A Note On Keats Hellenism With Particular Reference To The Eve Of Saint Agnes

The ancient Greeks called their country Hellas and themselves Hellenes, the name of a tribe that in the time of pre-historic migrations had settled in a part of Thessaly. Graccia was a name given by the Romans to Hellas. Hellenism is a derivative from Hellas and is a familiar word in literary criticism, very frequently used in connection with Milton, Keats or Swinburne. Hellenism with its passion for beauty is sometimes contrasted with Hebraism. the influence of the Bible, with its emphasis on moral rigour or the value of disciplinary forces. The opposition however; is more apparent than real. It is generally admitted that modern Europe civilization is a harmonious blend of three factors, the philosophy of ancient Greece. Christianity and the jurisprudence of Rome, but in the case of individuals, the blend is not usually so harmonious. A notable exception, however, is Milton in whom the renaissance and reformation forces blend inextricably. He is steeped in the influence of classical literature so much so that his classical learning in the language of Hartley, Coleridge is amalgamated and consubstantiated with his native genius. At the same time all his poetical works are interfused with the sublimity and moral grandeur of Christian thought. But Milton was a class by himself. The vast erudition of Ben Jonson or of Milton has hardly any parallel. In a different way, the case of John Keats is still more unique.

He was born in the house of a London ostler in the most unpoetical surroundings. His antecedents and environments were not at all favourable for the fostering of Hellenism. Like Shakespeare, Keats had ‘little Latin and less Greek. Shelley, when asked how Keats could have references to a Grecian story in his Hyperion, replied, ‘Because he was a Greek. Nothing could be truer than this epigrammatic utterance, the significance of which Shelley himself probably but half comprehended. He was not a Greek by education. He did not know Greek at all and his knowledge of Greek literature was derived from English translations only. There was nothing of Greek culture in his heritage either. But he was irresistibly drawn towards everything that was Greek. That shows that his Hellenism was innate or he was a born Greek, by instinct, a Greek owing to the inborn temperamental ‘Greekness of his mind.”

That Homer, the blind epic poet of ancient Greece had captivated his youthful mind is clear from one of the fugitive pieces, the Sonnet to Homer which begins thus:

“Standing aloof in “giant ignorance,

Of thee I hear and of the Cyclades.

As one who sits ashore and longs perchance

To Visit dolphin-coral in deep seas.”

Homer came to him through Chapman’s translation. Chapman’s Iliad. though ‘animated by a daring fiery spirit is not always loud and bold’ and Palgrave’s luminous comment is well worth remembering: ‘It may be noticed that to find in Chapman’s Homer the pure serene of the original, the reader must bring with him the imagination of the youthful poet: he must be a Greek himself as Shelley finely said of Keats. The famous sonnet was written at dawn after a whole night spent over the Iliad.

As Keats says, his intellectual horizon was widened by Homeric poetry, even though he had known Homer through translation. No poet has been able to recapture the spirit of ancient Greek poetry with a greater insight and a surer touch than Keats in his unfinished Fragment of an Ode to Maia written on Mayday, 1818.

It was Benjamin Robert Haydon (1786-1846), an historical painter who had introduced him to the Elgin Marbles, derived chiefly from the frieze and pediment of the Parthenon at Athens, the work of Phidias (c. 440 B. C.). They were collected by the Earl of Elgin (1766-1841) and placed in the British Museum in 1816. Keats’s interest was immediately roused. He was impressed by its majesty, its simplicity and symmetry, its ‘calm grandeur’ and economy.

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The sight of these marbles had not caused merely a momentary pleasure but it exercised a far-reaching influence on Keats’s own poetic art. It gave a more potent turn to his poetry than any other external influence. Some of the qualities of this ‘Phidian lore’ are reelected in his Hyperion. Two of his famous odes. On indolence and On a Grecian Urn. are directly inspired by these examples of an ancient Greek sculpture. To him, the Grecian Urn is a symbol of the external principle of beauty and has an oracular message for humanity in all ages; a message as deep as the infinite. In his mood of indolence, Love, Ambition and the Demonical Poesy appear before him. As they baffle recognition, Keats remembers the inscrutable character of the figures on a marble vase. In a sonnet, To Haydon, written on Seeing the Elgin Marbles he offers an enthusiastic tribute to him for his early recognition of the genuineness of the collection and in the sonnet On Seeing the Elgin Marbles, he refers to the mingling of ‘Grecian grandeur with the wasting of old Time.’

Keats did not fight his own age, from which he affected an imaginative escape, not into a future land like Shelley, but into the past of Greek art or mythology. In the Ode On a Grecian Urn he declares the supremacy of ideal art over Nature or life because of its unchanging expression of perfection. For whatever Art may sacrifice the loveliness and freshness of Nature, it attains permanence which Nature attains not.

Keats had studied Virgil’s Aeneid even in his thirteenth year and he had set forth to translate the Aeneid into English prose. The discovery of the Iliad and the Odyssey in Chapman’s translation had opened up to him the great wonderland of legend, a ‘wide expanse’ which Homer ruled. But it is nothing short of the alchemy of the genius which could transform the prosaic passages of Lempriere’s Classical Dictionary into the pure gold of poetry. When at school, he seemed to have learnt it by heart. No one ever looked into a dictionary with greater zeal. He left the charm of Greek and Roman myth also in Tooke’s Pantheon and Polymetis.

Above all, he was a Greek on account of his passion for beauty. The Hellenes were lovers of beauty, the beauty in which Keats revelled was sensuous though imaginative and if he had lived longer, it was sure to be transformed into something deeper and richer. But it was no small achievement for a youthful poet to discern the identity of beauty and truth. To see things in their beauty is to know the whole truth about them.

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty that is all,

 Ye know no earth, and all ye need to know.”

Matthew Arnold rightly comments: “No, it is not all; but it is true, and deeply true, and we have deep need to know it. And with beauty goes not only truth, joy goes with her also; and this too Keats saw and said, as in the famous first line of his Endymion, it stands written-

“A thing of beauty is a joy forever.”

It is no small thing to have so loved the principle of beauty as to perceive necessary relation of beauty with truth, and of both with joy.

It is this cult of beauty and of the joy of life which the ancient Greeks cultivated. They also cultivated the beauty of intellect and of character. Keats had unquestioningly accepted the principle of beauty governing all objects and having done so, he was sure to realize that beauty is not exclusively material or sensuous, not exclusively intellectual or spiritual material or sensuous, not exclusively intellectual or spiritual, but finds its expression in the fullest development of all that goes to make up human perfection.

Finally, Keats was a Greek in the simplicity and directness of expression of his best work, the inestimable quality of Homer and the Greek tragedians In a few words or by the employment of a few epithets he could, like the ancient Greeks, contrive to finish a picture of vast size.



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