It keeps eternal whisperings around
Desolate shores, and with its mighty swell
Gluts twice ten thousand caverns, till the spell
Of Hecate leaves them their old shadowy sound.
Often ’tis in such gentle temper found,
That scarcely will the very smallest shell
Be moved for days from where it sometime fell,
When last the winds of heaven were unbound.
O ye! who have your eyeballs vexed and tired,
Feast them upon the wideness of the Sea;
O ye! whose ears are dinn’d with uproar rude,
Or fed too much with cloying melody, –
Sit ye near some old cavern’s mouth, and brood
Until ye start, as if the sea-nymphs quired!
This poem speaks about the solace and freedom that can be found in nature. The sea is the embodiment of nature here, and is presented in great contrast to the artificiality of urban life. As a Romantic, John Keats was inclined to reject the new realities of the Industrial Revolution and the monotonous drudgery of life in the cities, preferring to seek solitude for his thoughts in the natural beauty of wild, remote landscapes. This rebellious, Romantic spirit in Keats is reflected in his contempt for the “uproar rude” and “cloying melody” that are the vulgar sounds of modern urban society. Nature, he tells us in this poem, is the solution for all those wearied by modern life. The Romantic poets who preceded Keats, such as Coleridge and Byron, had also been preoccupied with condemning the evils of the modern age of industry, and extolling the virtues of nature as its opposite. All this also promotes the idea of the contrast between the artificial nature of ‘polite society’, and the more natural, honest nature of the unrefined.
From the opening lines of this poem, Keats laments that man has forsaken nature for the city. This is a common grievance expressed in Romantic poetry. We are given a vision of “desolate shores” – an image of nature abandoned by man. The scene is beautiful, yet no one but the poet, it seems, sees or admires it. The “mighty swell” of the sea, this great energy in nature, “keeps eternal whisperings” around the barren landscape so carelessly deserted by man. I get the impression here of something spiritual, almost pagan; the “eternal whisperings” lend a mythical, mysterious feeling to the poem, with its resemblance to religious chanting. You could derive an image here of the seas protecting the shores as it “keeps” them and “gluts” the “caverns”, as a benevolent deity protects his people. This is a clear example of ‘god in nature’, which is another popular theme of Romantic poetry. Keats and his fellow poets had a tendency towards non-conformism with regard to orthodox religion, and were more inclined to believe that there was a god who inspired the imaginative and spiritual. The reference to the goddess Hectate also encourages this notion, and the idea of the transitory nature of gods and religions. Nature, in contrast, is “eternal”.
Perhaps, though, Keats’ depiction of the sea is intended to represent the artist himself. The Romantic poets were essentially keeping “eternal whisperings” around the “desolate shores” of the world. Poets have, through the ages, seen this as their task; to voice truth amid the chaos and confusion of the societies in which they found themselves. Keats also observes that “often” the poet finds himself at a loss for inspiration; so much so that “scarcely will the very smallest shell/ Be moved” from where it “sometime fell”. Here the “shell” appears to represent the idea given to him by “the winds of heaven”. This derives from the creed held by many of the Romantics that the poet’s inspiration comes from some divine being. Keats also describes the reality of a poetic blockage; he often cannot make progress “for days”. This ‘blockage’ occurs when the poet is in a “gentle temper”, which implies that he needs to become impassioned in order to write.
In the second half of the poem Keats speaks to all those who are weary of the modern world. He commands them to “feast” their eyes upon the “wideness of the sea”. It is in simply the vastness of the sea in which he suggests we can find peace. In the city there are many intricate designs in architecture, there is complex machinery to understand. The sea is massive, and seemingly eternal. Keats here draws an important comparison between life in ‘civilised’ society during the 19th Century, where there were petty conventions and customs that one was obliged to be constantly aware and cautious of, and life in rural areas, where things were considerably less complicated, but more honest, and beautiful. In the same way that Keats finds peace in nature, he also seems to be suggesting that it exists within the poet’s soul. Keats, in godlike fashion, creates this beautiful scene in the poem himself; with his imagination. He imports the notion through this poem that it is not simply the exterior landscapes in which we can find inspiration, but also in interior landscapes; the landscape of our own imaginations. This was an extremely important idea for the Romantics. Keats appears to be condemning the trivial conventions of polite society, inferring that ‘natural’ behaviour is the most desirable.
Keats tells us to “feast” our eyes on the sea and “brood/ until ye start”. These lines deliver the notion that the poet wants us to allow nature to ‘awaken’ us. It is as though he believes that society has been sleeping of late; living apathetic lives. Man’s pursuit of profit has seemingly dehumanised him, left him dead to such things as beauty. Keats’ reference to “sea-nymphs” singing is again one that imports a notion of the supernatural and the mythical; things of the imagination. The poet ends this poem with one final, desperate attempt to awaken the imagination of his readers. I think this is what most attracts me about Keats: there is something so heroic about his poetry.
Reviewed by Emily Ardagh