Beauty, Truth, and the Holiness of the Heart’s Affections

Just gonna be honest, I could NOT WAIT for this post. I guess I should have  saved the best for last, but really, don’t we all skip to dessert sometimes?

Let’s talk about my man Keats.

Of all the widely-known British Romantic Poets, John Keats probably fits the bill the best. And though all of us who have taken a survey course that has included this era of Literature would first think of Wordsworth, Keats really fits the general understanding of the “Romantic” better than Wordsworth or any other poet of this time because of his straight-up confessions of love in his poetry and letters; he lived a young life, publishing all of his work in just a few short years before he died of Tuberculosis in Winter of 1821 at the age of 26. You can find a good presentation of his life in the movie Bright Star. I would definitely check this movie out if I were you. Besides that it’s about John Keats, the movie is just an enjoyable drama with some good acting, history, and art. At least learn more about Keats’s life–and if I haven’t stressed this before with the other poets, count this as a plea for them as well. As we noted in the last post, an artist’s life doesn’t necessarily directly affect all of his creation, but knowing an artist’s life provides meaningful and useful context for his works.

More so than all the Romantic poets we’ll be talking about, Keats bears his soul straightforward in his writing, both in letters and poetry. To him, one must be perfectly in tune with one’s imagination and affections of the heart. In fact, to Keats nothing else was more obvious than these things. In a letter to a close friend of his, Benjamin Bailey, Keats wrote, “I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the Heart’s affections and the truth of Imagination–what the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth.”

Remember the paradigm of P.A.I.N. Multiply each part immensely, add in the modern understanding of Romance, and sole reliance on the imagination, and you’ll get Keats’ view of his work and the world–yet at the same time, Keats, though we might disagree that he actually did this, restrains himself so that his poetry does not obtrude into the reader’s heart. In fact, Keats believes “Wordsworth & c.” to be a sort of poetic bullies, forcing their worldview on readers and other poets.  In a letter to John Reynolds, Keats expresses disinterest in culture’s wanting him to write like Wordsworth:

We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us–and if we do not agree, seems to put its hand in its breeches pocket. poetry should be great & unobtrusive, a thing which enters into one’s soul, and does not startle it or amaze it with itself but with its subject…

Where Wordsworth focuses so much on the poet  and the poet’s creation in his actual poetry, Keats turns his creation towards the subject of his poetry–whether it’s a star, flower, or a Grecian urn.

Speaking of stars and Grecian urns, let’s get right into Keats’ poetry to see what he’s been talking about. And before “Bright Star” read this sonnet by Shakespeare. I’m going to do something a little different here in hopes that people will actually take the poetry in:
Bright Star

Ode on a Grecian Urn

While I do believe most of Keats’ poems show exactly what we’re trying to get at here (perceived beauty as truth and the heart’s affections–in case you missed it), I’m just gonna be honest: besides “Ode to a Nightingale,” these are my favorites.

Looking at “Bright Star,” we see an example of Keats’ constant pointing to his subject instead of pointing to himself or the poem’s structure. The poem itself is pretty simple in structure, being a sonnet. What’s really cool–and obvious, of course–is  that Keats’ subject here isn’t just this unchanging star. It’s love. It’s his love for a woman. It’s the woman herself. To Keats, the heart is so holy that only pure, unfailing devotion can approach it–anything else would be profane.

This may be a good time to note that much of Keats’ poetry is almost, well, it pretty much is, pantheistic, probably not because Keats was a pantheist but because he takes his cue from the classicists of old. Most of his early poetry seems to either be inspired by Hellenistic stories and themes, Shakespeare, or Milton. Later works, such as “Bright Star”–written on a page opposite of Shakespeare’s 116th sonnet–are obviously influenced by Shakespeare.

Looking at “Ode on a Grecian Urn” we see Keats’ perception of humanity as a constant struggle, and yet full to the brim of passion and love, which, if perceived correctly by the senses, are beautiful and, consequently, truth. Keats sees Beauty as something deeper than the aesthetic. To Keats, beauty is the push and pull of human passion, the steadfastness of love, the unchangeable human spirit. Keats believes all these are unreachable, sacred, hidden behind the veil of the holy of holies–and are only to be approached by a pure heart.

To prepare for next time, let’s take a few lines from a letter that Keats wrote to his love Fanny Brawne: I have two luxuries to brood over in my walks, your loveliness and the hour of my death. O that I could have possession of them both in the same minute. It is strange to us to think of death as a luxurious thought, but with these poets we will encounter this idea many times. It’s not all about how wonderful and happy nature is–sometimes it’s about the awesomeness of the terribleness of nature.

Next time: The Beautiful and the Sublime

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One response to “Beauty, Truth, and the Holiness of the Heart’s Affections

  1. Walt Wrzesniewski

    Just…thank you for making the effort; I have been touched and uplifted.

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