In many of Keats’s poems, the speaker leaves the real world to explore a transcendent, mythical, or aesthetic realm. At the end of the poem, the speaker returns to his ordinary life transformed in some way and armed with a new understanding. Often the appearance or contemplation of a beautiful object makes the departure possible. The ability to get lost in a reverie, to depart conscious life for imaginative life without wondering about plausibility or rationality, is part of Keats’s concept of negative capability. In “Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art,” the speaker imagines a state of “sweet unrest” (12) in which he will remain half-conscious on his lover’s breast forever. As speakers depart this world for an imaginative world, they have experiences and insights that they can then impart into poetry once they’ve returned to conscious life. Keats explored the relationship between visions and poetry in “Ode to Psyche” and “Ode to a Nightingale.”
Keats imagined that the five senses loosely corresponded to and connected with various types of art. The speaker in “Ode on a Grecian Urn” describes the pictures depicted on the urn, including lovers chasing one another, musicians playing instruments, and a virginal maiden holding still. All the figures remain motionless, held fast and permanent by their depiction on the sides of the urn, and they cannot touch one another, even though we can touch them by holding the vessel. Although the poem associates sight and sound, because we see the musicians playing, we cannot hear the music. Similarly, the speaker in “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” compares hearing Homer’s words to “pure serene” (7) air so that reading, or seeing, becomes associating with breathing, or smelling. In “Ode to a Nightingale,” the speaker longs for a drink of crystal-clear water or wine so that he might adequately describe the sounds of the bird singing nearby. Each of the five senses must be involved in worthwhile experiences, which, in turn, lead to the production of worthwhile art.
In Keats’s theory of negative capability, the poet disappears from the work—that is, the work itself chronicles an experience in such a way that the reader recognizes and responds to the experience without requiring the intervention or explanation of the poet. Keats’s speakers become so enraptured with an object that they erase themselves and their thoughts from their depiction of that object. In essence, the speaker/poet becomes melded to and indistinguishable from the object being described. For instance, the speaker of “Ode on a Grecian Urn” describes the scenes on the urn for several stanzas until the famous conclusion about beauty and truth, which is enclosed in quotation marks. Since the poem’s publication in 1820, critics have theorized about who speaks these lines, whether the poet, the speaker, the urn, or one or all the figures on the urn. The erasure of the speaker and the poet is so complete in this particular poem that the quoted lines are jarring and troubling.