John Keats and Diction
My Key to Keats: Beautiful Diction
Percy Shelley, in the essay “A Defence of Poetry,” described a poet as “a nightingale, who sits in darkness and sings to cheer its own solitude with sweet sounds; his auditors are as men entranced by the melody of an unseen musician, who feel that they are moved and softened, yet know not whence or why” (Shelley 1791). This post will focus on the “whence or why” of Keats – how does his diction sound so musical? Research for this post included a comparison of the Keats’ diction to a sampling from the poetry of William Wordsworth, Samuel Coleridge, Lord Byron, and Percy Shelley in order to find differences in the use of sound devices by Keats. In this post I will list the sound qualities of Keats’ diction that lead to his euphonic and entrancing sound.
Keats’ words in Ode to a Nightingale contain many of the letters and sounds considered euphonic in the Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language. Tom McArthur defines euphony as “a pleasant, harmonious quality in speech” (McArthur, “Euphony”). He explains that the perception of euphony varies from culture to culture, but that “in English, euphony is often associated with long vowels, the semi-vowels j and w, and the consonants l, m, n, and r.” (McArthur, “Euphony”). Poet and teacher Mary Oliver calls the consonants l, m, n, and r, “liquids, because of the flowing quality of their sounds” (Oliver 22). A search of Ode to a Nightingale for long vowels, the use of words with the semi-vowels j and w, and the use of words containing liquids confirms that Keats chooses words with these properties very frequently, which contributes to the melodious sound of his poetry.
The Romantic Poets use a high preponderance of words with long vowels in them, and by my calculations Keats is the heaviest user of them. The long vowels in this poem begin in the very first line: “My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains” (line 1, 1845). The words with long vowels (my, aches, drowsy, pains) slow down the line, reinforcing the feeling of drowsiness, lethargy, and achiness.
Secondarily, the use of long vowels improves the melodious sound quality of the piece. Keats’ use of long vowels continues throughout the poem and averages more than two and a half long vowels per line. In analyzing random stanzas in poems by Percy Shelley in the Norton Anthology, I found an average of 1.6 to 1.8 long vowels per line in most of his poetry, with the exception of a higher average of two and a half vowels per line in Ode to the West Wind. In selections from Coleridge I found that the average long vowels per line ranged from 1.8 to 1.95. In analyzing a sampling of Wordsworth I found that he is second only to Keats, using a little over two average long vowels per line.
Of the remaining sounds classified as “euphonic,” Keats does not rely on the semi-vowel “j” at all in this poem, but uses the “w” semi-vowel heavily, and uses the liquid consonants very heavily: 62 of the 80 lines of the poem contain the “l” liquid consonant and the “m”, “n” and “r” liquid consonants are used frequently, too. One example of a line using a lot of liquid consonants is “Call’d him soft names in many a mused rhyme” (line 53, 1846). The liquid consonants contribute to the flowing musicality of the poem.
In addition to choosing words for their sound qualities, Keats uses a number of additional sound devices in his diction. For example, Keats alliterates the line “beaded bubbles winking at the brim” (line 17, 1845). Keats often uses assonance in this poem, for example in “Of beechen green…” (line 9, 1845). He uses anaphora in the “Where” that starts lines 25, 26, 27, and 29. His meter, though not the focus of this essay, is variable throughout the poem. Alliteration, assonance, anaphora, and variable meter are all devices used at times by Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, and Wordsworth. His use of Gothic words such as “Dryad” (line 7 1845) “Fays” (line 37 1846) and Faery (line 70 1846), seem predominant in his work but are similarly used by Coleridge and Byron. Classical, historical, and Biblical allusions such as “full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene” (line 26 1845); “…Provencal song” (line 14 1845); and “….the sad heart of Ruth” (line 66 1846) can be found in other forms in the work of other Romantic poets.
Keats’ distinctive use of compound adjectives separated with a dash is occasionally used by Coleridge, but Wordsworth, Byron, and Shelley use this diction rarely or not at all. Compound adjectives Keats uses include “… deep-delved earth” (line 12, 1845) , “…light-winged Dryad” (line 7, 1845), and “…leaden-eyed despairs” (line 28, 1845). Finally, Keats uses archaic diction, such as “thee,” “thou”, “thine”, “nor” and “wouldst”. These were choices that are found more rarely in the other poets and cannot be found at all in Wordsworth’s poetry. Wordsworth endeavored to “bring my language near to the language of men” (Wordsworth 1500), rejecting diction that was not commonly used.
Keats use of long vowels and liquid consonants are the basis for his euphonic sound, which he extends by use of alliteration, assonance, anaphora, and other sound devices and rhythms in Ode to a Nightingale. Keats is the nightingale Shelley describes, a musician that creates a uniquely moving poem that could only come from his own pen.
Keats, John. “Ode to a Nightingale.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature: Major Authors. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. 8th ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2006. 1830.
McArthur, Tom. “Euphony.” Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language, 1998. Web. 23 February 2013. < http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1029-EUPHONY.html>.
Oliver, Mary. “A Poetry Handbook.” Orlando: Houghlin Mifflin Harcourt, 1994.
Shelley, Percy. “Ode to the West Wind.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature: Major Authors. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. 8th ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2006. 1743 – 1745.
Shelley, Percy. “A Defence of Poetry.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature: Major Authors. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. 8th ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2006. 1786 – 1798.
Wordsworth, William. “Preface to Lyrical Ballads.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature: Major Authors. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. 8th ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2006. 1495 – 1507.