon is particularly well suited for Keats’ explorations. The Olympian world is inherently embodied; rather than the abstract Judeo-Christian godhead, Greek and Roman deities wander amongst forests and mountains alongside mortal men. Keats develops these classical worlds only to turn them inward; his stylistic choices contribute to the development of an individual perceiving consciousness. Needless to say, in utilizing classical mythology he necessarily engages a world of communal experience as well. The interior spaces he develops border a tradition of collective ritual: the worshippers coming to sacrifice in “Ode on a Grecian Urn” and the consciousness of shared autumnal rite in “To Autumn” exemplify this point. Yet even at these moments, Keats displaces the purported object of shared worship with the narrator’s own identity, and fellow worshippers themselves become part of the mythological landscape, often disappearing to leave the narrator alone in his mind.
Keats utilizes three mythological techniques most frequently. The first might be called “mythological sense,” by which I mean the apprehension of mythological allusions acting as a sixth sense for the narrator as he perceives his surroundings. Often this mythological sense must replace other senses, such as sight and sound, which Keats restricts. Mythology is important as something lived and experienced—it gains life solely through its impact on the narrated self. Keats’ second technique is physical boundedness. Time and again returning to the enclosed forest bower, he constricts action to the sphere of the narrator’s immediate perception. Here again, mythological narrative is primarily important in relation to a single soul; the constant encroachment of external boundaries literally forces the focus of the poem inward. The third technique is his use of embodied figures, initially anonymous mythological forms. Like the “carved Jupiter,” characters appear first as objects in the narrator’s sensual experience; their mythological identifications are secondary and often revealed only after their physical significance has been explored. Together these three attributes, mythological sense, physical boundedness, and embodied figures, allow Keats to create a mythology of individual experience, mediating between the individual spirit and the divine. While Olympian figures carry their original identities, like shadows in Plato’s cave, they present a vision of something beyond themselves. For Keats that vision is the mythological meaning of the individual soul.
I. Mythological Sense
In “Ode to a Nightingale” (1819), Keats enhances the sensuality of his forest space by limiting sight. While he uses smell, taste, and touch to describe the world of the poem, again and again he emphasizes a lack of visibility. He longs to “drink and leave the world unseen,” to fly “on the viewless wings of Poesy,” and proclaims “I cannot see what flowers are at my feet” (Poems 280; lines 19, 34, 43). In addition to the import other senses gain in this tradeoff, Keats uses mythological identification as a sixth sense, replacing explicit sights with mythopoeic associations. By giving Poesy “viewless wings,” he combines the physical impotence of blindness with the intellectual power of flight. Poesy is a winged mythological figure, an identity with power that transcends sensory perception.
Though Keats’ narrator cannot see the nightingale, he addresses it as “light-winged Dryad of the trees,” again assigning, at least temporarily, a mythological form to the invisible (Poems 279; line 7). The implicit feminine sexuality of the nymph figure adds a sense of sexual longing to the narrator’s desire for transport. He longs for a draught of wine “tasting of Flora,” here associating the visual mythological image with taste rather than sight. In this case, however, the mismatched senses carry a different connotation. In Tooke’s Pantheon, one of the texts Keats studied at the Clarke school, and written as a Platonic dialogue, Mystagogus claims that Flora was “a famous strumpet who, by her abominable trade, heaped up a great deal of money,” and funded public games in which “lewd women came forth and showed tricks naked” (196). In this light, “tasting” Flora implies a very different meaning, with the same sexual undertones as the Dryad. In addition, the reference to the “blushful Hippocrene,” a spring near the Muses’ domicile at Mt. Helicon, introduces poetic inspiration into the landscape of sensual associations (Poems 279; line 16). These allusions allow the reader to access a pre-existing universe of icons, based on assumed knowledge of mythic forms with which Keats replaces visual description.
Yet the mythological identities themselves often become eclipsed by Keats’ fancy. It is on “the viewless wings of poetry,” not the chariot of “Bacchus and his pards,” that the narrator will reach the nightingale (Poems 280; line 33). Bacchus adds a visual texture to the darkness, as the image of the wine god surfaces for a moment, but the obliterating power of the narrator’s fancy takes precedence over the mythological structures. The displacement of Bacchus rejects the more carnal associations of Dionysian carousal. Where he uses the dryad to emphasize the sexual nature of the narrator’s desired flight, by replacing Bacchus with a less embodied image he suggests that the concept of fancy transcends the physical longing represented by the mythological figure.
Keats invokes the image of Diana to a similar end, establishing a carnal world accessible to the nightingale but very different from his own locale. For the nightingale, “Tender is the night / And haply the Queen-moon is on her throne / Cluster’d around by all her starry Fays” (Poems 280; lines 35-7). Again, a mythological image of feminine sexuality—both in the particular form of Diana and the broader associations of the moon as fertility goddess—apply to the nightingale. Keats says of his own location, “here there is no light” (Poems 280; line 38). For the narrator, the realm of classical images is subsumed in a visually-limited, dark personal space.
In “Ode on a Grecian Urn” (1819), Keats removes the sense of sound, this time relying on the visual representations of mythology to facilitate the personal power of the narrator as myth-maker. In the opening lines, Keats describes the silence of the urn first; visual imagery comes later. “Unravish’d bride of quietness” and “foster-child of Silence” are strange choices to describe visual art (Poems 282; lines 1-2). Yet it is the urn’s silence that allows the narrator to create his own mythology from its form. Likewise, the linking of this silence to objects of intimate human relationships—the “bride” and the “foster child”—introduces an element of personal love, again emphasizing the centrality of the human self in a mythological setting. (Neither the bride nor the foster child denotes a blood relationship; the urn has been linked—or wedded—to quietness through a willed action in much the same way that Keats joins it with his aesthetic musings.)
The first stanza of the poem acknowledges the classical stories, yet simultaneously rejects a simple retelling. He invokes “Tempe or the dales of Arcady,” to ground the poem in the classical world, and his mention of “mad pursuit,” “struggle to escape,” “pipes and timbrels,” and “wild ecstasy,” forces an association with the pursuits of Syrinx or Daphne, as well as the more generic landscape of carousing nymphs and satyrs (Poems 282; lines 9-10). Yet these identifications are questions; the stories at which he hints do not have the concrete meaning of mythological narrative. What becomes most important in the urn’s representations is the narrator’s concluding stanza on aesthetics removed from the classical tradition. In Silent Urns, David Ferris argues:
The moment of the downfall of Greek art . . . is the moment art becomes part of a history punctuated by our consciousness of being modern, of being unable or unwilling to imitate the Greeks. To the extent that Hellenism is fostered by this consciousness, it is a witness to our modernity despite its thematization of an idealized or fictionalized Greece. Like modernity, but perhaps less explicitly so, this Hellenism also pursues a refusal of a past. . . . For its influence to attain the highest level, Greece must be presented as what refuses imitation; only then can it retain its hold on modernity.53
The mute urn is a particularly appropriate example of how the classical stories gain importance through absence and supplanting by modern consciousness. Not only the description of art, but the narrator’s own artistic process is the goal of the poem. By crafting his own world of possibilities from the static form of an old myth, Keats demonstrates the unwillingness to imitate that Ferris describes. Yet using his “bride of quietness” to illustrate his own thesis on beauty, Keats nonetheless relies on the existing stories, as he does in “Nightingale.” Apollo and Daphne flit about the periphery of Keats’ uncertain world; while he rejects imitative storytelling, the urn’s ambiguous landscape depends upon the implicit story for its creation.
In “Hyperion” (1818), Keats limits sense to a very different end—a currency in the economy of power between his gods. The poem opens in a characteristically limited physical space—the “shady sadness” of a sunken vale, cut off from the universal cycle of sun and stars. This insular setting adds to the specificity of the personal narrative, as Keats shrinks the Titanic subject matter to the lens of individual perception. Harold Bloom suggests that Keats’ intention is “to subtly advance the Titans toward the condition of mortality[;] . . . they can mature only by dying into merely human life and its limits will become their limits” (385). Yet the language Keats employs to describe their transformation tends less towards humanizing than to objectification. Keats first depicts Saturn—like the figures in “Ode on Indolence” or Cupid and Psyche—as a statue: “grey-haired Saturn, quiet as a stone / Still as the silence round his lair” (Poems 248; lines 4-5). Throughout the poem he continues to associate the fallen deities with statuary. (Thea’s “face was large as that of Memphian sphinx / Pedestal’d haply in a palace-court,” and when she knelt by her husband it was “like natural sculpture in cathedral cavern” [248; lines 31-2]). The Titans become corporeal “things”—more comprehensible to human perception, perhaps, but all too inhuman in their lack of movement and touch. Here the limitation of sense—both touch, as marble replaces flesh, and sound, as the first pages of the poem are full of silence—deflects the force of the original mythology. In the odes it was the narrator’s sense limited and replaced by mythological information. Here the narrator witnesses the sensually bereft myth itself and has the power to shape meaning from what he sees. As he observes the urn and draws his own conclusions from it, so does he regard the fallen Titans as pieces of art to work upon.
It is no coincidence that Keats introduces Hyperion—the last of the Titans to fall—in a whirlwind of sound and motion. Still invested with divinity, Hyperion can roar, blaze, and stamp his foot: a sensate being, as opposed to the “monstrous forms” of his fallen siblings (Poems 253; line 228). His discussion of the zodiac, however, (associated with Hyperion as the sun god’s trajectory), foreshadows Hyperion’s fate. The “sweet-shaped lightnings from the nadir deep” become “what we find on remnants huge / Of stone or marble swart’ their import gone” (Poems 254; lines 276, 282). Here, too, the transition from myth to physical relic traces the disintegration of power. The “remnants” suggest Shelley’s “Ozymandias”—and share with it the idea of desolation in the absence of consciousness. Mythology, buttressed only by the past significance of lifeless figures, is indeed impotent. Only by infusing myth with the human imagination does Keats awaken it into meaning. What is important is not the ritual significance of figures of power but the modern idea of a living, individual intellect as the ultimate divinity.
In “The Fall of Hyperion” (1819), Keats makes further use of statuary to illustrate the impotence of the fallen Titans; in this case, however, this comparison enhances a parallel identity between Saturn and the poet narrator. In the first scene, Moneta relegates the narrator to the “useless” category of dreamer, asking “What benefit canst thou, or all thy tribe, / To the great world? Thou art a dreaming thing / A fever of thyself” (Poems 365; lines 167-9). With the link between poet and dreamer established in the opening lines of the poem (“Poesy alone can tell her dreams” (Poems 362; line 8)), Moneta’s condemnation seemingly extends to both. Like the impotence of the narrator’s art, the fallen gods constitute a parallel variety of powerless aesthetic. Even as the old regime gods are replaced by the Olympians, however, the narrator apprehends a superior representative of his kind: the visionary poet. Moneta claims “The poet and the dreamer are distinct / . . . / The one pours out a balm upon the world / The other vexes it” (Poems 366; lines 199-201). Just as Hyperion will be replaced by the poet god Apollo, so must the narrator acknowledge his own artistic inadequacy.
Keats takes great care to describe the physical details of the scene between Thea and Saturn:
Poems 370; lines 279-384
She pressed her fair large forehead to the earth
Just where her fallen hair might spread in curls,
A soft and silken mat for Saturn’s feet.
Long, long these two were postured motionless,
Like sculpture builded-up upon the grave
Of their own power.
The preponderance of minute observations of Thea’s form contributes to the sense of the gods as individual objects rather than inaccessible deities. By emphasizing their statue-like quality, Keats forces them into the same silence as the urn, relying upon the pre-existing myth of the Titans to inform us of a vacuum of dead power. Without the mythological framework, the figures would be static; the myth is necessary to infuse the restricted sound and motion with the awareness of what has been lost. Keats also restricts sense to connect the myth and the poet who explores it. The image of the statue implies the specific stasis of creative production. At the beginning of the poem, the narrator refers to his hand as “this warm scribe,” and the same connotations of inscription and chiseling that accompany the term unfold later in the stone-like gods (Poems 279; line 17).
In “Ode to Psyche” (1819), his first great ode, Keats uses mythological sense to indicate the pre-existing story he replaces. Psyche, the last of the deities added to the Pantheon, first appeared in Apuleuis’ The Golden Ass in the first century A.D. Psyche is a mortal princess who weds Cupid but may not see him in daylight. She loves him, unaware of his identity, until illicitly gazing upon him by lamplight. By mentioning “Olympus’ faded hierarchy” and a historical explanation for Psyche’s lack of real temples, Keats acknowledges the role of collective human thought in creating the idea of Psyche but denies its adequacy (Poems 276; line 24). Public worship of Psyche by poets and priests would be inappropriate if we regard her as the emblem of personal consciousness that her name has come to denote. Keats transforms the myth into an original creation by supplanting physical with psychological space. He links the forest to the flowering of his own creativity; through the “wreath’d trellis of a working brain” and the “untrodden region of . . . mind,” which becomes dominant. By removing the tangible forest, along with the sensual physicality of the lovers’ embrace, Keats restricts the sense of touch, transferring the action of the ode out of the realm of the corporeal (Poems 277; lines 51, 60).
Though the specifics of this mental landscape form something new, they are informed by the creative validity of the original myths. Keats mentions that, to the ancients, “holy were the haunted forest boughs / Holy the air, the water, and the fire” (Poems 276; lines 38-9). His woods, then, are built upon a pre-existing natural religion; their nature is partially determined by the older imaginative landscape they replace. Likewise, he populates his internal grove with “moss-lain Dryads” and “zephyrs,” characters whose descriptive significance hinges on earlier mythology. At the same time, he maintains a distinction between his new world and the classical. When he rejects the old hierarchy, he invokes “Phoebe’s sapphire-regioned star” and “Vesper, amorous glow-worm of the sky”—constellations that had precise physical and mythological coordinates (Poems 276; lines 26-7). By contrast, his new landscape slumbers beneath “stars without a name”—his own creations that transcend definition in older mythology (Poems 277; line 61). Likewise, his “branched thoughts” that act as trees are “new grown with pleasant pain,” meaning the sorrows and pleasures of his own experience inform the fresh myth he creates (Poems 277; line 52). Even “the gardener Fancy . . . / Who breeding flowers, will never breed the same” reflects his insistence on uniqueness, even amongst flowers (Poems 277; lines 63-4). Also, significantly, the Dryads themselves “shall be lull’d to sleep”; manifestations of the older mythology become virtually impotent amidst the creative supremacy of the narrator (Poems 277; line 57).
Keats’ use of mythological sense is perhaps most critical in “To Autumn” (1819), the one ode that, ironically, lacks a single explicit classical reference. (Dorothy van Ghent claims that he emulates a mythic ritual: “The controlling ritual figure in the ‘Ode to Autumn’ is one many times represented on vases and metal or ivory seals of the Aegean world: the anodos and cathodos of an earth-goddess. This is the simplest form of fertility ritual” ). While the naturalistic paganism—where autumn is a fertility goddess and the “maturing sun” a masculine deity—need not be specifically Olympian, the tension Keats establishes between autumn and spring invokes the myth of Demeter and Persephone. After a descriptive tribute to autumn, he asks abruptly, “Where are the songs of Spring?” and cautions the goddess to “Think not of them,” implying both an expectation of spring as a turning point, as well as the goddess’ preoccupation (Poems 360; lines 23-4). Were this goddess a non-specific personification of fall, there would be little motivation for this link to spring.
Likewise, Keats emphasizes a funereal element to autumn. The “bared clouds bloom the soft-dying day,” “in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn,” and “the light wind lives or dies” (Poems 361; lines 25-6). Yet even in mourning he maintains life: though the day dies, the clouds “bloom” it; the wind lives as well as dies. These images present a symbolic contrast to the bountiful harvest of the first stanzas. Yet they are unified by the awareness of fall as the harbinger of Persephone’s absence, in her seasonal cycle of death and rebirth—both of which Keats encapsulates in his description. While Demeter is the harvest goddess of autumn, she is fundamental to all the seasons by way of her relationship to Persephone. Keats’ incorporation of death into a poem about life acknowledges the role of the underworld in the classical conception of the year.
Yet this broad mythological sensibility is only a foundation for a new kind of harvest myth. Indeed, Keats adapted the setting for the ode from his own perception of his environs at Winchester, which he described in an 1819 letter to Reynolds: “How beautiful the season is now—How fine the air . . . Really chaste weather—Dian skies—I never liked stubblefields so much as now. Somehow a stubble-plain looks warm—in the same way pictures look warm—This struck me so much in my Sunday’s walk that I composed upon it” (Letters II: 167). The images of the “half-reap’d furrow,” and the “granary floor,” extracted from Keats’ own experience, transport Demeter from Olympus to the sphere of domesticity (Poems 360; lines 14, 16). He asks “Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?” implying that the harvest goddess has an embodied, contemporary identity, a life beyond antiquity (Poems 360; lines 12). The granary and plowed field represent human production, not pagan naturalism. Demeter is a goddess of the English countryside, to be stumbled upon by field hands: a mythic form far removed from the giver and destroyer in classical tradition. The unpacking of this classical fertility tale amidst a specific modern locale, and the redrawing of Demeter through the lens of a single mortal perceiver, makes Keats’ myth a reincarnation, rather than a retelling. Not dependent upon the psychological specificity of “Psyche,” or the individual creativity of “Grecian Urn,” this myth nonetheless relates to the personal experiences of the narrator in his time and place. At the same time, autumn is a symbol of timelessness, linking old mythology to modern incarnations through an eternal form.
II. Physical Boundedness
A journey into Keats’ mythological landscapes is invariably an exploration of the woods. While many of his works take place within dense confines—Isabella’s bedchamber, for example—his mythological poems unfold in sylvan locales. Forms emerge in shadowy bowers, girded by foliage; his characters inhabit the constrained spaces of the underbrush. The forest is a logical choice. Pagan deities reside comfortably in the naturalistic setting of Arcadia, while the physical boundedness of the bower image serves a key structural function in Keats’ mythmaking. Through spatial limitations on his characters and narrators, Keats turns the myths inwards; the limits of his individual perception dictate the limits of the mythological characters, which emphasizes them as aspects of his own psyche.
Opening “Endymion” (1818), Keats describes beauty as making “a bower quiet for us,” staking out the space of naturalistic enclosure in which objects take on meaning beyond their discrete existences (Poems 65; line 4). He suggests “the moon” and “the passion poesy” as examples of such beauty, and the image of the bower enforces the role of nature as a medium in which the beautiful may be realized. He begins the story of Endymion as another example of an aesthetic entity elevated to glory through its sheer beauty. Always, however, he emphasizes pleasure—particularly the intellectual pleasure of the poet—as the reason to glorify the beautiful.
Like the metaphorical quiet bower, the narrative is girded by a series of sylvan enclosures. Keats surrounds Endymion’s pastoral home with foliage: “early budders / . . . / run in mazes of the youngest hue / About old forests” (Poems 66; lines 41-3). This contrast between young budders and old forest mimics the relationship between Keats’ living new myth and the ancient story. Likewise, his “mazes” imply something enigmatic about this bower space: the spiritual development that Endymion must attain before gaining his love. The forest, Keats tells us immediately, “had gloomy shades, sequester’d deep / Where no man went” (Poems 66; lines 67-8). It is in these spaces, removed from public awareness, that Endymion and Diana will love. Even in setting the scene, Keats links heaven and earth in these confines: “Who could tell / The freshness of the space of heaven above / Edged round with dark tree-tops?” (Poems 67; lines 84-6). Here, the earthly girds the divine: the mythological idea of heaven is physically contained within the terrestrial landscape.
The first important bower scene occurs when Endymion confesses his love to his sister Peona. This meeting takes place on “a bowery island / . . . / where nested was an arbour” (Poems 75; lines 428, 431). The density of the sylvan surroundings encloses a place for revelation, closely associated with the concept of sleep and dreaming. Keats describes Endymion’s sleep as if it were the bower itself: “Unconfined / Restraint! Imprisoned liberty!” (Poems 75; lines 453-4). Both the dream and the bower limit the scope of experience within certain boundaries. Nonetheless, even as the bower can physically contain “heaven”—or an infinite depth of sensual experience—so the dream allows Endymion to explore his love for the goddess beyond the constraints reality imposes while he is awake.
In his speech about happiness, Endymion presents a paradox in the idea of the bower as a place of bliss: “A fellowship with essence; till we shine,/ Full alchemized, and free of space” (Poems 84; lines 779-80). This sounds like a longing to escape physical constraint. However, freedom from space could also suggest the ultimate collapsing of physical existence into the psychological. Like the metamorphosis resulting from alchemy, the ceasing of physical existence is similarly impossible. As in the internal world of a dream, where space is irrelevant but possibilities are infinite, Endymion’s version of “a fellowship with essence” could mean the reduction of space into a single consciousness.
Indeed, the most terrifying images in “Endymion” relate to unconfined space. The flight scenes towards the end center on Endymion’s confusion between earthly love of the Indian maiden and divine love of Diana. He exclaims, “I see my spirit flit alone about the dark” and compares his state of perplexity to Icarus, who also suffered by aspiring to the boundlessness of heaven:
Poems 149; lines 441-4
. . . He who died
For soaring too audacious in the sun
When that same treacherous wax began to run
Felt not more tongue-tied than Endymion.
Saying he felt “tongue-tied” emphasizes Endymion’s state of emotional confusion. A seemingly light adjective when applied to Icarus’ death, links terrifying consequences to what seems mere amorous indecision.
Keats demonstrates the murkiness of identity and mutual exclusivity of his two loves through this image of boundlessness—of uncontrolled progression from one space to another. If the enclosure of the bower is a space for revelation and union of physical forms, the idea of an infinite void indicates an entire loss of identity. Terrifying too, especially in Keats’ world where physical contact is such an important component of poetic existence, are the insubstantial forms in the flying sequence. As Endymion’s love disappears before his eyes, the narrator exclaims:
Poems 151; lines 506-10
. . . Despair! Despair!
He saw her body fading gaunt and spare
In the cold moonshine. Straight he seized her wrist
It melted from his grasp: her hand he kiss’d
And, horror! Kiss’d his own.
Unlike the jubilant aerial imagery in Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound, the flight with Diana’s horses reflects a lack of self-determination, rather than its exercise. Arthur Bell argues that “falling continually,” as Keats mentioned in a letter to Reynolds, is an expression of intellectual uncertainty. He also notes “Spatial imagery . . . is revealed gradually in more or less close coordination with emotional states” (85). In the case of Endymion, the contraction and expansion of physical spaces mirrors the hero’s swing from sensual joy to utter despair.
The concluding landscape is a middle ground between the two states. When Endymion apprehends and is united with Diana, the goddess declares that they “range/ These forests,” and the pair promptly “vanish’d far away” (Poems 162; lines 993-4, 1002). The characters’ loss of corporeality through vanishing suggests a breach of the restrictive bower space, as does their freedom to “range.” Nonetheless, Diana implies that they will dwell only in the forest, and emphasizes this through her promise to Peona that “to thee, (these forests) safe shall be” (162; line 994). To unite with Endymion, it seems that Diana must relinquish her celestial role as moon goddess in exchange for her other identity as the goddess of the chase.
Indeed, the tension between bower and heavens illustrates the central conflict in the love of Diana and Endymion. Her dual divinity as goddess of heaven and earth must resolve into solely the latter if she is to love the earthly prince. Nonetheless, with Endymion’s newfound immortality, he becomes fused with something outside of himself—his goddess love and the forest at large. The poem ends outside of the bower. Endymion’s consciousness has grown to extend beyond his personal dreamspace. Although confined to the woodland setting, the narrator has expanded the physical limits of the narration to accommodate personal interaction between his characters.
In “Ode to Psyche,” Keats produces the opposite effect, by abandoning traditional narrative to dwell upon a single entity, thus further constricting physical space. The movement from the already-dense forest bower to the constructed imaginary space underscores the relationship between the places. The second, interior landscape inhabits the narrator, while he moves through the first as a character-observer. A physical difference between the two worlds illustrates this point, when Keats mentions “a casement ope at night,” through which Love can enter to visit Psyche (Poems 277; line 66). In the midst of a natural setting, a window seems incongruous. Where the grove in the first stanza is bounded only by trees, at the conclusion of the ode we come face to face with a piece of masonry. This window represents a solid boundary to the world of Keats’ imagination: the limits, it would seem, to the scope of his own psyche. By creating a window (through which the pre-existing character of Cupid may access his grove), Keats acknowledges the interplay of his imagination with constructs from the outside world. Nonetheless, the window implies the existence of a wall, which emphasizes the private nature of this second landscape.
For Helen Vendler, Keats’ bowers in “Pscyhe” and “Endymion” represent the youth’s erotic perception of the world, which will be supplanted in later poems like “The Fall of Hyperion” by a second, “sacrificial” perception of adulthood:
But though in Psyche bower and sanctuary are still one, a strain is evident in the fabric of writing. The ode attains its greatest writing not in its description of the rosy sanctuary-bower at the close, but in the slightly earlier description of the landscape surrounding that fane, the landscape of the as yet untrodden region of the mind that lies beyond the Chamber of Maiden Thought.58
As Vendler notes, Keats contemplates this expanded intellectual space—the passageways branching away from the Chamber—in the lines “Far, far around shall those dark-cluster’d trees / Fledge the wild-ridged mountains steep by steep” (Poems 277; lines 54-5). Yet—like the unexplored space around the Chamber, which must be accessed through the confinement of hallways—this “untrodden region” exists only to be restricted by the walls of the “rosy sanctuary” which Keats immediately constructs within it. The movement from youth to adulthood is but a change, not a complete expansion, of perception.
In “Ode to a Nightingale,” Keats again employs the casement as a point of access to a personal bower space. Here, however, he divides his awareness between two discreet locations, rather than the concentric spheres in “Psyche.” At first he imagines the nightingale singing “In some melodious plot / Of beechen green, and shadows numberless” (Poems 279; lines 8-9). The mythological space the nightingale inhabits—designated as such by the latent image of Virgil in the beech tree—is inaccessible to the narrator. Here the strict borders of the forest separate him from his subject, rather than unifying them. Constriction, to the narrator, is physically debilitating. He resides in “embalmed darkness,” surrounded by the physical—and potentially mental— limitation of the sarcophagus rather than the ecstasy of the nightingale’s bower (Poems 280; line 43). In this duality, the mythological realm exists as a living state relative to the narrator’s own longing for death or obliteration.
The casement is again a portal to a place of imagination, but it does not link the narrator’s bower to that of the nightingale. Instead, he observes that the bird’s song “Charm’d magic casements, opening on the foam / Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn” (Poems 281; lines 69-70). The juxtaposition of the forest location with the limitless ocean image emphasizes the freedom available, even while physically confined, to the nightingale as a symbol of fancy. Nonetheless, the window is in “faery land” as well—a space usually depicted as forested. To the nightingale, then, the woods carry a double identity: that of the Spenserian fairy world as well as the classical one. His enchanted bower is a nexus of mythologies; surrounded by the story of the emperor and the nightingale, the biblical tale of Ruth, and the classical imagery of the first stanzas, the nightingale can access numerous myths by means of song. Keats’ incorporation of non-Greco-Roman mythologies de-emphasizes the importance of a particular mythic system in favor of an imagination that accesses them all.
Yet the narrator does not share these journeys. As Vendler says, “the mythological must be refused in this poetic world so purely restricted to a fragrant blind hearing,” a process which will culminate in an “intellectual and psychic advance over the . . . purely floral and unfading . . . bower in “Psyche” (90, 92). The narrator’s physical space is limited by his inertia, as layer upon layer of debilitation constricts his movement and mental potency. The images of “drowsy numbness,” “dull opiate,” and “Lethe-wards” contribute to a ponderous lethargy, and that they all indicate some unnatural depressant suggests the narrator’s removal is, to a degree, voluntary (Poems 279; lines 1-4). Indeed, for all his relative helplessness compared to the nightingale’s ecstasy, the narrator’s imaginative act eventually defines them both. The conclusion, with the bird’s song “buried deep,” is an active consumption of the fanciful bower by the insensate one (Poems 281; line 77). Here again, the bower may be tightly controlled by psychological action. Keats establishes the two constricted spheres as separate, and his act of imagination conflates them again into the same state of impotence. Vendler, for whom this bower is a “repository of memory and art” describes the process by which the poet define(s) the boundaries of his “darkened space” (91). Stuart Sperry argues, “The Nightingale works from a point in history, the standpoint of the speaker in his heartache and loneliness, in the effort to regain the world of timelessness and myth” (262). The forest serves as an ideal medium through which to approach this timelessness. Despite their separate locales, the narrator and the speaker share a continuum in time, yet the use of the discrete bowers forces the undeniable specificity of the narrator’s existence in relation to the infinite mythological realm of the nightingale.
In “The Fall of Hyperion,” too, Keats marks the transition from Moneta’s more abstract discussion of poetry versus dreamer to the world of straightforward mythological narrative by a shift from temple to grove. At once, “the shady sadness of a vale / Far sunken from the healthy breath of morn / Far from the fiery noon and eve’s one star” encroaches and frames the action of the rest of the poem (Poems 368; lines 294-6). In this case, physical removal has a more negative connotation than in the odes; Keats enforces the inaccessibility of heaven to the Titans through the eclipse of celestial imagery by the grove. As Helen Vendler says, “The grateful shade of the pastoral covert is here, but transmuted; this bower provides not protection from too hot a sun or too harsh a wind but rather imprisonment from sun and air alike” (199). Unlike Endymion’s quiet bower, here constriction is neither happy nor healthy. In these instances, however, Keats brings us back to the vantage point of a central poetic voice. Mythology takes on meaning as it illustrates the concerns of the narrator and serves, ultimately, as a medium through which to explore the emotional and creative projections of that individual.
III. Embodied Figures
A final structural characteristic of Keats’ mythmaking is his narrators’ gradual identification of mythological figures. Keats begins to build his mythology from raw visual and auditory elements, which his narrators perceive before he assigns identity. His gods and goddesses are less important as signifiers of abstract meaning then as physical embodiments. The importance of concrete form in his mythological poems is another means by which Keats develops the centrality of individual perception. A figure depends upon a perceiver, and, in describing the perceived, the narrator, to a certain degree, plays the part of creator. In the first chapter of the Pantheon, Tooke uses the same framework for introducing myth. Paleophilus asks, “What sort of building is that before us of so unusual a figure?” Mystagogus responds, “The fabulous Pantheon” (Tooke 1). The narrator’s approach to Saturn’s temple in “The Fall of Hyperion” echoes this prologue, and Keats similarly accesses the classical world in many poems.
“Ode to Psyche” exemplifies this. In his first encounter with the lovers, the narrator identifies their physical forms before exploring their identities. They are initially discrete from the narrator yet simultaneously cohabitants of his physical space rather than elevated objects of worship. By first describing the “two fair creatures” in their amorous embrace before calling them by name, Keats liberates them, momentarily, from their narrative context (Poems 276; line 9). Their united pleasure exists as a newly created thing of beauty, which Keats shapes before any mythological reference, which arrives at line 22, can create or reinforce expectations of character. In this case, Keats and his poet narrator are not entirely interchangeable; while the latter is initially a viewer, rather than a creator, the former has the power to build the landscape from the blocks of physical observation. Keats’ intimate description of the lovers—from “the bedded grass” to their barely touching lips— exerts an intense control over the minutest details of his creation (Poems 276; line 15). Yet these same details separate the narrator from his subjects, intensifying the physical union upon which he intrudes.
In addition, the introduction of the lovers as perceived forms emphasizes the function of the poem as a ritualistic incantation. Rather than characters in a well-worn narrative, Cupid and Psyche are physical entities to which the narrator gives significance. He achieves the transition from anonymous form to object of worship through the means of description, in and itself a kind of idolatry. Keats’ mention of Psyche’s “awaken’d eyes” suggests the ritual in Hindu worship which consecrates a divine image by opening its eyes (Poems 275; line 6). Like Hindu idols, Psyche’s physical form becomes infused with divinity. As with the worship of any idol, the narrator’s looking upon her becomes ritualistic. Psyche is an appropriate subject for a poem about perception—her forbidden gaze, after all, led to her misadventures.
In any case, Psyche’s function as an embodied idol allows Keats to discard her myth and focus upon immediate worship. The cascade of ritual images—the “virgin-choir,” the “chain swung censer,” the “shrine, grove, and oracle”—illustrates the older formal worship which the narrator replaces through his poetic worship (Poems 276; lines 30-3). In this trade-off, the narrator as priest figure becomes the central focus. As van Ghent observes, “The urgency toward mythic knowledge and form relinquishes the bonds of the poet’s insistent selfhood, his negation, his sexual fear. Or rather, the metaphor is not of severing but instead merging and subsuming the selfhood” (169). Where the embodiment of Cupid and Psyche as separate entities initially isolated the narrator from their amorous union, he takes control of Psyche by worship. As a distinguishable form, he may construct a specific location to hold her—the “untrodden region of the mind” (Poems 277; line 51). Like he would a vestal virgin, Keats uses Psyche’s ritual significance to enclose her within his symbolic temple of consciousness. The casement image plays a part in this exchange as well. Once he has enveloped Psyche in his imagined temple, the narrator has the power to exclude or invite Cupid, a reversal from the original roles of narrator as outsider and Cupid as possessor.
In “Ode on Indolence” (1819), Keats builds the identities of what turn out to be his unique mythological creations from an initial apprehension of anonymous forms. In comparing the “three figures seen” to images on yet another Grecian urn, Keats attempts to familiarize the otherwise unknown denizens of his imagination (Poems 284; line 1). “In placid sandals and in white robes graced,” the three maidens prompt a visual connection with the Graces, the Muses, or any other mythological females that personify abstractions (Poems 284; line 4). As in “Psyche,” the narrator’s perception begins with the forms themselves, which serve as a starting point for his eventual lamentation on indolence.
Yet this predominance of new description over assumed mythological identity allows the narrator more power than did his visual perception in “Psyche.” Keats builds these familiar physical forms into entities not only unfamiliar to, but mutually exclusive with classical characters: there was no triumvirate of Love, Ambition, and Poesy as a conceptual association. The usual classical symbols for these abstracts—Love as the winged son of Venus, Ambition as a vice in Pandora’s box, and Poesy, most closely, as Apollo or the horse Pegasus—could not be more disparate. It should be noted, however, that these characters did share one characteristic: wingedness. Although Keats’ figures walk and fade away, rather than fly, he reacts to their disappearance by saying “I wanted wings” (Poems 285; line 33). His goddesses have no specific Hellenistic counterparts, yet the aerial associations of the mythic forms of Love, Ambition, and Poesy inform the otherwise independent description. The contrast between these explicit and implicit symbols mirrors the split in the narrator’s own psyche. At once he “burn’d / And ached for wings,” aware of a world of movement and achievement, yet remained sedentary, “cool-bedded in the flowery grass” (Poems 285; lines 23-4, 52).
Like the narrator, the three maidens themselves remain fixed in a single locale, rhetorically constrained to the circular path around an inanimate object. The winged sprites that represent their abstracts float, forever inaccessible. Keats indicates the uniqueness of his own mythological characters when he laments, “O for an age so sheltered from annoy, / That I may never know how change the moons / Or hear the voice of busy common sense!” (Poems 285; lines 38-40). The reference to the temporal location from which he speaks—which, presumably, is not so pleasantly sheltered—suggests the awareness of an alternate locale. Perhaps the wings he wants, and the classical emblems of which these figures are only shadows, exist in this inaccessible space. Like the nightingale’s bower, the mythological world is a utopia from which the narrator is excluded. Michael O’Neill has noted that the “turns on the self” which occur at the moments where Keats’ narrator laments his winglessness, “are driven by momentary pique, as if the ideals embodied by the figures were incapable of realization and interest us in the implied self that is driven in this way” (122).
Nonetheless, the figures in “Indolence” lack a unified narrative context, and their link to actual mythology is tenuous. On the one hand, this liberty from the constraints of original narrative allows Keats to play mythmaker more definitely. He asks, “How is it, Shadows, that I knew ye not?” suggesting an existing identity for the three figures beyond this poem (Poems 284; line 11). Though he creates new physical forms for these concepts, even claiming one as “my demon Poesy,” he implies that they have universal meaning beyond what he assigns (Poems 285; line 30). As in “Psyche,” the ode is structured around embodied forms that bring mythological ideas into contact with the narrator. On the other hand, without an actual story behind these goddesses, Keats has constructed not only the personal interaction, but the implied universal meaning as well.
The terms by which he addresses them reinforce their existence beyond his perception. They are “ghosts,” “phantoms,” and “shadows,” all indicating that he sees merely the remains of something greater. That this ode is not grounded in a mythological context is perhaps one of the reasons the narrator’s engagement seems more superficial than in the others, and it is often criticized as the least successful of the odes. “Indolence” ends with the mere vanishing of the phantoms; the narrator’s inability to follow them loses meaning when the world into which they vanish remains undefined. Likewise, the somewhat arbitrary group of figures cannot resonate to the degree of actual mythological allusions; Keats creates a glimpse into a myth through the medium of embodiment, but it lacks the sixth sense quality of many of his other works. In defending “Indolence,” O’Neill argues that “the fact that [the narrator] does not resolve his feelings into a single state draws us in, making us involved spectators in his state of restless languor, detached engagement” (121). From O’Neill’s position, it is the narrator’s internal conflict—his dual yearning and fearing a state of nothingness—that is a source of richness in the Ode. Nonetheless, in utilizing the three anonymous deities as a site for this tension, Keats risks the one-dimensionality of allegory, without the synthesis and expansion of meaning that accompany his other uses of mythology. In a sense, the figures distract the reader from the dynamics of the inner drama which O’Neill perceives. Lacking transcendent meaning themselves—what Coleridge might call “the translucence of the Eternal through and in the Temporal” (Coleridge 30)—their embodiment in the Ode occupies a disproportionate symbolic space.
Through failing to do so, “Ode on Indolence” demonstrates by contrast how the coupling of visual perception with the implications of an existing narrative in Keats’ other works allows him to reach deeper levels of meaning. At his best, Keats channels classical tradition into forms that play upon the senses and become part of the immediate experience of the individual. By using existing myths which require less obvious articulation, he avoids the awkward assertion of theme that weakens “Ode on Indolence.” The result often rises to the level of myth itself: the personal consciousness as a contemporary divinity, articulated through the spatial characteristics of Keats’ poetics.
- I am indebted in this work to my mentor and friend James Engell, for teaching me to be a scholar and showing me how to be a teacher.
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