Romantic Poetry: Life and Death

‘Compare and contrast Keats and Shelley’s presentation of life and death in their poetry’


Through their poetry, both John Keats and Percy Shelley present the themes of life and death, reflecting their personal philosophies and state of mind during the social and political context of the Romantic era. In particular, Keats’ ‘To Autumn’ and Shelley’s ‘Stanzas Written in Dejection, Near Naples’ illustrate life and death through the use of nature, exemplifying Keats’ own concept of ‘Negative Capability’, helping both poets cope with the difficulty of admitting their own inevitable mortality. Through the use of nature the poets offer opposing presentations of life and death highlighting the diversity found within the Romantic canon.

Percy Shelley’s Stanzas Written in Dejection, Near Naples’ offers a disparaging perspective of life and death as he believes he is “alone” with no “fame”, “hope”, “health”, “wealth”, “power”, “love” or “leisure”. This poem was written in 1818 while Shelley was suffering from suicidal tendencies and the loss and guilt of his two failed marriages and deaths of his first child and first wife. As a result, Stanzas Written in Dejection, Near Naples’ reflects this emotional turmoil as Shelley longs for death, presenting it as offering relief and solace: “I could lie down like a tired child”. His use of euphemistic language and smilie reinforces his peaceful presentation of death: “til death like sleep might steal on me”. However, Shelley also romanticizes his death through the appreciation he hopes he might receive once he is dead: “Some might lament that I were cold”. This reflects his bleak and pessimistic perspective of life, feeling that his legacy is inadequate and and he is isolated from everyone around him, through his use of listing and exclamatory phrases: “Alas! I have nor hope nor health, nor peace within nor calm around”. This highlights the loneliness often experienced as a result of individualism, championed by many Romantics.

In contrast, John Keat’s poem ‘To Autumn’ describes the vitality of life through the personification and deification of Autumn itself: “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness” highlighting the fulfillment of life through nature. The semantic field of abundance reinforces Keat’s positivity: “ripeness to the core”, “swell the gourd”, “plump” and “brimm’d”, highlighting his celebration of life. Keats use of Autumn presents death and decay as inevitable and natural, just as it is inevitable that Winter will follow Autumn, therefore nothing to fear. This exemplifies his concept of ‘Negative Capability’, a recurring motif in many of his poems such as, ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ and ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’. Euphemistic, pastoral language throughout ‘To Autumn’ highlight his Negative Capability: “maturing sun”, “soft dying day” and “winnowing wind”, particularly poignant since Keats died only one year after he wrote this poem.

Overall, the poets’ presentation of life and death contrast significantly despite many shared motifs and experienced. Although both poets present death euphemistically with the use of nature, Shelley’s ‘Stanzas Written in Dejection, Near Naples’ looks to death for release from insecurity and failure whilst Keats’ ‘To Autumn’ anticipates death with peaceful contentment. Shelley’s pessimistic reflection of his life and his isolation directly juxtaposes with Keat’s fulfillment and abundance he presents through his personification of nature and listing, reinforced by his descriptions of the gentle and soft death of the sun.




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