‘Joy’s Grape’: Keats, Comus, and Paradise Lost IX

Part of the Romanticism in Perspective: Texts, Cultures, Histories book series (ROPTCH)


Keats’s early familiarity with disease and death, his grim work as a dresser at Guy’s Hospital, and his ease with the facts of pharmacy and medicine gave him a constant awareness of the precariousness of human lives and of mental stability.1 He knew in others and in himself the desire to escape pain and to submerge consciousness as well as to intensify it and expand the brief sensations of life. Real experience insistently drove him to this double awareness of intense sorrow pulsing at the centre of intense joy. But real experience was also filtered through the language of previous poetry, particularly Milton’s Paradise Lost, Book IX, where Milton conveys the moment of death-in-life and life-in-death, which is for him the Fall.


Wild Boar Paradise Lost Intense Experience Double Awareness Dark Wood 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 1.
    Hermione de Almeida, Romantic Medicine and John Keats ( New York: Oxford University Press, 1991 ).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    John Milton, Paradise Lost, ed. Alastair Fowler (Harlow: Longman Group, 1971), pp. 485 and 496. I am grateful to Professor Anne Barbeau Gardiner for pointing out to me many years ago that in Paradise Lost intoxication accompanies the FallGoogle Scholar
  3. See Merritt Hughes, ‘Acrasia and the Circe of Renaissance’, Journal of the History of Ideas 4 (1943), 381–99.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. 3.
    Writers on Milton who might be expected to mention this passage because of their close readings, such as Arnold Stein and Christopher Ricks, do not. Even Howard Schultz, Milton and Forbidden Knowledge (New York: MLA, 1955), whose book has a chapter called ‘Traditions of Sobriety’, does not mention itGoogle Scholar
  5. Only B. Rajan discusses it. B. Rajan, Paradise Lost and the Seventeenth Century Reader (London: Chatto & Windus, 1962), p. 155, n. 8, writes: Also unusual is Milton’s description of the fruit as an intoxicant (XI, 793; IX, 837–38; IX 1008 ff.; IX, 1046 ff.). The De Doctrina Christiana does not imply this. In fact, chapter ten suggests that the fruit had no powers of any kind. Of the fourteen other commentators I have consulted, the majority agree with the ‘De Doctrina’, and none provide any encouragement for the version in Paradise Lost. So, if we were to take this version at its face value, it would run counter to tradition and also to what we know of Milton’s beliefs. Hence I feel that it is simply a figure of speech, introduced in order to stress still more the gross physical aftermath of Sin and that Milton does not believe in the conceit or intend his audience to believe it.Google Scholar
  6. Dennis H. Burden, The Logical Epic: A Study of the Argument of Paradise Lost (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1967), p. 145, mentions Eve’s ‘heightening’ as a pun on drunkenness in IX, 793.Google Scholar
  7. 5.
    He omits the many recommendations of drink, for example, 2 Sam. 16: 1–2; Gen. 27: 25; Jer. 16: 7; Eccles. 2:3; Eccles. 2: 24, as compiled by John Maxwell O’Brien and Sheldon C. Seller, ‘Attributes of Alcohol in the Old Testament’, The Drinking and Drug Practices Surveyor, Alcohol Research Group, 18 (Aug. 1982), pp. 18–24.Google Scholar
  8. 6.
    John Milton, chapter IX, ‘Of the First Class of Special Virtues Connected with the Duty of Man towards Himself’, The Christian Doctrine, The Works of John Milton (New York: Columbia University Press, 1934), 17, 213–17Google Scholar
  9. See William Riley Parker, Milton: a Biography (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968), pp. 194, 198–9, 446–7, for Milton’s personal advocacy of temperance.Google Scholar
  10. 7.
    The Romantics on Milton: Formal Essays and Critical Asides, ed. Joseph Anthony Wittreich, Jr. (Cleveland: Case Western Reserve Press, 1970)Google Scholar
  11. Beth Lau, ‘Keats’s marginalia in Paradise Lost’, in Milton, the Metaphysicals, and Romanticism, ed. Lisa Low and Anthony John Harding (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), pp. 151–71, record Keats’s reactions in the margins of his texts.Google Scholar
  12. 9.
    Blake’s phrase is from plate 5, ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’, The Poetry and Prose of William Blake, ed. David V. Erdman ( Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1965 ), p. 35Google Scholar
  13. Several recent studies have examined Milton’s sympathy for, and knowledge of, ecstatic traditions: Richard Halpern, ‘Puritanism and Maenadism in A Mask’, in Rewriting the Renaissance: The Discourses of Sexual Differences in Early Modern Europe, ed. Margaret W. Ferguson, Maureen Quilligan, and Nancy J. Vickers ( Chicago and London: Chicago University Press, 1986 ), pp. 88–105Google Scholar
  14. Christopher Kendrick, ‘Milton and Sexuality: a symptomatic reading of Cornus’, in Re-membering Milton: Essays on the texts and traditions, ed. Mary Nyquist and Margaret W. Ferguson ( New York and London: Methuen, 1987 ), pp. 43–73;Google Scholar
  15. Jacqueline DiSalvo, ‘Fear of Flying: Milton on the Boundaries Between Witchcraft and Inspiration’, English Literary Renaissance 18 (Winter 1988), 114–37.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. 10.
    To use the wonderful word, paired with taste, of Christopher Ricks, Keats and Embarrassment ( Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1974 ).Google Scholar
  17. 13.
    Even Jeffrey Baker, John Keats and Symbolism (Sussex: Harvester Press and New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986), rushes past this stanza 3.Google Scholar
  18. 14.
    Stuart Sperry, Keats the Poet ( Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973 ), p. 285.Google Scholar
  19. 15.
    Helen Vendler, The Odes of John Keats ( Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1983 ), p. 161.Google Scholar
  20. 18.
    Shakespearean allusions in this stanza have been examined by Jonathan Bate, Shakespeare and the English Romantic Imagination (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), pp. 191–7CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. 18.
    Mark Taylor, ‘Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale”’, Explicator 36, 3 (Spring 1978), 24–6.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. 19.
    Werner William Beyer, Keats and the Daemon King (New York: Oxford University Press, 1947),p. 359, dismisses the importance of Bacchus for Keats: ‘The legendary Bacchus, with the various minor features gleaned from Diodorus and Rabelais and Ovid, is actually an irrelevant adornment. In itself it had no intrinsic relation to the pattern or theme of Endymion, the gradations of happiness and quest for immortality.’Google Scholar
  23. 20.
    Willard Spiegelman, ‘Keats’s Figures of Indolence’, Majestic Indolence: English Romantic Poetry and the Work of Art (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), pp. 83–107.Google Scholar
  24. 20.
    For the influence of Spenser and Milton on Keats’s suspending, hanging, waiting, and ‘ripening’, see Patricia Parker, Inescapable Romance: Studies in the Poetics of a Mode ( Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979 ), pp. 159–218.Google Scholar
  25. 21.
    J. Lemprière, D. D., Classical Dictionary, containing a copious account…. ( London: T. Cadell and W. Davies in the Strand, 1804 ).Google Scholar
  26. 22.
    Robert Gittings, John Keats ( Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1968 ) p. 158.Google Scholar
  27. 23.
    For example, Charles I. Patterson, Jr., The Daemonic in the Poetry of Keats (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1970), pp. 66–77, reads the song as a song of sorrow, embracing the actual, learning to view sorrow as ‘an inseparable part of human existence’, even ‘a desirable part’. ‘Sorrow’, he writes (p. 74), ‘is an avenue to wide, deep, and varied knowledge of our world and of its possibilities.’Google Scholar
  28. Susan J. Wolfson, The Questioning Presence: Wordsworth, Keats, and the Interrogative Mode in Romantic Poetry (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1986), p. 246, mentions it only as the ‘Sorrow Song’.Google Scholar
  29. 24.
    For the omnipresence of annihilation in Keats’s thinking, see Donald Reiman, ‘Keats and the Abyss’, Intervals of Inspiration: The Skeptical Tradition and the Psychology of Romanticism, pp. 263–306.Google Scholar
  30. 27.
    The Keats Circle: Letters and Papers, ed. H. E. Rollins, (2 vols, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2nd edn, 1969), 2, 319–21, but see lxxii-baiv for Clarke’s absence during Keats’s time of manly drinking.Google Scholar
  31. 30.
    Walter Jackson Bate, John Keats ( Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1963 ), pp. 274–5.Google Scholar
  32. 33.
    Aileen Ward, John Keats: The Making of a Poet ( New York: Viking Press, 1963 ), p. 255.Google Scholar
  33. 35.
    Anya Taylor, Coleridge’s Defense of the Human (Columbus, Ohio: Ohio State University Press, 1986), pp. 119–43, discusses this intertwining of science and spirituality in the scientists Coleridge read and in his interpretations of them.Google Scholar
  34. 36.
    William Hazlitt, Lectures on the English Poets (1824), HCW, 5,372.Google Scholar
  35. 42.
    Susan Wolfson, ‘Keats and the Manhood of the Poet’, European Romantic Review 6,1 (Summer 1995), 1–37, discusses the gendering of criticism of Keats.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. 45.
    On Effeminacy of Character’, cited in David Bromwich, Hazlitt: The Mind of a Critic ( New York: Oxford University Press, 1983 ), pp. 368–9.Google Scholar
  37. 51.
    Tilottama Rajan, ‘On the Threshold of Tragedy: Keats’s Late Romances’, Dark Interpreter: The Discourse of Romanticism (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1980), pp. 115–25. Rajan’s brilliant adaptation (pp. 143–203) of Nietzsche’s Dionysianism to represent a core of destructive will ironically present as an undertow to Apollonian representation illuminates the double perspective of generation and dissolution in Keats’s Hyperion poems, but does not include the free and wild Bacchus whom Keats celebrates. Keats uses the name Bacchus’; Rajan’s ‘Dionysius’ is an anachronistic though apt application of Nietzschean awareness onto Keats.Google Scholar
  38. 52.
    See Robert M. Ryan, Keats: The Religious Sense (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976), pp. 212–17, for his unconsoled death.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Anya Taylor 1999

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.John Jay College of Criminal JusticeThe City University of New YorkUSA

Personalised recommendations