The poems within Lamia etc have an extraordinary variety of content and verse forms, but uniting them are themes such as the poet’s love of nature and his belief in the transforming power of the imagination. They are also marked by a pervasive melancholy.
The theme of melancholy runs through all the poems in this collection. The book’s three opening poems are tales of love, but 'Lamia' and 'Isabella' end in tragedy. In 'The Eve of St Agnes' we last see the lovers fleeing ‘into the storm’, and are left with images of nightmare, old age and death.
Even the jaunty shorter lyrics carry undertones of sadness and regret. 'The Mermaid Tavern' starts with an address to ‘poets dead and gone’ and 'Robin Hood' bewails the loss of the old days of romance. In the final poem, 'Hyperion', the Titans – the old gods of Ancient Greece, overthrown by the Olympian Gods – mourn endlessly for a lost age of glory they will never regain.
The Odes explore the theme in more depth. 'On Melancholy' tells the reader that the sorrow of loss must be embraced: no joy can exist without its accompanying pain. 'Grecian Urn' and 'Nightingale' both depict human life as a state of suffering from which art or nature can offer escape, but Keats cannot reject ‘breathing human passion’ even though it brings suffering. In 'Nightingale' he describes himself emptying ‘to the drains’ the imagined cup of hemlock which has caused his sorrow, as well as the beaker of wine that he hopes will cure it.
The sadness at the heart of these poems is linked to Keats’s sense of the impermanence of life. He laments a world in which everything fades;
‘where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies,’
and pleasure succumbs to old age. The glories he celebrates are all ‘dead and gone’: from the old bards, the jollity of Sherwood Forest and the Mermaid Tavern, to the reign of the Titans – and in 'Ode to Psyche', the reign of their successors - the Olympians - as well.
In 'Hyperion' the gods themselves are presented as transient: replaced by a race who exceed them in beauty and creative power. Though it gives the Titans no comfort, their passing is presented as part of a natural order.
Even love cannot last, as Keats insists in 'Lamia': if hardship doesn’t kill it, time will. The lyric ‘Fancy’ makes a similar point:
‘Summer’s joys are spoilt by use’.
Against this human transience Keats sets the ideal of an eternal Beauty. His Grecian Urn is ancient, yet ‘still unravished’: the revellers on its sides may be ‘cold’ and unliving, but they will never grow old. The Nightingale, similarly, is seen as ‘immortal’; its song bringing comfort to humanity through the generations.
The ideal of beauty that Keats sets against human sorrows in these poems is consistently linked to Nature. Psyche is associated with heaped flowers, and the Grecian Urn’s lovers dance beneath eternal Spring leaves. In 'Ode to a Nightingale' Keats dreams of being transported by wine to ‘Flora and the country green’, and later finds joy in the scents and sounds of the summer night around him. 'Ode to Autumn' balances the overwhelming richness of the season with reminders of the bareness of approaching winter, while ascribing beauty to both.
In the longer poems, natural imagery underlines themes and conveys states of emotion. Lamia, ‘new-born’ as a woman, is surrounded by daffodils and described in terms of ‘a young bird’s flutter’. In 'Isabella' the horror of Lorenzo’s murder is echoed by the details of the ‘dark pine roof’ of the ‘sodden turfed dell’ where it happened. In 'St Agnes' the aged, ascetic Bedesman is introduced against the ‘bitter cold’ of winter, but the lovers’ consummation takes place in a room made summer-like by its decoration of ‘fruit and flowers and bunches of knot-grass’ and by the feast that Porphyro lays out.
Throughout the collection Keats celebrates the power of the imagination to transform our lives. Fancy (meaning imagination), he tells us, can recreate the joys of spring and summer in the depths of winter:
She will bring, in spite of frost,
Beauties that the earth hath lost.
In 'Ode to a Nightingale' he plans to use ‘the viewless wings of Poesy’ to rise in spirit to the heights of joy where the nightingale sings, and in 'Grecian Urn' he goes further, claiming that the ‘unheard’ melodies played in his imagination by the urn’s musician are sweeter than real songs could be.
The collection also praises the power of poets, seen as the supreme imaginers.
‘Bards of passion and of mirth’
describes the old poets’ works as their second souls, left behind them on earth to teach and uplift mankind. In 'Psyche' Keats claims some of this power for himself, saying that he will build a temple to the goddess in his own mind. But perhaps the most striking image of the supreme poet is Apollo in 'Hyperion', whose creative powers, shown through ‘blissful golden melody’, mark him instantly as the natural successor to the old gods.
Keats’s Last Book: a virtual journey is a Keats House exhibition, published in July 2020 to coincide with the 200th anniversary of the publication of Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes, and Other Poems.
The Keats200 bicentenary is a celebration of Keats’s life, works and legacy, beginning in December 2018 through to February 2021 and beyond. It is led by three major partners – Keats House, Hampstead, The Keats Foundation and the Keats-Shelley Memorial Association – and is open to all individuals and organisations who have an interest in Keats or poetry. The bicentenary of Keats’s most productive years as a poet, and the period when he found inspiration, friendship and love, is an exciting opportunity to (re)discover and enjoy his works as well as engage with poetry and its ongoing relevance to us all today.