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Why Keats fails in his imagination as an escapist?

The word escapist is often entitled to the name of Keats because of his escaping tendency
(from the real world to an imaginative world). Having been experienced from the bitter
realities of his life, wherever he sees some beautiful pictures depicted on an ‘Urn’ or hears
the song of a nightingale, he tries to dip into or to fly to an ideal world of happiness,
beauty, music and imagination (through his ‘viewless wings of Poesy’), forgetting his
reality in the world. But this little moment of pure happiness does not last long; he is to
come back to this world again. ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ is an excellent example of Keats’
escapism in his poetry.
Keats’ escape is from his real life to an imaginative and ideal world. But why is
this escape from the inevitable place? – Because, according to Keats, reality of human life
is full of suffering, pain etc; this world is not a desirable place. He has summed up his
individual as well as common sufferings of life in the following lines of stanza 11 of the
poem ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ –
The weariness, the fever, and the fret
Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs
Where youth grows pale and spectre-thin and dies;
Where but to think is to be full of sorrow
And leaden-eyed despairs;
Where beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,
Or, new love pine at them beyond tomorrow.
Here he remembers the bitterness of his own life and reminds us that of our life. He
considers that life is full of misery, sorrow and disease, of tiring struggle, of restlessness
and pain; that life is nothing but a series of groans and complaints; that old men’s life is
helpless and pitiful, having lost the control over their limbs and their hair being grey; that
even the young are dying of terrible disease- that is, the poet here thinks of his young
brother Tom, dying just before his eyes; that for thoughtful or sensitive but thoughtless
persons, there is no happiness in reality; that beauty is short-lived; that one’s love for
another does not last long – that is, he remembers his beloved Fanny Browne’s rejection
of his young love and turning to others. This is the view of reality by Keats.
When does Keats think of escaping from the reality of his life? Is there any
particular time? – Yes. Keats life-long creed is ‘A thing of beauty is a joy forever’
(Endymion). So wherever he sees any beautiful picture or scenery or hears any attractive
melody or song, he feels joy, and forgets his harsh reality, and becomes one with that, and
thus he escapes. For examples, having seen a beautiful Urn in British Museum, he forgets
his position, even he talks with the pictures depicted on the Urn, e.g. –
Ah, happy, happy boughs that cannot shed
Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu.
Again, having heard the song of a nightingale, his sense begins to loose in excessive joy as
if he has drunk hemlock. As a result, he says,
“One minute past, and lathe-wards had sunk.
Here lithe is a river of Greek mythology; he who drinks from it forgets all. So, the
poet has forgotten all, having heard the song.
How does Keats escape from reality? What is his medium or transport? – Keats’
own word gives answer to these questions –
“Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards
But on the viewless wings of poesy.”
That is, his is not any transport of physical existence like Bacchus, the God of wine.
Rather he has poetic imagination for this sake. It is more suitable to him than anything
Hearing the song of the nightingale which is singing, probably, away from him,
Keats forgets his reality. Now, through his poetic imagination, he depicts in his mind the
nightingale’s happy abode, its healing surroundings which have made him forget all pains
of life. Now we can look at that imaginative world.
Keats imagines the happy nightingale and its happy surroundings in the following
lines through excellent images and word selection –
“That thou, light winged Dryad of the trees
In some melodious plot
Of beechen green, and shadows numberless
Singest of summer in full-throated ease.
That is the nightingale, compared as a nymph, is singing, without hesitation, in
such a plot which is full of melody, greenery and dreamy shadows and where summer is
Moreover, Keats longs for a draught of long-aged vintage, for a beaker of warm
southern wine, compared with the foundation of the Muses, so the poet says,
‘That I might drink, and leave the world
And with thee fade away into the unseen forest dim
But he rejects this way of escaping.
Then, through ‘the viewless wings of Poesy’, ‘though the dull brain perplexes and
retards’ his mind, he has already come, as if physically, to the imaginative world of the
nightingale. He says –
“Already with thee! Tender is the night,
And haply the Queen-Moon is on her throne
Clustered around by all her story Fays.”
In this way, in stanza 5,6 & 7 of the ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, Keats leads us to such a
place where he feels the existence of various flowers in the dank night from their smells;
where he feels death better than life, but again thinks that if he dies he will not be able to
listen to the beautiful and permanent song.
In ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’, Keats, seeing the pictures on the Urn, dissolves in them
through imagination, as if he is with them who seem to be alive.
But Keats’ world of imagination remains only a short while. When he thinks that
the Urn and the song of the nightingale will remain for ages but he will not, rather he is
‘forlorn’, he comes back to reality. He says in the last stanza of ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ –
“Forlorn! The very would is like a bell
To toll me back from thee to my sole self”.
That is the word ‘forlorn’ reminds his position in ‘the weariness, the fever and the
fret’, like the ‘alarm clocks’ of our mobile phones turn us from our dreamy sleep to the
world of bitter reality. He calls ‘fancy’, ‘deceiving elf’. Moreover, “the music which almost
succeeded in making him ‘fade far away’ now itself fades and in a moment is ‘buried deep
in the next valley-glades’(lines:77-78)” (Clearth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren)
Therefore, we see that Keats is so disgusted with the real life that he always tries to
escape from it. C.D. Thorpe says –
“The moment of insight with him was a moment of complete emotion, absorption in which
the poet lost even his own senses of being in intense pursuit of his imaginative query. The
extreme of this activity was a flight, far away from the fret and fever of life into a realm of
imaginative delight into a region of abstractions of the poets own creations.”(The Mind of
John Keats)
Even he has no revolutionary concerns of the age in his poems, while other Romantic
poets, e.g. Wordsworth, Shelley have eagerly greeted the revolutions and Byron deals with
social problems. Though Keats’ escapism is individual, it sometimes becomes common,
when we seek a suitable place to relieve from the bitterness of our life.