Some have felt with exasperation what Keats may have worried over himself: that his poetry can be attended by the thought that this is what it looks like for a person to play at being a poet. Hence Kingsley Amis: “Poetry was for Keats a matter of ‘O Poesy, of Apollo, the Muses, and inspired bards…According to Mr. Robert Graves (I cannot track this anecdote), Keats used to dress up in poetic robes and laurel crown to encourage the afflatus.” The sneer is not only classist or that of the Classicist who would disdain Keats’ borrowed Hellenistic trappings; it is not only a reaction against Keats’ stock of cultural capital. Instead, it responds to what is there and genuinely moving in the poetry: the awareness that poetry can be a form of play, that dress-up, props, and scenery are not necessarily inimical to it. Keats is brazen in his embrace of artifice, and, in the letters and poetry alike, of the buzz of words that emanated from Hazlitt’s lectures, from Leigh Hunt’s circle, from the fashions of his day. All poets need to want to be poets; aspiration takes the form not just of imitation but mimicry, and the sense that Keats is miming what a poet might be in order to become more of a poet himself is frequent in the poetry.
Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget
What thou among the leaves hast never known,
The weariness, the fever, and the fret
Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs,
Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;
Where but to think is to be full of sorrow
And leaden-eyed despairs,
Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,
Or new Love pine at them beyond tomorrow.
The final two lines of the stanza somehow do not sink the rest; it is probably one of the most famous stanzas that Keats has written, has some of the greatest lines he penned, and yet few I suspect would quote or think of those last two lines as exemplifying its power or effect. And yet they are not out of place, not corruptions of what otherwise would be right: in them, Keats moves again to play at being a poet; they harbor Poesy within them, and they are, on their own, examples of Poesy, but they are essential in the poem because it is among other things a poem about the impulse towards the artifice, the falsifications that Poesy encourages and represents, and so the invocation in the following stanza has been anticipated, set-up:
Away! away! for I will fly to thee,
Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards,
But on the viewless wings of Poesy,
Though the dull brain perplexes and retards:
Already with thee! tender is the night,
And haply the Queen-Moon is on her throne,
Cluster’d around by all her starry Fays;
But here there is no light,
Save what from heaven is with the breezes blown
Through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways.
The bracing of “dull brain perplexes and retards” against “the viewless wings of Poesy” indicates what in life Keats knows it is his to illuminate: not the experience of Poesy itself, but the sense of being excluded from it. In this, he is very much the boy with his face pressed to the candy-shop window, as Yeats said; and also a Miltonic poet, writing of light he cannot see, a Paradise from which he and everyone is shut out. Hence the clinching transition in the stanza is from “Cluster’d around by all her starry Fays” to “But here there is no light.” Here is where we are too, and where Keats asks us to be.
Milton, however, trusted in his grasp on the realms of learning and of old as Keats did not; that insecurity is in the Grecian accents, but it is also essential to their contributions to harmony and dissonance in the poetry. These things, he seems to say, he wants so much to help, to allow him to become what he would become, and yet they cannot; he believes so much in what they are, knowing all the while that they cannot possibly mean or do what he would like.
The self-defeated yearnings for a real language of Poesy are balanced, of course, by the stuff on account of which Keats has been most persuasively praised, by Trilling and Ricks among others. It can be tempting (for me at least), to prefer these moments of accommodating and humane sense and sensuality, as if they were comprehensible apart from the other Keats, the dress-up, the at-play. That temptation needs to be checked by the thought of what Yeats’ remark is fundamentally wrong, suggesting as it does that Keats spent his powers on expressions of unfulfilled sensual cravings. Quite the opposite is true: the Poesy lurked beyond the window, and the powers find release in capaciously imagining the earthly life of the senses, of holding open and balancing in suspension the experiences of touch, of taste, of flesh and food alike. The prospect of Poesy compels him both despite and because of these experiences; his strength in imagining basic sensory human needs and satisfactions leads him to a faith that his imagination can do more still, summon a realm where they can be outdone, transcended, or surpassed; but, in light of suffering, he can turns to his imagination to summon a realm where the deprivations and pains of the senses can be foregone and forgotten.
The Poesy remains Poesy because it cannot do what Keats wants or needs; in this, he is quite different from Wallace Stevens, whose imaginary “mundo,” and its paraphernalia of images and motifs, is not usually placed so as to ring false with disappointment or inadequacy. But then Stevens did not strive to become that rare and fine thing, a poet; in his work, a poet is what anyone can become, when they are at their finest. The difference could be stated thus: for Stevens, the play of the imagination that we call poetry is the stuff of everyday life; for Keats, the stuff of everyday life, however beautiful and rich it may be, inspires a belief that there is something, call it Poetry or Poesy, that can make it something that it is not, provide some relief. For Keats, this is something to play at because the alternative leaves little hope; at the same time, for Keats this is something that his poems will again and show to be false, leaving not emptiness, not crisis, not despair, but those true and memorable lines where life’s possibility and limitations alike are grasped. There, Keats is the perfect poet as Stevens imagined we all could be. But the poems themselves derive from the pained sense that being such a poet is not enough for the world–that the world is both too much and too little for such a true poet as that.