The poetic career of John Keats may be described as a struggle to harmonize the ‘life of sensation with life of thought. His letters clearly reveal the nature and the evolution of this conflict and poetry lends full support to whatever he says in the letters. In his well-known letter to Reynolds, May, 1818, too long to quote here, he refers to the human mind as a mansion of several chambers only two of which are visible to him—firstly, the infant or thoughtless chamber and secondly, the chamber of maiden thought, where we are intoxicated with light and atmosphere while with a sharpened vision we peep into the misery, heart-break, pain, sickness and strife weltering in the world of man.’ The influence of Wordsworthian evolution, as recorded in the Tintern Abbey is acknowledged and the scheme is repeated poetically in Sleep and Poetry.
The allegory in Endymion relates the ‘divine essence’ with concrete, sensuous loveliness but by the time we reach Hyperion his conception of beauty has widened. In the first place, beauty has become the symbol of power born of perfection, which explains the victory of the new generation of gods over the old one; secondly, beauty has become blended with sorrow in the picture of Thea:
But Oh : how unlike marble was that face,
How beautiful, if sorrow had not made
Sorrow more beautiful than Beauty’s self.
In the last book of the fragmentary epic Keats presents the transformation of Apollo through the sudden rushing in of knowledge into his impulsive heart :
Knowledge enormous make a god of me
Names, deeds, grey legends, agonies etc.
Pour into the wide hollows of my brain
And deify me.
This is why Keats laid so much emphasis on the ‘negative capability’ of the poet : A poet is the most unpoetical thing in the world because he has no identity he is continually filling some other body… it enjoys light and shade ; it lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated…capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.’
But this instinctive, sensuous and intuitional perception of the feelings, joys and sorrows of theirs must be balanced and steadied by an intellectual self-awareness:
Now comes the pain of truth, to whom ’tis pain;
O folly : for to bear all naked truths,
And to envisage circumstance all calm,
This is the top of sovereignty.
For Keats, therefore, senses were creative as they set Imagination into play and what the Imagination grasped as beauty was also truth. Thus the Ideal was only a sublimation of the real. He sums up the whole matter in one of his letters : Adam’s dream will do here and seems to be a conviction that Imagination and its empyreal reflection is the same as human life and its spiritual reflection,..The Prototype must be hereafter.” Shelley soared above the earth in search for the light that never fades but Keats contemplated the dark earth against the polar light of heaven, the two being the opposite sides of the same coin. Like Wordsworth’s lark he is.