If you were to merely glance over the work of the first and second generation of Romantic poets then there would seem to be nothing separating the two other than chronology, and in some aspects this is true enough: both strive to escape urban realities in favour of the natural sublime; both tend towards lone figures in scenic environments; and both stress the importance of raw feeling over purely rational thinking.
But wherever the two generations match, they also differ. William Wordsworth, in the introduction to his Lyrical Ballads (1798), dismisses the personification of abstract ideas whereas Percy Shelley uses them to great effect – see Murder and Fraud in The Masque of Anarchy (1819). To Shelley, a poet was an instrument, a lyre over which the imagination blew like a wind, giving it music. Wordsworth strove for accessibility and prose-like poetry that spoke plainly yet deeply. For him, a poet is “a man speaking to men”; a far more rustic concept than Shelley’s metaphoric elaboration. John Keats, a second generation Romantic alongside Shelley, agreed with Wordsworth: “Poetry should strike the reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts.”
But again, coupled with the similarities were discrepancies in method or style. Keats’ theory of ‘negative capability’ necessitated the disappearance of the poet, with a strong focus on the poem’s object of choice. Negative capability is the ability to detach oneself from your own being; the poet becomes an abstraction who can investigate an object from many differing avenues of thought. Wordsworth however inserted himself into his poetry as a singular, interacting character.
In Simon Lee, not only does Wordsworth address the reader directly (“O gentle Reader!”) he talks to and assists the poem’s subject matter (an elderly herdsman) in cutting down a tree. In many of his poems the narrator is identified as “I”, who is of course Wordsworth himself. Keats on the other hand claimed that the poet “is every thing and nothing … he has no identity – he is continually in for, and filling some other body: The Sun, The Moon, the Sea and Men and Women…” With Wordsworth we follow the poet not only as a narrator but also as a guide, a biographer of pastoral life seeking to transpose real rustic scenes into ‘serious’ contemplative literature, hence his focus on the countryside’s ‘small folk’, from huntsmen to leech collectors to “the solitary child … on a wide moor”.
In comparison, the characters inhabiting Keats’ poems are either personified emotions (Melancholy and Joy, Love and Ambition), historical figures like Sappho or Petrarch, or mythological characters like Hermes and Apollo. Interestingly, when Keats focuses on rural figures they are merely representations painted upon an urn, and their stories are ultimately unknowable.
There is however also a sense that what Wordsworth conveys is not a first hand sensory experience; it has been lacquered with what he called “a certain colouring of imagination” in order to make the ordinary interesting. With Keats the object of choice, whether a book (On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer), a series of sculptures (On Seeing the Elgin Marbles) or ancient pottery (Ode to a Grecian Urn) is examined and interrogated entirely on its own merit. Keats would concentrate so intensely on a singular item that the resulting sense of beauty would “overcome every other consideration, or rather obliterate all consideration”.
What mattered to Keats was the raw sensual experience, and not whatever conclusions the poet came to at the end. There was to be no “irritable reaching after fact and reason”, only the object and its effect. In his letters Keats directly noted that poets like Samuel Coleridge lacked the ability to satisfy themselves with “half-knowledge” – the accusation being that Coleridge does not seek to merely experience purity or beauty through nature, but seeks the acquisition of knowledge. Keats suspects that Coleridge places thought over sensation – a betrayal of the Romantic ‘creed’, if there was one.
St. Augustine defined poetry as a pathway to God, “with no mediating Nature between [them],” but Wordsworth, in The Tables Turned, claimed that:
“One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man
Of moral evil and of good
Than all the sages can.”
The advice here is simply to “Let nature be your teacher”. The trouble was that with advancing age we become saddled with distractions which all work together to detract from our appreciation of (and connection to) nature.
To Wordsworth, a long life had a wearying and detrimental effect on one’s appreciation of nature. In Intimations of Immortality he writes, “There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream/The earth and every common sight/To me did seem/Apparelled in celestial light”. Wordsworth claimed a belief in the Platonic idea that our pre-existence is a state of perfection, and that “Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting.” As children we can see the glory of nature; we are “Nature’s Priest”, but “At length the Man perceives it die away/And fade into the light of common day”.
In this poem Wordsworth also used prison imagery to describe the human experience:
“Shades of the prison house begin to close
Upon the growing boy …
Forget the glories he hath known
And that imperial palace whence he came.”
Wordsworth’s only respite from the agony of forgetting the “splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower” is that with age also comes a philosophic mind. He can find “Strength in what remains behind … In the soothing thoughts that spring/Out of human suffering;/In the faith that looks through death.”
In Tintern Abbey he concludes that “The mind within us”, loaded with joyful memories and appreciation of nature, will become a bulwark against “evil tongues”, “rash judgments”, “the sneers of selfish men” and “the dreary intercourse of daily life”. The “wild ecstasies” of youth will transform into “sober pleasure”, and though the “celestial light” dims as the years pass, Wordsworth finds a way to illuminate his brief, transitory existence.
Keats’ approach was far more existential. Death was a worryingly inevitable conclusion and he always felt that time was short. In Ode to Melancholy he rejects suicide and forgetfulness as solutions to melancholy. Instead the sufferer should “glut thy sorrow on a morning rose”, though this solution is temporary: in When I Have Fears That I May Cease To Be Keats writes that the knowledge of his mortality spoils his appreciation of the world:
“When I behold, upon the night’s starr’d face
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance
And I think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance …
Then on the shore of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till love and fame to nothingness sink.”
There is a source of respite for Keats, and that is art. Though man may be ephemeral, an artistic work can survive the ages. In Ode to a Grecian Urn he explores the theme of immortality through art – in this case, a painted Greek urn. “When old age shall this generation waste/Thou shalt remain,” he writes of the urn and its painted figures. But such immortality comes with a price: though the figures painted on the ceramic have survived the centuries, they do not live. Of the trees painted there, he laments: “Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed/Your leaves, nor ever bid the spring adieu”. Furthermore, anything beyond the characters’ physical appearances remain a mystery: “What men or gods are these?/What maidens loth?/What mad pursuit?/What struggle to escape?”
Keats cannot know these answers – but, if we recall, that is beyond the point. For Keats it is the sensory experience that matters, not his conclusions. He is a poet who, always hoping to delay the future, lives to become lost in the present moment.
A final point should be made: there was certainly more cross-over of ideas and love shared between Keats and Wordsworth than there was between Keats and his contemporaries. Though Wordsworth’s name is inextricably linked to that of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the two having walked and mused and collaborated during the span of their friendship, the relationship between the likewise contemporaneous Lord Byron and John Keats was one of unveiled animosity; Byron was a flamboyant, witty and charming poet who “woke one morning to find myself famous”. Keats was “a pale flower”, a troubled and easily daunted young man whose reputation as a great poet was born posthumously.
Personality and fortunes aside, Keats, in his poetical manifesto, Sleep and Poetry, dismissed one Nicolas Boileau, whose Art Poétique (1674) anticipated Alexander Pope’s Essay on Criticism (1711) and a whole school of popular critical thought. Byron, an acolyte of Pope, never forgave Keats for allegedly transgressing against his idol. Similarly, though Keats praised Percy Shelley for his individuality, he also eschewed intimacy with the poet to attain and preserve his “own unfettered scope”. The idea that a battle-line was drawn between both generations, with homogenous and allied forces on both sides, is an artifice; a product of our tendency to divide history into easily-perused categories .