John Keats had as much sensitivity toward the natural world as any author of the period. From his earliest lyrical fragments and letters to the great odes of 1819, his writing consistently incorporates an astonishing number of natural images, as well as countless descriptions of animals and plants. Keats studied medicine–he had the complete training necessary to become a doctor–before he turned his attention to poetry. Partly as a result, his language often reflects keen scientific awareness and an almost clinical observational skill. His medical studies inform his poetry in complex and important ways. He manages to link scientific accuracy to the poetic imagination in a way that essentially characterizes a Romantic version of natural history. At the same time, his words and their arrangement reveal a sensitivity to rhythm, meter, and poetic tone that has not been equalled in the English tongue since Shakespeare. This was a time in history when early paleontologists, and laypeople alike, were uncovering the secrets of eons of geological history for the first time. Keats indicates his own awareness of these numerous naturalistic discoveries of his own era, as in his unsurprized description–in Endymion (1817)—of gigantic fossils littering the seabed:
skeletons of man,
Of beast, behemoth, and leviathan,
And elephant, and eagle, and huge jaw
Of nameless monster. (III, 133-36)
Keats’s powers of observation are remarkable not only for their accuracy and intensity but for their ability to link human activity to a wider vision of the animate world:
I go among the Fields and catch a glimpse of a stoat or a fieldmouse peeping out of the withered grass–the creature hath a purpose and its eyes are bright with it–I go amongst the buildings of a city and I see a Man hurrying along –to what? The creature hath a purpose and his eyes are bright with it.
In “On the Grasshopper and Cricket,” Keats’s grasshopper is as full of the pleasures of life as Goldsmith or Erasmus Darwin could have ever imagined: “He takes the lead / In summer luxury; he has never done / With his delights, for when tired out with fun / He rests at ease beneath some pleasant weed” (ll. 5-8). Or, from “Sleep and Poetry”: “What is more soothing than the pretty hummer / That stays one moment in an open flower / And buzzes cheerily from bower to bower?” (ll. 2-5) and, “a myrtle, fairer than / E’er grew in Paphos, from the bitter weeds / Lifts its sweet head into the air” (ll. 248-50).
Modern readers can appreciate that these are not merely hyperbolic flights of imaginative fancy. This is Keats describing the natural world as he understands it from his own experience and observations. My suggestion is born out by an intertextual reference in Miriam Allott’s note to the “wailful choir” of “small gnats” mourning in “To Autumn.” The lines echo the 1817 entomology written by William Kirby and William Spence: “tribes of Tipulidae (usually, but improperly called gnats) assemble . . . and form themselves into choirs, that alternately rise and fall . . . These little creatures may be seen at all seasons, amusing themselves with their choral dances” (653).
The naturalistic rigor of Keats’s own approach is confirmed in the opening of his famous nightingale poem, when a pleasure so sweet as to be painful derives from another organic being (a bird) and somehow echoes a unity in life, past and present. The speaker’s heart aches. He is at once drowsy and numb. He is drunk on an emotion as powerful as that produced by a natural intoxicant (hemlock). We should think back at this point to Erasmus Darwin, who describes a chemical affinity between us and the opium poppy (“dull opiate” [l. 3]) that can transport us out of our ordinary pleasure into pleasures of a different, but no less powerful, kind (Botanic Garden, “Loves of the Plants,” II, 57 n.). How might these flowers produce such powerful emotional and narcotic affects unless there was some organic sympathy – Darwin says a chemical “affinity” – between us and these plants.
Keats is happy in an almost excruciating way (“too happy in thine happiness” [l.6]), but this intensity reveals a pleasure that is ordinary for this bird. The bird’s happy lot makes the poet’s lot in life seem somehow diminished. What would a human give, Keats implies, to sing with such “full-throated ease” [l. 10]. Having heard this bird singing, human mortality appears to be much less of a problem to the observant poet. My point is that there is nothing sentimental here, nothing overstated or hyperbolic. From such a naturalistic perspective, there is also no death wish in this poem (“Now more than ever seems it rich to die” [l. 55]). The poet’s final claim is simple. Having heard such a song, and having felt organically connected to such a fellow creature, physical death now seems like less of a curse. Death now feels like part of something greater, even if that greater something is organic and material, like a bird. The bird’s song dies away as the poet’s voice will soon die away: literally. Organic life expressed through song (a bird’s or a poet’s) is, we should add, the one thing that most clearly distinguishes both this bird and this poet from the “Cold pastoral” of the Grecian urn.
Keats’s human pleasure taken from this bird reminds us that science can also be linked to pleasure in a way that connects with the writing of poetry. John Herschel, the nineteenth-century astronomer, described the “great sources of delight” that might be derived from the study of “natural” sciences (Richardson, Emerson 123). Likewise, Oliver Goldsmith justified his “popularizing” version of natural history – first published in 1774 and running to over twenty editions during the nineteenth century – in terms of its ability to provide pleasure:
Natural History, considered in its utmost extent, comprehends two objects. First, that of discovering, ascertaining, and naming, all the various productions of Nature. Secondly, that of describing the properties, manners, and relations, which they bear to us, and to each other. The first, which is the most difficult part of this science, is systematical, dry, mechanical, and incomplete. The second is more amusing, exhibits new pictures to the imagination, and improves our relish for existence, by widening the prospect of nature around us. Both, however, are necessary to those who would understand this pleasing science in its utmost extent. . . From seeing and observing the thing itself, he is most naturally led to speculate on its uses, its delights, or its inconveniences (I, iii).
So science is pleasing to the observer or to the participant, nature possesses its own delights, and the elements of nature can provide delight to the natural scientist and to his readers.
Keats’s poems and letters reveal a constant attraction and attention to the details of his natural surroundings. From his earliest lyrics (“Imitation of Spenser,” 1814):
There the king-fisher saw his plumage bright
Vying with fish of brilliant dye below,
Whose silken fins and golden scalës’ light
Cast upward, through the waves, a ruby glow.
Through the Shakespearean cadences of “Ode to a Nightingale”:
The grass, the thicket, and the fruit-tree wild–
White hawthorn, and the pastoral eglantine;
Fast-fading violets covered up in leaves;
And mid-May’s eldest child,
The coming musk-rose, full of dewy wine,
The murmurous haunts of flies on summer eves.
To the stunning naturalistic richness of “To Autumn”:
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.
Keats seems almost preternaturally aware of the forces within nature, the otherness of the natural world, and the paradoxical links between human sensibility and naturalistic sensations in all animals, human and otherwise. He can sometimes treat plants with an almost Renaissance delicacy, criticized by those–like Byron–who sought more vigorous representations of the natural world; but Keats can then snap back with an image–“How beautiful the season is now–How fine the air. A temperate sharpness about it . . . I never lik’d the stubble fields so much as now–Aye better than the chilly green of the spring. Somehow a stubble plain looks warm–in the same way that some pictures look warm–this struck me so much in my [S]unday’s walk that I composed upon it” (letter to Reynolds, 21 September 1819), describing the genesis of “To Autumn”–that makes any critical comment seem almost superfluous.
Natural history in Keats’s letters (excerpts)
Keats on the natural world (poetry excerpts)
“On the Grasshopper and Cricket” (“The poetry of the earth is never dead”)