Author Feature: John Keats

If the aristocratic families of Byron and Shelley seemed unlikely to produce a great poet, the origin of John Keats seems just as unaccountable. His father, foreman in a London livery-stable, married the owner’s daughter, and became proprietor. Yet Keats’s parents were not ordinary people. The father, but for an untimely fall from his horse, would doubtless have strained every nerve to give his three sons, John, George, and Tom, a university education. The mother was vivacious and intelligent, and her boys adored her. In school at Enfield, John was a sturdy, lively youngster, handy with his fists, a terrier for courage,” warm-hearted, often fighting with those he loved most, especially George. He could take a prize when he wished; but from his early teens he, poet-like, read himself into an education in the early English poets, especially Spenser and Shakespeare and Milton, and in handbooks of classic myth such as Lempriere’s Classical Dictionary, which he is said to have had by heart. At fifteen his guardian apprenticed him to a surgeon at Edmonton. Here and in London he worked well for six years of his short life, in both the study and practice of medicine, but at twenty-one gave it over for the real call of poetry.

He grew to be broad of shoulder, though hardly over five feet tall, with fair auburn hair, fine features, and the poet’s eye. Friends always gravitated to him–men rather than women–George Cowden Clark, Charles Mathew, Leigh Hunt, the painters Haydon and Severn, Reynolds, Brown, and the young Oxford man, Bailey. But for Keats’s social sensitiveness Shelley would doubtless have been an intimate. He exhibited no poetic eccentricities except loncly depressions now and then even in boyhood, and curious preoccupations with the wind or clouds in the country. His genius gave him independence. He evaded criticism and literary advice from Hunt, and even from Shelley.

He spoke of the scathing reviews of Endymion, especially in the Quarterly, which tried to thwart his fame, as “a mere matter of the moment–I think I shall be among the English poets after my death.”

Keats won his poetic technique with hard self-discipline, which may be traced in “I stood tiptoe upon a little hill,” an early experiment with the theme of Endymion, and in Calidore composed in Spenserian stanza; but particularly in his Epistles in rhymed couplets, which deal intimately with his early poetic experience. One evening in October, 1816, Clarke brought home a borrowed copy of the noble 1616 folio of Chapman’s translation of Homer. Most of the night they read together among the great passages, and the next morning Keats sent Clarke a copy of his famous sonnet fesh minted, On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer, sometimes called the most nearly perfect sonnet in English.

Between April and December, 1817, Keats began and finished his longest work Endymion. In four thousand lines it elaborates the old theme, popular in all lands and ages, of love between a mortal and an immortal. The tale of Endymion’s love for Cynthia the moon is seconded by the stories of Venus and Adonis, Glaucus and Scylla, and Alpheus and Arethusa. Keats’s reading of Spenser, of Drayton’s Endimion and Phoebe and Man in the Moone, and particularly of Shelley’s Alastor was his obvious literary inspiration in creating the poem; but the deeper prompting was the tortured soul of a young poet. In Alastor, however, the Poet perishes; in Endymion his soul is redeemed through his love of Nature and of his kind. The poem is not allegory, it lacks the necessary symbolism and system. But it looks towards allegory, for Endymion’s discontents, disillusion, unfulfilled longings, visions, vague quests of the soul borne on magic boat or wing or cloud, as in Alastor, figure forth the vague though insistent and impatient dreams of most young people, raised to their highest power in a poet. Somehow the texture of the whole work is quickened by the unconscious personal charm of Keats himself, his play, his eagerness, his enthusiasm. Once these qualities blend subtly with a certain native grandeur, often overlooked in Keats, in the great Hymn to Pan, in the First Book, wherein his instinctive sense of meaning in the old Greek myth enables him to utter perfectly its profound mystery. This he blends with exquisite idyllic play as rare as that of the Greek poet Theocritus, from whom he seems to have caught it; or, better, in whom he recognized a kindred spirit. \Vords-worth’s grudging approval of.the hymn, to Keats’s face, as a pretty piece of paganism” reflects more on himself than on Keats.

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The year 1818 was a year of crisis for the poet. He met in London other men of letters–Wordsworth, whom at first he greatly admired, Shelley, Godwin, Lamb, Hazlitt. He wrote Isabella, of which he never thought well. Endymion was published. In the summer he toured on foot the Lakes and Scot-land–a revelation to one accustomed to the “unhealthy and o’er-darkened ways” of London. But his naturally bright and cheerful horizon began to lower. His beloved brother George emigrated to Kentucky, leaving the care of their consumptive brother Tom to the poet. In August and September came the brutal reviews from Blackwood’s and the Quarterly. In the autumn he met, and ahnost instantly fell into his unhappy passion for, Fanny Brawne, then eighteen, the lively, independent, and not uncultivated daughter of neighbors at Hampstead. In December Tom died, and Keats himself showed warning symptoms of tuberculosis.

Yet his genius, robust and cheerful and social, was not to be daunted or downed by such accidents. Within little more than a year he produced his superb torso, Hyperion, his charming Bards of Passion, and Fancy, his two pieces of medieval romanticism, The Eve of St. Agnes and La Belle Dame Sans Merci, Lamia, and, most glorious of all, his Odes. As a kind of burden to his song he was at the same time writing his marvellous letters to George and other friends, full of unconscious heroic courage and spirits.

The swift accumulation of his poetic riches was gathered up into the volume of 1820, which gained him speedy recognition in the face of illiberal critics. But his strength and power to create were gone, and with them all hope of marriage with Miss Brawne. In the autumn he went to Italy with his devoted friend Severn, and amid suffering, in dejection totally alien to him, he died in Rome, February 23, 1821. His body lies in the Protestant Cemetery, not far from the grave of Shelley. He was twenty-five.

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“Romantic” Keats may have been, but the basis of his poetry is in his five senses and a certain realism. While other poets are keen of eye or ear, or both, Keats feels and smells and tastes as well, delicately and incessantly responsive to the five-fold impact of loveliness on every hand. Evidently he delighted to throw himself down in a patch of grass, or bracken, or flowers, to watch little fleecy clouds shifting in deep blue overhead, or the sweep of wind over deep grain or grass, or the moon riding high, or a stretch of still water. More than once he expresses his liking for some view, preferably with a bit of lake or sea, which he has caught in the frame of a window-casing. With such actuality he begins.

For what has made the sage or poet write
But the fair paradise of Nature’s light?

But he has transfigured it with poetic spell into such miracles as the famous

magic casements, opening on the foam
Of perilous seas in faery lands forlorn.

Such words as “cool,” “moist,” “cold,” “green,” “dark,” “leaf,” “ground,” both alone and in rich variety of compounds, are favorites.

Another significant favorite is “little.” London-bred, it is as if smaller and more familiar and comprehensible things produced in him full poetic intensity without resort to sensational grandeurs of Nature. Hills in the Isle of Wight become transformed to his poetic vision of Mount Latmos, and Canterbury Cathedral turns to the temple of Cynthia and

The vesper hymn, far swollen, soft and full,
Through the dark pillars of those sylvan aisles.

He loves little, intimate things, things in miniature, and reveals their beauty by his rare poetic play with them–

Beaded bubbles winking at the brim;

fauns and satyrs pelting

each other on the crown
With silvery oak apples, and fir cones brown,

the little town by river or sea shore; Cupids,

Rubbing their sleepy eyes with lazy wrists,
And doubling over head their little fists
In backward yawns;

“the small gnats” mourning “in a wailful choir,”

Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourne;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

It is this exquisite skill in miniature, this fine idyllism that lends much of their beauty to the Odes, especially those To a Nightingale, On a Grecian Urn, To Psyche, To Autumn, Bards of Passion, and the lines, Fancy. It proves his kinship with the poet of L’Allegro, with the Greek Theocritus, the Anacreontics, and poets of the Greek Anthology.

Keats has been called the most Greek of English poets. He never read Greek, though he once planned to study it with a learned friend. His ear had somehow caught its “vowel’d un-dersong.” But he had a poet’s uncanny sense of the living beauty inherent in Greek art and poetry. He felt the grand energies of Homer, and of those sculptures which the much-reviled Lord Elgin had managed to bring away from the Parthenon, and which Keats could revel in at the British Museum. Indeed the statuesque grouping and portrayal of Saturn, Thea, and Hyperion in Hyperion is under the shaping spell of the Elgin marbles. He delighted in many of the old myths which he had first read in school, and divined in them a meaning as fresh as when they were first conceived.

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All perfect beauty, that of a nightingale’s song, an old romance, an old word, an autumn evening, of the delicate idyll on a Greek urn, of the Elgin marbles, of Homer, of a myth, is never to him “antique.” It is timeless, always youthful, will not submit to a date, “is a joy for ever.” He is close to notions of Plato in this and in identifying such Beauty with Truth. At any rate the playfulness and affectionate geniality of the man, mingled with the high powers of his genius, have imparted to his best work that radiance of timeless youth which he found the antidote to human ills.

In Hyperion some find Keats’s highest reach as a poet. It is surely free from the excessive luxuriance of his earlier work, and is clothed with a grandeur and dignity which he owes in part to his study of Milton, partly to his theme, the struggle of old gods with new, partly to Greek sculpture. But it is not a wholly intrinsic grandeur, born of conviction, like that of Homer or Virgil or Milton; rather it resembles that of a late Greek in Alexandria imitating the primitive masters whom he admired, and whose energies he would try to recall.

“I think Poetry,” wrote Keats to his friend Taylor, “should surprise by a fine excess and not by Singularity–it should strike the Reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost a Remembrance …. The rise, the progress, the setting of imagery should like the sun come natural to him [the reader] …. If Poetry comes not as naturally as the Leaves to a tree it had better not come at all.”

To poets of a later day Keats has been a subtle inspiration, especially to Tennyson and to the Pre-Raphaelites, in their painting as well as in their verse. His love for the flavor of a single old word or epithet, his treatment of picture and pageant, as in Lamia and The Eve of St. Agnes, his use of real and actual Nature as a basis of his most romantic imaginings, his peculiar music–in these particulars and in others, the reader of modern verse often finds himself thinking: “That is like Keats.”

  • Charles Grosvenor Osgood, The Voice of England, 2nd Ed., 1935, 1952 Harper and Brothers Publishers, New York.

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