John Keats and Nature, an Ecocritical Inquiry
Interiorising Exteriorities, Exteriorising Interiorities and the Dynamics of Becoming: An Ecocritical Inquiry on John Keats
The hush of natural objects opens quite
This essay attempts a critical study of the poetry of John Keats (1795–1821) with regard to ecological consciousness which plays a central role in the understanding of the aesthetic, philosophical and ethical ramifications of his theory of the imagination, with the philosophy of becoming largely seen in his apprehension of poetic and philosophical maturity as an evolving process rather than a completely accomplished task. This internalisation and exteriorisation therefore centre on a dialogic stance which I term 'eco-psycho-aesthetics'. Even if Keats’s conception of nature has affinities with spirituality as discerned in the works of Romantics like William Wordsworth (1770–1850), Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834) and Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792–1822), the intention of this write-up is not primarily the fullness of spiritual experience in nature. 
Writing to Fanny Brawne in February 1820, Keats said,
Another instance is the self-chosen inscription on Keats’s tomb, which states,
These are some of the comments that the proponents of Deconstruction cannot identify with Keats’s idealism, and will principally capitalise on to substantiate their contention that Keats’s ironic and self-contradictory character makes him a Deconstructionist.
The argument here is that these remarks, within the context of becoming, should not be taken to represent Keats’s ironic and paradoxical consciousness in the strict rhetorical implications of the words, nor his contradictory stance in life. They positively point to the fact that he was conscious of poetic expression as an aesthetic process rather than a final achievement. By 1820, he had no doubt written mature poetry, but his sense of aesthetic and philosophic vision was not satisfactory. Nature plays a vital role in the understanding of his aesthetic ambitions and achievements.
The major question is, how does Keats’s eco-consciousness engender his aesthetic and philosophical expression and speculations? Nature is apprehended by Coleridge, for example, from a pantheistic and monistic dimension as a universal force which sheds light on man’s spirituality. This means, in other words, that the question is examined from an eco-metaphysical dimension. Becoming can be seen critically as a constructive deferral of spiritual idealism, the argument being that the visionary experiences encapsulated in texts are an indicator of supra-textual readings and therefore not closures but dynamic open-endedness. Is this the case with Keats?
Though there are a number of characteristic features in Keats’s poetry which affiliate with Coleridge and Wordsworth, his nature-consciousness will be seen to take a slightly different turn. Keats’s poetry and prose show proof of certain monistic traits common in the two elder poets, justifying the assertion that he can be discussed within the mainstream of Romantic idealism with regard to nature, even if he does not handle the matter in a like manner.
It can be argued equally that his poetry lends credence to apprehend nature from an organicist viewpoint. Yet, his eco-poetics, as we intend to analyse, does not place priority on the visionary and transcendental and, therefore, the dominant spiritual dimension of nature is not like that of his elder colleagues, for it tends to reduce nature primarily within the confines of his aesthetic quest rather than brood over it fundamentally as a universal force or the basis of his spiritual longings.
Keats saw the secret of creative genius as an exquisitely purged sympathy with nature. Apprehending nature and aesthetic creativity as an ever-increasing and progressive moment of life that was shaping itself, Keats infused most of his poetry with this apprehension. Equally evident in his epistolary self-consciousness, were important philosophical remarks on the imagination that connect with nature, and point to the thread of thought of his elder colleagues as indicated above.
An examination of poems like ‘The Poet,’ ‘Sleep and Poetry,’ ‘I Stood Tip-toe Upon a Little Hill,’ ‘On the Grasshopper and Cricket,’ ‘Ode on a Nightingale,’ ‘Bright Star, I would I were Steadfast as thou art,’ Endymion, ‘Epistle to Dear Reynolds,’ and ‘Ode to Autumn,’ all exemplify Keats’s self-conscious use of nature imagery into the fabric of his aesthetics and to an extent his apprehension of natural phenomena as therapeutic to human health.
‘The Poet’ conveys a strong Romantic flare for nature. The adulation of nature situates its vitality to man’s psycho-somatic existence:
With regard to Romantic idealism, there are undoubtedly elements here that show Keats’s enthusiasm for nature. The italicised section evinces both the physical and metaphysical dimension of nature. The last lines can also be argued to demonstrate a transcendental bent. The maturing creative and philosophical mind benefits immensely from natural landscape more than from institutionalised learning. The title is an important clue to the question of eco-psycho-aesthetics. The psychological relationship between the poet and nature provides creative material. In terms of aesthetics one would describe this as the internalisation of natural imagery and exteriorisation through poetry.
In ‘Sleep and Poetry’ Keats’s basic interest has to do with the mapping of his artistic ambition, which entails a gradual and spiral movement towards aesthetic vision and excellence. One of the developmental phases in this progression has to do with eco-consciousness. Nature therefore undoubtedly plays a fundamental role in his poetics of becoming a self-portrayed artist.
Keats begins the poem with a series of rhetorical questions, relating nature to his philosophical and psycho-aesthetic apprehension of sleep. As the poem’s title indicates, sleep and poetry are highly intertwined, sleep seen here not as a psycho-somatic state of dormancy, but as a psycho-aesthetic state which generates and enhances creative productivity. Keats no doubt adulates nature’s beauty and grandeur. Nature serves as a kind of nativity, a muse or a springboard to the poet’s artistic quest, whereby he shows the consciousness that he has to pass through the realms of Flora and Pan, which represent nature-poetry, before continuing to more complex levels of awareness and creativity:
Flora and Pan here refer to Keats’s mediation of artistic creativity and Greek mythology. Though Keats’s scheme considers nature not so noble as the other phases of this development, he does not undermine nature, for nature imagery recurs and serves an important thematic purpose in most of his poetry.
‘I Stood Tip-toe Upon a Little Hill’ was written in the same year as ‘Sleep and Poetry,’ and once more echoes Keats’s concern for nature. The poem is fused with nature images over which the poet is contemplating not only on aesthetic but apparently spiritual vision:
This excerpt suggests an experience with a mystical and sublime aspect, what he even later qualifies as a natural sermon (L. 71). The inspiring component of nature is noted with the rhetorical question that the poet asks,
For what has made the sage or poet write/But the fair paradise of Nature’s light?” (L. 125 – 126)
Keats goes further to describe the healing power of nature, showing that nature is not merely concerned with the aesthetic act of writing poetry, but could serve a medical purpose to whoever is open and receptive to it:
The Romantic symbol of the breeze and its impact on the creative imagination, common in Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Shelley, is here evoked. One also notices that Keats is obviously expressing sensitivity to the way air affects bodily health. It therefore connects with physio- and psycho-pathology, which Keats had studied in his medical training, and points to the therapeutic or pharmaceutical importance of nature to the body and soul. This eco-therapeutic perspective is not just a Coleridgean connection, but brings to mind post-Novalian philosophy.
Novalis (Friedrich Freiherr von Hardenburg 1772-1801) was very preoccupied with the pharmaceutical operations of nature in human life, a celebration of both the psychic and somatic nature of man. He adopted a homeopathic tradition to explain his metaphysics of nature and human consciousness, stressing that nature is a pharmaceutical principle, a poison and a healer. He saw illness as a positive prerequisite for wholeness and the soul as the embodiment of the ambivalence of the pharmaceutical principle.
There is a connection between Novalis and Keats in this phenomenon.  In fact, Keats’s broodings over nature actually point to a number of concerns that are intricately related to his study of medical sciences and his philosophy of the imagination. The nature of the Romantic imagination here is its aesthetic implications and how it connects inextricably with his progressive philosophy of life. The concern here is not unrelated to Keats’s imaginative view of art, expressed in a letter to George and Thomas Keats, dated December 21 1817,
Keats’s notion of beauty and truth is highly inclusive. That is, it blends all life’s experiences or apprehensions, negative or positive, into a holistic vision. Art and nature, therefore, are seen as therapeutic in function.
Keats’s views on nature are not to be found only in his poetry but also in his letters. Writing to Tom (1818), he associates nature with poetic inspiration and expression. In other letters to George and Thomas Keats (1817), he talks of the negative capability of the poet that calls for a synaesthetic and empathic vision in life, to Reynolds (1818), he asserts the conviction that all departments of knowledge are to be seen as excellence and calculated towards a great whole, to John Taylor (1818), he outlines certain axioms of poetry among which is the notion that if poetry comes not naturally as the leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all. All these connect the imagination with nature-consciousness and demonstrate an affinity with the Plotinist or Spinozist monism inherent in Wordsworth and Coleridge. But the major issue lies in apprehending nature as part of the creative process rather than the poet’s adherence to nature’s spirituality.
In the letter to Tom, more specifically, Keats’s description of the Scottish landscape is vital in the understanding of the importance he attributed to the subject:
What one can discern here about Keats’s strong sense of perception and imaginative intensity is that nature’s material does not contribute only to the aesthetic composition of poetry, but poetry that delineates a deep apprehension of life and existence. One sees a strand of ekphrasis, as the observation and internalisation of the scenery urges the search for an appropriate language for utterance. So the letter sheds light on the epistemological and ontological implications of Keats’s nature-consciousness. In this sense mature poetry has to be infused with complex insights of human existence.
In ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ one can discern the consciousness of the use of nature, symbolised in the bird and its melodious song, not only for poetic composition, but also for advancing the poet’s philosophical speculations. Both bird and song represent natural beauty, the poetic expression of the non-verbal song signalling the harmony of nature. Apart from the ecstasy that the bird’s song generates, the unseen but vivid pictorial description of the surrounding landscape adds to the bliss and serenity of the atmosphere:
These lines express the splendour of spring while foreshadowing the approach of summer, which will have its own store of nature beauty and luxury. As earlier said, nature here seems to be a springboard for intense speculations in the face of the impermanence and mutability of life which strongly preoccupies the poet.
To put it in other words, the song seems to engender a phenomenological process of self-transformation or a psychological metamorphosis that enhances a deep desire for the eternal and unalterable through death. Yet the poet submits to a stoical fortitude, apparently emphasising the material and sensuous realm of existence rather than the struggle to maintain a permanent and idealistic state. This has often been problematised as imaginative failure, or as a characteristic Keatsian trademark of ambivalence between reality and imaginative illusion.
Joseph Swann’s “Shelley, Keats and Coleridge: The Romantics as Deconstructionists” (1995) has dismissed the hermeneutic and phenomenological basis of reading this poem. He argues that the language of the ode is physical and highly characterised by impenetrability. In his deconstructionist position Swann contends that the subject matter of the poem is knowing and unknowing, the death of meaning that is immanent in every word, the dark otherness in the objects we meet, and the inescapable eroticism of speech (94). Keatsian ambivalence, accordingly, undermines any recourse to meaningful discourse.
The issue, as to why this happens as exemplified in the last stanza of the poem, is a philosophical and spiritual disposition that should be discussed within the context of Romantic idealism however problematic it was.
Though greatly infused with natural description, two important extracts from Endymion can best illustrate Keats’s ontological perception and understanding of nature:
These excerpts bear a close affinity with Coleridge’s Neo-Platonist views and therefore connect a common thread of thought between the two poets. The first lines may be rightly read as Keats’s affirmation of his belief in Platonic or transcendental reality, given that they express in like manner the workings of the imagination as an associative and spiritual faculty. Divine fellowship with essence will be suggested as partaking in all life processes and principles in nature. Essence can be interpreted here to stand for the Logos, or transcendent reality in which all fuse in momentary imaginative experiences or in the final outcome of becoming, Being.
Keats uses chemical theory to advance an aesthetic and philosophical disposition. Alchemy has to do with the chemical process of transformation from a base to a higher substance. His use of ethereal existence in the letter excerpt above also strengthens his scientific analogies to matters of art, aesthetics, philosophy and spirituality. Keats apprehends artistic creativity to work on this same principle. So his allusions to science are not to be seen in empirical terms, but in imaginative, aesthetic and philosophical terms. To put it in other words, sense impressions are imaginatively concentrated and distilled. This leads to higher forms, ethereal forms and finally to aesthetic maturity and philosophical acuity.
The second excerpt also gives an insight into what Keats seemed to have been propagating in his nature-mystic thought. It aptly justifies the struggle at wholeness and unity exemplified with the verbs melting, blending, mingling, and becoming. All of these verbs are dynamic verbs, suggesting a conscious awareness of process and the active interaction between psyche and nature. These words all relate to Coleridge’s definition of the secondary imagination and the poet in ideal perfection, where we find counterparts such as partake, synthesise, diffuse, dissipates, and dissolve which share the same characteristic features discussed above.
The basic premise of the imagination as inspiration and at the same time a base for epistemological and ontological investigation, therefore, becomes justified. Reality, as it were, is sanctioned by the philosophical injunction of becoming, since life is seen as a continuous process rather than a static or an end product. To put it differently, a certain goal is perceived which cannot be interpreted from the poems as achieved but rather as an anticipated end.
The poem which Keats wrote that has attracted much attention with regard to nature is ‘To Autumn.’ However, the controversy surrounding it is a result of the different theoretical and critical perspectives that are employed to read and interpret it. The historicists see it as a veiled expression of Keats’s revolutionary ideals, and, therefore, a kind of poetic-historical treatise. Nicholas Roe’s Keats and the Culture of Dissent (1997), and particularly “John Keats’s ‘Green World:’ Politics, Nature and the Poems” (2000), offer a good example of such a historical reading. Roe’s approach, for example, has explored nature imagery, not in terms of artistic, aesthetic or spiritual longings, but in terms of Keats’s socio-political consciousness of England, whereby nature (in connection with the glorification of Greek Flora and Pan) is seen as a symbolic representation of the ideas of liberty, peace, and freedom.
The structuralists see it as a culminating expression of artistic vision and maturity, arguing that the ripeness expressed in it is an explicit or implicit translation of aesthetic achievement and grandeur. Helen Vendler’s The Odes of John Keats (1981) insightfully handles this argument, contending that the poem is a structural culmination of the other odes in terms of ideological as well as aesthetic vision. Keats is seen to have attained full poetic vision here.
The Deconstructionists read and interpret the poem as an exemplification of self/text-deconstruction by Keats, pressing home the contention that any possible pattern of meaning is destroyed by the text of the poem itself. So the poem subverts and undermines its very own intention of communicating thought/meaning, however perceived. This critical judgement can be found in Susan Wolfson’s The Questioning Presence: Wordsworth, Keats and the Interrogative Mode in Romantic Poetry (1987) and James O’Rourke’s Keats’s Odes and Contemporary Criticism (1998).
Romantic visionary criticism has analysed the poem from within its interpretative matrix from principally two angles, either on the grounds of archetypal criticism with regard to the cyclical pattern of the seasons therein implied, or from a monistic perspective dealing with the unification and wholeness of nature.
What is certain is that the poem can be seen as expressing Keats’s organicist conception of life and poetic expression as process, which correlates with the latter visionary view stated above. Keats was obviously still conscious of not having written much for posterity. It should therefore be re-iterated that the aesthetic, philosophical and spiritual implications or dispositions of the poem can be interpreted with regard to the question of becoming rather than the view that it represents Keats’s full imaginative vision and achievement as the Romantic visionary critics or structuralists would expound.
This interpretation is connected with the philosophical speculations that run through ‘The Human Seasons’ and the sonnet ‘After dark vapours have oppress’d our plains.’ They all complement the seasons with meditation and contemplation on life and death. ‘The Human Seasons,’ for instance, reads thus:
This poem’s intricate relating of the seasons with the different phases of human life which culminates with death, clearly implicates Keats’s concern in ‘To Autumn.’ So another argument on the Autumn poem can contend to see it as a subtle imaginative and philosophical rendition of Keats’s premonition about death, a death into life. Suffice here to say that he compounds ecological phenomenon with death, which to him is a welcome relief rather than a negative moment of existence, since he undoubtedly believes in a blissful post-corporeal existence.
To put it differently, Keats is attempting to de-centre the traditional notion of the cycle of the seasons to which particular characteristic features have been ascribed. Not only is Autumn a season of ripeness and fruitfulness. All the other seasons can philosophically or metaphorically serve the same capacity of one another from a creative and aesthetic perspective. That is, they can be artistically inspiring while engendering deep philosophical and spiritual matters of life and death, each season can be spring as well as death. The critical stance taken here is that ecology has a mutually enriching and rewarding relationship with ethics and psychology. Dissociating any realm of human activity from ecological diversity seems impossible.
‘On the Grasshopper and Cricket’ and ‘Bright Star, would I were stedfast as thou art’ are two of Keats’s sonnets that necessitate critical investigation with reference to the present debate on nature. In the former poem, Keats advances statements that go beyond the deceptive simplicity of the poem’s title:
The poet’s ecological assertion that the poetry of earth cannot be exhausted is a reverberation of the Spinozist idea that we cannot have enough of the great treasures of nature. Poetic composition can be inspired by any season, given the apprehension that any season can be a generative and creative spring. This recurrent thematic issue, already mentioned above, takes a seemingly simplistic dimension in this poem. The grasshopper and cricket are nature’s elements that signal and convey different time axes in terms of the changing seasons. In comparison to the nightingale poem, one sees the blend of aesthetics and nature, and at the same time an insight to philosophical and spiritual dispositions.
The latter poem is concerned with an elemental image, the star. The star engenders the atmosphere that characterises the poem’s meditative and contemplative mode. The poet’s desire to be as steadfast as the star is obviously a consequence of his willingness to get away from “time’s bitter tides”. This is not because of any illusory or escapist tendency, but because he anticipates a realm of existence that surpasses pain and despair.
Susan Wolfson’s Formal Charges: The Shaping of Poetry in British Romanticism (1997) furthers her deconstructionist stance adopted in The Questioning Presence: Wordsworth, Keats and the Interrogative Mode in Romantic Poetry (1987). In the latter work, she claimed that Keats’s poetry is overpowered with questioning without providing any centres of meaning since any attempted meaning leads to an interpretive impasse. In the former she emphasises the view that Keats’s lyrics show how the poetry’s forms undermine the claims of form to create a privileged autonomy. With regard to ‘Bright Star,’ she argues that the dash at the end “refuses a closure of form” to register “the radical insecurities of experience” (187). In other words, the poem only confirms unreadability and undecidability.
It should be reiterated that Keats’s philosophical conception of life was based on suffering and agony. These were necessary qualities that strengthened metaphysical longing and capacity. Romantic idealism favoured this hermeneutic and phenomenological outlook on life. At this juncture, we want here to address and emphasise the question of the poem’s inspiration by the natural phenomenon, the luminous star. Keats here clearly utilises and reduces nature to his distinctive aesthetic and philosophical ambitions. He does not seem to treat it as a universal force as Coleridge or Wordsworth persistently does in his pantheistic and monistic engagements even though it has been illustrated that there are strands of Coleridgean and Wordsworthian consciousness in his work. But his recourse to nature points strongly to his consciousness of process, given his understanding of it as constituting the path that leads to a more mature aesthetic vision and philosophical speculation in life. A considerable part of Keats’s poetry undoubtedly demonstrates how internalising ecology engenders re-orientation and maturity in aesthetic longings.
The foregoing analyses have pointed to nature consciousness in Keats’s poetic practices. Existing critical readings have not paid much attention to this phenomenon in Keats, and the present arguments cannot claim to have attempted an exhaustive view on the matter. Though Keats’s poetry indicates the difficulties of tracing a clear line between aestheticism and spirituality, the arguments here are more inclined to aestheticism and philosophy rather than spirituality, given that Keats consciously uses nature to satisfy the former end even though this poetry gives allowance to the interpretation of the latter.
He undoubtedly utilises and reduces nature. Yet, one can argue that his nature poetry does not only limit itself to an individualised train. There are certainly strands of pantheistic and monistic readings in his work, pointing to the shared affinities between him and the mainstream philosophical and spiritual thought of the likes of Coleridge and Wordsworth. This is an issue that is open to further critical debate.
The suggestion here would be that a more in-depth and exhaustive study of Keats and the environment can be the subject of another research endeavour. It would then be possible to know from a broader perspective if he persistently handles the subject with the subtle complexity with which the First Generation Romantic poets did, given that his nature poetry is obviously not mere aesthetics.
The argument is that Keats’s interiorising and exteriorising of nature, even though largely discussed here in view of establishing his poetics of becoming as aesthetic development and philosophical maturity, corresponds with Coleridge’s or Worsdworth’s primacy of self in the universalism of his pantheistic and monistic philosophy.
For example Keats’s aesthetic speculations in poems like ‘Sleep and Poetry,’ ‘I Stood Tip-toe Upon a Little Hill’ and ‘The Fall of Hyperion’ demonstrate certain important strands of similarities with Coleridge’s ‘Kubla Khan’ at the levels of aestheticism and spirituality. As ‘Kubla Khan’ depicts the antithetical nature of aesthetic and spiritual enthusiasm, vision and continuity, so do Keats’s nature poems. They can be read and interpreted ecocritically. They delineate primarily his aesthetic and philosophical engagements in his constructive quest. Keats himself consciously mapped his aesthetic, philosophical and spiritual development with expressions like “the realm of Flora and Pan”, “the chamber of maiden thought”, “the dark chambers”, “the vale of tears”, “the spiritual yeast and ferment”, “the chambers of light” and “the vale of soul making”.
2. See, for example, David Farrell Knell’s Contagion, Sexuality, Disease, and Death in German Idealism and Romanticism (1998), 35–70. There is no complete and available copy of Novalis’s work in English, but his basic ideas share an affinity with most of his German counterparts, especially on the concept of nature and self. He however adds a dimension to his analyses that introduces the question of nature, poetry, imagination and psychopathology. It is important to add here that Novalis’s influence was felt greatly in American Transcendentalism/Romanticism than might have been the case in England. He is also very common in French philosophical circles.
© Charles Ngiewih TEKE, PhD, June 2008