1. When Keats rewrites the medieval poem, "La Belle Dame sans Merci", he recreates the tale of fated love. But, most importantly, he frames love as the reason for living, and fuel of life. The only sounds in the poem are made by the lady, she "sing's fairy's songs," makes "sweet moans," and "sigh'd full sore'." Besides these mentions of living sound, we are left with "no birds singing." When Keats uses sight in this poem, it is to the same end. With her wild eyes, "she looked at [the king] as she did love," and he "nothing else saw all day long" when with her. In this way, the lady comes to embody life itself, because it is only her parts of the poem that are alive, all else is a barren wasteland, the "granary is full, and the harvest done," no action or motion. So, this becomes a tale not of deception and destruction, but rather a tale of life, true life, that can be experienced only when one is in a state of love? (Julianna Sassaman)
2. In the poem "Ode on Melancholy," Keats takes a sinister look at the human condition. The idea that all human pleasures are susceptible to pain, or do inevitably lead to pain, is a disturbing thought. Keats comments on the miserable power of melancholy, especially how it thrives on what is beatiful and desirable and turns it into its opposite.
She dwells with Beauty — Beauty that must die;
And joy, whose hand is ever at his lips
Bidding adeiu; 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 shall taste the sadness of her might,
And be among her cloudy trophies hung. (ll.21-30)
In this passage, there seems to be an emphasis on lost hope. There seems to be this idea that true happiness is either ephemeral or unreachable. For example, Keats writes above about "Joy...Bidding adeui" and Pleasure Turning to poison." Keats seems to be saying that happiness is a temptation which people are tragically prone to dream about, an illusion upon which is unrealistic. Having also read "La Belle Dame sans Merci: A Ballad," what similarities are evident in both poems? How does the imagery of both poems, and of this scene in particular, augment their themes? What do you think Keats thinks is more powerful - temptation or the suffering that comes from being melancholy? Considering that Keats sees the lurking of evil behind everything good, is there also hope behind what is miserable? (John Rosenblatt)
3. When comparing "Ode on a Grecian Urn" [text of poem] to "Ode on Melancholy", both poems appear to be different sides of the same coin; the first being joy and the latter being depresson. "Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed / your leaves, nor ever bid the spring adieu,"(lines 21 - 22) says Keats in "Ode on a Grecian Urn" and then follows with "But when the melancholy fit shall fall / sudden from heaven like a weeping cloud . . . / Then glut thy sorrow on a morning rose"(lines 11 - 12, 15) in "Ode on Melancholy." If these odes were intentionally published in this order, Keats would appear to be contradicting himself but, he may be arguing that the melancholy is a prerequisite to the joy of life and a necessary component to its full appreciation. If this is in fact true, why does it make sense to place "Ode on a Grecian Urn" in front of "Ode on Melancholy"? (Dan Shindell)
4. The speaker's mind in Mont Blanc is overwhelmed by a moment of natural sublimity, positing that the human mind would be "vacant" if it couldn't extract significance from overwhelming experience. I am interested in the cultural centrality of the figure of the poet, how much of "Mont Blanc" [text of poem] is linked to a political perspective, how much of the language is metaphorical, and the poet's relation to the sociological reality of his time. In this passage
Dizzy Ravine! and when I gaze on thee
I seem as in a trance sublime and strange
To muse on my own separate phantasy,
My own, my human mind, which passively
Now renders and recieves fast influencing (ll. 34-38)
What is Shelly trying to say about his "own separate phantasy"? And is this "mus[ing]" related to the human capacity (or the poets' capacity) to perform a philosophical, artistic function, yet also a political function? And if the language is entirely metaphorical, what is he saying about the poets' relationship to the political uproar of this time? (Molly Rosen)
5. In the first three stanzas of Keats' "La Belle Dame sans Merci: A Ballad" a knight is being addressed by an unknown questioner, and the rest of the poem takes the form of his reply, which is full of old and middle English. Gloam (meaning twilight, line 41), sedge (a marsh plant resembling coarse grass, line 47), and so on. In lines 41-43, ("I saw . . . found me here"), the knight, having seen ghosts of his dead peers, has a clear moment of shocked awakening, directly after which he encounters his questioner, who speaks in familiar old English. And yet, in lines 27-28, "And sure in language strange she said — /I love thee true". Is Keats' knight experiencing linguistic evolution firsthand in this encounter with "La Belle Dame sans Merci"? Is this a poem of progress, or of nostalgia? (Geoffrey Litwack)
6. Keats seems to believe that melancholy is in fact necessary and must be experienced in an atmosphere conducive to happiness in order to be truly felt:
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.
Melancholy may be useful to Keats as a poet, but is it a fundamental part of being human, or would we function better if we were happier more often? (Megan Lynch)
7. Keats, perhaps the most alluring poet we've read as of yet, cradles his reader in a world of erotic mysticism balanced with reflection of painful reality. By creating a narrator who becomes enveloped in the illusive world of sensory experience that is immediately inspired by the delicacies of nature, Keats entrances his reader. By concentrating his poem, "Ode to Nightingale", on a dream-like diversion from reality, Keats offers a poetry of escape:
Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget
What thou among the leaves has never known.
The weariness, the fever, and the fret." (lines 21-23)
Yet as we are lured from the harshness of reality, we are at once being reminded of our humanness. For instance, with the mention of death, Keats explores the pleasantries of experiencing a painless death, while simultaneously reminding us of our immortality. By the end of the poem, when the narrator asks, "Do I wake or sleep?" (line 80), has Keats struck us with a deeper sense of reality or illusion? (Kristen Dodge)
8. Getting back to Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey": We've discussed the poem in various ways, but what about its quality as a piece of poetry? What about Wordsworth's talent as a poet? I make the contention that "Tintern Abbey" is simply bad poetry. Take for instance the line(s) "If this/Be but a vain belief, yet, oh! how oft". Compare Wordsworth's trite diction with Shelley's, or Keats'. Can we not settle the matter and say that the latter are (in most instances) better poets than Wordsworth? (Wes Hamrick)<\p>
9. In "Ode on a Grecian Urn," John Keats is admiring a vase that captures a moment of the following things:
- two lovers chasing each other
- a pastoral piper under a tree playing his instrument
- the procession of priest and townspeople marching down the field.
Obviously, the people engraved to the vase are immobile, lifeless. Yet, as Keats circles around the vase and observes the engravings, he sees a story unfolding and things in motion. He superimposes not only intense emotions, associated with each character and ambiance, but time. Can we argue then that the current observer of the vase will always experience such flow of events every time he looks at it? Can the following passage be an evidence of Keats' fascination with the contrariety of permanence?
Therefore, ye soft pipes, play on...
Who are these coming to the sacrifice?
To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
Lead'st thou that heifer lowing at the skies
And all her silken flanks with garlands drest?
This is not to say that Keats is not acknowledging the rigidity of art. What then can be said about the timelessness of art such as this and its purpose? (Hyun Kim)
10. In "When I have fears that I may cease to be," John Keats reluctantly faces his own mortality. The poem's title (which is also its first line) is a leading clause that is not concluded until the poem's final three lines, and even at that point the central issue does not feel truly resolved. What is Keats' purpose in establishing an opening clause that he only answers with despair? Does Keats intend for his poem's depressing ending to stand as the only conclusion for those who have fears that they may cease to be? (Benjamin McAvay)
11. In "Ode on a Grecian Urn," Keats explores the incessant mystery of the past. Left with souvenirs of past moments, conversations, individuals, etc., Keats is full of questions, intrigued by a silence so full. Shelley, too, in Mont Blanc, addresses sound and the meanings and implications of silence. Like Keats, he realizes that silence is never really quiet, but instead full of secrets and hidden life: "The secret strength of things / Which governs thought...And what were thou, and earth, and stars, and sea / If to the human mind's imaginings / Silence and solitude were vacancy?" (669). "Ode on a Grecian Urn" recognizes the contradiction of silence: "Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard/Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on" (793). The past will always be loud because it is mysterious and sealed off:
"And, little town, thy streets for evermore
Will silent be; and not a soul to tell
Why thou art desolate, can e'er return...
Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!" (793-794).
What is the intrigue of silence? A silent Grecian urn provides a myriad of possibilities and thoughts for Keats — would it be so interesting if its past could be explained? (Maura McKee)
Incorporated in the Victorian Web July 2000