John Keats : The Alchemy of Art

Dernière mise à jour : 9 juin 2021

John Keats. Wood engraving after J. Severn, 1819

The Alchemy of Art

A Study in the Evolution of the Creative Mind of John Keats

by G.B. Sullivan

"From the time John Keats began Endymion (March 1817) until his aban­donment of the second version of Hyperion (September 1819), we have thirty vital months comprising a span of development unparalleled in English literature. This dissertation focuses upon the central feature of that development — the evolution of the creative mind of the poet. (...)

By concentrating on the hero of Endymion I hope to establish the nature of the evolutionary happening by which the unconscious poet of Endymion became the great poet capable of writing Hyperion.

Murry writes,"If we could know the process by which that inward victory was accomplished, a great secret would be ours." Murry is right, and I feel that the solution to Keats' secret lies in the realm of creative trans­formation and the successive changes within the poet that have left their traces in Endymion to be studied here, and in Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion treated later.

In these poems we can witness the regeneration of the poet through his art by the heroic pattern this achievement followed. In the most general sense, this study concerns the poet's salvation through his work. It involves tracing in the poetry the process by which the whole man, the totality of the conscious and the unconscious person­alities, is created.

That is to say, his is a study of the self­ creation of Keats, whose own commentary on the writing of Endymion com­mends this manner of inquiry to us:

"The Genius of Poetry must work out its own salvation in a man: It cannot be matured by law and precept, but by sensation and watchfulness in itself . — That which is creative must create itself —

In Endymion, I leaped headlong into the Sea, and thereby have become better acquainted with the Soundings, the quicksands, and the rocks, than if I had stayed upon the green shore, and piped a silly pipe, and took tea and comfortable advice.

— I was never afraid of failure; for I would sooner fail than not be among the greatest."

(I, 377)

The writing of Endymion was indeed bound up with the young poet’s zeal to grow. It is the beginning of his continual endeavor to allow the realization within himself of what he calls here the "Genius of Poetry". This Genius must work out its own salvation in a man independently of law and precept, requiring only the sensation and watchfulness, or openness of the creative man to the transpersonal, that is to say he characteristically experiences the eternal presence of the archetypal world.

The poet says: "... that which is creative must create it­self." This remark is of paramount importance. It is really the core of this dissertation, because I attempt to show that the creative in Keats, that which creates itself, is his self, his psychic totality as an individual. The salvation of the Genius of Poetry in Keats was, as I see it, the creation of his creative self.


Hans Thoma - Endymion, 1886


The Idea of a Hero

The discussion of this dissertation is patterned accord­ing to the stages of the hero myth: the eternal quest that leads the protagonist along his path of adventures and glorious feats toward the fulfillment of his goal.

Erich Neumann relates the story of the hero to the development of human consciousness. Joseph Campbell is another who has contributed greatly to our understanding of the hero in The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949) but his findings re­late only tangentially to ay dissertation.

Primarily, I follow Neumann who shows that the myth of the hero proceeds through a series of stages that represent first the symbolic differentiation of the ego and ultim­ately symbolize the realization of the self.

The cosmic characteristics of the hero story derived from its similarities to the path of the sun, which stands high at the zenith and then is plunged into deepest night, to rise again in new splendor. The hero's wandering, always a typical characteristic, symbolizes the primordial urge for return to the lost mother, a drama reenacted in the sun's unerring return to the womb of night at the end of every day.