At an early age, John Keats experienced a tough life that was surrounded by death. Not only did he lose his mother, father, and half of his siblings when he was young, but he was exposed to death and illness when he was a teenager working as an apprentice surgeon. He soon became a Romantic poet with an obsession with death, which can be seen in his poems throughout his life, particularly in his famous “Great Odes”. Between the spring and autumn of 1819, Keats wrote six odes. Although these odes did not receive much recognition in Keats’s lifetime, they would later become some of his most priceless pieces of art.
Even though the structure, symbols, forms and meters all vary throughout these poems, the reader is able to sense a common theme of death and mortality in each of them. Nobody knows, chronologically, the exact order that the “Great Odes” were written in. However, when examining the odes as a whole, “Ode to Indolence” is often considered the first of the sequence. “Ode to Indolence” follows a strict structure, like the majority of Keats’s odes. It is made up of ten line stanzas, with a rhyme scheme that is composed of a Shakespearian quartet, ABAB, and a Miltonic sestet, CDECDE.
In this poem, the speaker is visited by three images, Love, Ambition, and Poetry. These figures try to persuade the speaker, but the speaker rejects these parts of his life as he is content with his indolence, or laziness. Thoughts of death and mortality can be seen in this poem. By rejecting love, ambition and poetry, three things that make life worth living, the speaker can more easily accept death when it comes. In Keats’s “Ode to Psyche”, the speaker stumbles upon Psyche and her lover in the woods. The speaker then praises her for her beauty. This sonnet has a very loose form, with words written more freely.
Keats, however, does stick to some standards in his poem. In the second stanza, for example, he uses a strict rhyme scheme of ABAB CDCD EFEF. The legend of Psyche is that she was a beautiful girl, so beautiful that Venus was jealous of her. Venus ordered her son, Cupid, to shoot Psyche with his arrow and have her fall in love with a hideous beast. Cupid, by mistake, pierces himself with his arrow and falls deeply in love with Psyche. Cupid then takes Psyche to Mount Olympus, where Zeus made her immortal so that she and Cupid could be together forever.
What I find most interesting about this poem is its relationship to death and immortality. Psyche is offered immortality through love, two concepts that are recurring in each of Keats’s odes. Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale” is regarded as one of his most famous poems, which is why I would like to discuss this poem in more depth than the others. “Ode to a Nightingale” is the longest of the odes. It consists of eight stanzas, all containing ten lines. In each of the stanzas, all of the lines are metered in an iambic pentameter, with the exception of the eighth line, which is written in trimeter.
The poem follows the same structure as “Ode to Indolence” does, with each stanza opening in a Shakespearian quartet and ending in a Miltonic sestet. In this poem, the speaker is praising a nightingale for its carefree life. The speaker wishes that he could fly away with the bird and leave the worries of life and death behind. There is a strong theme of death and mortality in this poem. Because its song has been heard for centuries, the speaker believes that the nightingale is immortal. The speaker tells the bird, “Thou wast not born for death, immortal bird! (70). He is afraid of growing old and dying, “Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs” (25), “Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies” (26), and is envious of the bird’s immortality. In the beginning of the poem, he claims that he can reach the same state as the bird through alcohol. Later, he realizes that the state can be reached “But on the viewless wings of Poesy” (33). His poetry will live on forever, making him immortal. In studying Keats’s works, including “Ode to a Nightingale”, we can see that the thought of immortality astonished him.
He saw a lot of lives taken too early, people that never had the chance to fulfill their goals in life. Seeing this caused him to be a harsh critic of his work and motivated him to work hard to try to accomplish greatness in his poetry. He often quoted famous poet Horace with the phrase, “Carpe diem! ” Meaning to seize the day and make the most out of each moment (Harper). If he could achieve immortality, maybe he would have enough time to reach his goal. In Keats’s next poem, “Ode to a Grecian Urn”, the speaker admires an ancient urn. There are many pictures on this urn, each of them telling a story.
The images are frozen in time, as the urn does not age and the pictures do not change. The speaker contemplates the paradox of never having to grow old and die, but never being able to move forward in time to live. This ode explores death and immortality on a couple of levels. Firstly, the images are immortal. They are captured in their moments, they will never age and they will never die. Also, the artists that painted on the urn have been immortalized through their artwork, something that I believe Keats was hoping to achieve through his writings. Ode to Melancholy” is Keats’s shortest ode, consisting of only three stanzas. The structure of “Ode to Melancholy” is very typical of Keats. Each stanza is ten lines, made up of a Shakespearian quartet and concluded with a Miltonic sestet. This poem differs from the others, however, in its style. It is Keats’s only ode that is not written in the first-person point of view. This poem talks about sadness and ways to deal with it. The speaker explains that one must be aware of his suffering, and to “go not to Lethe” (1), known as the river of forgetfulness.
Although the theme of mortality is not as strong in this poem, there are undertones of death evident throughout the poem. The message of this poem is that you must use sadness to spark your creativity. The speaker urges the reader away from thoughts of suicide, using “Wolf’s-bane, tight-rooted, for its poisonous wine” (2). He explains that there are beautiful things in life to experience that will one day themselves, die. The final piece to Keats’s “Great Odes” is “To Autumn”. This poem was dated in September of 1819, several months after his other odes.
Besides the name being seemingly different, this ode has many similarities to the others. It is written in a short three stanza structure, like in “Ode to Melancholy”, it is metered in an iambic pentameter and each stanza opens with a Shakespearian quartet. On the surface, “To Autumn” seems like a rather simple poem, in where the speaker is simply showing appreciation to the season. If studied deeper, the reader can see that autumn, actually, is a symbol for mortality. In autumn, animals start to grow lethargic and trees start to lose their leaves.
It is a mature season that poets often use to represent old age, wisdom, and fulfillment. It is the time before death, or winter. In each of his odes, the reader is able to see Keats’s obsession with death and mortality. This obsession could very easily be spawned from the deaths that plagued his early life. Poetry was his way of trying to cope with and understand it. “Until his early death, the story of his life is largely the story of the poetry he wrote. ” (Hough) In somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophecy, Keats died less than two years after writing his odes.
At the age of twenty-four, tuberculosis took his life. In his brief life, Keats was his harshest critic, and he strived for perfection. He hoped to live a long enough life to improve his work and become the greatest poet that he could be. The paradox is that because death and illness haunted him, and because he was inevitably going to die young, he developed his obsession with death. This obsession is what made his work so great. Even though he lived a short life, his poetry will live forever, like the images on a Grecian urn. Through his “Great Odes”, Keats was able to achieve the immortality that he longed.