Music and musicians appear throughout Keats’s work as symbols of poetry and poets. In “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” for instance, the speaker describes musicians playing their pipes. Although we cannot literally hear their music, by using our imaginations, we can imagine and thus hear music. The speaker of “To Autumn” reassures us that the season of fall, like spring, has songs to sing. Fall, the season of changing leaves and decay, is as worthy of poetry as spring, the season of flowers and rejuvenation. “Ode to a Nightingale” uses the bird’s music to contrast the mortality of humans with the immortality of art. Caught up in beautiful birdsong, the speaker imagines himself capable of using poetry to join the bird in the forest. The beauty of the bird’s music represents the ecstatic, imaginative possibilities of poetry. As mortal beings who will eventually die, we can delay death through the timelessness of music, poetry, and other types of art.
Like his fellow romantic poets, Keats found in nature endless sources of poetic inspiration, and he described the natural world with precision and care. Observing elements of nature allowed Keats, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Shelley, among others, to create extended meditations and thoughtful odes about aspects of the human condition. For example, in “Ode to a Nightingale,” hearing the bird’s song causes the speaker to ruminate on the immortality of art and the mortality of humans. The speaker of “Ode on Melancholy” compares a bout of depression to a “weeping cloud” (12), then goes on to list specific flowers that are linked to sadness. He finds in nature apt images for his psychological state. In “Ode to Psyche,” the speaker mines the night sky to find ways to worship the Roman goddess Psyche as a muse: a star becomes an “amorous glow-worm” (27), and the moon rests amid a background of dark blue. Keats not only uses nature as a springboard from which to ponder, but he also discovers in nature similes, symbols, and metaphors for the spiritual and emotional states he seeks to describe.
Keats had an enduring interest in antiquity and the ancient world. His longer poems, such as The Fall of Hyperion or Lamia, often take place in a mythical world not unlike that of classical antiquity. He borrowed figures from ancient mythology to populate poems, such as “Ode to Psyche” and “To Homer” (1818). For Keats, ancient myth and antique objects, such as the Grecian urn, have a permanence and solidity that contrasts with the fleeting, temporary nature of life. In ancient cultures, Keats saw the possibility of permanent artistic achievement: if an urn still spoke to someone several centuries after its creation, there was hope that a poem or artistic object from Keats’s time might continue to speak to readers or observers after the death of Keats or another writer or creator. This achievement was one of Keats’s great hopes. In an 1818 letter to his brother George, Keats quietly prophesied: “I think I shall be among the English poets after my death.”