Far from disappearing, Keats and his incomparable poetry have lived on after his death.
How should you approach Keats? What should you do with his works? How should you interpret them?
I can only answer for myself; that I find pleasure in taking poetry at face value. I find no need to agonize, to wander in endless circles wondering what he meant by his immortal lines.
Being neither intellectual nor aesthete, I make of them what I will. I let them do for me what beauty always does – elevate my mood, inspire me, give me a glance of the transcendent, the sublime.
Take the Ode to Autumn. Autumn is personified – it conspires with the sun:
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
Redness, ripeness, plumpness. The beauty of rural life, of humble cottages. The sweetness of fruit, a harvest of plenty celebrated in ancient musty churches where children sing simple songs of thanksgiving.
Even hardened bankers and their dreary clerks, the Marleys, Scrooges and Cratchits, can have their spirits lifted, as the festivals of autumn presage those of Christmas and the revelations that season’s spirits will bring. And on after that in the never ending rhythm of the earth and the sun.
Of course we must not imagine there ever existed such a place as “Autumn” other than in the mind of poets, but then all reality exists in our minds. Why not let a fable or two dwell there as well? The unobserved tree living silently in the woods exists, but with no observer who will celebrate its life? Who will appreciate its beauty? Perhaps we give Autumn a validity by observing it. Perhaps the tree living silently in the woods needs us after all.
Maybe the beauty of that faery tale, the rural idyll, can become our reality. At the very least, Keats’ words can accentuate, enlarge the natural beauty we see around us in this season of fruition and plenty:
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun
Keats conjures up a scene so colorful, so joyful in its gentle melancholy, that spring can wait its turn. Autumn has its deep beauty too. Autumn is sitting on a granary floor, drowsed with the fumes of poppies. Autumn loads and blesses “with fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run”.
Let’s not fool ourselves – Keats lived in times as brutal as our own. More so. The dark satanic mills so feared by Blake were spreading like evil, black mold. Conditions in the factories were bleak and child labor produced goods which many (most) could not afford His own life was a tragic one, cut short by disease. His family were taken from him before their time. He could never marry – his love for Fanny remained unrequited, he could not afford matrimony.
But we must take beauty where and when we can. We must believe that times can and will improve in the millennia to come. While waiting, the words of Keats can only improve our experience in what we think of as our “reality”.