To what extent is Keats’ poetry mostly defined by pain and suffering?
It is evident that Keats’ poetry is mostly defined by pain and suffering in ‘To Sleep’ and ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’, whereas ‘Bright Star’ contests this view. In ‘To Sleep’, Keats finds an escape of the pain and suffering of consciousness through sleep, whereas in ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’ Keats escapes the deathly reality of winter and loneliness via the love of the femme fatale, inevitably leading him to more pain and suffering. On the other hand, ‘Bright Star’ is Keats’ most romantic poem and least tragic which is more so an anomaly in Keats’ poetry.
In ‘Sonnet To Sleep’, Keats personifies sleep as a soothing and gentle force of escapism from the pain and suffering of consciousness. For example, in the first line, Keats uses a direct mode of address in “O soft embalmer of the still midnight” to personify sleep which allows him to humanise sleep's qualities as if he was speaking to another person. By using the alliteration of “soft” and “still”, Keats, in particular, emphasises sleep's tranquil qualities as expressed through a sibilance sound similar to a hushing sound. This semantic field of gentleness and tranquillity is maintained throughout by the further adjectives of “careful” and “soothest”. Keats likely uses the descriptive word of “embalmer” due to its connotation of mortuaries to create sleep as a metaphor for death: the final escape from consciousness. With this in mind, Stillinger’s comment that “Keats portrays death as somehow beautiful” seems to be accurate due to Keats' positive language surrounding darkness and unconsciousness. For example, Keats describes how “Our gloom-pleased eyes” are “Enshaded in forgetfulness divine”. The adjective of “gloom” conveys the pain and suffering of day to day life whereas “Enshaded” connotes the darkness of both sleep and death that provides an escape from reality. Importantly, this “forgetfulness” of life’s pain and suffering that sleep brings is described using the religious adjective of “divine” and emphasised with the use of a colon to further suggest that sleep, much like death, is beautiful and transcendently healing due to its removal of conscious pain and suffering.
On line 9, Keats uses the Volta to signal a shift in tone from focusing on the comforting and tranquil effects of sleep seen in the octave towards overwhelming desperation of escape from pain and suffering within the sestet. For example, Keats starts the sestet with the imperative verb of “Then save me,” implying desperation to be saved by sleep to escape the overwhelming pain and suffering of consciousness that is “breeding many woes”, as if these “woes” were inescapable and continually “breeding” in number as if some infectious disease. This supports Smith’s view that “pain is an integral part of Keats’ vision of the world”. Significantly, at the time of writing ‘To Sleep’, Keats’ poetry was not well received and so his fears of being unsuccessful and forgotten in the world of poetry were very much amplified, evidently conveyed in the neurotic tone of the poem. In addition to this, in the following line, Keats’ repetition of “save me” further emphasises this desperation of escape, specifically from his “curious conscience that still lords / Its strength from darkness, burying like a mole.”. Keats’ alliteration of “curious conscience” places further emphasis on the woes that trouble his questioning mind, which, through the simile of “burying like a mole” and the reoccurrence of the symbolic motif of darkness, Keats expresses his wish to bury his pain and suffering through sleep. As the tone of desperation to escape pain and suffering increases, so too does the parallel between sleep and death, with Keats ending the poem with the line “And seal the hushed casket of my Soul”. The connotation of death that is evoked through Keats’ word choice of “casket” overtly compares how death, much like sleep, is also a relief from these “woes” of life and his “curious conscience”. This soothing and relieving effect of death is emphasised by Keats through the sibilance of “seal”, “hushed”, “casket” and “soul”, which provides a melodic finality to the poem much like how death is a final relief of no longer having to wait to escape pain and suffering through sleep. Perhaps, this desperation for the relief of death is Keats’ wish for his pain and suffering to end due to his tuberculosis diagnosis at the time of writing ‘To Sleep’. Keats himself was very familiar with tuberculosis as his mother had died of it while he was only 14 and he also trained as a surgeon. This means he would have been well aware of the likely outcome of death, and so when Fanny Brawne refused to call their engagement, he consequently feels guilty as if he were a burden. In this light, Keats could be portraying death not just as a relief of his pain and suffering for himself but also for others. Therefore, in ‘Sonnet to Sleep’, Keats defines conscious life as mainly being pain and suffering that is only relieved through the beauty of death.
On the other hand, Keats’ ‘Bright Star’ is not solely about the tragic nature of pain and suffering. Instead, it is an acceptance of human mortality and insignificance as compared to the omnipotent, stable and eternal force of space, nature and God. For example, the poem opens with Keats wishing “Bright star, would I were as steadfast as thou art”, evoking jealousy of the star’s constancy compared to his transient nature, perhaps a subtle motif of the pain and suffering that is the human condition. Keats personifies the star with a direct mode of address, further anthropomorphising the star by describing it as “watching, with eternal lids apart,” as if he was gazing into the eyes of God. Keats uses ascetic imagery to convey not only the ethereal beauty and eternal nature of the star but also to emphasise the sense of belonging and stability (the near opposite of pain and suffering) that he finds in its “steadfast”[ness], much like a sense of purpose and belonging found through religion. As a Romantic, Keats’ adoration of the beauty of nature in comparison to man’s restrictions is of course a common theme throughout the poem as was with many other poets at the time. However, Keats’ influences can be seen in a letter from June 1818 during a visit to the Lake District, in which he describes the views as refining his vision into “a sort of north star which cannot cease to be open lidded and stedfast,”. As Keats was heavily influenced by Shakespeare, it is by no surprise to find similarity in Julius Caesar’s line of “But I am constant as the northern star,”. The wish for the stability and constancy of a star was a common poetic theme that flourished during the Romantic movement and rejected the pain and suffering of love in favour of the beauty of nature. Many critics label ‘Bright Star’ as Keats’ only overt love sonnet, with Gittings describing it as a “declaration of love” for Fanny Brawne around 1818-1820. Whether or not it was originally written for Brawne, the poem certainly is Keats’ most romantic as it rejects the typical aforementioned pain and suffering of his other poems, especially of his other love poems that tend to end in heartbreak much like La Belle Dame Sans Merci. Instead, Keats uses the eternal nature, stability and ethereal beauty of the star and the sense of belonging that he gains from it as a metaphor for a relationship. The transition from the octave to the sestet shifts focus from the ascetic imagery of the star towards the intimate imagery of a relationship, perhaps of Brawne herself. At the Volta, Keats’ forceful use of “No - ” is emphasised by a semi-colon to portray his acceptance of his mortal restrictions compared to the star. However, he declares he is “yet still steadfast, still unchangeable” much like the star while he is “Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast”. The repetition of “still”, “stedfast” and “unchangeable” emphasise the same beauty, constancy, stability and belonging found within a relationship as with the star, which of course is reinforced with the intimate verb of “Pillow’d” and the sexual connotation of “ripening breast”. As Keats lays upon his lover's chest, he listens “Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath.”. Once again, Keats uses the repetition and alliteration of “still” to reflect the stability and constancy of love Keats feels listening to her breath, emphasised further through the alliteration of “tender-taken” to heighten the level of intimacy. As this poem was likely written following Keats’ diagnosis of tuberculosis, the final line “And so live ever - or else swoon to death” seems to convey the poet’s desperation for his loving relationship with Brawne to live for”ever” and to be eternal much like the star, which Keats himself further expressed in a letter to Brawne stating “I wish to believe in immortality - I wish to live with you forever”. The fact that Keats chose “death” to be the final word of the poem brings to light the mental state the poet was in when writing this poem, realising the inevitability of his death and as such was aware that ‘Bright Star’ would become his very last poem. In that light, the star is symbolic of both the pain and suffering of the mortal human condition as well as a metaphor for the eternal nature of love,
even beyond death.
Despite this, Keats’ poetry is still mostly defined by pain and suffering as seen in the perilous fate of the knight under the mystical force of the femme fatale in ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’ who symbolises a fantastical escape from pain and suffering as opposed to facing and accepting what seems to be a harsher reality. For example, in the first two stanzas, Keats uses a semantic field of unhappiness, loneliness and death, describing the knight as “wretched”, “alone” and “palely”. Keats symbolises the knight’s feelings of lifelessness and suffering through the pathetic fallacy of an approaching winter in which nature is “wither’d” and “no birds sing”, seemingly supporting Mark
Sandy’s critique that, within this medieval ballad, “Nature withdraws from the scene abandoning the knight to his plight…reflecting only his desolation.”. This desolation is also used by Keats to forebode the knight’s spiritual death after the femme fatale abandons him. In light of the knight’s desolation, Keats uses the rhetorical question of “what can ail thee wretched wight”[?] as an invitation to escape the reality of pain and suffering in favour of the fantastical allure of the femme fatale. Keats conveys the knight’s immediate fantastical and romantic attraction towards the femme fatale in the transition between the second person in the first two stanzas, emphasising the knight’s loneliness, into a first-person account in the third stanza, reflecting the knight’s sense of agency upon seeing the femme fatale. For example, the knight describes how “I see a lily on thy brow”…” And on thy cheek, a fading rose”. Here, Keats uses the semantic field of natural and floral imagery of a “lily” and a “rose” to act as a metaphor for the mystical beauty of the femme fatale. Furthermore, Keats likely uses the symbol of a “lily” to evoke the apparent innocence of the femme fatale that the knight is attracted towards and the potentiality of rebirth away from pain and suffering, while the romantic and deathly symbol of a “rose” is used to convey the knight’s lust for the femme fatale while also once again foreshadowing his deathly fate.
Keats' use of the knight’s fantastical description of the femme fatale, further using mystical imagery by portraying her as a “faery”, constructs a juxtaposition to the later realisation of reality and the knight’s demise, albeit spiritual. This follows Kendrick’s comment that the faery queen is a perfect example of how the medieval trope of the femme fatale is “increasingly associated with […] mysterious, highly erotic women that ensnare men with their sexual wiles and lead them to destruction”. For example, in stanza 8, Keats uses the biblical allusion of God’s intervention in saving the starving Israelites with “manna dew” to convey the fact that the knight’s starved survival is dependent upon the femme fatale, foreboding the knight’s dream of the warriors’ “starv’d lips” while also supporting Kendrick’s claim as is it apart of a semantic field of the knight’s sexual lust for the femme fatale through the further connotations of “relish sweet” and “honey wild”. Keats juxtaposes the femme fatale’s mystical and fantastical force over the knight to the harsh reality of pain and suffering through the Volta within stanza 9 by once again reverting to a semantic field of winter, loneliness and death as the knight begins to dream “On the cold hillside”. While Keats continues this semantic field of death within the knight’s dream of “pale kings” and “pale warriors” that seemingly confirms Kendrick’s analysis of the femme fatale leading her victims to “destruction”, more importantly, Keats uses the dream as a metaphor for the knight’s internal realisation of the true nature of the femme fatale, with the warriors all crying “La belle Dame sans merci Hath thee in thrall!”. Keats’ word choice of “in thrall” evokes a connotation of the knight’s enslavement to the femme fatale, at which point his fantastical and romantic representation of the femme fatale and the world around him is immediately shattered, waking up from the dream and once again returning to being “Alone and palely loitering”. Keats uses this cyclical narrative and semantic reversion to death, loneliness and winter as a realisation of the reality of pain and suffering as opposed to a fantastical romance. Thus, ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’ is a perfect example of how Keats’ poetry is mostly defined by pain and suffering.
In conclusion, although ‘Bright Star’ is notoriously known by critics as Keats’ most profound love poem, it still, however, contains the unwilling acceptance of the human condition of mortality despite Keats’ wish to be eternal as a star so that he can be with Brawne forever; inevitably a tragic love story despite the feelings of belonging. Thus, Keats’ poetry is mostly defined by pain and suffering, with ’To Sleep’ expressing how even the most tragic part of life - death - can be seen as beautiful due to the escape of the pain and suffering of consciousness, while ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’ uses the femme fatale as a device to convey the inevitable feelings of heartbreak that leads us to spiritual death, confirming Smith’s comment that “pain is an integral part of Keats’ vision of the world”.