Imagination in Keats’ “Lamia”

I have recently been reviewing and analysing a few short poems by John Keats. It seems that one of his biggest concerns was the imagination, and how it could offer an escape from reality; Keats believed in the raw power of our imagination but accepted that it came from our minds, which are confined to a temporary existence in the world. These ideas are considered quite fully in some of his longer poems, so I thought that it would be interesting to review them in one of my favourite poems, “Lamia”.

Plot Overview

Keats wrote “Lamia” in 1819, the same year that he wrote many of his famous Odes. It is a tricky poem with lots of references to classical mythology, so let me give you a (brief) overview of the main events taking place in the poem.

IMG-3135.jpg“Lamia” tells the story of a serpent who claims to have once been a woman called Lamia. She makes a deal with the god, Hermes, and he turns her into a woman. She then meets with a man named Lycius, who she claims to love.

The couple move to a beautiful mansion together and before long, they decide to marry. Despite Lamia’s protests, Lycius insists on hosting a large marriage festival so that he could celebrate the engagement with his friends and family. During the celebrations, a philosopher fixes his eyes on Lamia and announces that she is really a serpent in disguise. As soon as this happens, Lamia disappears from sight. Devastated, Lycius dies of heartbreak soon after.

Going Deeper into the Poem…

The first thing that’s interesting about this poem is that Lamia calls Lycius’ name as soon as she is turned into a woman. As a serpent, she would have been unable to meet Lycius, yet she claims to love him. Keats explains that this is because “she could muse / And dream, when in the serpent prison-house”. Basically, her spirit was able to leave her physical body and seek out Lycius, which enabled her to fall in love with him.

“Where she will’d her spirit went”  –  “Lamia” by John Keats.

This in itself links to the imagination, for although Lamia does seem to actually meet Lycius through this spiritual connection, her escape from “the serpent prison-house” reflects how our imagination can allow us to escape from our “prison-house” (our bodies) and offer some relief from the struggles of everyday life.

IMG-3136.jpgIn a way, Lamia’s life with Lycius also links to her imaginative powers. After their engagement, Lamia occupies herself with decorating their home for the marriage festival, yet Keats notes that “’tis doubtful how and whence / Came, and who were her subtle servitors.” The sibilance in this phrase reminds readers of Lamia’s serpentine form and the spiritual powers that she then exhibited. She decorated the hall with unknown “servitors”, which may suggest that either the decorations were an illusion constructed by Lamia’s powers, or that she imagined helpers as she worked.

This idea of imagination being able to alter the physical world is also prevalent later on in the poem. The entire time that Lamia is with Lycius, they are alone, but once guests arrive, she disappears. This may indicate that her entire physicality existed only in Lycius’ mind; perhaps she was never turned into a woman but, as a snake, was able to form images in his imagination. This is particularly interesting as their guests may represent reality breaking their imaginative trance, disturbing the vision and bringing Lycius back to reality. The shock – or perhaps horror – of reality then kills him.


Obviously, there’s a lot more going on in “Lamia” than its references to the imagination, and if you’re interested, there are plenty of readable versions of the text available online. I really just wanted to focus on the imagination today because Keats’ thoughts about it are so interesting. He views it as powerful, but, like Lamia, it is also temporary.

Anyway, it’s a great poem, and if you get a chance, do read it. When I say that it is a long poem, it is nothing on Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, but it is too long for me to want to write about each individual line, which is why I have chosen to analyse it like this, instead. I hope you enjoyed this post, and thank you very much for reading!

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“On Melancholy”: Analysis

The Poem

On Melancholy

By John Keats

No, no, go not to Lethe, neither twist
Wolf’s-bane, tight-rooted, for its poisonous wine;
Nor suffer thy pale forehead to be kiss’d
By nightshade, ruby grape of Proserpine;
Make not your rosary of yew-berries,
Nor let the beetle, nor the death-moth be
Your mournful Psyche, nor the downy owl
A partner in your sorrow’s mysteries;
For shade to shade will come too drowsily,
And drown the wakeful anguish of the soul.

But when the melancholy fit shall fall
Sudden from heaven like a weeping cloud,
That fosters the droop-headed flowers all,
And hides the green hill in an April shroud;
Then glut thy sorrow on a morning rose,
Or on the rainbow of the salt sand-wave,
Or on the wealth of globed peonies;
Or if thy mistress some rich anger shows,
Emprison her soft hand, and let her rave,
And feed deep, deep upon her peerless eyes.

She dwells with Beauty – Beauty that must die;
And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips
Bidding adieu; and aching Pleasure nigh,
Turning to poison while the bee-mouth sips:
Ay, in the very temple of Delight
Veil’d Melancholy has her sovran shrine,
Though seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue
Can burst Joy’s grape against his palate fine;
His soul shalt taste the sadness of her might,
And be among her cloudy trophies hung.

The Message

Keats’ “On Melancholy” is all about (you guessed it) melancholy. It begins by suggesting how people should cope with misery, listing the things that a person shouldn’t do, and then what they should do, instead. This is more than just a self-help poem, though; Keats goes on to consider the advantages of melancholy, encouraging his readers to make use of their sadness and turn it into inspiration for their writing. After all, as Keats suggests, misery is a part of being human and, without it, there can be no joy.

The Analysis

Metre & Structure

“On Melancholy” is written in a roughly iambic pentameter with a few deviances from the rhythm (particularly in the third stanza). What is perhaps more interesting, though, is the poem’s rhyme scheme: in the first two stanzas, it follows an ABABCDECDE pattern. This (along with the iambic pentameter) forms the rhythm of the Keatsian Ode. Yet this rhyme is broken in the final stanza of the poem, where it follows the pattern: ABABCDEDCE. This is only a small change, but it does demonstrate a disruption of this common form, suggesting that Keats’ poetry is perhaps altered by his own misery.

Line by Line

  • “No, no,” – The ode begins in mid-conversation, sounding as though Keats is denying something that has already been said. This is because there was actually a stanza preceding this first one in earlier drafts of the ode. It took me a fair while to track down this missing stanza, but you can read more about it here. Regardless, its removal emphasises the passion in the poem; in a way, it is as though Keats is rejecting his own melancholy.
  • “Lethe” – This is the first of many classical references in this ode. As we learn from his “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer”, Keats was very passionate about classical mythology. This river is also known as ‘the river of forgetfulness’; a person was supposed to touch the water, and then forget all of their earthly troubles.
  • “Tight-rooted” – It is interesting that the wolfsbane is described as “tight-rooted” and therefore difficult to remove from the ground, because Keats may be perhaps suggesting that melancholy is also difficult to remove.
  • “Poisonous wine” – When the wolfsbane flower is used in small quantities, it acts as a painkiller, but when it is used in larger quantities, it becomes extremely poisonous. It is not clear which use of the flower Keats is talking about here, but considering his warning against going to Lethe, it is likely that he is also asking people not to suppress their pain through painkillers.
  • “Kiss’d” / “Prosperine” – There is a certain amount of romantic/sexual imagery here, as Proserpine was the goddess of fertility. She was also kidnapped by Hades, the god of the underworld, and Greek mythology suggested that an arrangement was eventually settled between Hades and Demeter, Proserpine’s mother. Proserpine would spend half of each year in the underworld, and half of it with her mother. This reference presents ideas of death and sadness, but also new life, which links to the inspiration Keats believes can be had from being melancholy.
  • “Nightshade” / “Yew-berries” – Nightshade is very similar to wolfsbane; in small doses, it is a painkiller, but it can also be lethal. The same can also be said about yew-berries; Keats is really emphasising the need to endure pain without trying to escape it, even if that escape is through death.
  • “The beetle” / “The death-moth” – As with the link to Proserpine, these insects have multiple meanings. In one respect, it is interesting that Kears is using insects to make his point, as it reveals an appreciation for nature and all its (small) details. Both the beetle (think of the scarab-beetles used in Egyptian tombs) and the death-moth are associated with both death and new life (the beetle appeared to come from nothing as they hatch inside dunghills, whilst the both appears to die when it is a caterpillar, but then is born again).
  • “Mournful Psyche” – Psyche is synonymous with ‘soul’, but this is also another classical reference. Psyche was a human who married the immortal Apollo under the condition that she never looked at him. Obviously, she did, and had to endure terrible trials for her crime. Eventually, however, Psyche is reunited with Apollo, emphasising ideas of resurrection and how happiness comes from grief.
  • “The downy owl” – The owl is another symbol of death – one which Keats thinks we should not dwell on, just as we should not dwell on the beetle or death-moth.
  • “For shade to shade” – Note the hushing sound here; this links to death and explores notions of misery (whilst repetition emphasises the double meanings running throughout this first stanza).
  • “Drown the wakeful anguish of the soul” – Here, at last, is the reason why we should not be suppressing our sadness: because this would be to “drown” a part of the soul, and thus limit our humanity and imagination. Remember, the soul is a part of what makes us human and, according to Keats, so is our sadness.
  • “From heaven” – Melancholy is presented as a gift “from heaven”; no wonder we shouldn’t suppress it if it’s a gift from God (even though Keats was an atheist…).
  • “A weeping cloud” – This sounds more like Wordsworth than Keats! Why is the “cloud” “weeping”? It is because it sent down misery to the earth “from heaven”.
  • “Fosters the droop-headed flowers” – Here Keats suggests that our sadness somehow affects nature and makes nature sad, too (it “fosters” the flowers that resemble melancholy) – because human beings are a part of nature?
  • “Hides the green hill in an April shroud” – Whilst our sadness “fosters” the flowers associated with sadness, it “shroud[s]” the greenery that may have raised our spirits; in other words, when someone is depressed, they fail to notice the good things in life, seeing only the bad (and miserable).
  • “Glut” – his is a harsh-sounding word, but it basically means ‘feed’. As both words are one syllable, it is worth asking why Keats opted to use “glut”. To me, it seems more negative: it is associated with gluttony and, as I already noted, sounds a little harsh. Perhaps Keats is suggesting that we should overfeed our sorrow in order to find it more inspiring (we should gorge on sadness while we can).
  • “Morning rose” / “Rainbow” / “Globed peonies” – These beautiful things are what Keats thinks we should be focussing on (not on death omens), yet these things aren’t entirely positive. None of them will last for very long: flowers wilt and die and the “rainbow” is only visible when the spray from the waves is in front of the sun. Keats thus draws attention to the impermanence of beauty, which actually relates more to melancholy than it does to anything happy.
  • “Thy mistress” – Keats makes two assumptions here: firstly, he assumes that his readers are male, and secondly, he assumes they have a wife or lover. This lover is the man’s “mistress”, though, providing an interesting comment on gender.
  • “Emprison” – Although the man’s lover is his “mistress”, he is able to “emprison” her, indicating a gender and power reversal.
  • Let her rave, / And feed deep, deep upon her peerless eyes” – Keats suggests that when a man’s lover is angry, he should let her “rave” and he should “feed” upon her anguish. The repetition of the word “deep” makes this seem a little sinister, almost as though he is taking the misery from his lover, as though sadness is a limited resource that passes from person to person.
  • “She swells with Beauty – Beauty that must die” – Keats is still talking about the impermanence of beauty now, but it is interesting that he chooses to personify “Beauty”. Instead of simply saying “thy mistress” is beautiful, Keats uses the word “dwells” to make her beauty seem even more fleeting.
  • “Joy” / “Pleasure” – Keats also personifies “Joy” and “Pleasure”. These personification allegories were a traditional way of describing abstract concepts, and Keats appears to be drawing on this tradition in this ode.
  • “Hand is ever at his lips / Bidding adieu” – Keats is basically saying that Joy is blowing kisses and saying goodbye (joy leaves as sadness takes precedence), but this isn’t necessarily presented as a negative. Joy leaves on a high, leaving behind him room for sorrow to be better appreciated?
  • “Turning to poison while the bee-mouth sips” – “Pleasure” turns “to poison”, this juxtaposition of happiness and sadness emphasising how both experiences are a part of being human. The “bee” again reveals how Keats pays attention to nature’s details and also indicates that once “Pleasure” has become “poison”, it cannot return to a point of “Pleasure”. This reflects how, once a bee stings, it must die, and demonstrates the power of Melancholy over Pleasure.
  • “Temple of Delight” – Keats suggests that “Delight” is a thing to be worshipped. He may be indicating that happiness is given an unfair amount of attention compared to misery thinking that Melancholy should be glorified.
  • “Veil’d” – This “veil’d” reflects the “shroud” in the second stanza, but whilst the veil is associated with marriage and new beginnings, the shroud is associated with death. This emphasises the binary between happiness and misery.
  • “Melancholy has her sovran shrine” – Firstly, “sovran” is an abbreviation of ‘sovereign’ that was used commonly in the seventeenth century. It turns out that “Melancholy” exists within the “temple of Delight”, emphasising this binary.
  • “Seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue / Can burst Joy’s grape – The only ones able to see the “Melancholy” within “Delight” are those who actively search for it with “strenuous tongue[s]”. It is important to note that this reference to the “grape” reflects the references to wine in the ode’s first stanza, as alcohol may be being presented as another way of suppressing pain/misery.
  • “His palate fine” – Keats is still talking about those capable of seeing sadness within “Delight” and by suggesting that they have a “palate fine”, he is essentially glorifying them, implying that they have good taste for appreciating sadness.
  • “Soul” – Ideas regarding the soul link to the concept of dualism (this is the theory that suggests the soul can exist outside of the body). The soul is “hung” as one of Melancholy’s “trophies” even after the body has died.
  • “Taste the sadness” – Much of this stanza considers the mouth and taste, suggesting that, in a way, we consume feelings such as joy and melancholy.
  • “Her cloudy trophies hung” – This is a very ominous end to the poem, but it does help to demonstrate the power of Melancholy. The souls or “trophies” of Melancholy have accepted sadness and thus been conquered (which is here presented as a positive thing – Keats wants us to succumb to our sadness).

Overview

“Ode on Melancholy” is a complicated poem, but it’s much easier if you break it down into its separate stanzas. The first stanza is advising against becoming trapped in misery and associating yourself with death omens. At the same time, though, there is a constant theme of new life and regeneration running through this stanza.

Ode on Melancholy, Keats.jpgThe second stanza begins to describe the actual qualities of melancholy and suggests that we should focus on the impermanence of beauty and, if a lover becomes angry, we should not try to calm her; rather, we should take her hand and appreciate her anger.

The final stanza is a little more complicated as it personifies Beauty, Pleasure and Melancholy. It is basically demonstrating the importance of melancholy, as it exists within delight and is something to be admired, rather than rejected.

It’s an interesting poem and tends to make misery seem a little better. Perhaps this would be a good one to read when you’re feeling down? The double meanings in the first stanza are particularly inspiring, whilst there are some fascinating comments on gender; why is that melancholy is a “she” and delight is a “he”?


Thank you so much for reading this post! If you’re interested in looking at more of Keats’ poems, I have also written analyses for “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer“, “Bright Star” and “On Fame“. Thank you again; if you have any thoughts or questions, there is a comments section at the bottom of this page. I’d love to hear from you!

“On Fame”: Analysis

The Poem

On Fame

By John Keats

Fame, like a wayward girl, will still be coy
To those who woo her with too slavish knees,
But makes surrender to some thoughtless boy,
And dotes the more upon a heart at ease;
She is a Gipsey, – will not speak to those
Who have not learnt to be content without her;
A Jilt, whose ear was never whisper’d close,
Who thinks they scandal her who talk about her;
A very Gipsey is she, Nilus-born,
Sister-in-law to jealous Potiphar;
Ye love-sick Bards! repay her scorn for scorn;
Ye Artists lovelorn! madmen that ye are!
Make your best bow to her and bid adieu,
Then, if she likes it, she will follow you.

The Message

In his “On Fame”, Keats compares Fame to a woman, suggesting that the way to attain Fame, just like the way to gain a woman’s affections, is to act as though you’re not interested. It’s arguably not one of Keats’ greatest poems, but it is certainly interesting. He scolds his fellow bards and artists for being too obvious in their affections; in other words, he is suggesting that they are too desperate for attention (and are perhaps too pretentious by assuming an authority that they don’t yet have).

The Analysis

Metre & Structure

With an ABABCDCDEFEFGG rhyme scheme and fourteen lines made up of iambic pentameter, “On Fame” is actually a Shakespearean sonnet. Unlike his “Bright Star“, however, this poem isn’t really about love. There are two interpretations that can be had from this: firstly, that this is a subversion of the traditional form as Keats considers what people really care about (not love, but fame). Secondly, it could be argued that “On Fame” is actually about a form of self-love and its dangers.

Line by Line

  • “Fame” – As in “Bright Star“, where Keats addresses his sonnet to the star, he appears to here be addressing “Fame” and emphasising its importance by using this introduction to open the poem.
  • “Like a wayward girl” – It is interesting that Keats uses a “girl” to comment on being “wayward”; this is a comment on gender and hints at a form of misogyny.
  • “Coy” – This is an interesting choice of an adjective: fame is presented as subtle (in that it doesn’t overtly encourage men to follow it), yet is also alluring, compared again to a “girl”, but, this time, through the quintessential “girl”.
  • “Too” – The inclusion of this “too” may suggest that Keats is critiquing fame, perhaps suggesting that the extents they reach in order to reach it are too extreme?
  • “Slavish” – Both fame (and women, through the parallel Keats created in the poem’s first line) are presented as more powerful than men, as they make them “slavish”. This also presents ideas of ownership associated with the slave trade.
  • “Makes surrender to some thoughtless boy, / And dotes the more upon a heart at ease – Keats s basically suggesting that those who try too hard to gain fame (or a woman’s affections) will fail, but those who care less (and put less effort into receiving the rewards) will succeed.
  • “Gipsey” – Although fame “dotes” and is “coy” (in some respects portrayed as an obedient woman), Keats emphasises its “wayward” nature through his repetition of the word “Gipsey”. This is a comment both on the unreliability of fame and on the fickle, untrustworthy nature of women.
  • “Will not speak to those / Who have not learnt to be content without her” – Here Keats repeats his idea that the ones who gain fame are those who deserve it least, but this time suggests that those who are desperate for fame will not gain it – their “heart” must be “at ease”, not riled up and under pressure.
  • “Jilt” – Keats again presents fame as negative, as “Jilt” refers to a person (usually a woman) who is promiscuous and rejects lovers in a rather harsh way.
  • “Whisper’d close” – This phrase links to several things: the sexual privacy of a romantic relationship; a secrecy associated with the affairs of the “Jilt”; and the suggestion that fame is something private – a secret that not everyone can access.
  • “Who thinks they scandal her who talk about her” – These ideas of identity are a constant theme in Romantic literature as people moved from their farms to the cities and sought new ways of defining themselves. Reputation thus became a precious form of the self that should be protected from rumour and “scandal”.
  • “Nilus-born” – Keats was fascinated by classical mythology (a good depiction of this is in one of his more renowned poems, “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer“). Nilus was the Greek god of the river Nile, suggesting that he represents exotic lands and new discoveries (such as fame?).
  • “Sister-in-law to jealous Potiphar” – In the biblical story of Joseph, Potiphar was given Joseph as a slave. After his wife makes attempts to have an affair with Joseph, Potiphar throws Joseph into a prison cell. Fame (“sister-in-law” to Potiphar) is the sister of Potiphar’s wife, suggesting that she desires attention from a certain man in the same way his wife did.
  • “Ye love sick Bards!” / “Ye Artists lovelorn!” – Keats is perhaps critiquing his fellow Romantic poets, his anger and impatience demonstrated through the repeated exclamation marks. He thinks they are foolish for giving fame the attention they are (although he is being a bit of a hypocrite…).
  • “Replay her scorn for scorn” – Keats indicates a fury at fame and suggests people should repay her cruelty with more cruelty. This language may also reflect the biblical passage, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” (Matthew 5:38).
  • “Make your best bow to her and bid adieu, / Then, if she likes it, she will follow you” – Keats is suggesting people should give up on reaching fame and turn their backs on it. If they do this well, they will gain fame. If this is what Keats did, it certainly worked! There is also a comment about women and power here, though; man needs to reassert his power over women and have her “follow” him.

Overview

on-fame-keats.jpg“On Fame” is, in my opinion, entirely hypocritical. Keats suggests that to gain fame, a person should act as though they do not desire fame (although they almost certainly do), yet by writing a sonnet entitled “On Fame” that opens with the word “Fame”, Keats is giving fame the attention that he maintains it will reject.

Probably the most admirable thing about this poem is the parallel between fame and women, because, although it generally discredits and disempowers women, it makes Keats’ ideas about rejecting fame in order to receive it a lot clearer. Nevertheless, I do think it strange that this poem is written as a sonnet. Does Keats appreciate the fickle, hard-to-please nature of fame, and so is glorifying it through a poem? This doesn’t quite correspond with his content, but it’s a question to think on. Regardless, this is certainly an interesting poem that comments on power, gender and identity.


Thank you so much for taking the time to read this analysis – I hope it was of use to someone! If you’re interested, you can also check out my analyses of some of Keats’ other poems, such as “On First Seeing Chapman’s Homer” and “Bright Star“.

“Bright Star”: Analysis

The Poem

Bright Star

By John Keats

Bright star! would I were steadfast as thou art
Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like nature’s patient, sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors
No yet still steadfast, still unchangeable,
Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever – or else swoon to death.

The Message

As the title of this poem suggests, “Bright star” is all about a star. It depicts Keats talking to the star, and considering its negatives and positives, namely: it is lonely and powerless, but it doesn’t have to change or grow old – it doesn’t even have to die. Keats decides in this poem that he wants a little of both worlds; he desires the unchangeable nature of the star, but only so that he can have more time at his lover’s side.

The Analysis

Metre & Structure

This poem is written in (mainly) iambic pentameter, but this is not a rigid meter. It is often broken, particularly by spondees (where there are two stressed syllables in a poetic foot). This is arguably true of the opening words, where “bright” is said with the same amount of stress as “star”. The rhythm is also disrupted around the linebreaks (dashes), which emphasises Keats’ changing opinions, and the altering of his mood.

With an ABABCDCDEFEFGG rhyme scheme, this poem is also a Shakespearean sonnet, which is relevant as this form of sonnet is traditionally associated with themes of love, and, in this poem, Keats spends a lot of time considering his lover.

Line by Line

  • “Bright star!” – In some versions of this poem, the “s” of “star” is capitalised, turning it into a proper noun and suggesting that Keats is speaking to the star as though it were a person. The exclamation mark also emphasises Keats’ passion as he looks upon the star.
  • “Would I were steadfast as thou art” – Keats wishes he could be as “steadfast” as the star; just like in his famous “Ode on a Grecian Urn”, Keats discusses the benefits and disadvantages of being in stasis (frozen in time). It is therefore likely that Keats is considering the North Star in this poem, as this is the one star that doesn’t appear to move as the earth turns on its axis.
  • “-“ – These line breaks generally show a change of mood in the poem (as Keats moves between considering the advantages and disadvantages of stasis).
  • “Lone splendour – Keats now contradicts his previous desire to be like the star by considering its desperate loneliness. Nevertheless, even this negativity is questioned, as Keats considers this loneliness to be a kind of “splendour”.
  • “Splendour” / “Aloft” – It is important to note that Keats, unlike his fellow Romantic poets, belonged to the working class. Elaborate, elevated language such as “splendour” and “aloft” may indicate his desire to reach the upper classes.
  • “Hung” – Here is another negative aspect of stasis: the star can only hang, unable to move or have any control over its own autonomy. Note how this is described in the passive voice, emphasising this suggestion of powerlessness.
  • “Eternal lids” – The star can only ever watch, meaning it witnesses the good and the bad. This could be viewed both negatively and positively, although the term “eternal” again hints at the helpless nature of the star.
  • “Like Nature’s patient sleepless Eremite” – Note the use of a simile (traditionally associated with Ancient Greece). This statement is probably negative, for, although the star is “patient”, it is also “sleepless” – it doesn’t even have enough power or freedom to sleep!
  • “Eremite – “Eremite” is synonymous with the word, ‘hermit’, but also links to classical Greece. Keats was fascinated by this world after he discovered it through translations (as he was one of the working class and did not, unusually for a Romantic poet, understand Greek). His passion for this ancient world can be seen in “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer“.
  • “Moving waters” / “Earth’s human shores” – The “moving waters” and “human shores” (on account of the latter being “human”, as humans are famously affected by time) contrast with the star and emphasise Keats’ dilemma regarding stasis.
  • “Priestlike” / “Ablution” – Both these terms carry religious connotations. It is often suggested that Keats was an athiest, which, if this is to be believed, would suggest that these associations regard another negative aspect of stasis, as the star is forced to eternally watch religion. However, the star is also overlooking these human events, and so it could be argued that it, in some way, usurps the role of God.
  • “Or” – Emphasising the dilemma/conflict within the poem.
  • “Fallen mask / Of snow” – Keats here considers a “mask / Of snow” to emphasise the changeable nature of human existence as the snow changes the landscape around him. These changes/disguises seem to be the reason why Keats envies the star (because he wants to escape them).
  • “The mountains and the moors – Both “mountains” and “moors”, despite their differences in terms of landscape, are changed by the snow, illustrating the power of change (and time). These places are also generally uninhabited; not only is the star alone, but it also has to look at lonely places.
  • “Still steadfast, still unchangeable” – Whilst Keats doesn’t want to be as lonely as the star, he emphasises his desire for stasis through this repetition.
  • “Ripening” – Associations of spring and new life are conveyed through the mention of the narrator’s “love”, yet they contradict with Keats’ longing for stasis – unless this virginal state of spring is permanently preserved?
  • “Awake for ever in a sweet unrest” – Keats finally reveals the true reason why he wishes to avoid change: he wishes to stay at his lover’s side, both of them able to remain young and beautiful. The phrase “awake for ever” also harkens back to the idea of the star having its “lids” eternally “apart”.
  • “Still, still” – Repetition here emphasises Keats’ longing for stasis.
  • “And so live ever – or else swoon to death” – Keats’ conclusion to this poem suggests that he will either live like a star (unchanged at his lover’s side), or he will “swoon to death”. He may also suggest that he does not have a choice as, unfortunately, a part of change is death. The end stop emphasises this finality.

Overview

Bright Star, Keat.jpgAs you may have noticed, “Bright Star” is all about stasis. It is all about how humans change and grow old, but some objects, such as stars, don’t go through this process (at least in terms of a human lifetime). Keats is not suggesting that he wants to be wholly like a star, because he could not stand the loneliness and wants to be with his lover, yet this fixed nature of the star is something that he greatly admires.

This poem also picks up on other issues, such as religion, class and gender (as the female lover is glorified and described with particularly soft language). More than anything else, though, it’s about human existence, and it’s about Keats fearing the processes of age and death. Emphasising words such as “breath”, “fall and swell” (echoing the movement of a breathing chest), it is perfectly clear that Keats is very much attached to his human existence.


I hope you enjoyed this poem analysis. I’m back into the revision period at university so should be sending a fair few more posts like these your way (for my own benefit, if nothing else). Thank you for reading, though, and please do check out my other analyses, including, my review of Keats’ “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer“.

“On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer”: Analysis

The Poem

On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer

By John Keats

Much I have travell’d in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-brow’d Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies,
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific – and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise-
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

The Message

Keats’ “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer”, published in 1816, essentially tells the tale of his epiphanic revelation of George Chapman’s translations of the Homeric epic; although he was familiar with The Iliad and The Odyssey before this introduction, he feels as though he has never quite experienced Homer in this way before, comparing his discovery to an astronaut discovering a new planet, and to Cortez discovering the Pacific.

The Analysis

Metre & Structure

This is an example of a Petrarchan sonnet, its fourteen lines written in iambic pentameter. However, whilst the common Petrarchan sonnet is made up of an octave (8-line stanza) followed by a sestet (6-line stanza), Keats has kept this poem as one, unbroken poem, which perhaps reflects his excitement at this discovery. This poem nevertheless follows the rhyme pattern of the sonnet, with the first eight lines following an ABBA rhyme scheme, and the following six displaying a CD alternating pattern.

Line by Line

  • “Travell’d” – It’s interesting that this one of the few truncated words in the poem, and may represent how, at twenty years old, Keats hasn’t actually been anywhere yet; he’s only travelled via his beloved literature, such as the works of Homer.
  • “Realms of gold” – Keats refers to literature and the arts, illustrating the value in the written word; this is important as he sees his discovery of this particular translation as a realm of gold in itself. However, this reference can also be applied to travel and the physical “gold” encountered in Homer’s works.
  • “Western islands” – On the surface, it would seem that Keats is referring to the islands travelled by Odysseus in the Homeric epic, where he witnessed creatures such as the Cyclops and the witch, Circe. However, these Aegean islands would have been considered eastern, not western; so, in this clever reference, Keats simultaneously refers to the explorers that were setting out during the early 1800s to explore the new world and the west indies.
  • “That deep-brow’d Homer” – Keats not only explicitly relates these first eight lines with Homer through references to Apollo, as well as to bards (this was supposed to be Homer’s role during his lifetime), but uses Homer’s own writing style to describe the poet; Homer was famous for his epithets, which are short phrases accompanying a character’s name that critics believed were a way of helping Homer to remember the story, as Homer’s works would have been performed orally. Common epithets are “pallas Athene” and “cunning Odysseus”, but “deep brow’d Homer” certainly fits the mould.
  • “Yet did I never breathe” – This line is ironic as Keats includes enjambment in this line, following into the final line of the octave. It represents his own excitement at this discovery.
  • “Then” – This “then” marks the end of the octave and beginning of the sestet, but also a change in time. I only emphasise the importance of the octave and sestet as they really are quite different. In the first eight lines, Keats is telling us everything he knows about Homer. He’s telling us how he’s travelled through the works and appreciated the stories, but the final six are the actual revelation, verbalising how Keats feels once he’s read Chapman’s translation. This is emphasised by the increase in enjambment in this final sestet.
  • “Watcher of the skies” / “Eagle eyes” – Keats seems to praise himself for finding Chapman’s translation, suggesting that it was his own prowess at finding the work, but, in reality, he’s alluding to his astronaut metaphor and thus heightening the feeling of discovery in the poem (Keats didn’t discover Chapman’s translation at all; it was introduced to him by his friend Charles Cowden Clarke).
  • “Stout Cortez” – One point here is that Keats has put in another epithet, linking himself further to Homer, but the other is that he has made a slight error here; it seems that the poet confused Cortez, the conqueror of Mexico, with Balboa, who discovered the Pacific from a summit in Central America. Some critics have excused this error, however, Jerome McGann suggesting that “the image is at once ludicrous and wonderful, like everything else in the poem … The poem transports us to the most forbidden world of all the Rosebud world of adolescence, barred out more securely by adult consciousness” (McGann 122). Perhaps what Keats meant by this error, then, was to suppose that Cortez could rediscover Balboa’s work, just as he, himself, experienced Chapman’s translations after many others had already discovered it.
  • “Silent, upon a peak in Darien” – This final line of the poem concludes Keats’ excitement over the translation. The caesura following “Silent”, not only disrupts the sonnet’s iambic meter, but, along with the final end stop, accentuates the wonder that Keats experience as he is rendered mute, his dialogue disrupted by the power of Chapman’s writing.

Overview

homer

My original analysis of this poem

Like all the Romantic poets, Keats liked to make his writing very personal. He isn’t talking about the external world at all in disconnection to himself; he only refers to the external as a way of describing his own feelings. It is therefore important to remember that “On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer” is the embodiment of Keats’ own experience; after all, it’s written in first person, and whilst this doesn’t always mean that the narrator of the poem is the poet, themselves, in this case, I think it’s fair to say that we’re listening to Keats’ own voice.

It’s a clever poem, and acts as a way of, not only embodying Keats’ thoughts, but also as a way for him to sort through them. It has been noted by Coleridge, another of the Romantics, that one of the best ways of exploring emotion is to write short poems that conform to a strict rhyme and metre structure. This, perhaps, may explain the rigidity of the poem, for, despite Keats’ excitement, he never misses a single rhyme.


Sources

McGann, Jerome J. “Sentimental Grounds: Schiller, Wordsworth, Bernardin, Shelley, Keats.” The Poetics of Sensibility: A Revolution in Literary Style. Clarendon Press, 1998, pp. 119-126.