Imagination Transformed: The Evolution of the Female Character in Keats's Poetry

Imagination Transformed: The Evolution of the Female Character in Keats's Poetry

Imagination Transformed: The Evolution of the Female Character in Keats's Poetry

Imagination Transformed: The Evolution of the Female Character in Keats's Poetry


From the mortal maidens of 1817 to the omnipotent goddesses of 1819, Keats uses successive female characters as symbols portraying the salvation and destruction, the passion and fear that the imagination elicits. Karla Alwes traces the change in these female figures- multidimensional and mysteriously protean- and shows that they do more than comprise a symbol of the female as a romantic lover. They are the gauge of Keats's search for identity. As Keats's poetry changes with experience, from celebration to denial of the earth, the females change from meek to threatening to a final maternal and conciliatory figure.

Keats consistently maintained a strict dichotomy between the flesh-and-blood women he referred to in his letters and the created females of his poetry, in the same way that he rigorously sought to abandon the real for the ideal in his poetry. In her study of Keats's poetry, Alwes dramatizes the poet's struggle to come to terms with his two consummate ideals- women and poetry. She demonstrates how his female characters, serving as lovers, guides, and nemeses to the male heroes of the poems, embody not only the hope but also the disappointment that the poet discovers as he strives to reconcile feminine and masculine creativity. Alwes also shows how the myths of Apollo, which Keats integrated into his poetry as early as February 1815, point up his contradictory need for, yet fear of, the feminine. She argues that Keats's attempt to overcome this fear, impossible to do by concentrating solely on Apollo as a metaphor for the imagination, resulted in his eventual use of maternal goddesses as poetic symbols.

The goddess Moneta in "The Fall of Hyperion" reclaims the power of the maternal earth to represent the final stage in the development of the female. In combining the wisdom of the Apollonian realm with the compassion of the feminine earth, Moneta is more powerful than Apollo and able to show the poet who does not recognize both realms that he is only a "dreamer," one who "venoms all his days, / Bearing more woe than all his sins deserve."

Because of Moneta's admonishment, Keats becomes the poet capable of creating "To Autumn." In this final ode, Keats taps the transcendent power inherent in the temporal beauty of the earth. His imagination, once attempting to leave the earth, now goes beyond the Apollonian ideal into the realm of salvation- the human heart- that connects him to the earth. And because of his poetic reconciliation between heaven and earth, Keats is ultimately able to portray an earthly timelessness in which "summer has o'er-brimmed" the bees' "clammy cells," making for "warm days [that] will never cease."


A reader of Keats's works cannot help being struck by the abundance of female figures. Every major poem involves at least one feminine character -- often more than one -- and almost always as the controlling metaphor. She serves alternately as a means of preservation and as an agent of destruction to the poetry's male heroes, the she who must be both embraced and denied in order to acquire masculine identity. As Keats enacts it in his poetry, the power of the female is both primordial and transcendent, and by identifying her with his own often recalcitrant imagination, he exploits the female not only as an ideal to be achieved but as an obstacle to that achievement.

The romantic female persona is a poetic contrivance to her male creator. She is, as Elizabeth Janeway observes of the earliest images of goddesses from the Stone Age, a "fetish," a "lucky piece" for a "desperate thumb in time of need" (3). Janeway comments that the Stone Age figures have neither faces nor feet, are not characterized as individuals or as women, but portray instead, like the figure of romantic poetry, "man's need for her.... She is the Great Mother, feared and adored, both mediator with and representative of necessity" (3). From the Stone Age to the romantic era and beyond, the woman as symbol is created in order to be the index by which the male measures his identity. She is, as Simone de Beauvoir says, "all that man desires and all that he does not attain" (223). The misogyny that lies behind romantic poetry places the onus of responsibility for the male's creative survival, and thus his creative identity, squarely on the self-representation he derives from the woman as metaphor for both.

Marilyn Gaull remarks that Keats "depicts women either as silly and self-deluded, or as goddesses who preside over painful . . .

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