Study of themes -- the relationship between knowledge and
human suffering, tension between desire and illusion, the role of beauty
The readings for this week are longer and more poetically complex
works than we have read thus far. Take the time to understand each
piece. We will be concentrating our discussion on two or three:
Eve of St. Agnes, and either Lamia
or The Fall of Hyperion, depending upon the group's interest.
I have not assigned Hyperion: A Fragment in the interest of time,
but it is important that you are aware of it. Together, the four
poems for this week (including The Fall of Hyperion for Wednesday)
fall into natural pairs -- Hyperion and The Fall
of Hyperion are both fragments in an epic style, both narrating the
fall of the Titans, with the latter being a dream vision reworking of the
former. As fragments, neither poem offers a satisfying aesthetic closure,
but both demonstrate Keats' skill and impressive thoughtfulness.
The Eve of St. Agnes and Lamia are both tales of romance,
an interest that reflects Keats' longstanding fascination with Spenser and
Hunt and other representatives of that form. Here, however, the style is markedly
free of the sentimentalism of earlier Keats, as the poet applies the Grecian
objectivity of his epic practice to his familiar genre. The romances appeal to
me more in terms of the rich style, while the epic affords more philosophical
speculation. What do you think?
Reading Notes and Discussion Questions
Hyperion. A Fragment:
Mainly written between late September 1818 and the death of
Tom Keats on Dec. 1, 1818. Finally abandoned in 1819. Published in 1820.
"Hyperion stands at the final year of
Keats' writing, and most of the poetry for which he is remembered
follows in the comet's tail of this brilliant effort. The year
that it ushers in (starting about mid-September 1818) may be soberly
described as the most productive in the life of any poet in the past
three centuries. The mere variety in style is difficult to parallel
within the same limit of time" (Bate 388).
Bate identifies three poetic ideals which Keats assimilates at this time:
classical and Miltonic epic (also Dante), "the Wordsworthian and modern
exploration of the human mind" and the Shakespearian drama (389).
Examine the poetic line Keats chooses for this poem. In what ways is it
an appropriate choice?
In this poem, Keats strives for a "Grecian Manner" by which he means a
statuesque, grand and epic form. In what ways does the diction, the
tone, the character and the structure of the poem achieve this goal?
Bate finds the epic form that Keats adopts the most formally challenging
of all poetic forms, and he sees Keats' achievement in it as unparalleled
since Milton. "The inevitability of phrase, the richness and control of
versification (so like and yet unlike Milton continue without lapse throughout
the entire first two books" (393). Examine the lines for evidence of these
qualities. To what extent can you agree with Bate?
Bates claims that Keats is deeply involved with Shakespearian drama
(especially King Lear) while he conceives of Hyperion.
In what ways is this poem more dramatic than his previous attempts? Compare
to "Sleep and Poetry," the verse epistles or the sonnets.
As in the Miltonic epic, the verse encompasses a wide variety of poetic types
within its scope. What varieties do you find in this fragment? Where is the
lyric? Where is the dialogue? Where is the essay? Others?
Note the use of Miltonic inversions -- where Keats places the nouns before the
adjectives -- what is the effect?
"Where Keats really begins to approach Milton is in far more difficult and essential
ways -- that is, in rhythm and pausing. One of the fascinations of Keats to both
the poet and the prosodist was his unerring ability to catch the use of caesura or
pause in any poet he uses as a suggestive model. Management of pause was still
considered one of the primary tests of the poet" (409). Bate recognizes that Milton,
and Samuel Johnson, found "the grave sixth syllable caesura" the noblest of the
pentameter line. To what extent does Keats employ this in Hyperion? To
What is the significance of the fall of the Titans? The dethronement of Saturn
and the response of his fellow gods? How does one cope with loss?
How does the progress of time -- described both by Oceanus and by Clymene --
symbolize the progress of poetry? Take each of these important speeches separately.
How does the calm thought of Oceanus reflect or express some of Keats' ideas of
disinterestedness as articulated in his letters?
Given that the poem ends (as a fragment) with the introduction of Apollo and his
apotheosis, and given that Apollo has always represented an important symbol of Keats'
own poetry, how does Hyperion suggest parallels with Keats own poetic
development? More importantly, how does this poetic representation differ from
the earlier poems to George Felton Mathew, Charles Cowden Clarke, and "Sleep and Poetry"?
What is the significance of his entitling this poem Hyperion, rather than
Apollo, the Olympian counterpart to the Titan god of the sun?
Compare the knowledge of human suffering that must be attained before Apollo can
become the god of poetry and the Chamber of maiden-thought described in Keats' letters.
Eve of St. Agnes
Written between 18 January and 2 February 1819, revised Sept. 1819
and published in 1820.
The notes in our text connect the emotional atmosphere of the poem
with Fanny Brawne, whom Keats has met in the autumn of 1818, "coming
to some kind of 'understanding' with her on 25 December 1818." How
important is this to know in interpreting the poem?
* Note Woodhouse's and Taylor's reaction to Keats' alterations, making
the poem now "unfit for the ladies." How does this reflect poetry as a
product of the time? Compare with Keats' ideal notion of objectivity or
* Note also Keats' reaction that he "does not want ladies to read his
poetry" and he "writes for men" and should "despise a man who would be
such an eunuch in sentiment as to leave a maid, with that character about
her, in such a situation." How do you understand this? Break down the
gendered assumptions and the conflict between poetic and moral tenets.
What is at issue here?
Compare the poem with the legend of St. Agnes. Also compare with
Romeo and Juliet. How does Keats make this poem his own? Where is
the line between imitation and imagination?
Is the poem too "smokeable" as Keats would have it? In other words, is
it too luxurious or too sentimental?
Alternatively, watch for images that Bate calls empathic. In other words,
images that, like Shakespeare, capture a "kinesthetic gift of image, felt
organically and distilled" (411) -- including but not limited to what we
later called "synaesthesia" or the substituting of one sense for another.
Compare the weight of the lines that Keats now creates (here and in Hyperion,
as well as the odes for next week) with the construction of earlier lines.
Note the masculine versus the feminine rhymes, the use of enjambment, the
past-participle adjective (charmed, warmed) versus the -y adjectives (sphery, streamy),
the use of spondees.
According to Bate, Keats considered open and closed vowels to be what are
traditionally understood as long and short vowels, and he created a style
(almost unconsciously) at this time that generally involved a pattern of
alternation between the long and the short. So that if "a" represents long
and "b" represents short, the pattern would be as follows:
"And purple-stained mouth"
b a b a b a
He will create different patterns to lead up to or emphasize this alternation,
but the "bababa" pattern predominates. Combined with this, Keats also developed
a style that favored repeated patterns of assonance, commonly with three sounds
repeated in one line. In Eve of St. Agnes, the interplay of sounds
becomes even richer, extending over several lines. What examples can you find?
What is the effect?
What elements of "high romance" are there in the poem? What elements of realism
can you find? Explain the thematic significance of the tension between romance
Examine the stanza -- the Spenserian stanza. What are the benefits of this form?
How does Keats exploit them? Limitations? How does the form contribute to the
significance of the subject -- ie. a romance? Compare this form with that of
Note the interplay of strong contrasts in the poem -- cold/heat, youth/age,
revelry/penance, sensuality/chastity and so on. What is the significance of
these closely united contrarities?
Part I was written between c. 28 June 1819 and 11 Jul 1819; completed
at Winchester between 12 August and 5 September, revised in March 1820; published 1820
The story told in this poem derives from Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy
and came ready made to Keats' hands. Bate concludes that the main theme of the
poem is the puncturing of illusion. Compare the theme and story here with that
of The Eve of St. Agnes.
How does his application of myth in this poem differ from earlier retelling of
myth? (In Hyperion for instance?) Keats intended to impress the
reading public with this poem: "take hold of the people in some way -- give
them either pleasant or unpleasant sensation." To what extent is he successful
Note the difference in style in this poem. In choosing the couplet, Keats
imitates and rewrites the neoclassical form of Dryden (rather than Pope),
minimizing periphrasis, but incorporating the weighted balance and closure
of the lines that allows him to expand but not diffuse the subject. What
effects does this have on the story told? (Think of the theme of punctured illusion.)
What happens to the richness of imagery and interplay of assonance in these
lines? Alternatively, how would you describe the texture of this poem?
Consider the implications of the story. Why does it begin with the Hermes
epidsode? What does this establish?
What is the allegorical signficance of the serpent turned woman? Of the
philosopher led astray by woman? Of Lamia's exposure by Appolonius? Of Lycius' death?
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