Keats was considerably influenced by Spenser and was, like Spenser, a passionate lover of beauty in all its forms and manifestations. The passion of beauty constitutes his aestheticism. Beauty was his pole star, beauty in nature, in woman and in art.
A thing of beauty is a joy forever.
He writes and identifies beauty with truth. Of all the contemporary poets Keats is one of the most inevitably associated with the love of beauty. He was the most passionate lover of the world as the career of beautiful images and of many imaginative associations of an object or word with a heightened emotional appeal.
Poetry, according to Keats, should be the incarnation of beauty, not a medium for the expression of religious or social philosophy. He hated didacticism in poetry.
We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us.
He believed that poetry should be unobtrusive. The poet, according to him, is a creator and an artist, not a teacher or a prophet. In a letter to his brother he wrote:
With a great poet, the sense of beauty overcomes every other consideration.
He even disapproved Shelley for subordinating the true end of poetry to the object of social reform. He dedicated his brief life to the expression of beauty as he said:
I have loved the principle of beauty in all things.
For Keats the world of beauty was an escape from the dreary and painful life or experience. He escaped from the political and social problems of the world into the realm of imagination. Unlike Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron and Shelley, he remained untouched by revolutionary theories for the regression of mankind. His later poems such as “Ode to a Nightingale” and “Hyperion” show an increasing interest in human problems and humanity and if he had lived he would have established a closer contact with reality. He may overall be termed as a poet of escape. With him poetry existed not as an instrument of social revolt nor of philosophical doctrine but for the expression of beauty. He aimed at expressing beauty for its own sake.
Keats did not like only those things that are beautiful according to the recognized standards. He had deep insight to see beauty even in those things that are not thought beautiful by ordinary people. He looked at autumn and says that even autumn has beauty and charm:
Where are the song of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too, –
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue.
In Keats, we have a remarkable contrast both with Byron on the one side and with Shelley on the other. Keats was neither rebel nor utopian dreamer. Endowed with a purely artistic nature, he took up in regard to all the movements and conflicts of his time, a position of almost complete detacher. He knew nothing of Byron’s stormy spirit of hostility of the existing order of things and he had no sympathy with Shelley’s humanitarian and passion for reforming the world. The famous opening line of “Endymion”, ‘A thing of beauty is a joy forever’ strikes the keynote of his work. As the modern world seemed to him to be hard, cold and prosaic, he habitually sought an imaginative escape from it. He loved nature just for its own sake and for the glory and loveliness which he found in it, and no modern poet has ever been nearer than he was to the simple “poetry for earth” but there was nothing mystical in love and nature was never fraught for him, as for Wordsworth and Shelley, with spiritual message and meanings.
Keats was not only the last but also the most perfect of the Romantics while Scott was merely telling stories, and Wordsworth reforming poetry or upholding the moral law, and Shelley advocating the impossible reforms and Byron voicing his own egoism and the political measure. Worshipping beauty like a devotee, perfectly content to write what was in his own heart or to reflect some splendour of the natural world as he saw or dreamed it to be, he had the noble idea that poetry exists for its own sake and suffers loss by being devoted to philosophy or politics.
Disinterested love of beauty is one of the qualities that made Keats great and that distinguished him from his great contemporaries. He grasped the essential oneness of beauty and truth. His creed did not mean beauty of form alone. His ideal was the Greek ideal of beauty inward and outward, the perfect soul of verse and the perfect form. Precisely because he held this ideal, he was free from the wish to preach.
Keats’ early sonnets are largely concerned with poets, pictures, sculptures or the rural solitude in which a poet might nurse his fancy. His great odes have for their subjects a storied Grecian Urn; a nightingale; the goddess Psyche, mistress of Cupid; the melancholy and indolence of a poet; and the season of autumn, to which he turns from the songs of spring. What he asked of poesy, of wine, or of nightingale’s song was to help him:
Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget,
What thou amongst the leaves hast never known,
The weariness, the fever and the fret,
Here, where men sit and hear each other groan.
“I Stood Tiptoe Upon a Little Hill” and “Sleep and Poetry” – the theme of both these poems is that lovely things in nature suggest lovely tales to the poet, and great aim of poet is to be a friend to soothe the cares, and lift the thoughts of man. Perhaps Keats would have said that he attempted his nobler life of poetry in poems like “Lamia” and “Hyperion” but it is very doubtful whether he believed that he had done justice to this elevated type of poetic creation.
Keats’ love of beauty is not ‘Platonic’ in nature. He loves physical objects and takes interest in human body. He does not become obscene but his love of beauty gives us very attractive and suggestive picture of women:
Yet still steadfast, still unchangeable,
Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast,
To feel forever its soft fall and swell,
Awake forever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender taken breath,
And so live ever.
Religion for him took definite shape in the adoration of the beautiful, an adoration which he developed into a doctrine. Beauty is the supreme truth. It is imagination that discovers beauty. This idealism, assumes a note of mysticism. One can see a sustained allegory in “Endymion” and certain passages are most surely possessed of a symbolical value. Sidney Colvin says:
It was not Keats aim merely to create a paradise of art and beauty discovered from the cares and interests of the world. He did aim at the creation and revelation of beauty, but of beauty whatever its element existed. His concept of poetry covered the whole range of life and imagination.
As he did not live long enough, he was not able to fully illustrate the vast range of his conception of beauty. Fate did not give him time enough to fully unlock the ‘mysteries of the heart’ and to illuminate and put in proper perspective the great struggles and problems of human life.