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Time and Memory in the Poetry of Keats and Wordsworth

Keats, Romantic Poets, Tintern Abbey, Wordsworth

The use of time and memory within poetry are two of the most constant themes in the works of the Romantic poets. Two of these poets, John Keats and William Wordsworth, employ these themes in some of their most prominent poetic works. In “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” Keats describes pastoral imagery that is painted upon an urn, musing about the nature of time and immortality based upon what he sees. Wordsworth writes from the banks of the River Wye, reminiscing on a former visit to this area in “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey.” These two poems have come to be considered major works in the Romantic canon, and the parallels between them are quite apparent.

The description of nature is intricately woven with the themes of memory and time in both poems, as both poets seem to praise and glorify time spent in the natural world. However, the description of nature is where the major differences in these two poems becomes evident. Wordsworth’s use of nature is very introspective and solitary, as he describes and illustrates his reclusive experiences in nature to his beloved sister. The remembrance of nature, and the splendor of natural wonders are the sources of Wordsworth’s joy in his poem. While nature remains a constant presence, Keats focuses specifically on the relation between nature and the urn that preserves it. For Keats, the beauty in his rustic scene seems to be in the interaction between people, as well as their interaction with nature. In these two poems, there are mutual themes of nature, time, and memory, but the themes are split with two very different portrayals.

Keats and Wordsworth both focus quite intensely on the connection between memory and the natural world, and they utilize some of their most memorable lines to describe the remembrance of nature that is present in the scene they each create. However, the concept of time is strikingly different in each of these poems. The opening of “Tintern Abbey” sets the tone for the entire narrative, as Wordsworth begins his sentimental recollection:
Five years have past; five summers with the length
of five long winters! and again I hear
These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs
With a soft inland murmur. (1-4)
Wordsworth uses this synthesis of time, memory, and nature throughout the rest of the poem, but it is important to examine how Wordsworth uses time. Unlike Keats, Wordsworth is very specific about the length of time that has passed, and uses conventional ideas of time in his poem. Years, seasons, days, hours, and minutes are all important in “Tintern Abbey,” as Wordsworth makes very specific references about the passage of time. The past is the important aspect of time, as Wordsworth laments the spread of human destruction and the loss of what used to be.

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As a contrast, Keats’ examination of time in “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is significantly different, and much more in line with his portrayal of memory. Time seems to become significantly different, as Keats focuses more on the nature of time and the future than on the past. The world that Keats contemplates is frozen in time, preserved in a single moment. Wordsworth seems to spend much of his verse remembering and praising the past, while lamenting what is to come. Instead, Keats considers what will – and more importantly, what will never – come to pass:
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal-yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair! (15-20)
Keats examines the beauty that is imaginable in a single moment, and the perspective of an outsider looking upon this ever-suspended instant. The past is little more than a means to reach this moment of wonder, and is not a shining ideal that has been diminished. The preserved image will never experience a downfall like the past of Wordsworth has been through. The lovers upon the urn may be mere inches away from a loving embrace they will never enjoy, but they will also never experience heartbreak or old age. Their love is eternal in a way that is impossible beyond the urn. Despite the differences in these poems, there seems to be a mutual melancholic message about time. Both poets seem to recognize the finite nature of beauty, but they approach this recognition from different angles: Wordsworth uses personal memory, while Keats employs an examination of mortality.

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The way that memory is examined in these poems is directly tied into each poet’s perspective on human interaction. Throughout “Tintern Abbey,” Wordsworth glorifies solitude and seclusion in nature, while constantly longing for this rugged, reclusive state. He spends his days wishing to be back in the forests and hills, and upon his return, he brings his sister to teach and show her the wonder of such a beautiful place. “Oh! yet a little while / May I behold in thee what I was once, / My dear, dear Sister!” (Wordsworth 119-121). For Wordsworth, bringing another person into the picture is a completion of sorts, a sacred initiation into blissful privacy. He wishes for his sister the same feeling of solitary ecstasy he has experienced in nature, and for her to gain similar memories that he has.

Keats’ version of memory in nature is more of a glimpse of people being together, as he describes the many characters who live a pastoral life. The memories and experiences of nature are not a sacred and solemn escape from city life, as they seem to be for Wordsworth, but instead a beautiful aspect of everyday life. There are people everywhere, as the scene seems almost to be a chaotic and wild celebration. “What men or gods are these? What maidens loth? / What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape? / What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?” (Keats 8-10). There is no less wonder or appreciation for nature, but it is a contrasting form of reverence.

Oddly enough, both Wordsworth and Keats seem to subjective views, as neither one truly looks upon the images that they praise. For Wordsworth, these great images – while still essentially present – are only truly as wondrous as he wants in his mind. Memory can be distorted over time, and even Wordsworth acknowledges that his love for the natural world did not fully blossom until he left. This blooming of admiration came from his own perspective on the memories, and in his desire to have idealistic memories, this perspective morphed and changed the memories to better fit the ideal. For Keats, the image he regards is merely a painting of an immortal image on a very mortal medium. At any moment, this Grecian Urn could easily be destroyed by human carelessness. Not only are the images changed by the artistic license of the person who painted it, but also by Keats’ interpretation. Therefore, it is important to see that something in this perspective must be lost in time, lost along with the names and true stories of the urn’s occupants. Through the subjective nature of these poets’ perspectives, we see the distortion that is present in memory and time, and how two poets can offer entirely different examinations of time and memory in nature.

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