Keats and Shelley on Poets, Claudia Mitchell

“But poets, or those who imagine and express this indestructible order, are not only the authors of language and of music, of the dance and architecture and statuary and painting; they are the institutors of laws, and the founders of civil society, and the inventors of the arts of life…” (Shelley 1186).

–Percy Shelley, from “A Defence of Poetry”
“A poet participates in the eternal, the infinite, and the one; as far as relates to his conceptions, time and place and number are not” (Shelley 1186).

–Percy Shelley, from “A Defence of Poetry”
“[I]t struck me what quality went to form a man of achievement, especially in literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously. I mean negative capability; that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason” (Keats 1351).

–John Keats, from a letter to George and Tom Keats, 21 December 1817
These quotes demonstrate well one of the greatest oppositions between the ideologies of Percy Shelley and John Keats. Shelley idealized poets and poetry, believing their influence on the greater world to be immeasurably great, and completely under-acknowledged. In “A Defence of Poetry” he writes about the “poetical faculty” and “the poets” with highly elevated language, even seeming to have a spiritual faith in poetry. He believes that those who possess the “poetical faculty” are able to see great universal truths, and are able to express these truths through the most divine and natural form of human language: poetry. Shelley even writes about the great poets as universal, all-seeing figures which occur throughout history and yet are all on the same plane of existence, and have similar effects on the whole of society: “Poets, according to the circumstances of the age and nation in which they appeared, were called in the earlier epochs of the world legislators or prophets. A poet essentially comprises and unites both these characters. For he not only beholds intensely the present as it is, and discovers those laws according to which present things ought to be ordered, but he beholds the future in the present, and his thoughts are the germs of the flower and the fruit of latest time” (Shelley 1187). The definite truths about the world and Eternal Man that Shelley believes great poets to comprehend seems to be an oddly ordered view of the universe for a staunch atheist like Shelley, but his belief in the grand abilities of the poets is founded in proof. Just as he cannot not have faith in religion and the idea of a certain God because of their improvability, he gains his faith in the poets from the evidence of their great poetry, which, in his mind, does in fact express certain universal truths.
Keats, on the other hand, does not have this sort of deep faith in poets, nor does he have as extreme a reverence for the poetic figure, though he does admit to and praise their genius. He tends to idealize the poetic beauty in the world rather than the poets that describe it. Keats does not even think of great poets as capable of being grand figures; he writes that artists cannot possibly be art themselves: “A poet is the most unpoetical of any thing in existence, because he has no identity, he is continually in for—and filling—some other body. The sun, the moon, the sea, and men and women who are creatures of impulse, are poetical, and have about them an unchangeable attribute; the poet has none, no identity—he is certainly the most unpoetical of all of God’s creatures.” He sees the poetic tendency as an affliction, as if the task of writing poetry is a necessity for the poet that comes from his love of the poetical beauty in the world and in others: “I feel assured I should write from the mere yearning and fondness I have for the beautiful, even if my nights labours should be burnt every morning and no eye ever shine upon them” (Keats 1375) Keats’ poetry, to him, is nothing that was meant to shape the world in any huge way, or dictate truths about the nature of the universe; it is a byproduct of the combination of a poetic tendency and a deep love for the beautiful.
The other part of this contradiction between Shelley and Keats is that in Keats’ opinion, poets do not generally reach universal truths, and that in fact their gifts lie in their tendency to allow these truths to elude them. In another letter, Keats explains this “negative capability”: “[I]t struck me what quality went to form a man of achievement, especially in literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously. I mean negative capability; that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” (Keats 1351) Even when a poet does express a revolutionary truth for his time, Keats believes it only to be a stroke of genius that occurs in an already changing, progressing world, and that the time in which a poet lives greatly influences his work: “Here I must think Wordsworth is deeper than Milton, though I think it has depended more upon the general and gregarious advance of intellect, than individual greatness of mind.(Keats 1353)” As he states in a discussion of Milton, He also extrapolates this idea to apply to poets and thinkers as a group: “[T]here is really a grand march of intellect; it proves that a mighty providence subdues the mightiest minds to the service of the time being, whether it be in human knowledge or religion”(Keats 1354). This is vastly different from Shelley’s view of the poets as eternal, timeless expressers of wisdom, as he explains, “A poet participates in the eternal, the infinite, and the one; as far as relates to his conceptions, time and place and number are not” (Shelley 1186). In contrast to Shelley, Keats idealizes the world the poet writes about rather than the poet himself. There is great beauty in the world, and in beauty there is truth, and the product of this aspect of the world is poetry.

Keats, John. “Letter from John Keats to John Hamilton Reynolds, 3 May 1818.”Romanticism: An Anthology. Ed. Duncan Wu. Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1994. 1353-54. Print.
Keats, John. “Letter from John Keats to George and Tom Keats, 21 December 1817.”Romanticism: An Anthology. Ed. Duncan Wu. Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1994. 1350-351. Print.
Keats, John. “Letter from John Keats to Richard Woodhouse, 27 October 1818.”Romanticism: An Anothology. Ed. Duncan Wu. Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1994. 1375-76. Print.
Shelley, Percy. “A Defence of Poetry.”Romanticism: An Anthology. Ed. Duncan Wu. Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1994. 1184-99. Print.

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