Keats bicentenary essay competition

To celebrate the 200th anniversary of the weeks which Keats spent in the ancient capital of England, Winchester College, the University of Winchester and the Keats Foundation organised essay competitions: one for sixth formers in the area, another for undergraduates of the University of Winchester. Professor Nick Roe awarded the prizes at a ceremony held in Winchester College on 19 October. Here are the top essays in each category.

Undergraduate prize-winner: Emily Griffiths

Examine the Idea of Music in John Keats’s ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’

It could be said that John Keats was haunted by silence. Lines such as ‘the icy silence of the tomb’ and ‘Fled is that music:— Do I wake or sleep?’ come to characterise Keats’s poetic endeavour to give voice to what is uncontained by language; inexpressible anguishes, resentments, or indeed, death itself.[1] In this way, the refrain, ‘no birds sing’ seems an interesting and distinctly Keatsian way to conclude ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’. Diverging from the lively songs of the troubadours, Keats’s ballad is distinctly morbid and melancholic. As Keats was haunted ‘intensely’ by Edgar’s question, ‘Do you not hear the sea?’,  in King Lear,[2] Keats’s truncated last line is similarly punctuated by tones of troubled disquiet as he, perhaps cruelly, deprives the listener of the final harmonising cadence to resolve the many disparate elements in his tale. The effect is that the reader, like the haunted knight, remains bound in an eternal Da Capo, as they compulsively return to the opening inquisitive phrase to once again interrogate the knight as to the source of his ailment.

Keats’s ballad, however, resists this intellectual impulse towards certainty; its power lies both in its multifarious implications and unresolved paradoxes. Both the knight and listener become increasingly lost and bewildered the harder they strive to seduce the belle dame and comprehend the unfolding events, calling to mind Keats’s notion of negative capability, whereby he extols the value of ‘being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.’[3] Gloucester responds to Edgar ‘no truly’, indicating that despite Gloucester’s protestations, he is not ready for death — indeed, Edgar affirms, ‘Ripeness is all’— revealing that his inner ear is not attuned to ‘unheard’ melodies  and the unutterable sounds of death.[4] Farnell asserts that Keats’s use of ‘ripeness’ in the first stanza of his poem ‘To Autumn’ invokes a ‘Renaissance humanist idea that the aim of life is to die well’.[5] In the ballad, the line that runs  ‘The Squirrel’s granary is full, / And the harvest’s done’[6] denotes an  autumnal tone, exploring the internal impoverishment of the ‘palely loitering’[7] knight and his respective ‘ripeness’ for death. As he declares in The Fall of Hyperion, A Dream,

Those melodies sung into the world’s ear
Are useless: sure a poet is a sage;
A humanist, physician to all men.[8]

so Keats in his ballad turns his attention from his medical training as a surgeon to the musicality of poetry, to explore the immaterial sickness ailing Tom Keats and the potency of language to both sicken and cure.

Keats lost both his mother and brother, Tom, to tuberculosis before contracting the ‘hereditary’ disease that would also claim his life. He nursed Tom through his illness yet, despite his medical training, he was powerless to prevent his death. In Keats’s letter to his brother and sister-in-law the ballad’s narrator notes, ‘I see death’s a lilly on thy brow/ With anguish moist and fever dew’, [9]  and these descriptions of the knight have been connected to the physical manifestations of tuberculosis. Keats had quite recently been nursing Tom at the time of the ballad’s inclusion in his letter to George and Georgiana Keats; however, the ballad has also been connected to Keats’s feelings about the ‘Amena’ letters. According to Farnell,

Their friend Charles Wells, as a joke, sent letters signed ‘Amena Bellefila’ to Tom, the erotically alluring content of which, Keats believed, only further undermined Tom’s condition whilst in a fragile state. If there is then a pun on Amena Bellefila in the reference to ‘La belle dame sans merci’ in Keats’s poem, it may be seen as reflecting a deep sense of ambivalence about sexual desire on Keats’s part, not to mention its registering his commingled contempt and disgust felt for ‘the villain’ and ‘rat’ Wells.[10]

Keats refers to the incident as a ‘cruel deception on a sanguine Temperament’ before declaring ‘I do not think death too bad for the villain […] I consider it my duty to be prudently revengeful […] I will harm him all I possibly can’, revealing the intensity of his  feelings about the ‘diabolical scheme.’[11]

In his essay ‘Keats and Silence’, J. R. Watson explores various sentiments underlying Keats’s use of silence, from indescribable wonder, the intensity of an encounter with death and (revealingly) the destructive silence of Iago that may conceal feelings from despair to envy or rage.[12] In this way, the harrowed silence concluding ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’ can be seen to document Keats’s feelings about this sinister subterfuge whereby joyful bonds of friendship and blossoming romance — Bellefila perhaps implying a beautiful friendship with erotic promise —  are distorted beyond recognition.

Carmen Faye Mathes argues that Keats’s writings endeavour to employ a dynamic passivity that ‘draws out and on the affective register of perception in order to invite (and even, sometimes, to compel) an embodied response.[13] In this way, I would like to suggest that in an inversion of the Pygmalion myth, Keats’s elliptical refrain ‘no birds sing’[14] aims to elicit a haunting echo from the reader, to ‘haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights’.[15] In the spirit of projective identification, Keats curses Amena Bellefila or rather, Charles Wells by inducing feelings of betrayal, bewilderment and anguish; thus the reader is bound in a symbiotic courtly dance, engaged as a purgatorial companion such that the listener would be ‘conscience-calm’d’[16] to trade places with the knight and pay the debt for the premature demise of Tom Keats.

However, as Farnell notes, the ballad elicits transferences that operate on many simultaneous levels and, through the connecting power of music, also aims to evoke a reciprocal calling from the reader, whom Keats engages like a lyre to respond with sympathetic resonance to Tom’s anguished plight, inducing harmonies that ease his anguished journey towards death whilst also exploring his own impending mortality and a genuine encounter with the final silence of death. To conclude, the ballad heightens the listener’s sensitivity to tone as Keats explores the invisible and often implicit subtleties at play in relationships as they major key easily slips by minute increment to the minor, altering the cadence dramatically indeed, impacting to such an extent on Tom’s ‘sanguine Temperament’ as to hasten his demise. Keats’s ballad is a glorious demonstration of his notion of negative capability. It revels in its own indeterminacy, simultaneously capturing through the idea of music, the particular cadence of a sickness unto death – a purgatorial withering of spirit whilst inflicting this curse upon a haunted listener yet also evoking sympathetic companionship from the reader in anticipation of his own impending quietus.

[1] ‘This living hand’, 3 and ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, 80, quoted from The Poems of John Keats, ed. Jack Stillinger (London, 1978). Further quotations from Keats’s poems are to this edition.

[2] Keats misremembers Edgar’s question ‘Hark, do you hear the sea?’ at IV. vi. 4.

[3] Letter to George and Tom Keats 27(?) December 1817. The Letters of John Keats 1814-1821, ed. Hyder Edward Rollins (2 vols; Cambridge MA, 1958), i. 193. Hereafter Letters.

[4] See King Lear IV. vi. 4 and V. ii. 11 and ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’, 11.

[5] Gary, Farnell. John Keats ‘To Autumn’ (2010), Winchester News Online, youtube video, 2:00 –2:07, accessed 26 August, 2019,

[6] ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’ 7-8.

[7] ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’, 2.

[8] ‘The Fall of Hyperion’ i, 188-190.

[9] Letter to George and Georgiana Keats 21 April 1819. Letters, ii. 95

[10] Gary Farnell, ‘The Enigma of “La Belle Dame sans Merci,”’ Romanticism, 17.  2 (2011), 199.

[11] Letter to George and Georgiana Keats, 16 April 1819. Letters, ii.  90-91

[12] J. R. Watson, ‘Keats and Silence,’ in Keats Bicentenary Readings, ed. Michael O’Neill (Edinburgh, 1997), 71.

[13] Carmen Faye Mathes, ‘“Let us not therefore go hurrying about”: Towards an Aesthetics of Passivity in Keats’s Poetics,’ European Romantic Review, 25. 3 (2014), 310.

[14] Letter to George and Georgiana Keats 21 April 1819. Letters, ii. 96

[16] ‘This living hand, now warm and capable’, 7

[15] ‘This living hand, now warm and capable’, 4

Sixth Form Prize Winner: Alistair Brown

Compare the attitudes toward the passage of time expressed in “To Autumn” and “Ode on a Grecian Urn”. Do the poems make similar arguments about human transience, or do their discussions of this subject differ in some way?

These two odes by John Keats seem to be celebrating two different kinds of beauty: natural beauty and that which is created by human hands. Indeed, he begins each ode with an appraisal of the subject through a direct discourse to it, addressing Autumn as “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,” and the Grecian Urn with “Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness”. In this way Keats introduces the themes of each ode, as a motif in “Ode to a Grecian Urn” is that of quietness and tranquility, whereas with “To Autumn” the motif is that of fruitfulness and bountiful harvests.

In terms of the nature of time and transience in the two poems, however, they seem quite different. “To Autumn” summarises the entirety of the season in chronological order, starting with the first stanza exploring the maturation of crops and the idea of things coming to fruition: “And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core”. Also, there is the idea that the season seems as if it will continue perpetually, with the phrase: “Until they think warm days will never cease”. This inability to perceive that, for these bees, all things must end, just as they begin, makes us think of the alien concept of mortality to these beings: do they believe that existence is without end? Or are they brutally aware of their own fate, the unstoppable marching of time towards a final conclusion, wholly inescapable and entirely predictable? Also, here there is something of a duality with this idea of eternity and ceaselessness, which is a central theme of “Ode to a Grecian Urn”.

“Ode to a Grecian Urn” seems to have this motif of endlessness running through it, as exemplified by the following quotation: “thy streets for evermore/ Will silent be”. The idea of art experiencing an eternity of silence is interesting, and even more so when Keats begins to explore the emotions of the fictional characters portrayed in light of this moment, frozen in time: “Bold lover, never, never canst thou kiss,/ Though winning near the goal—yet, do not grieve;/She cannot fade”. In this way there is an interesting similarity; Keats expresses the idea of eternity through personification of two different entities, that of a figure on a piece of art, the eternally heart-stricken lover, and the object of his affection who never loses her beauty, and that of the bees who feel as if Autumn will last forever, but will not. In this way Keats seems to be looking into two different illusions of eternity: that when something goes on for so long that it feels like it will last for ever, and the illusion of immortality of art, that these fictional characters will never die, since they never lived. But this is an illusion also, since all things will return to dust and shattered remnants; it is the entropic nature of the universe, and it is also deeply ingrained in the human condition to take pleasure in destruction and annihilation.

“To Autumn” seems to me be almost a comparison of the cyclic nature of the season to the cycle of life, and indeed the most telling example seems to be a longing for youth, with the phrase: “Where are the songs of spring? Ay, where are they?”. The idea of spring as a metaphor for budding youth and of one’s golden years is not uncommon; it was even used in Shakespeare’s Sonnet III: “she in thee/ Calls back the lovely April of her prime”. Then Keats goes further and tells the reader: “Think not of them, thou hast thy music too, —”. In this way Keats is saying that with age things are not all lost: there are still good things about being in the Autumn of life. On the other hand, “Ode to a Grecian Urn” describes a place where spring never ceases: “Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed/Your leaves, nor ever bid the spring adieu”. So, the idea of ageing is made null, as expressed through the inability for the cycle of seasons to continue; likewise, the urn is frozen in the age of spring.

The metaphor of Spring as the age of youth and beauty is also explored in “Ode on a Grecian Urn”: “For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!”. By using the allegory of the lovers and of spring, both of which will continue unchanged forever, Keats creates a classic trope of youth and growth, but one that is bizarrely frozen in time, never to come to fruition: the lovers will never come together. However, in “To Autumn” time moves on from the idea of trees blossoming and filling with apples, to the harvest, and finally to wintertide: “To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees”. Therefore, there is the idea of things maturing and coming to fruition in “To Autumn”, which can also be applied to the idea of human transience, with the idea of people ageing and maturing, as is conspicuously not happening to the youths in “Ode to a Grecian Urn”.

Finally, in the ultimate stanza of “Ode to a Grecian Urn” Keats explores the idea of human transience through a more personal lens: “When old age shall this generation waste, / Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe”. In this way Keats makes a move from the world of fantasy and art into reality: he accepts his own mortality but also proposes an illusion of immortality for the urn. At this point both poems are making the same general point about human transience, but in different ways: “Ode to a Grecian Urn” describes a static world where everything has remained unchanged in a state of youth and potential, and then finally relates the idea that he will waste away and die while this urn will stay forever young. On the other hand, “To Autumn” celebrates the idea of the cycle of life and death, and all the great things which come at every stage: while one can view Autumn as a season of decline, where the leaves fall from the trees, one can also see different types of maturation occurring and an innate beauty therein.  Therefore, both odes agree on the idea that death and human transience are irrefutable facts of life, but they each celebrate something different.  “Ode to a Grecian Urn” celebrates an unachievable ideal of eternal youth, whereas “To Autumn” celebrates that which comes with age, and the maturation that occurs  as we edge closer and closer to the endpoint of death.

The photo shows from left, Rosanna Foster, runner up of the Undergraduate Prize, Emily Griffiths, winner of the Undergraduate Prize, Professor Nicholas Roe, Dr Gary Farnell (University of Winchester), Reuel Armstrong, second place, Alistair Brown, winner of the Sixth Form Essay Prize, and Suzanne Mui, third place in the Sixth Form Prize.

Photo credit: Richard Stillman

Not pictured: Sarah Waters (Third place Undergraduate Prize)