Keats: Love never dies, but lives

11 Jun

I started working on the femme fatale essay, but I got a little carried away discussing Keats. I decided to go with it and ended up with the essay below. I hope this isn’t a problem. All the pages of my essays still add up to 25 and since the Impressionism essay was longer than expected, I didn’t think it necessary to write another essay on the femme fatale; it would just be more to write and more for you to read with no purpose. 

Keats: Love never dies, but lives

            Keats’ narrative poems depict traditional tales of men and women in love. However, in Lamia, Isabella, and The Eve of St. Agnes, the women are non-traditionally in control of their relationships. As the narratives progress, the enamored men try to regain power over their female counterparts, but continually fail to take the upper hand. While each love story ends uniquely, all three poems work to portray a larger theme of romantic love overpowering reason. The women come to represent romance and men their reasonable opposites.  Thus, Keats’ narrative poems embody his belief that romantic love will triumph over logic. 

            The first example of this ideology can be seen within Lamia. While there are two relationships within Lamia, the predominate is that of Lamia and Lycius.  From the first moment Lamia and Lycius meet, it is apparent that Lamia is in control, as Lycius is “afraid / Lest she should vanish ere his lip had paid / Due adoration,” (253-254).  This sets the tone for their relationship.  They are not equals; Lamia immediately has control over Lycius, but two begin fighting for power. Lamia’s initial call to Lycius, “And will you leave me on the hills alone? / Lycius, look back! And be some pity show,” is a form of manipulation.  She becomes a femme fatale by pretending to be powerless and using her femininiy to gain his attraction.  Her tactics work and Lamia is fully aware of her power as “Her soft looks growing coy, she saw his chain so sure:” (266).  Through these descriptions, the reader is aware of Lamia’s power over Lycius, and a woman’s power over men.  While Lamia’s ways of gaining control are devious and deceptive, she does represent romance.  It is here that her methods differ from the femme fatale prototype. Lamia does not hope to gain power or riches. Her manipulation stems from an uncontrollable desire for Lycius.  Her love for Lycius is not based on reason. Instead, on first sight Lamia “fell into a swooning love of him” (219).  Keats gives no explanation of why the love began, which further illustrates love devoid of reason.   Thus Keats makes philosophy a slave to romance through Lycius’ devotion to Lamia. Lycius attempts to change shift the dynamic of their relationship by marrying Lamia in front of his peers and against her wishes.  Consequently, Apollonius discovers Lamia’s secret, which indirectly kills Lycius and Lamia disappears because “Philosophy will clip an Angel’s wings” (234) or rather, reason cannot destroy romance. While Apolonius, who represents philosophy, purges the town of Lamia’s romantic love, he does not win.  Rather, he creates tragedy by killing Lycius. Moreover, although Lamia has gone, she is not dead. Keats never describes love as disappearing; it is simply lost when reason interrupts.  On the other hand, the young philosopher simply dies. It is easy to extinguish his flame. The outcome is not surprising as Keats is emphasizing the immortality of love and its power over reason.

            While the ending of Lamia and Lycius’ story shows the meek survival of romance, the love of Hermes and the nymph depicts the ideal romance.  Where Lamia gained control through deception, the love of Hermes and the nymph is purely romantic and devoid of a femme fatale.  Hermes does not search for control. Instead, he acts on his irrational jealousies.  “The ever-smitten Hermes empty left / His golden throne, bent warm on  amorous theft” giving everything to pursue his romantic desires and completely ignoring reason (7-8). The effect of this choice is passionate eroticism as they couple flees “Into the green-recessed woods they flew; / Nor grew they pale, as mortal lovers do.” This unadulterated romance is rewarded by immortality.  Their relationship is a direct contrast to the tragedy that ends Lamia and Lycius love.  In fact, within all three narrative poems, this is the only relationship that is not contrasted with death or tragedy. Therefore, Keats depicts the perfect relationship as one where the woman is clearly in control with no opposition and love is allowed to freely dominate reason. 

            In Isabella, love is unable to dominate common sense and the effect is catastrophic and tragic. Isabella begins with the description of love between Isabella and Lorenzo.  While their mutual admiration is not tainted by jealousies, or deception, Isabella’s three brothers mar their romance. Not surprisingly, the three brothers represent common sense. During Keats’ era, it is only logical that a beautiful maid like Isabella marry for money and status. It is illogical for Isabella to devote herself to a poor man, despite their perfect love. Keats devotes an entire section of the poem to criticizing the three brothers.  He writes, “Why were they proud? Again we ask aloud, / Why in the name of Glory were they proud?” to emphasize the emptiness of their accomplishments (127-128). Unlike Hermes and the nymph, Isabella and Lorenzo do not escape to paradise.  The three brothers kill Lorenzo.  In this action, reason attempts to destroy love, which is symbolized by men foiling their sister’s amorous wishes to marry Lorenzo.  Keats writes, “There was Lorenzo slain and buried in, / There in that forest did his great love cease…each rich by his being a murder” (217-224).  In accordance with Keats’ theme, the narrative quickly foils the brothers’ victory to show the triumph of love over reason and woman over man.  Visited by Lorenzo’s ghost, Isabella finds Lorenzo’s body, cuts off of his head and plants it in a pot of basil. Correspondingly, Isabella overcomes her brothers. She does not marry a rich man and the brothers don’t get their money.  Isabella, though mad, is in control and Keats theme could not be more prevalent.  

            Additionally, Isabella conveys the outcomes of reason trying to overtake love.  After Lorenzo is killed, Keats warns the reader “…at the old tale take a glance, For here, in truth, it doth not well belong / To speak: –O turn thee to the very tale, / And taste the music of that vision pale,” (389-393). This statement is followed by graphic description of Isabella tending to Lorenzo’s rotting head. The reader is barely able to continue with the gruesome story that doesn’t spare a “mouldering” detail (430).  This dark turn appears only after men (logic) try to trump women (love). The grisly images of Lorenzo’s head and the insanity of Isabella’s last cry for her basil-pot only highlights the perversion of following the three brother’s logic.  And although Lorenzo is killed–a seemingly ultimate act—love still triumphs.  Keats writes “Love never dies, but lives, immortal Lord: / If Love impersonate was ever dead, / Pales Isabella kiss’d it, and low moan’d, / ‘Twas love; cold,–dead indeed, but not dethroned” (397). Thus, their love is as immortal as that of Hermes and the nymph’s.  However, Isabella and Lorenzo’s fate is more similar to that of  Lamia and Lycius.  Their relationship was destroyed by reason, but Lamia lived on, like Isabella’s love, even after death. In this sense, romantic love cannot be destroyed and any objections will lead to insanity much like Isabella’s.

            The final narrative within The Eve of St. Agnes further confirms the dominance of women over men and love over reason.  It is easy to look at Madeline and Porphyro as equals who escape together.  However, Porphyro would not have been able to enter the castle without Angela’s help. Additionally, Porphyro desires to “gaze and worship all unseen; / Perchance speak, kneel, touch, kiss—in sooth such things have been,” and assume subservience to Madeleine (80-81).  Like Hermes, he does not try to gain control.  Porphyro ignores the logic of their feuding families and is rewarded when the couple escapes to paradise. Their love is also described as immortal when Keat’s depict Madeline “so pure a thing, so free from mortal taint.”  It is important to notices the circumstances of Keats’ happy endings. It is only when the man does not seek to gain control and when reason is ignored that immortality and happiness is granted to the couple. Therefore, Keats gives romantic myths priority over the rational. Also, the narrative poem retells the myth of a female saint (Saint Agnes) and it is she who initiates the magic within the tale.  Angela describes the conflict between man and woman (reason and myth) when she says  “St. Agnes! Ah! it is St. Agnes’ Eve—  /  “Yet men will murder upon holy days,” (118-119).  However, the two families do not come to war and the lovers escape. The fulfillment of St. Agnes’ myth as opposed to male conflict shows female dominance in accordance with the philosophy of love over reason.  

            It is through these three romantic narratives that Keats depicts the triumph of women over men and thus romanticism over logic. The three tales remain unique, but it is within their subtleties that Keats’ message becomes clear.  Given the choice between logic and romanticism, one is often pushed in the direction of the first.  However, the outcomes of the logic choice are destructive. Thus, one looks to the second option, romanticism. Through this decision one finds blissful immortality as “love never dies, but lives,” (Lamia 397).

Sources

Keats, John. “Lamia, Isabella, The eve of St. Agnes, and Other Poems (1820)” Keats’s Poetry and Prose. Ed. Jeffrey N. Cox. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2000. 409-495

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One Response to “Keats: Love never dies, but lives”

  1. cécile July 3, 2011 at 10:05 am #

    Yes, this power of women over men in romantic love is indeed a recurrent theme that can be seen in French literature as well : Adolphe by B. Constant, Chatterton by Vigny or René by Chateaubriand. It could have been interesting to compare Keats texts with other poets and authors of his time.

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