The Real and Ideal in Keats’s Odes

Keats’s odes, written in the spring of 1819 (with the excep­tion of “To Autumn,” which was written later in the same year [Fraser 178]), follow and deviate from a diagram of flight and return. The setting of these odes moves between two worlds: the ideal world and reality, which Keats scholars refer to as the natural world. The speaker begins in the real world, takes flight to the ideal world, and then returns changed to reality in the end. The real and ideal could mean different things: “earth and heaven, mortality and immortality, time and eternity, materi­ality and spirituality, the known and the unknown, the finite and the infinite, realism and romance” (Stillinger 2-3). The structure of his poems and development of the diagram in his odes tell the story of how Keats becomes reconciled to the natural, material world, even with its pain. The speaker is the same throughout because he is Keats, who is telling the story of his own develop­ment of a visionary to a naturalized imagination (2). I will trace the movement of each of his five odes and the overarching story of Keats’s development over the sequence.

The basic structure of the progression begins with the first ode, “Ode to Psyche” In this ode, the speaker remains in the ideal world. Through “Ode to a Nightingale” and “Ode to a Gre­cian Urn,” the speaker returns to the real world. Finally, in his last odes, “Ode to Melancholy” and “To Autumn,” the speaker remains in the real world. (I will not discuss “Ode to Indolence” because it is not relevant to this progression. Furthermore, many critics have not given it much attention because they think it is inferior, and Keats himself did not put it in his final collection of poems in 1820, which indicates that it does not belong in the story sequence of odes [Stillinger 5-8; Fraser 11].)

There are, of course, challenges inherent in looking at his odes as one sequence. “Psyche” is difficult to fit in the se­quence because it is disorganized and ambiguous (Stillinger 5). The other odes were written within a short period of time, but “To Autumn” was written several months after the other ones, which means it may have been written out of a different “poet­ic impulse” (Fraser 178). Furthermore, the odes themselves are complex and do not necessarily fit neatly together in a story se­quence. We cannot know definitely what Keats’s poetic impulse was in writing a sequence of odes, but there is a cohesive mo­ment and progression in his odes that, with these qualifications in mind, indicates how he might have developed.

In “Psyche,” the speaker takes flight to the ideal world of the mind and imagination and does not return (Stillinger 5). The speaker desires to be Psyche’s priest and “build a fain… / In some untrodden region of [his] mind, / Where branched thoughts, new grown with pleasant pain / … shall murmur in the wind” (50-2). He desires to replace the material world of pine trees with a spiritual world within his mind: instead of pine trees he will have branches of his brain that are grown with “pleasant pain.” There will still be pain in this world of the mind, but it will be pleasant unlike the suffering in the material world. He continues: “And in the midst of this wide quietness / A rosy sanc­tuary will I dress / With the wreath’d trellis of a working brain, / … a casement ope at night, / To let the warm Love in!” (58-67). The speaker wants Psyche’s love to flow into his spiritual world. The language in this passage (“with the wreath’d trellis of a working brain” and “that shadowy thought can win, / A bright torch”) takes language from the material world and applies it to this spiritual world created from his mind. He is replacing the natural world with the spiritual. Thus, the structure of this poem suggests that at this point Keats longs for the ideal and rejects the natural.

“Nightingale” and “Grecian Urn” trace the speaker’s flight from and return to the natural world because he finds the ide­al world dissatisfying. In “Nightingale,” the speaker begins by describing his present state. His “heart aches,” he is numb, he feels as though he has drunk poison. “One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk” (4). In the Greek tradition, souls who travel the Lethe have their memories erased by drinking its wa­ters before reaching the shores of Elysium, the section of Hades for heroes and relatives of gods. The allusion to Lethe, then, not only hints that the speaker is about to be reborn imagina­tively, but it also shows that his present state in the real world is full of pain. Then he sees the nightingale which is “happy” and sings “not through envy” (5). In the second and third stanzas the speaker desires to take his flight and join the nightingale. He longs for “a draught of vintage… tasting of Flora, dance, song, and mirth” (11-14).

“That I might drink, and leave the world unseen, / And with thee fade away into the forest dim: / Fade far away, dis­solve, and quite forget / … The weariness, the fever, and the fret / Here, … / Where but to think is to be full of sorrow” (19-27).

He longs to join the nightingale and thereby escapes from the suffering and pain of the world. At last he joins the bird: “Away! away! for I will fly to thee, / … on the viewless wings of Poesy” (31-3). He takes flight through the imagination, but once he reaches that ideal, immortal state, he finds it insuf­ficient: “I cannot see what flowers are at my feet, / Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs, / But, in embalmed darkness, guess each sweet” (41-3). In the ideal world, he cannot sense or enjoy nature. David Perkins notes that he makes the nightin­gale immortal “at the cost of destroying any sympathetic union with it, and, in the logic of the poem, virtually compels it to fly away. Hence the same sympathetic grip that makes the experi­ence vivid to the point that one would wish to prolong it, also forces the recognition that it must be short-lived” (Bates 103-4). To follow the nightingale is to deny the beauties of nature, and the speaker must drive the nightingale away in order to prolong his sympathetic grip on the natural world. Thus, in the rest of the poem there is “an ever-widening separation between the speaker and bird” as the speaker returns to reality (Stillinger 6).

“Now more than ever seems it rich to die, / To cease upon the midnight with no pain, / While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad / In such an ecstasy! / Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain” (55-9).

The world of the nightingale is separate from the speak­er’s because he has returned to reality: the nightingale will sing abroad and the speaker will not be able to hear the nightingale’s song. He is meant to die, but the nightingale is not: “Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!” (61). Rather, the bird lives in “faery lands forlorn” (70). The speaker does not long to be with the nightingale anymore because its immortal land is “for­lorn,” and he cannot access that world because he is mortal. “Forlorn! the very word is like a bell / To toll me back from thee to my sole self! / Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well / As she is fam’d to do, deceiving elf” (71-4). He has differentiated their worlds completely and returned to himself and the real world. Thus, Keats desires the ideal, but now when he consid­ers it, he finds it inadequate because it is forlorn and deprived of senses.

“Grecian Urn” also shows Keats’s stage of poetic devel­opment in which he longs for the ideal, infinite world but must reconcile himself to the real, finite world despite the pain and aging that comes with it. The infinite world of the urn, which is “the realm of art,” seems more desirable (Stillinger 2). The urn is “unravish’d,” which indicates that it has not been defiled by the pain of the world (1). Jack Stillinger writes, “A seesaw opposition of earthly versus urnly values ensues” (7). Lines 11-30 show this tension between the real world and the ideal world within art, and the order in which the speaker presents the pros and cons of each alters how preferable each world is to him. When the good qualities of the urn are presented second, the world of the urn seems more desirable than the real (ibid.). For instance, “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter” (11). The melodies of reality are good, but those in the urn are even better. He continues to describe the good qualities of the ideal world of the urn: the lover will always love, his beloved will always be fair, boughs never shed their leaves, the melodist is always piping new songs, and everyone is always young. Everything in this realm of art is “all breathing human passion far above” (28).

The everlasting world of the urn is full of desirable life and passion without any suffering or aging. In the fourth stanza, though, the speaker reconsiders the urn and begins his flight back to the finite (Stillinger 7-8). “And, little town, thy streets for evermore / Will silent be; and not a soul to tell / Why thou art desolate, can e’er return” (38-40). The speaker finds the town desolate like he found the nightingale’s world forlorn be­cause it offers is only “a tentative ideal” (Stillinger 7-8). While people in the real world can die and move on from pain, the urn “shalt remain, in midst of other woe / Than ours” (47-8). As a work of art it teaches that “beauty is truth, truth beauty,” and yet it cannot “substitute for life in the actual world . . . . The only beauty accessible to mortal man exists ‘on earth’ ” (8). The urn and the realm of art cannot offer true life. Perhaps there are desirable beauties in perfect worlds, but none of those beauties are accessible to mortals. The speaker, then, has fully returned to the more sufficient, finite world, resigned now to embrace its natural beauties.

Keats’s last two odes – “Melancholy” and “To Autumn” – deviate from the flight-and-return diagram because the speak­er does not take flight to an ideal world (Stillinger 5). In his earlier stages, he longed for the ideal world. Now at the end, though, he has embraced the natural, finite world. In “Melan­choly,” he urges the reader not to take flight: “No, no, go not to the Lethe” (1). He enjoins the reader from going to the super­natural world “for shade to shade will come too drowsily, / And drown the wakeful anguish of the soul” (9-10). The “anguish of the soul” is inextricable from the real world, and instead of escaping from it, the reader should embrace it:

“But when the melancholy fit shall fall / … Then glut thy sorrow on a morning rose, / … Or if they mistress some rich anger shows, / Emprison her soft hand, / and let her rave, / And feed deep, deep upon her peerless eyes” (11-20).

He urges the reader to not search after the idealistic world but rather to “seize and experience the beauty of the transient natural and human world as fully as one can” (Stillinger 8-9). Melancholy dwells within the virtues of Beauty, Joy, Pleasure, and Delight. One cannot have pleasure without melancholy and pain (9). Thus, the speaker believes the natural world is the only one mortals can access, and there is no escape from melancholy and pain without escape from the pleasures and beauties of life. This reflects Keats’s new attitude toward the world: he no longer desires to escape to the perfect world but desires to live fully in the natural one.

Furthermore, “To Autumn” praises the development of the natural world: “the maturing sun” who will “load and bless / With fruit the vines” and “swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells” (2-7). The speaker, by describing the richness and life of Autumn, is celebrating the natural world. Instead of taking flight with his imagination, he uses his imagination to examine the natural world and embrace it. In the final stanza the speaker asks, “Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?” (23). The season of spring is like the ideal world because it is the unrealized future rather than the living present, but the speaker has no interest in being in that world. He says, “Think not of them, thou hast thy music too” (24). He dismisses the desire to be in another season because this season is enough. The poem is deceptively simple, in that he can convey his com­plex resolution so simply only because the poem is built upon the complex progression of his other odes (which convince him and because he is most convinced now that the real world is the best for him to embrace). There are no hints of desire for the ideal world in the ode. It shows, then, the peak of Keats’s development in how he relates to the real world: he was disen­chanted with the ideal world of the “supernatural, art, the mind, and the past,” but “the tone of these last poems makes clear that nature suffices” (14).

The diagram of flight and return can be applied to Keats’s odes, but the first and last two deviate from it.

“Keats came to learn that the kind of imagination he pur­sued was a false lure, inadequate to the needs of the prob­lem, and in the end he traded the visionary for the natural­ized imagination, embracing experience and process as his own and man’s chief good” (2).

There is no return in “Psyche,” there is both flight and return in “Nightingale” and “Grecian Urn,” and there is no flight in “Melancholy” or “To Autumn.” This progression tells the story of how Keats develops: from yearning to escape to an ideal world, to acknowledging its insufficiency, and inevitably embracing reality.



Bate, Walter Jackson, ed., Keats: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1964.

Cox, Jeffrey. Keats’s Poetry and Prose: A Norton Critical Edition. London: Norton, 2009.

Fraser, G. S., ed. John Keats, Odes: A Selection of Critical Essays. London: Macmillan, 1971.

Gittings, Robert. John Keats. London: Penguin, 1979.

O’Rourke, James. Keats’s Odes: Contemporary Criticism. Gainesville, Florida: University Press of Florida, 1998.

Stillinger, Jack. Twentieth-Century Interpretations of Keats’ Odes: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1968.


Image: Illustration to ‘Nightingale’ by Hans Christian Andersen by Heorhiy Narbut.

Tags: , , , ,