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."