Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
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Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Keats' "Thing of Beauty"



If this essay sprawls a bit, perhaps it has been influenced by the poem it examines. I certainly share with Keats his love of love and of poetry and his passionate quest for the liberation of the mind. Such confessions would be out of place in an academic journal, but then, why do any of us, professors included, read literature?


Keats is outstanding among the Romantic poets for his sensual imagery and utter dedication to beauty. Yet one hardly thinks of him as an aesthetic theoretician. In fact his vastly suggestive concept of negative capability specifically recommends suspending rationalization. [1] According to Keats, the role of poetry is not only to convey the sensual delight of what he called “the Chamber of Maiden-Thought,” but, with the consciousness sobered by knowledge of suffering, to push into the “dark passages” beyond. To the skeptical young writer, even a visionary poet can know no more than that “We are in a Mist . . . We feel the ‘burden of the Mystery,’” [2] Keats thought in images and his passionate notions of art are grandly and elaborately if unsystematically set forth in Endymion.

To Keats even before his fatal illness, life was tenable only through the cultivation of aesthetic experience. As readers we can relish Keats’ precise and perfect images, enjoying them as the poet enjoyed a sunset or a passage of Spenser. But such pleasure falls short of “balance,” [3] in which one embraces the cosmos as a whole, suffering as well as delight, pain as well as joy. By articulating oppositions such as fantasy/reality, art/life, love/loneliness, and dream/waking Keats pursues the same quest as does his hero Endymion to overcome these dualities in what might variously be called enlightenment, liberation, or immortality.

"A thing of beauty is a joy forever." The opening line of Keats' Endymion is known to a great many people unaware of its source. Though the rushing passion of the poet's sentiment is clear and the idea may pass as a truism, its claim that beauty is immortal is highly problematic. In fact this apparent statement of belief turns out to be instead the central question in Keats’ very original treatment of Endymion’s story. What seems at first a confident axiom unravels as the poem progresses. Even before the author presents contradictions and tensions, the reader might wonder how aesthetic pleasure can be objectively defined. By whom? And is it the objet d'art itself that is eternal? Surely it has no significant existence apart from the human consumer whose "forever" is circumscribed by individual mortality. Even considering humanity as a whole, Keats' participation in the Romantic revival of Hellenism is sufficient reminder of the rise and fall of enthusiasm for specific styles, periods, and works. Is his temporal claim simply a figure of speech for the intensity of his appreciation?

With all these questions suspended, Keats proceeds to characterize the effects he considers characteristic of beauty. To him beauty creates a "bower quiet" and "a sleep" not only "full of sweet dreams" but also "health" and even "quiet breathing." (I, 4-5) Its charm generates "a flowery band to bind us to the earth." (I, 7) Though these are positive terms for the author, it is nonetheless true that to speak of sleep and dreams suggests that beauty is an illusory escape or at best an analgesic for those in the throes of life, a sort of narcotic to get one through the day. The fanciful mention of bodily dramatically enacts human physical vulnerability and seems a poignant wish-fulfilment fantasy. The following passage only restates the problem. A catalogue of the woes of life is succeeded by the beauties first of nature and then of art. To the poet both kinds of beauty constitute "an endless fountain of Immortal drink/ Pouring unto us from the heaven's brink." (I, 24) The terms of the problem are clear: the poem explores whether art can compensate for human limitations such as weakness, suffering, and mortality.

Keats, even before his own final illness, had felt, as Buddha, Plato, and Christ before him that suffering is the inevitably dominant note in human life. At the very outset he catalogues the many woes of humankind’s “unhealthy and o’er-darkened ways,” (I, 11) beginning with depression. [4] Endymion is introduced as an exemplar of every excellence, yet even then the discerning might note “a lurking trouble in his nether lip.” (I, 179) The reader later encounters Glaucus for whom to be born is to be “pierc’d and stung/ With new-born life!” III, 237) Life is torture (I, 919), a “den of helpless discontent.” (I,928) The poem is replete with expressions such as “weary life” (I, 710) and “the troubled sea of the mind.” (I, 452 and 979) Consciousness results in misery; awakening feels like drowning. (II, 282) We are condemned to lead in “dull, uninspired, snail-paced lives” (IV, 25) while starving and freezing. (I, 191) Thus “wayworn” one must seek after “the diamond path” (II, 651-2) though it be as elusive as the “golden butterfly upon whose wings/ There must be surely character’d strange things.” (II, 61-2)

The suffering human can obtain temporary relief through the contemplation of beauty. When cast into the subterranean realm, Endymion’s loss of earthly sights is detailed in one of Keats’ wonderful catalogues.


He cannot see the heavens, nor the flow
Of rivers, nor hill-flowers running wild
In pink and purple chequer, nor, up-pil’d,
The cloudy rack slow journeying in the west,
Like herded elephants; nor felt, nor prest
Cool grass, nor tasted the fresh slumberous air. (II, 285-90)


He appeals to Diana’s love of wilderness.


Within my breast there lives a choking flame—
O let me cool it among the zephyr-boughs!
A homeward fever parches up my tongue—
O let me slake it at the running springs!
Upon my ear a noisy nothing rings—
O let me once more hear the linnet’s note!
Before mine eyes thick films and shadows float—
O let me ’noint them with the heaven’s light!
Dost thou now lave thy feet and ankles white?
O think how sweet to me the freshening sluice!
Dost thou now please thy thirst with berry-juice?
O think how this dry palate would rejoice!
If in soft slumber thou dost hear my voice,
Oh think how I should love a bed of flowers!—
Young goddess! let me see my native bowers!
Deliver me from this rapacious deep! (II, 317-332)


Keats’ description of natural sights dramatically conveys his appreciation of the creation and his conviction that such visions can ameliorate life’s pain.


Such the sun, the moon,
Trees old and young, sprouting a shady boon
For simple sheep; and such are daffodils
With the green world they live in; and clear rills
That for themselves a cooling covert make
’Gainst the hot season; the mid forest brake,
Rich with a sprinkling of fair musk-rose blooms: (I, 13-19)


A number of such brimming and glorious lists occur later including the description of the sea floor (III, 123-136) and of flowers (IV, 575-577). He clearly felt, and it is surely more a matter of feeling than reasoning, that enjoyment of the natural world provides access to the sublime.

Yet for Keats the contemplation of landscape was in fact only an antechamber to enlightenment, as it reached only the “Chamber of Maiden-Thought,” giving deep pleasure, but providing insufficient inspiration to be fully satisfying. A “thing of beauty” in nature seems to deliver only impermanent rewards, falling well short of Keats’ longed-for goal.

In fact, in spite of the poet’s delight in creation, throughout the poem fantasy and dream bear initially positive associations, while reality, life, and waking are fraught with pain and peril. With its pessimistic implication that open eyes mean an anguished heart, this pattern suggests that even with the relief of sleep, only temporary escape from suffering is available. A breath of poppies leads to “enchantment” “yet it was but a dream.” (I, 567-574) Though sleep is a delicious relief, one cannot sleep forever. (II, 705-707) A “sweet dream” must soon vanish “like a spark” and fall “into nothing.” (I, 675-678) The poppies, however, lead to a vision of Cynthia whom he instantly loves. She, he finds, possesses qualities unmatched by the natural world which cannot provide even a metaphor for her excellence.

Whence came that high perfection of all sweetness?
Speak, stubborn earth, and tell me where, O Where
Hast thou a symbol of her golden hair? (I, 608-610)


The significance of love between humans as an initial step toward philosophic enlightenment is, of course, familiar from the Plato as well as from such neo-Platonic texts as Ficino’s Commentary on the Symposium and Pico della Mirandola’s Platonic Discourse on Love. Keats certainly employs this philosophic though he likely derived more from Shelley than from earlier writers. In Endymion the central narrative conflict is the shepherd’s love for Cynthia. To the poet the sight of the beloved has such power that he feels

the bars
That kept my spirit in are burst—that I
Am sailing with thee through the dizzy sky! (II, 185-187)


The opening lines of Book II celebrate “the sovereign power of love” and imply that love can confer immortality, though the evidence is unconvincing: the claim that “Troilus and Cressid” are well- remembered while the violence of the Trojan War fades from memory (II, 12O) and that Odysseus (who, after all, had a love story himself) and Alexander are forgotten, but not Juliet or Hero. It is Love who asks Endymion “What, not yet/ Escap’d from dull mortality’s harsh net?” (III, 905) Neptune’s devotees address Cytherea (Aphrodite) celebrating her power to “cast away” not only “gloom” but also “all death-shadows” (III, 980), and she responds by promising Endymion immortality. (III, 1021) The naiad episode in Book III with whom he drinks “from Pleasure’s nipple” (II, 869) demonstrates that, like the beauty of landscape, sexual pleasure itself, while intoxicating and powerful, does not provide a permanent solution to life’s anxiety.

Art can be said to combine the charm of nature, dreams, and love, the individually inadequate recourses for surcease of suffering. Partaking of the quality of beauty available in each of these as well as the fictional license of dream and the passion of love, poetry may seem the likeliest healer of the human condition. At the very outset heroic narrative is said to provide relief from life’s rigors. (I, 20-21) It is conflated with love in “the path of love and poesy.” (II, 38) In particular the poets of antiquity are so great as to create an “eternal Spring” unavailable to modern artists. (II, 250, see also II, 720) As he had done in his introduction, Keats apologizes for his own poem.

O ’tis a very sin
For one so weak to venture his poor verse
In such a place as this. (III, 936-938)


Endymion’s “higher hope” (I, 774) to join in “fellowship divine” (I, 777) is in part fulfilled by art. When one hears “old songs” (I, 787), “prophesyings” (I, 789), one thinks of Orpheus. (I, 794)


that moment have we stept
Into a sort of oneness, and our state
Is like a floating spirit’s. (I, 795-7)


Apart from whatever shortcomings may limit contemporary art, it, like love, brings at best not bliss but a more refined sort of suffering.


O did he ever live, that lonely man,
Who lov’d—and music slew not? ’Tis the pest
Of love, that fairest joys give most unrest;
That things of delicate and tenderest worth
Are swallow’d all, and made a seared dearth,
By one consuming flame: it doth immerse
And suffocate true blessings in a curse.
Half-happy, by comparison of bliss,
Is miserable. (II, 364-372)


While the “crown” (I, 800) of our “entanglements” (I, 798) is “love and friendship” (I, 801) with love at the “tip-top,” (I, 805) one hopes in the end for a mystic union. The poet seeks ultimately for “that completed form of all completeness” (I, 606) and even love here falls short.

Nonetheless, since he writes, Keats implicitly seeks a solution in art. With imagination he may employ the symbols and even the assumptions of past ages in the service of his own quest. Here the deities of the ancient world provide images particularly powerful for a poet who had rejected Christianity. [6] Endymion contains not only theophanies of Bacchus, Diana, Aphrodite, and Pan as well as Cynthia, but also several pictures of mortals caught between the divine and the human including Endymion himself, Glaucus, Adonis, and the naiad. As gods represent ultimate reality, these provide a language for Keats’ most profound formulation of a cure for suffering.

When Bacchus appears, he is a more monumental version of Pan, lord of wild animals and of nature generally, master even of Brahma (IV, 265) yet his votary remains lost in grief. (IV, 278) Finding it impossible to flee from sorrow, she decides she must instead embrace it, declaring “of all the world I love thee [suffering] best.” (IV, 284) The god, for all his ecstatic rituals, remains in the bonds of the cycle of birth and death.

Pan is addressed by the rural assembly in the first book as a lord of creation overshadowing “eternal whispers, glooms, the birth, life, death” of animate nature. (II, 232-234) In praise of Pan Keats launches one of the finest catalogues of concrete sensual images of the whole poem. (I, 247 ff.), yet the reader notes the intrusion of ”glooms” between “eternal whispers” and “birth,” succeeded then by “solemn,” “dreary,” “desolate,” leading up to Pan’s “melancholy” at the loss of Syrinx. [7] This implies in mythic narrative the same analysis of heartsickness the reader has seen elsewhere. Nature is grandly magnificent, but cannot reliably eliminate pain. Love, while likewise potent, is also likewise undependable.

Yet the mythic language does allow for triumph in the end. Though it is presented as a dream within a myth within a poem, Endymion becomes an immortal.


[Endymion] Would at high Jove’s empyreal footstool win
An immortality, and how espouse
Jove’s daughter, and be reckon’d of his house. (IV, 378-380)


When the Indian maid turns out to be Cynthia, this fortunate turn (IV, 986)n seems wholly realized, though Peona is said to return in “wonderment” (as who would not?) through the “gloomy” wood. The reader is left uncertain as to the source of that remaining ambiguity. Only in this way could Keats precisely convey the contradictions of his own all-too-human sensibility.


The fact that this felicitous conclusion occurs in the realm of myth implies its ambiguous relation to lived experience. On the one hand, it did not happen, and thus it serves as a poignant and powerful wish, the description of which signifies the human longing toward something lacking. On the other hand, such narratives are frequently employed in sympathetic magic, with the aim of attracting to the individual the rewards the narrative gives in fullness to its hero. [8] In the end, joy and enlightenment occur only in the mind of the individual, so such imaginative exercises may be more efficacious than philosophic ratiocination in the quest for wisdom.

Surely the mad phantasmagoria of the poem’s story is no madder than the course of our daily lives, the passions of Endymion no deeper than our own, and the shepherd’s assumption into the empyrean no less astonishing for resembling in symbolic terms the closest approach to a solution of the wisest among us of the problem of how to live a human life. Even the poem’s often criticized “incoherence” corresponds to the conflict and obscurity in the poet’s mind.



1. Letter to his brothers, George and Thomas, on 21 December, 1817.

2. Letter to John Hamilton Reynolds dated 3 May, 1818. The phrase is quoted from “Tintern Abbey” where Wordsworth suggests that the “more sublime” benefit of aesthetic experience is a “blessed mood.” In which the burthen of the mystery.

In which the heavy and the weary weight
Of all this unintelligible world,
Is lightened:—that serene and blessed mood,
In which the affections gently lead us on. (5)

3. Letter to John Hamilton Reynolds dated 3 May, 1818.

4. Cf. Coleridge’s “Ode to Dejection” and Byron’s declaration “We of the craft are all crazy.” For the latter see Marguerite Countess of Blessington, Conversations of Lord Byron with the Countess of Blessington, p. 87.

5. ll. 37-41

6. In a letter to Benjamin Bailey, 22 November, 1817, he declared his faith in beauty and emotion and added, “I am certain of nothing but of the holiness of the Heart's affections and the truth of Imagination.”

7. Syrinx’s subsequent metamorphosis into Pan’s proper musical instrument reminds the reader of the potential of art to provide at least a partial solution to the human predicament.

8. This is a worldwide principle of what might be called the verbal technology of hope. In one contemporary example of which I am aware, the Moroccan musician Hassan Hakmoun describes healing ceremonies in which musicians performed in the patient’s home through the night singing songs of overcoming demons that personify the illness. Hearing the victory of the narrative protagonists is thought to benefit the sufferer against the illness.

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