John Keats” poetry claims many genres, from the sonnet and the Spenserian romance to the epic inspired by John Milton, which he reshaped according to his requirements. His most admired works are the six odes dated 1819, the Ode on Indolence, the Ode on Melancholy, the Ode to Psyche, the Ode on a Greek Urn, the Ode to a Nightingale and the Ode to Autumn, often considered the most accomplished poem ever written in English.
During his lifetime, Keats was not associated with the leading poets of the Romantic movement, and he himself felt uncomfortable in their company. Outside the circle of liberal intellectuals around his friend, the writer Leigh Hunt, his work was criticized by conservative commentators as mawkish and tasteless, “parvenu poetry” according to John Gibson Lockhart, and “badly written and vulgar” according to John Wilson Croker.
On the other hand, from the end of his century, Keats” fame continued to grow: he was then counted among the greatest poets of the English language and his verse works, as well as his correspondence – mainly with his younger brother George and some friends – are among the most commented texts of English literature.
The reader is sensitive to the melancholic richness of his very sensual imagery, especially in the series of odes, which underlies a paroxysmal imagination favoring emotion often conveyed through comparison or metaphor. Moreover, his poetic language, choice of words and prosodic arrangement, is characterized by a slowness and plenitude far removed from the customs established in 1798 by the publication of William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge”s collection of poems, the Lyrical Ballads.
In John Keats” long diary letter to his brother George and sister-in-law Georgiana in 1819, there is a remark slipped into the middle of an anecdote about the young clergyman Bailey, his friend: “The life of a man of any worth is a continual allegory, and very few eyes know how to penetrate its mystery; it is a life which, like the Scriptures, figures something else. Keats” life is also an allegory: “the end,” writes Albert Laffay, “is already aimed at in the beginning. That is to say that there is a temporal image of him, but that the whole of his being is built by successive stages and that his meaning “is not more at the end than at the beginning”.
Birth and siblings
There is little evidence to pinpoint the exact day of the child”s birth. He and his family always listed his birthday as October 29, but the records of the parish of St Botolph-without-Bishopsgate where he was baptized list it as the 31st. The eldest of four surviving children – a younger brother died in infancy – John Keats”s brothers were George and Tom (Thomas), and his sister was Frances Mary, known as Fanny (1803-1889), who later married the Spanish writer Valentín Llanos Gutiérrez, author of Sandoval and Don Esteban.
His father, Thomas Keats, began his career as a coach boy at the Swan and Hoop Inn, run by his father-in-law in Finsbury, London. He then became the manager of the inn and moved there for a few years with his growing family. Keats remained convinced throughout his life that he was born in a stable, which he considered a social stigma, but there was no evidence to support this. The site is now occupied by The Globe Pub, near Finsbury Circus, a few yards from Moorgate Station.
The Keats family is loving and close-knit, the surroundings bustling with life and comings and goings. The father is hard-working and hopes one day to enroll his eldest son in a prestigious school, preferably Eton College or Harrow School. In the meantime, the young boy attends a dame school, a private elementary school run by a woman in her home. Not all of these schools are alike; many are simple day-care centers run by illiterate people, but some offer a quality education. Such is the case for the one John Keats receives, who learns to read, does arithmetic, and even has some knowledge of geography. The time came to leave home and, lacking the means to benefit from a public school education, he entered the Reverend John Clarke”s school in the summer of 1803 in the market town of Enfield, not far from his grandfather”s home at Ponders End. He was joined there by George, and a few years later by Tom.
It was a small school – 80 students – modeled on the Dissenting academies, known for their liberal ideas and offering a more modern curriculum than the traditional one of the prestigious institutions. In fact, while classical subjects prevailed, Keats” school was also broadly open to modern languages, French in particular (Keats would later read Voltaire and translate Ronsard), history, geography, mathematics, and the physical and natural sciences. The teaching tries to rationalize itself, encouraging doubt and questioning. Character was as important as intellect and discipline was not very strict, largely due to the fact that the students were rewarded with various prizes (the evaluation ranged from O to X, i.e. from “Very good” to “Insufficient”) according to their conduct and results. A large garden was put at their disposal, where they grew vegetables and which John Keats frequented assiduously. The family atmosphere that reigned allowed for a great freedom of choice: this is how Keats became interested in history and ancient literature, an infatuation that would never leave him. He learned Latin but not Ancient Greek, as Mr. Clarke, in charge of classical studies, had never studied it. This lack of knowledge will not fail to be reproached to him, especially at the time of the publication of Endymion and even of the great odes of 1819. He read Robinson Crusoe, the Thousand and One Nights, the champions of the Gothic, Mrs Radcliffe, Monk Lewis, Beckford, Maria Edgeworth (but his passion led him elsewhere: he devoured Tooke”s Pantheon and Lemprière”s Classical Dictionary, offering brief portraits of gods and goddesses. The Pantheon, in particular, provides him, in the first scenes of the epic poem Endymion, with the elements necessary for the account of the festivities given in honor of the god Pan, and is still on his shelves when he dies in Italy. He translated nearly half of Virgil”s Aeneid into prose and was fervently introduced to French. For him, literature – and especially poetry – is more than a refuge, it is a knowledge that requires effort and fierce determination, a constant exploration whose reward, for those willing to take the trouble, surpasses all other experience, what he later calls “realms of gold”, a phrase first used in the opening line of the sonnet After Opening Chapman”s Homer for the first time.
It was when he was about thirteen that his teachers noticed his zeal, which was crowned by the prize for the best essay in his last two or three terms, for which he received C. H. Kauffman”s Dictionary of Goods and, the following year, Bonnycastle”s Introduction to Astronomy. In the meantime, the principal”s fifteen-year-old son, Charles Cowden Clarke, befriended and mentored him, guiding him in his reading, introducing him to Renaissance authors, Le Tasse, Edmund Spenser and George Chapman”s translations of Homer. Charles Cowden remembers Keats as a determined boy, not shy, willing to make friends and occasionally defend them with impetuosity, free from the slightest pettiness, liked by all, fellow students as well as teachers and stewards. That said, another friend, Edward Holmes, describes him as “volatile”, “always in extremes”, willingly indolent, and not afraid to throw a punch, even at a schoolmaster when he wants to right a wrong done to his brother Tom.
When John Keats was only eight and a half years old, the first event in a series of family bereavements and dislocations occurred that would haunt him throughout his short life. On the night of April 15, 1804, while returning from a visit to his son”s school, where he regularly went after having dinner at Southgate, his father fell off his horse on City Road at one o”clock in the morning. A night watchman, John Watkins, noticed the horse returning alone to the stable, and found the rider unconscious. He suffered a head injury with a fractured occiput and died in the morning at his inn, where he had been transported.
The shock is hard, both emotionally and financially. On June 27, Frances Keats, who had just remarried, entrusted her children, John, George, seven, Tom, five, and Fanny, one, to her mother, Alice Whalley Jennings, seventy-five, widowed in 1805 and having moved to Edmonton in North London. This grandmother had inherited a considerable amount of money from her late husband and had turned to a trusted tea merchant, Richard Abbey, who was associated with John Sandell, whom she appointed guardian of the children. Most of Keats”s financial troubles stemmed from this decision. Not that Abbey was dishonest, but rather stubborn, reluctant to spend and sometimes a liar. The money that came to the children was dispensed with a sparseness bordering on stinginess, and it was not until 1833, long after he had come of age, that Fanny forced the merchant to give up his guardianship through legal action.
John Keats”s mother remarried two months after her husband”s sudden death to a certain William Rawlings, a former stable manager turned small-time bank clerk. The marriage was unhappy: Frances left her new home in 1806, not without leaving a good part of the stables and her inheritance to her second husband, and then disappeared, perhaps to follow another man, a certain Abraham, living in Enfield, according to Abbey. What is certain is that she sank into alcoholism and returned in 1808 still a young woman, 34 years old, but depressed, dead, plagued by rheumatism and undermined by phthisis, from which she died two years later at her mother”s house (John had replaced his grandmother during her absences and cared for her with passionate devotion). According to Andrew Motion, insofar as he read novels to her between attacks, he began to associate literature with the possibility of recovery, one of the common themes in his work. The contemplation of suffering also teaches him that it can be a source of knowledge, not only of oneself but also of the human condition. He thus becomes aware that pleasure is inseparable from pain, gain from loss: this is what he later expresses when he writes: “Difficulties strengthen a man”s inner energy — they make our main aspirations a refuge as much as a passion.
The double loss of the mother, first when she gives herself to Rawlings, and then after her return when she dies, creates in Keats a pattern of possession and abandonment that runs throughout his work, in La Belle Dame sans Merci as well as in Lamia, Endymion, and even Othon the Great, his only two-hander play with Charles Brown. Moreover, as he wrote to Bailey in July 1818, he felt “an unfair feeling towards women”: for him, women fell into two categories, either perfect or corrupt. The sentence is taken from a long document in which Keats uses a process that anticipates psychoanalysis, as he goes back to childhood to try to explain his discomfort and his opinion. In his younger years (schoolboy), he explains in substance, woman is for him an ethereal goddess, far above man. As a teenager (boyhood), the myth collapsed and he experienced disappointment. Since then, he has found that in the company of men he feels free and comfortable, but with women he remains speechless, awkward, suspicious, and lacking in confidence. There is what he calls “a perversity” or “a prejudice” that he leaves open, for after all, he doubts “whether the female gender cares whether Mister John Keats, size five, likes her or not.” To this, Andrew Motion adds that he is well advised not to change anything: La Belle Dame sans Merci, Lamia and several of the odes composed in 1819 depend precisely on what he criticizes in himself.
Now an orphan, John Keats fiercely assumes the role of protector of his siblings, especially the young Fanny. As a sign of his confidence in them, his most profound meditations on his art are almost exclusively reserved for them, for example the very long diary-letter about his odes, written for George and his wife Georgiana.
Presumably under pressure from Richard Abbey, Keats left Enfield in 1811 to apprentice with Thomas Hammond in Edmonton, a neighbor of grandmother Jennings, a respected surgeon and apothecary and the family physician. The new apprentice lived in a garret above the practice at 7 Church Street, where he remained until 1815. His friend Charles Cowden called it “the most placid period of his whole sorrowful life. By this he meant that, on the whole – both men were as easily carried away as each other – things were going well: the Hammonds were hospitable and the methods of learning were very gradual; Hammond, a conscientious practitioner, remained in touch with the hospital that had trained him and which he then recommended to Keats.
In 1814, John Keats had two important donations available to him when he came of age: £800 left by his grandfather John Jennings and a share of his mother”s inheritance, £80,000, a sum estimated at around £500,000 at the beginning of the 21st century, further increased by Tom”s death in 1818.
It would seem that he never knew about it, as he made no move to get possession of his money. The story tends to blame Abbey for his negligence as legal guardian, but some critics give him the benefit of the doubt and speculate that he himself may have been misinformed, if at all.
On the other hand, Keats” mother and grandmother”s solicitor, William Walton, who was under a duty of care, should have let him know. This money could have changed the course of his life, for he was struggling with many difficulties, including financial ones, and his dearest wish would have been to live in total independence.
The apprenticeship at Hammond continued and John Keats studied anatomy and physiology. At the time, the profession of surgeon did not require a university degree, only a license, and Keats was sometimes tempted to follow that path. He knew how to dress wounds, give vaccinations, reduce a bone fracture, and apply leeches. However, as the months and years go by, his enthusiasm fades, he suffers from loneliness in his small room and spends more and more time in the woods or roaming the countryside. Very often, he found refuge at the Clarke”s house in Enfield, about seven kilometers away. When the evenings were fine, the family sat under an arbour at the bottom of the large garden. This was the time when Keats finished his translation of the Aeneid and read – voraciously, wrote Charles Cowden Clarke – Ovid”s Metamorphoses, Virgil”s Buccolics and John Milton”s Paradise Lost. Spenser”s The Faerie Queene, however, suddenly revealed to him the poetic power of his own imagination. After this reading, Cowden Clarke recalls, John Keats was never the same and became another being, entirely absorbed in poetry, “galloping from scene to scene like a young horse in a spring meadow.
Thus, the influence of John Clarke and his son Cowden is remarkable at this stage of his life : this intimacy between former pupil and teacher, the evenings spent at the family table, the long night conversations where books borrowed from the library are discussed, do a lot to make Keats” poetic passion blossom and to confirm his vocation. In September 1816, Keats wrote an Epistle to Charles Cowden Clarke and evoked these visits with gratitude.
With his apprenticeship with Hammond over, he enrolled in October 1815 as a medical student at Guy”s Hospital in London. After a month, he was considered competent enough to serve as an assistant to the surgeons during operations. This was a significant promotion, indicating a real aptitude for medicine, but also charging him with new responsibilities. Keats” family was convinced that after the expensive apprenticeship at Hammond”s and the equally expensive stay at Guy”s Hospital, the young student had found his way to a long and fruitful career, and it seems that Keats endorsed this view. At that time, he shared a lodging near the hospital at 28 St. Thomas”s Street in Southwark; among the tenants was Henry Stephens, a future inventor of great renown and a tycoon in the ink industry. He attended classes with the leading surgeon of the place, Dr. Astley Cooper, and learned many scientific subjects and the practice of art.
Nevertheless, in the spring of 1816, he felt an increasingly demanding impatience, behaving towards his fellow students as a knight of poetry, that of Wordsworth in particular, which plunged him into an excitement bordering on exaltation. He was fascinated by the poet”s naturalism, his appeal to a secular imagination, his use of simple, natural language – quite different from the style of Spenserian romance. In short, poetry inhabits him entirely: “Medical science escapes his attention,” writes Henry Stephens, “For him poetry represents the height of human aspirations, the only one worthy of a superior mind. He speaks and walks among his fellow students as if he were a god condescending to mix with mortals.
If the vocation of medicine weakens in him, the vocation of poetry awakens with strength – and a certain arrogance. His poem An Imitation of Spenser dates from 1814 when he was 19 years old. From then on, he frequented the circles of Leigh Hunt and, in a more spaced-out way, Lord Byron, who was much appreciated by his friends Clarke, who were themselves very liberal. With a career choice to make, and pressure from creditors, John Keats experienced moments of frank depression. His brother George wrote that he “feared he would never become a poet and that if he did, he would take his own life. Nevertheless, his studies continued and in 1816, Keats received his apothecary”s license which gave him the right to practice medicine, pharmacy and surgery.
During the months of overwork and melancholy, George Keats introduced his brother to his friends Caroline and Anne Matthew, daughters of a wine merchant, and their cousin, the “so-called” poet George Felton Mathew. The friendship between these young people is brief but real, and no doubt provides Keats with some amusement. He maintains a bantering and teasing literary relationship with the two sisters, addressing them with little words written in anapests, such as O Come, dearest Emma! or To Some Ladies, in the style of Thomas More, popular during the regency. From his cousin Mathew, he receives encouragement, all the more appreciated as the two young men share the same political views, and a lot of spirit. John Keats introduced him to Shakespeare. Thirty years later, Mathew reported his impressions to the biographer Richard Monckton Milnes and assured him that Keats “was in good health, felt well in company, knew how to enjoy himself heartily with the frivolities of life, and had full confidence in himself. He adds that his sensibility was still very much alive and that, for example, when he read aloud passages from Cymbeline, his eyes moistened with tears and his voice stumbled with emotion.
In October 1816, Charles Brown introduced John Keats to Leigh Hunt, a friend of Byron and Shelley, who were very influential in literary circles. The latter two poets, despite their class reserve towards the cockney, the low-class Londoner, felt sympathy for him: the first said he was “his admirer”, the second “his friend”. Three years earlier, in 1813, Leigh Hunt and his brother John had been jailed for publishing a manifesto against the Regent. This episode had given Keats the opportunity to compose a poem, Sonnet, written on the day Hunt was released from prison, October 1st. Since then, while he wrote various small pieces such as his Epistle to George Felton Mathew, his first known work was a sonnet, O Solitude! which Leigh Hunt offered to publish in his literary magazine The Examiner, which was very liberal. After a September night spent reading George Chapman”s translation of Homer with Clarke, appeared on December 1, 1816 through the same channel After First Looking into Chapman”s Homer:
Charles Cowden Clarke writes that for John Keats the day of publication is a red letter day, that there is here the first recognized manifestation of the validity of his ambitions ” the sonnet displays a real unity, the image of discovery, which culminates in the picture of Cortés standing on the summit, being implicit from the first line; the eight and the sixain have each their crescendo, and the poet goes from exploration to revelation, his passionate quest finding its Grail in the last line of the second quatrain : Before you hear Chapman”s loud, high voice. Then the explorer of the seas turns his gaze to the sky and seems to glimpse a new planet. As is often the case in his poems to come, he responds here to the imaginative power of another poet. The unstoppable poetic diction, the very arrangement of sounds, for example the metaphorical vision of the ocean of wonder amplified by long, wild vowels (waɪld), surmise (sɜː”maɪz), which soon fade into a series of weak syllables, silent (ˈsaɪlənt), peak (piːk), Darien (”darɪən), testify to her mastery.
Albert Laffay praises Leigh Hunt”s influence on John Keats. He recalls the young man”s delight in visiting his Hampstead cottage, “in absolute contrast to his black neighborhood and his medical studies.” Keats describes walking back to London at night and dedicates two sonnets to them in the fall of 1816, Keen fitful gusts… and On leaving some Friend at an early Hour. Hunt, the “talking nightingale,” fascinates him.
On the other hand, the author (anonymous) of the article devoted to him by the Poetry Foundation expresses certain reservations about this model while the poet”s literary personality is being built up: he deplores his luxuriant style that is adorned with too many adjectives in “-y” or “-ly”, such as bosomy, scattery, tremblingly, his systematic use of an unpolished English, the militant coloration of his verses, not so much by the words as by their prosodic structure, hence the obligatory use of enjambment, the rejection of the caesura outside the median of the verse to put it after a weak syllable, which amounts to “breaking” the “aristocratic” heroic distich still in favor among the more conservative poets. For all that, John Keats has other models than himself, and in the end, one of Hunt”s roles is to nurture the poetic faith in him and ultimately – albeit unconsciously – to invite him to surpass it.
End of studies and beginning of a poet
Although his main focus was poetry, John Keats continued his training at Guy”s Hospital (two terms per year, October – mid-January and January 21 – mid-May), as he planned to become a member of the famous Royal College of Surgeons.
In 1816, he published the sonnet To my Brothers and moved in early summer to 8 Dean Street near Guy”s Hospital in Southwark. On July 25, Keats passed the exams for his surgical certificate: it had been a hard year (his friend Stephens failed). Then he went to the seaside with Clarke to escape the filthy heat of his London borough, to recover and write. First, the two young men stayed at Carisbrooke in the Isle of Wight, then at Margate where they were joined by Tom and, after a detour to Canterbury, Keats sent Tom back to London and went south on Haydon”s advice. His destination is a small village, Bulverhythe, also known as West St Leonards, Bo Peep, Filsham, West Marina, or Harley Shute, near Hastings in Sussex. There, he met Isabella Jones, beautiful, talented and rather cultured, who remains an enigmatic figure. Although she was not from the best society, she enjoyed a real financial ease. John Keats makes no secret of the desire she awakens in him, although according to Gittings, the meetings are limited to preliminary games. He wrote to his brother George that he “frequented her room” during the winter of 1818-1819, that he “warmed up to her and kissed her” (in short, Robert Gittings adds, this was probably his sexual initiation. Isabella even serves as his muse, has the idea for the themes of La Vigile de la sainte Agnès, and even the short poem Hush, Hush! (O sweet Isabella), the first version of Bright star (would I were steadfast as thou art). In 1821, Isabella Jones was the first to be informed of Keats” death.
Throughout this stay, he writes a lot, poems, Calidore for example, and also letters, in which he deploys a real virtuosity to link jokes and anecdotes, naughtiness or bawdiness, imitations of Shakespeare”s comic verve, gossip and mockery, and much nonsense.
Returning to Well Walk in early June, he was not done with medicine, moved closer to the hospital at 9 Dean Street, and resumed his work as a physician”s assistant among the dark alleys, which allowed him to survive before his majority at age twenty-one opened up the full practice of his science.
The end of 1816 and the beginning of 1817 are rich in more or less successful publications. After the first success of the sonnet dedicated to the translation of Homer, a collection appeared including I stood tip-toe and Sleep and Poetry, both bearing the influence of Leigh Hunt. During Keats”s stays at his cottage, a small bed is opened for him in the library and it is there that the sonnets are written. John Hamilton Reynolds was the only one to give them a favorable review in The Champion, but Charles Cowden Clarke declared that, given its success, “in a pinch, the book would have had a chance in Timbuktu. Keats” publishers, Charles and James Ollier, were ashamed of this failure and, according to Andrew Motion, asked the poet to leave. They were immediately replaced by Taylor and Hessey of Fleet Street, who were enthusiastic about the poetry. They immediately planned a new prepaid volume and Hessey became friends with Keats. Moreover, their publishing house set aside rooms where the young writers could meet and work. Gradually, their list of writers grew to include Coleridge, William Hazlitt, John Clare, Thomas Jefferson Hogg, Thomas Carlyle and Charles Lamb.
John Taylor and Hessey introduce John Keats to their advisor, the former Etonian Richard Woodhouse, who proves to be an excellent literary guide and valuable in legal matters. He admired the recently published Poems, but did not fail to notice the author”s “instability, tremors, and tendency to be easily discouraged”, but was convinced of his genius, which he predicted would make him a master of English literature. Soon after, the two young men form an unbreakable friendship. Woodhouse undertook to collect all of Keats” writings and documents relating to his poetry (Keatseriana). This archive survives as one of the primary sources of information about his art. Andrew Motion compares Woodhouse to James Boswell in the service of a new Samuel Johnson, constantly promoting the master”s works and defending him when malicious pens rise to attack him.
Regardless of the critical backlash when Poems was published, Leigh Hunt published an essay entitled Three Young Poets, Shelley, John Keats and John Hamilton Reynolds. He adds the sonnet On First Looking into Chapman”s Homer and concludes that the poetic future holds great promise. He introduces Keats to a number of prominent members of the intelligentsia, the editor of the Times, the journalist Thomas Barnes, the writer Charles Lamb, the conductor Vincent Novello and the poet John Hamilton Reynolds. John Keats also met William Hazlitt, one of the regents of letters of the time. From then on, he was perceived by the enlightened public as part of the “new school of poetry”, as Hunt called it. This was the time when, on November 22, 1817, he wrote to his friend Benjamin Bailey: “I am sure of nothing but the sanctity of the affections of the heart and the truth of the imagination. The beauty that the imagination captures is surely the truth”, a passage that announces the end of the Ode on a Greek Urn.
In early December 1816, urged on by his friends, Keats announced to Richard Abbey that he was giving up medicine to devote himself to poetry. Abbey was furious, especially since long years of apprenticeship and study had made the young man a good practitioner. Moreover, he is in the grip of enormous money difficulties, indebted but always generous, lending large sums to the painter Benjamin Haydon, £700 to his brother George who emigrated to America, to the point that he is no longer able to pay the interest on his own loans. John Keats later gave an explanation for this decision: it would not only be due to his vocation as a poet, but also the result of his disgust for surgery.
April 1817: the hospital is only a memory; John Keats, who suffers from incessant colds, leaves the damp London apartment and moves with his brothers to 1 Well Walk in Hampstead village, a wealthy district of North London. Tom is ill and his two brothers take care of him. The house is close to Leigh Hunt”s and to those of the poets he protects. Coleridge, the eldest of the first generation of romantics, lives not far away, in Highgate, and on April 11, 1818, he and Keats take a long walk on the moors. In a letter to George, Keats recounts that they talked about “a thousand things, nightingales, poetry, poetic feeling, metaphysics”. At this time, he was also introduced to Charles Wentworth Dilke, a liberal writer and critic, and his wife Maria, for whom he composed a sonnet.
In June 1818, John Keats left Tom, who was better, in the care of his landlady Mrs. Bentley, and set out on a long walk through the Lake District and Scotland with Brown. His brother George and his young wife Georgina accompanied them to Lancaster, then continued by stagecoach to Liverpool, from where they embarked for America. In fact, they have decided to become farmers in Louiseville, Kentucky. George gradually became a respected figure there, first at the head of a sawmill, then of a building company. Ruined for having guaranteed loans taken out by friends, he dies penniless, of phthisis like his two brothers according to some critics, or according to others, of a gastrointestinal disease. As for Georgina, she married two years after George”s death, a Mr. John Jeffrey in 1843, with whom she moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, then to Lexington, Kentucky, where she died.
In July 1818, on the Isle of Mull, Keats caught a cold and suffered from a persistent sore throat. “Too thin and too feverish, he could not continue the journey. It was on the Isle of Mull,” wrote Andrew Motion, “that the end of his short life and the beginning of his slow death began. On the morning of August 2, he climbed the slopes of Ben Nevis and wrote a sonnet on its summit. Shortly after he left Inverness, a letter arrived from Dilke: Tom was in a bad way. John Keats returns alone to London and is horrified by what he finds at home: his little brother in bed, emaciated, without strength, feverish, as if aged, and with an intolerable pain in his sides and shoulders. He immediately undertook to treat him, exposing himself to the contagion in a way that was all the more risky since he himself was weakened: consumption was the curse of this family, and this disease, which would not receive the name of tuberculosis until 1839, remained stigmatized, supposedly betraying a congenital weakness of constitution, repressed sexual desires, and the habit of masturbation. Moreover, Keats never names her. Tom dies on December 1st 1818.
In October 1818, John Keats met Fanny Brawne, daughter of a former summer tenant of his friend Charles Armitage Brown who, like many Londoners, rented out his house during his absences in the summer. Conquered by Hampstead, Mrs. Brawne moved in and became a neighbor.
Since February 1819 he has joined Charles Brown at his invitation in his brand new home at Wentworth Place, a Georgian villa on the edge of Hampstead Heath, a fifteen-minute walk from his old home in Well Walk. It”s a two-family house with the Dilkes occupying the other half; the annual rent is £5 and includes a share of the drinks bill. In any case, it was Brown who maintained the young poet almost completely, gave him loans and also looked after his manuscripts. The two friends set about writing a tragedy, Otho the Great, with both hands. They hoped that it would be performed by the famous Kean and would be sufficiently successful to bring in some money.
During the winter of 1818-1819, Keats begins to write his most mature works, inspired by a series of lectures given by William Hazlitt on English poets and poetic identity, and by his more regular attendance at William Wordsworth. Already the author of great poems, such as Isabella, an adaptation of Basil”s Pot from Boccaccio”s Decameron (IV, V), he undertook to finish Endymion, with which he was not very satisfied and which was scorned by critics. For all that, it is during the year 1819, and particularly in spring, that his greatest poetry is composed or finished, Lamia, the two versions of Hyperion, begun in September 1818, La Vigile de la sainte Agnès and especially the six great odes, Ode à Psyché, Ode sur une urne grecque, Ode sur l”indolence, Ode sur la mélancolie, Ode à un rossignol and Ode à l”automne, this last one by a beautiful evening of September: all of which were transcribed by Charles Armitage Brown and then presented to the publisher Richard Woodhouse. The exact date of composition remains unknown: only the mention “May 1819″ appears on the first five. Although the works share the same formal structure and thematic structure, there is no indication of the order in which they were composed. The Ode to Psyche perhaps opens the series. The Ode to a Nightingale gives rise to a posthumous controversy between neighbors who differ as to where the poem originated. Charles Brown, Keats” lodger, claimed that the episode took place at Wentworth Place, his Hampstead home. He adds that the poet wrote the poem in a single morning:
Brown prided himself on the fact that the poem was preserved only by him and was directly influenced by his home; but according to Andrew Motion, this was subjective, Keats having relied instead on his own imagination – and a number of literary sources – to meditate on the nightingale”s song. As for the neighbor, Charles Wentworth Dilke, he denies Brown”s claims and anecdote, reported in Richard Monckton Milnes”s 1848 biography; for him, it is a matter of “pure delusion”, which implies in English as in French, an illusion of the senses.
It was through the Dilkes that John Keats met Fanny Brawne, a young girl of eighteen, in November 1818.) Her mother, Mrs Brawne, widowed in 1810, liked the poet and often spoke well of him to her acquaintances. Fanny, with her sharp tongue, lively, speaking French and German, a great admirer of Shakespeare and Byron, with a predilection for trumpery novels, witty and lively, enjoyed discussing politics or literature with him, as she did with her English neighbors and also with the French exiles who, after the Revolution, settled in Hampstead. Later on, she emphasizes her interlocutor”s cheerfulness and good humor, which are only overshadowed when Tom”s health worries him. After the death of his beloved brother, to relieve his suffering – “brotherly love is stronger than love for a woman,” he had written – she encourages him to turn away from the past and introspection, and her vivacity restores his love of life: “soon he regained his gaiety. Soon he falls passionately in love with the girl; according to Richardson, he idealizes her to the point of profound suffering and his imagination transforms her into a legendary princess. John Keats asks for her hand in marriage on October 18; Fanny grants it to him, and the couple keeps it a secret.
Fanny often goes to Wentworth Place. The poet dances badly and, in any case, feels too tired to take her out. Also, she sometimes lets herself be invited by officers, friends of her mother and the Dilkes, which makes Keats anxious. However, he felt that her presence, pleasant and almost constant, distracted him from his vocation as a poet. May saw the birth of a succession of masterpieces under his pen, but July – it is necessary to leave room for seasonal rentals, and for several months, with some interruptions, the two young people exchange a correspondence rich in emotions, reflections (on love and death), and sometimes piques of jealousy. Weary of the island, he and Charles Armitage Brown walked to Winchester where they finished their tragedy (Otho the Great), and in February 1820, after a trip to London to discuss with Abbey the difficulties encountered by George and Georgiana, Keats returned exhausted, feverish, staggering to the point where Brown thought he was drunk.
As he lay in bed, he had a slight coughing fit and, upon seeing a drop of blood on the sheet, immediately made his own diagnosis as a physician with an accompanying fatal prognosis, telling Brown, “I know the color of this blood; it comes from an artery. This drop of blood is a death sentence. Later that night, he suffered a massive pulmonary hemorrhage that caused him to suffocate. Fanny rarely visits him for fear of tiring him, but sometimes passes by his window on her way back from a walk, and the two of them exchange frequent little words.
Last months, last loves, the end
On February 3, 1820, as the spitting of blood became more frequent, Keats offered Fanny her word back, which she refused. In May, while Brown was traveling in Scotland, he stayed in Kentish Town near Leigh Hunt, and then at Hunt”s house. More and more, doctors recommend a mild climate, such as Italy. Shelley, who was in Pisa, invited the patient to join him, but he responded without enthusiasm. In August, Mrs Brawne brought him back to Hampstead and, with Fanny”s help, took care of him. On August 10, he returned to Wentworth Place for the last time.
Mrs. Brawne still does not consent to the marriage, although she promises that “when John Keats returns from Italy, he will marry Fanny and live with them. On September 13, Fanny transcribes the farewell that John Keats dictates for his sister, then burns the love letters she has written to him. They exchanged gifts: Keats gave his copy of The Cenci, Shelley”s verse tragedy published in 1819, his annotated folio of Shakespeare, his Etruscan lamp and his own miniature; Fanny presented a new notebook, a letter opener, a hair bow, and took one in return; she lined Keats” cap with silk and kept a piece of cloth as a souvenir; and, as a final offering, she entrusted him with a carnelian. According to Plumly, this farewell marks the poet”s entry into what he calls “his posthumous existence.
Charles Armitage Brown was on vacation, Leigh Hunt unavailable, and it was Joseph Severn, perhaps the least close of friends but ultimately the most devoted, who, against his father”s wishes, accompanied him on September 17 on the Maria Crowther to Italy. Headwinds kept the ship in the Channel for a week and the passengers disembarked again in Portsmouth. John Keats and Severn took the opportunity to visit friends. They set sail again, and this time, Lulworth Cove welcomed the ship. Keats copied his sonnet Bright Star. Naples was in sight on October 21, but the ship was held in quarantine for six weeks due to an outbreak of typhus in London. It was not until November 4 or 5 that the final leg to Rome began in a small rental car. Severn spent his time entertaining his traveling companion as best he could; he drew his attention to the buffaloes, the white villages, the vineyards; sometimes he jumped out of the carriage and ran, picking up flowers from the fields and throwing them in. Arriving on November 17, the two travelers consulted the doctor of the English colony, Dr. James Clark, and settled at 26 Place d”Espagne, at the foot of the stairs of the Trinité des Monts, in an apartment overlooking the Barcaccia Fountain. The following weeks were similar: Keats spat blood, especially in the morning; but he finished Maria Edgeworth”s novels, wrote to his friends and worried about Joseph Severn”s morale, stuck in his role as nursemaid. The doctor comes by four or five times a day. Christmas is “strangest and saddest,” Severn writes. Money was running out and a subscription was launched in London. The patient weakens, becomes morose and sometimes angry.
Severn takes care of everything, cooks, wipes soiled lips, mops the burning forehead. At the beginning of February 1821, Keats declares that “the daisies are growing over me” and gives his instructions. On the 23rd, at about four o”clock, he murmured: “Severn – raise me up – I – I am dying – I will die gently; do not be afraid – be strong, thank God she is here”; at eleven o”clock, the bubbling of mucus slowed down, and Keats sank into death, so gently that Severn, who was holding him in her arms, thought he was still sleeping. As Alain Suied, his most recent translator into French, writes, “He will not have seen the spring flowers, nor heard the nightingale.
His last wishes were more or less respected. Keats was laid to rest in the Protestant cemetery in Rome (Cimitero Acattolico di Roma). As he had requested, no name appears on his tombstone and the epitaph “Here lies he whose name was written on the water” is engraved, a cryptic phrase reminiscent of the Latin poet Catullus (LXX): “Who does not know that the oaths of the beautiful are written on the wing of butterflies and the crystal of waves”. Alain Suied interprets the word name differently, not as “name” but as “reputation”; so he translates: “Here lies one whose glory was written on water”.
Joseph Severn – who hesitated -, and Charles Brown – who later regretted it, “a kind of desecration”, he wrote -, had the epitaph inscribed above:
With this addition, Severn and Brown intend to protest to the world against the criticism Keats had to endure, especially during the publication of Endymion, under the pen of John Gibson Lockhart in Blackwood”s Edinburgh Magazine: Johnny, Johnny Keats, Mr. John, Mr. John Keats, of the cockney school (effeminate and uneducated, politically unacceptable), an impudent knave of letters, an apothecary specializing in diuretic and soporific poetry. Leigh Hunt even blames the magazine for this untimely death, leading to a passage of wicked irony about (snuffed out: “blown out like a candle”) in Lord Byron”s Don Juan (Canto 11, stanza 60, verse 480):
In the indignation of suffering, Brown and Severn may have overinterpreted Keats”s editorial woes. In reality, he scoffs only slightly at the attacks on him, and his epitaph is not the product of bitterness. He adapts a translation of a Greek proverb and remains deliberately ambiguous: his name is inscribed “in” not “on” water, which dooms him to immediate dissolution, but through his reintegration into the bosom of nature, grants him eternity. As Andrew Motion writes, “poetry came to him as “leaves come to the tree”; from now on, it belongs to nature and to the current of history”.
Seven weeks after the funeral, in July, Shelley writes Adonaïs (æ”doʊ”neɪᵻs), an elegy in memory of Keats. It is a long poem of 495 lines and 55 Spenserian stanzas, in the pastoral manner of Milton”s Lycidas (”lɪsɪdəs), mourning the tragedy, both public and personal, of so untimely a death:
Charles Cowden Clarke had daisies planted on the grave, which he said John Keats would have appreciated. For public health reasons, the Italian authorities burned the patient”s furniture, changed the windows, doors and parquet, stripped the walls, and sent the bill to his friends.
Stefanie Marsh describes the site as it presents itself to the visitor: “In the old cemetery, little more than a vacant lot when John Keats was buried there, there are now umbrella pines, clumps of myrtle, roses and carpets of wild violets.
In 1828, Leigh Hunt”s Reminiscences accentuated the legend of a frail Keats overcome by fate, but in a letter to Brown written in 1829, Fanny Brawne insisted that if there was any weakness, it could not be attributed solely to illness. It was time, she added, that the poet”s personality was presented to the public as it had really been. She also expressed the hope that the imminent publication of a collection of works by Keats, Coleridge and Shelley would “save him from obscurity and the false image that is given of him”.
Fanny Brawne, after
Charles Armitage Brown dreads telling Fanny the sad news. Joseph Severn”s letter takes three weeks to reach London. Fanny becomes ill, loses a lot of weight, cuts her hair and mourns as if she were the wife of the deceased. She spends hours alone rereading her letters and wanders the moors, often late at night. She maintains an affectionate correspondence with Fanny Keats, the poet”s younger sister. It is only after three years that she officially comes out of her mourning. Two misfortunes befell her almost simultaneously: her brother Sam died of phthisis in 1828 and her mother was burned alive the following year.
Gradually, her spirits returned and in 1833, she married Louis Lindo, a Sephardic Jew – which displeased Fanny Keats who from then on did not give her any sign of life – who then changed her name to “Lindon” and gave her two children. The family spent many years in Europe, then returned to London in 1859. Fanny died in 1865 and was buried in Brompton Cemetery. All her life, she keeps the memory of Keats alive in her, but does not mention it. It was only in 1878 that the letters she received from Keats were published and curiously, they caused a scandal: if John Keats was called “ill-bred”, “a whiner”, etc., Fanny was vilified for her inconstancy and especially her coldness. This rumor, although attenuated, persisted in a 1936 reprint. Fanny Brawne”s discretion remains misunderstood: not indifference – she is convinced of the poet”s genius – but the fear, as she expressed it in 1829, that he would be exposed to even more ridicule; “it is unbearable to her,” wrote Motion, “that he could be as grotesquely misunderstood in his ”posthumous existence” as he had been in his lifetime.
John Keats read the great poets who preceded him with an “exquisite voracious delight”. The excerpts he copies are full of annotations that are both enthusiastic and critical. It is a real poetic manna evoked before filling a page, a ritual of welcome to the “crowds of bards” (How many Bards), or a refuge during periods of despair, or inspiration to treat a new theme. These interactions seem to him to be part of a brotherhood, an “immortal freemasonry,” as he writes in his account of the actor Edmund Kean.
Keats read Geoffrey Chaucer as early as 1817 and returned to him later, especially when he met Fanny Brawne, who gave him the opportunity to identify with Troilus of Troilus and Criseyde. The setting of The Vigil of St. Agnes owes much to the Gothic splendors of Geoffrey Chaucer, and his St. Mark”s Vigil is subtitled An Imitation of the Authors in Chaucer”s Time. This infatuation with stories of medieval chivalry was further accentuated by Leigh Hunt”s 1816 History of Rimini, inspired by the tragic episode of Francesca da Rimini recounted in the Inferno, part one of Dante”s Divine Comedy. Hunt”s preference is for Chaucer”s verse style, adapted to modern English by John Dryden, as opposed to Alexander Pope”s epigrammatic couplet which had replaced it.
Another great inspiration was Edmund Spenser, particularly in The Faerie Queen, who inspired John Keats to embrace poetry. His manuscripts reveal that in the course of his readings he marks the caesura of certain lines, or the lullaby sounds in rhythmic passages, cadences, and euphonious passages. In a letter in verse to Charles Cowden Clarke in September 1816, he mentions
Indeed, it is to Edmund Spenser that he owes part of his sensual, dense and melodious style, even more so when he writes in the stanza of his model, as in The Vigil of Saint Agnes. Spenser was a passion in the circle of Leigh Hunt and William Hazlitt, but while enthusiasm for his aesthetic was total, moral allegory was of little interest. Some iconic Fairy Queen locations, such as “The Bower of Bliss,” are found in the poetry of John Keats, from Calidore, Spenser”s namesake poem (Sir Calidore, the knight of “Courtesie”) to Endymion and the Ode to a Nightingale. Keats praises the proverbial kindness of Edmund Spenser and does not hesitate to parody him, for example in The Cap and Bells; or, the Jealousies, a Faery Tale, December 1819.
John Keats has a deep affinity with William Shakespeare. In one of his letters, he calls him Presider, the one who presides over the dinner table, and he finds in his work a wealth of poetic treasures, among which are lessons in human psychology and also in politics. For a long time, Shakespeare seemed to him “enough for us”, and writing a few fine plays became his “greatest ambition”.
The theatrical diction of Edmund Kean, the most prominent Shakespearean actor, which Keats reports in a review published in the Champion on December 21, 1817, fascinates him. In his short essay, Mr. Kean, a sentence stands out, implying that to those who know how to decipher them, secret signs are revealed during such declamation:
A fragment of a play, King Stephen, but what counts is the ardor Keats puts into reading and rereading and annotating Shakespeare, plays and sonnets, in his seven-volume edition of 1814, taken to Italy on his last trip. Saturated with Shakespearean phrasing, allusions and puns, his letters and poems engage in a genuine dialogue from a distance: Endymion abounds in expressions indebted to the Bard of Stratford-upon-Avon, Broad-fronted Caesar (Cleopatra, I, 5, 29), milk-livered man (King Lear, IV, 2, 50), etc., in short all the “hieroglyphics of beauty” mentioned above.
From Shakespeare, John Keats also retains the idea of the inevitability of suffering inherent in the human condition. He talks about this in his letter in verse to John Hamilton Reynolds in May 1818, when his brother Tom is ill. A year later, in May 1819, he explains that he has reconciled himself to this state of affairs, convinced now that, like the teachings of King Lear, man needs suffering to “school an Intelligence and make it a soul” (II, 101, 2).
If Edmund Spenser seems benevolent to him, John Milton impresses John Keats by his force of expression, intimidating, almost threatening, not in the short poems such as Lycidas or L”Allegro et Il Penseroso, but in Paradise Lost. With Milton, Keats remains on his guard: “Life to him would be death to me,” he writes. This holy terror is widely shared by all aspiring epic poets who, in one way or another (imitation, supplementation, parody, revision), force themselves to confront the unattainable presence perched at the pinnacle of the English poetic tradition. Keats undertakes the challenge of rewriting Miltonian cosmology by secularizing it. His first approaches were cautious, allusions, lofty strain and tuneful thunders in the Ode to Apollo, Old scholar of the spheres in At the sight of a curl of Milton”s hair. Soon, his ambition hardened, under the influence of William Wordsworth, the “new genius and guide”, who defined a different epic mode, “epic passion”, no longer devoted to the great design of Providence, but reserved for “the tortures of the human heart, the main region of his song”.
Such is the gestation of the second version of Hyperion, the most Miltonian of Keats” poems, structured as a copy of the first three books of Paradise Lost, with a muscular blank verse of trochees (- u), inversions imbued with Latinisms (Rumbles reluctantly in verse 61, for example, which recalls the reluctant flames accompanying God”s wrath (with reluctant Flames, the sign
John Keats dedicates his Endymion to Chatterton. It is not only the tragic death of this young poet that he honors, but also his language, comparable, according to him, to Shakespeare”s (The most English of poets except Shakespeare). Chatterton”s influence can be seen in St. Mark”s Vigil, and immediately after composing his Ode to Autumn, Keats wrote to Reynolds “I somehow always associate Chatterton with autumn.
Keats” lifelong conversation with the poets focuses on his passion for a complex and sumptuous language, his fascination with contrasts, and his intense desire to be included among the fraternity of English poetry. Beyond the formal aspects of his art, the ability of poetry to express the pathos of experience prevails at all times. Failing to write at the end of his life, he chooses beautiful passages from Edmund Spenser”s The Faerie Queene to point out their relevance to Fanny Brawne, and one of the last he addresses to her concerns Marinell, broken-hearted from rejecting Florinell (IV, 12, 10), whose description recalls what he himself has become, eaten away by disease, frustrated in his ambition and bruised by the denial of love:
By the time he died at age twenty-five, Keats had only six years of serious poetic practice, from 1814 to 1820, and four publications. According to Andrew Motion, sales of the three volumes of his works did not exceed two hundred copies.
A rather thin fund
Alain Suied, the most recent translator of Keats into French, writes that “his life as a dazzling poet lasted only five years, from 1816 to 1821. Five intense, flamboyant years, during which he tried every path, every fervent quest, every style from the ode to the sonnet, from the intimate to the epic. Alone he found the truth and the beauty, the myth and the simple”.
Indeed, his first poem, O Solitude, appeared in Leigh Hunt”s Examiner in May 1816, and his collection Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes and other poems was published in July 1820, shortly before he left for Rome. That his poetic maturity could be compressed into such a short time is in itself a phenomenon. In this short career, periods, evolution and progress can be seen: “from the Epistle to Mathew to the Ode to Autumn,” writes Albert Laffay, “the difference is prodigious. Thus, the reputation of one of the most studied and admired poets in British literature rests on a rather thin foundation. From Endymion, written in 1817, with promise but which remains unclear, through Isabella, adapted from the Decameron (IV-V) and dated spring 1818, already a masterpiece but where the poet, according to Laffay, “did not commit the essence of his soul” and Hyperion, a great Miltonian parenthesis which turns short, the supreme Keats is revealed in a space of a few months, from January 1819 to September of the same year, from the Vigil of the Holy Agnes to the Ode to Autumn.
It is therefore only in his last years that the intensity that inhabits him gives its full measure. The poet, for his part, remains convinced that he has left no mark on literary history: “I have left nothing immortal,” he writes to Fanny Brawne, “nothing that would make my friends proud to have known me, but I have loved the principle of beauty in all things, and if I had had the time, I would have composed some work worthy of being remembered.
John Keats seeks a poetic form likely to express the moment. Thus he turned to the sonnet which, as Dante Gabriel Rossetti wrote, “is the monument of a moment dedicated to the death of an immortal hour. The genre, fallen into disuse during the Restoration, knows a revival at the beginning of the XIXth century and the romantic poets all give in to its attraction. The sonnet requires a strict discipline, fourteen lines, ten syllables per line, an iambic rhythm, a well marked rhyme. Keats devoted much care and energy to the genre and illustrated it with sixty-four compositions, of which thirty-five out of thirty-seven follow the Petrarchan model (octave + sizain), from December 1814 to April 1817, then from January to October 1818, then from November until his death, following the Shakespearean form (12 + 2). The first ones are the result of a mood clearly expressed in a letter of November 22 to his friend Benjamin Bailey: “O for a life of sensations rather than of thoughts!” In fact, thought in this period is converted into symbols, logic into images and feelings. In contrast, the so-called Shakespearean sonnets reflect an intense reflection as announced in the letter of April 4, 1818 to John Taylor: “I intend to follow the recommendations of Solomon: to acquire wisdom, to acquire understanding. It seems to me that the days of slovenliness are behind me.”
That said, Keats was not really satisfied with either structure: the Italian form forced him, he thought, to use rhymes that were too “pouncing”, and the Shakespearean form remained too elegiac, not to mention the fact that the final distich is never perfect, not even in Shakespeare. So he experimented, tried a form in ABC ABD CAB CDE DE, wrote Ce que m”a dit la grive (What the thrust said) (February 19, 1818) in blank verse, i.e. in unrhymed decasyllables, except for the final distich, here with a rather fanciful rhyme (ˈaɪdl
Among the sonnets of John Keats, some are dedicated to friends, like Benjamin Haydon, Leigh Hunt, esq, his brothers, George in particular, admired poets (Lord Byron, Thomas Chatterton, Edmund Spenser), one to Mrs. Reynolds” cat, others to the Nile, to sleep, to death, to the disgust of superstition, and still others to literary, philosophical or event-related issues, fame, the Parthenon friezes, Shakespeare”s King Lear, peace, solitude, England, the sonnet itself, etc. Also included is a translation of a sonnet by Ronsard and a sonnet written at the bottom of a page containing a tale by Chaucer.
The sonnet that revealed John Keats first to himself, then to the literary world, is After First Looking into Chapman”s Homer, briefly analyzed above (The Influence of Leigh Hunt). Others celebrated various enthusiasms, such as the discovery of the “Elgin Marbles,” as evidenced by this 1817 Petrarchan-style ekphrastic sonnet, where the encounter with Greek grandeur induces a sense of death. The vast expanse of history leads to vertigo and a conflict between the mind and the heart, the former anticipating a coming death and the latter recoiling with horror at the prospect. It is the heart that wins, and the last verses sink into despair, the disorder of the syntax reflecting the confusion of the being.
An example of a Shakespearean-type sonnet, of which the final distich with the rhyme in ɛθ (breath
According to Joseph Severn, this is the last poem written by Keats, but critics do not agree on this point, nor on its recipient, generally considered to be Fanny Brawne. In any case, what stands out in the text is the virtuosity of the writing, its luminous images and above all a single sentence that meanders by linking in turn the cosmic and the domestic, love and death, desire and time. A rare occurrence for such a short poem, Sparkling Star inspired Jane Campion”s film of the same title (2009), and echoes of it can be found in Pablo Neruda”s Sonnet XVII as well as in Christmas Tree, James Merrill”s latest opus.
The great narrative poems
For an author to be consecrated at the beginning of the 19th century, he must compose a poem of a certain length. Government pensions were becoming scarce, the title of Poet Laureate seemed discredited, but poetry fed its man for those who succeeded. Keats, who intends to fly on his own wings, aspires to such success bringing both material ease and moral confirmation.
Endymion is subtitled “a poetic romance,” which suggests that it is a love story. Indeed, as Book I indicates, one of its main themes concerns the nature of happiness: indeed, on January 30, 1818, Keats wrote to his publisher John Taylor that the role of Peona, sister of the distraught hero, was “to establish the gradations of Happiness even like a kind of Pleasure Thermometer. At the bottom of the scale, the relationship between man and nature, then the love of humanity in general and the feeling felt for a particular being, finally the passion for an immortal, god or goddess. Thus, the hero”s love for Psyche represents the height of ecstasy, which gives meaning to his life and de facto devalues his role as a shepherd who is now devoid of it.
The legend of Endymion has always interested Keats, and he has already used it in the sonnet Sleep and Poetry. The myth has flourished in English poetry since the end of the 16th century, in John Lily, Endimion, Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, V, I, 19, Fletcher, The Faithful Shepherdess, Drummond, love sonnets, Michael Drayton, The Man in the Moon. Yet, according to Laffay, “nothing less Greek than Keats” Endymion”. A work of 4,050 lines, the story is presented as a winding wander through what Keats calls “a little Region” where lovers of poetry roam freely. The adventures of Venus and Adonis, Pan, Cybele, Neptune and the procession of Bacchus are interwoven. The opening, which contains the most famous line of the poem, “A thing of beauty is a joy for ever” gives the conception of beauty that Keats had then forged, a reality that, despite the evil inherent in the order of things, binds man to the earth and allows him to “endure and even desire life.
Like his hero who, at the end of his journey, meets with success, Keats arrives after more than 4,000 verses at the goal he has set himself, this “first-born song”. His character helped him (hast thou not aided me? (verse 775). According to Ramadier, the conclusion of the poem prefigures his future aesthetics, certain passages of Hyperion, the Ode to Psyche and “the perfect form of the odes in which the contemplator melts into the contemplated object and where each moment is so precious that the poetic language aims at petrifying it to preserve its potential dynamics”.
Endymion failed: the attacks of Blackwood”s Magazine and the Quarterly Review were fierce and Keats himself judged his work severely. According to Laffay, “he had condemned it before he had finished it,” finding its style diffuse and unattractive. Without regretting to have written it, because this “jump in the ocean” allowed him to sharpen his pen, he deplores to have delivered it to the public.
Hyperion exists in two versions, the second one, revised, with a long prologue. Started in the autumn of 1818, the first manuscript was completed in April 1819. John Keats wrote to Reynolds that he had abandoned it, but he took it up again in another form, abandoned in turn, according to a letter of the 22nd to Bailey, in September: it was the second Hyperion, which became The Fall of Hyperion. Started while Keats was at his brother Tom”s bedside, the first two books were composed during his long agony.
The poem is intended to be an epic in verse, unlike Endymion, which is presented as a “romance. Here again, Keats borrows heavily from Elizabethan authors, especially George Sandys” translations of Ovid, not to mention George Chapman”s translation of Hesiod. Spenser”s The Faerie Queene, which contains allusions to the war of the Titans, is mentioned in the margin of one leaf, and Pierre de Ronsard”s Ode to Michel de l”Hospital is added to this list. Most of the names of the Titans quoted come directly from the book Recherches Celtiques by Edward Davies. Finally, Milton”s Paradise Lost lends at least one episode to Keats”s poem, that of the great “Council of Hell” (II, 5, 110sq).
Apollo, that is to say the poet, reaches divinity, thanks to Mnemosyne, the Memory. In mythology, Mnemosyne, daughter of Ouranos (Heaven) and Gaia (Earth), belongs first to the ancient order, but she abandons the Titans to watch over Apollo and the beauty he embodies. He dreams of her before he knows her, which makes him a poet – when he wakes up, a lyre is waiting for him at his side. Tortured by not “knowing” (aching ignorance), the science he sees passing through Memory”s eyes holds all the misfortunes of history, those of the gods and those of men, all the earthly events past and future. Keats calls this knowledge “the love of good and evil”, in other words the access to wisdom.
Various theses concerning the poem are recalled in Albert Laffay”s analysis of it: refutation, with Ernest de Sélincourt, of the statements of William Wordsworth and of the editors, the latter by a note attached to the edition of 1820, claiming that the work was originally intended to cover ten songs; John Middleton Murry”s assertion that the first Hyperion is a finished work – that the real hero is Apollo, god of music and poetry, John Keats himself, in short; Murry”s revelation of “the hidden side of the poem” and the role played by “Miltonian abstractions”.
The young poet watches over his dying brother; moreover, if he has never loved before, he knows the tempers of his age. Notwithstanding his distrust of women, he is torn for a certain Miss Cox, a fleeting but revealing encounter of desire and fear of love: “Poor Tom – this woman – poetry combined in my soul like a chime”, he writes to John Hamilton Reynolds. Thus, through imitation of Milton, noble language, elliptical syntax, Latinisms and inversions – normally little used by Keats -, direct reminiscences, Keats “wraps himself in Hyperion as in a cloak”; a protective disguise, then, but, according to Laffay (who contradicts himself on this point just afterwards: see below), as soon as Fanny Brawne appears, “the Miltonisms vanish of their own accord”.
A new narrative work, Lamia, also a mythological fable, written in 1819 between the five odes of spring and the Ode à l”automne de septembre, tells the story of the god Hermes in search of a nymph surpassing all her sisters in beauty. He meets Lamia, metamorphosed into a snake, who reveals the coveted nymph to whom, in return, he gives a human form. Immediately, she leaves to join Lycius, a young man of Corinth, while Hermes and his nymph sink in the forest. The love too quickly shared by Lycius and Lamia collapses when, at the celebration of their marriage, the true identity of the fiancée is revealed (she is a “lamia”) who immediately disappears and leaves Lycius to die of the sorrow of having lost her.
At the end of the poem (verse 354), John Keats hints at his sources, Robert Burton”s Anatomy of Melancholy.
Started in Hampstead, the first book of Lamia was finished on June 11, 1819 in Shanklin in the Isle of Wight, and it was only at the end of August, in Winchester, that John Keats completed it. He adds to Burton”s data (see note above), Appolonius, the hero”s master, the episode of Hermes and the nymph, the death of Lycius, etc. The classical sources are the same as for the previous mythological poems, Sandys, Spenser, with in addition the treatise of John Potter Archaeologia Greca. Dryden”s Fables (1698) serve as a model for the versification, alexandrine, triple rhyme and distichs. In fact, writes Laffay, “Romantic and classical styles are intermingled. Keats always expressed a preference for this poem over works such as The Vigil of St. Agnes.
Songs of “romance” (examples)
Among Keats” most gothic poems are La Vigile de la sainte Agnès and La Belle Dame sans Merci.
The Eve of St Agnes has variant titles in French: “Veille de
John Keats”s attention is probably drawn, during a visit to London, by his friend Isabella Jones who reminds him that January 20 is the eve of Saint Agnes and lends him a peddling book evoking the legend of that night, Mother Bunch”s Closet again forced to your attention. Moreover, the Anatomy of Melancholy contains a sketch of it: “It is their only pleasure, if art can satisfy them, to see in a mirror the image of their husband; they would give anything to know when they will get married and how many husbands they will have, thanks to Crommyomancy, a divinatory method which consists in placing onions on the altar on Christmas Eve or fasting during the night of Saint Agnes to know who will be their first husband.”
Keats began by constructing a medieval setting, the authenticity of which he could verify as he wandered with Charles Wentworth Dilke through the narrow red-brick streets of Chichester. Reminiscences of Chatterton and the Gothic novels provide him with a full moon, dark corridors, a fearful but faithful nursemaid, and the requisite Mrs. Radcliffe drama. In the great diary-letter to his brother George, dated February 14-May 3, 1819, he writes: “I will send you you will see the beautiful names worthy of Mother Radcliff .” It is in this spirit that he sets up the story of “the thoughtful Madeline”.
When it was published, the poem caused a scandal, too much sensuality displayed by the couple of young people. In fact, only one passionate scene is described, surrounded by icy episodes. The beadle with the rosary remains ambiguous, inspiring respect or – a contrario – ridicule. In contrast, the guests of the castle display rich ornaments (another contrast, the piety of Madeleline who fasts, prays on her knees, a saint, an angel of heaven, all of purity (verses 219-225), and finally, the supreme contrast, Porphyro”s heart on fire (vers 75), the one who wants to speak, kneel, touch, kiss (vers 81). Madeline”s purity gives way as soon as her dream is confronted with reality, and the flight of the two lovers leaves the ancient world to its luxury or asceticism, and finally to death.
If The Vigil of St. Agnes borrows from the Udolpho Mysteries, Romeo and Juliet (through the nursemaid), Walter Scott”s The Lay of the Last Minstrel, if it shares the romantic atmosphere of the time, it is still probably most indebted to Edmund Spenser, if only for its Spenserian stanza: Keats”s dexterity in using the possibilities of iambic pentameter sealed by the breadth of the final alexandrine unfolds a narrative with tableaux, each independent but connected to the whole, that builds on the contrast, cold (frost, old age, death) – warmth (passion, colors, stained glass, gustatory richness), delicately nuanced throughout, “a kind of memento mori for youth and love.”
In an arid and cold landscape, an unknown knight meets a mysterious young woman with “wild eyes” who claims to be a “fairy”s daughter”. He picks her up on his horse and she gallops him to the Elven Abyss where “she wept and sighed”. He falls asleep and has a vision of knights taunting him, shouting “The beautiful Lady without mercy has bewitched you!” He finally wakes up, but finds himself on the side of the same “cold hill”. The merciless young lady has disappeared and he continues his wandering.
La Belle Dame Sans Merci is one of the most famous works in the English language. The Pre-Raphaelite school claimed it as its own. However, the poem was not selected for the 1820 edition and it was Leigh Hunt who published it in May in his newspaper the Indicator. The title is due to a poem by Alain Chartier composed in 1424, and it is mentioned in stanza XXXIII of La Vigile de la sainte Agnès. John Keats probably wrote it directly in his February-May diary letter to George and Georgina. The influence of Coleridge is present, a kind of “concentrated and primitive magic” inherited from the German school. His cadence is inspired in part by a pastiche by John Hamilton Reynolds of Wordsworth”s Peter Bell, an eponymous tale in verse with the protagonist a poor hero who circumstances lead to the difference between right and wrong, and to know compassion:
to which is added the rhythm of old English ballads.
In La Belle Dame sans Merci, various processes aim at suggesting an impression of anxiety and also of bewitchment: choice of the verse, three tetrameteres followed by a dimeter, repetitions of words and resumption of stanza in stanza of similar expressions, use of a spondee to finish each one, sometimes replaced by an anapeste, an increased iambe, which prolongs the effect.
(stanzas 1 and 2 of 12)
La Belle Dame Sans Merci is one of Keats” most musical poems. In the initial description of the knight “who wanders lonely and pale” (alone and palely loitering), the consonance of the l, sung and repeated three times, not to mention the transfer of the pallor to wandering, and the address ail thee, rhyming internally with palely (verse 2), add, by successive accretions, to the languor. The pallor, which recurs five times, and the adjective wild qualifying the eyes of the beautiful creature (verses 16 and 31) augur a tragic felicity, which is further underlined by the silence of the birds. The opening phrase is repeated from stanza to stanza, giving the ballad a lullaby-like rhythm.
The great odes of 1819
For many commentators, the most complete texts are the odes written in 1819: Ode sur l”indolence, Ode sur la mélancolie, Ode sur une urne grecque, Ode à un rossignol, Ode à Psyché, Ode à l”automne. All of them – with the exception of the Ode sur l”indolence, published in 1848 – were published in 1820, but no one knows in what order they were composed. For the most part, their themes are eminently romantic: the beauty of nature, the relationship between imagination and creativity, reaction to the passion of beauty and suffering, the passage of life through time.
Taken together, the odes do not really tell a story. They have no plot, no characters; and there is nothing to suggest that John Keats intended them to be a coherent whole, though the multiple interrelationships that link them make interpretation tricky. More or less, the same themes are found, the images are similar and, from one to the other, taken in any order, a psychological evolution is detected. The critic wonders about the narrative voices: who speaks in these odes, the same narrator from beginning to end, or different at each one? The consciousness that conceives, writes and speaks is obviously that of the author, Keats himself, but the whole is not necessarily autobiographical, some of the events mentioned having never been lived.
Yet the Ode on Indolence, the Ode on Melancholy, the Ode to a Nightingale, and the Ode on a Grecian Urn share a natural setting, sketched in the Ode to Pyche, that seems to appeal to Keats. Gittings even speaks of a feeling of “returning to one”s roots”: the lush gardens of Wentworth Place – it was his first summer at Charles Armitage Brown”s – their lawns, flowers, fruits, undergrowth, and birdsong, recall the sites of his early youth, those of Enfield and Edmonton. To this enchantment are added the beloved presence of Fanny Brawne and the somewhat manic comfort offered by the master of the house, so that a new “cheerfulness” emerges from their verses, what Gittings calls a “reconciliation of the lights and shadows of his life.
Walter Jackson Bate refers to them as “perfection”. He ranks the Ode to Autumn at the top of the hierarchy and adds that “it is not indecent to consider the Ode to a Nightingale ”less perfect” than its predecessor, while still being a better poem. Charles Patterson continues in the vein of value judgments and concludes that, considering the complexity of human wisdom, the Ode to a Greek Urn deserves the prize. Later, Ayumi Mizukoshi states that John Keats” contemporaries had difficulty accepting the Ode to Psyche because “its reflective interiority prevents it from being savored as a mythological painting.” Herbert Grierson, meanwhile, places the Ode to a Nightingale on the highest level because of its “superior logical argumentation.”
Apart from their intrinsic value, the odes owe much to Keats” medical knowledge, and he often uses terms – whether precise or graphic – that are scientifically based. The most striking example is the Ode to Psyche, where the dark passages of the mind, its untrodden regions of my mind, are explored. Keats dresses them up with bees, birds, dryads and supernatural flowers, and thus passes from science to myth with traditional poetic topoi. The title of the poem, Ode to Psyche, contains in itself, by the ambivalence of the proper name, the essence of the problem: Psyche, it is the retarded goddess of Olympus, but also the “psyche”, the non-disembodied spirit, in other words the brain. This refusal of the separation between mind and body is found in many of Keats” works, in the “flushed brows”, the “throbbing lovers”, the references to the effects of deleterious substances, wine, opium, hemlock (see the first lines of the Ode to a Nightingale). Also, a great part of the poetic power of the odes is based on the ability of the poet-doctor to express the impressions of the body in a “happy combination of lexical audacity and prosodic tact”.
After composing them, John Keats lost interest in his odes and returned to a more dramatic narrative style. Yet, each in a different way, they explore the nature and value of the creative process and the role played by the “negative capacity. They are about the forces of consciousness and unconsciousness, the relationship between art and life. They parallel sexuality and mental activity, they strive to transcend time, while knowing that they are riveted to it. Contemplating Psyche, scrutinizing the details of the Greek urn, listening to the nightingale”s song, analyzing melancholy and indolence, they allow Keats to define himself as a “self”, while taking into account his dependence on the outside world. His quest for truth and beauty (Ode on a Greek Urn
Three hundred and twenty of Keats”s letters survive, and forty-two are known to have disappeared. The last one written, to Rome, is to Charles Armitage Brown and is dated November 20, 1820, less than three months before his death.
This correspondence, published in 1848 and 1878, was neglected in the 19th century and only became of real interest in the following century, which considered it a model of its kind. It is the main source of factual data on Keats” life and, above all, of his philosophical, aesthetic and poetic conceptions. The richest letters are addressed to the poet”s brothers, especially to George and his wife Georgiana – Tom, who died too young, could not benefit from them for long – and occasionally to his sister Fanny and his fiancée Fanny Brawne. These missives become a real diary and serve as a draft, even as a laboratory of ideas for the poems in gestation.
In these thousands of pages, however, there is not a word about his parents, barely a glimpse of his childhood, a palpable discomfort in discussing his financial embarrassments. In the last year of his life, as his health failed him, John Keats sometimes gave in to despair and morbidity. The publication in 1870 of his letters to Fanny Brawne focuses on this dramatic period, which, in its time, triggers a lively controversy.
A literary work in its own right
Many go to close friends, former classmates from the John Clarke School or established poets. Every day, these intellectuals exchange at least one letter to relay news, indulge in parody or comment on social events. Brilliant, sparkling with humor, intelligent and critical, they nourish the projects and maintain the emulation. Those of John Keats, spontaneous, impulsive, unfold according to the flow of thoughts, lucid on himself, including his weaknesses, reflecting the evolution of his thought and his conceptions, while preserving an original freedom of tone, made of lively spontaneity – like a conversation, John Barnard writes, words replacing gestures and Keats managing to erase the obstacle of the “now” -, of lightness often (popular speech, puns, vulgarities, poems without tail or head for his sister Fanny), which ranks them, as T. S. Eliot, among the best ever written by an English poet. This is why this correspondence deserves to be considered a literary work in its own right. According to John Barnard, these letters can be compared to William Wordsworth”s Prelude and, like that poem, correspond to its subtitle: Growth of a Poet”s Mind.
The literary quality of Keats”s correspondence is revealed in a small poem (or fragment) in which the correspondent imagines his own death and demands that his reader”s death so that his blood can revive him. Grotesque in its argument, but deft in its arrangement and pseudo-demonstration, it acts as a parable, reciprocity being the order of the day when the message passes from one to the other, which is expressed, all decorum forgotten, by the image of shared blood circulation:
A laboratory of ideas
The main subject of the correspondence revolves around the concept of poetry, whereas most of Keats” interlocutors are more interested in science, politics, metaphysics or fashion. The accuracy of his analyses is underlined by T. S. Eliot who also notes their maturity. From February to May 1819, it is an avalanche of ideas that assails John Keats: thus, on Sunday, February 14, he exposes to his brother George his conception of the “vale of Soul-making” which contains in germ the great odes of May.
Many letters, in fact, give an account of the concepts that Keats used to support his poetic creation. Thus, to John Hamilton Reynolds, on Sunday, May 3, 1818, he expounds his theory of the “Mansion of Many Apartments”, and to Richard Woodhouse, on October 27 of the same year, that of the “Chameleon Poet”, ideas mentioned only once, but which, by their relevance and originality, hit the bull”s eye with critics and the public.
The “a large Mansion of Many Apartments” is a metaphor for human life, moving from innocence to experience, reminiscent of William Blake”s and William Wordsworth”s vision: “Well, I see human life as a mansion with many rooms, of which I can only describe two, the others being still closed to me. The one we enter first we shall call the chamber of childish innocence, where we remain until we can think. We remain there for a long time and it doesn”t matter that the doors of the second room are wide open on the full light, we don”t show any haste to venture there; But here we are imperceptibly pushed by the awakening in our deepest being of the faculty of thinking, and as soon as we reach the second chamber, the one I will call the chamber of virgin thought, we taste the intoxication of the light and of this new atmosphere, where we see nothing but wonder, so attractive that we would gladly linger in so many delights. However, this breathing has its effects, especially in sharpening our perception of nature and the human heart – in persuading us that the world is only frustration and heartbreak, suffering, sickness and oppression, so that the chamber of virgin thought gradually darkens while all the doors remain open, but plunged in the dark, leading to dark corridors. We do not distinguish the balance of good and evil. We are in a fog. Yes, this is the state we are in and of this mystery we feel the weight.”
The “chameleon-poet” is a sponge; without ego, he is everything or nothing, whether it rains or snows, in the light or in the shade, whether he is rich or miserable, etc., he takes equal pleasure in depicting the villain or the virgin, Iago (what shocks the virtuous philosopher delights him; he delights in the dark side of things as well as their solar side. He is the least poetic being there is, because devoid of identity, his mission consists in inhabiting other bodies, the sun, the moon, the sea, and men and women, gods too, Saturn or Ops (Rhea).
In his book on Keats, Albert Laffay explains the development of the concept of “negative capacity” in the young poet”s mind. He recalls the importance, after the one to Bailey of November 22, 1817, of the diary letter of December 21, 1817 to his brother George and sister-in-law Georgiana. Of this “prose poem”, as he calls it, he cites the conversation between Keats and his neighbor Dilke where the expression “negative capacity” is used for the first – and last – time. From this exchange, Keats retains the impression that “connections” have been made in his mind (dove-tailed) and that he has come to the certainty that a “Man of Achievement”, Shakespeare at the forefront of literature, owes his supremacy to his ability “to stand in the midst of uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without being obliged to arrive at facts and reasonableness. In other words, adds Laffay, “Shakespeare is the one who does not succumb to the temptation of putting things in logical order, but who succeeds in transfiguring the evil by the mediation of the beautiful, to make “evaporate” the unpleasant elements by putting them in intimate relation with the beauty and the truth”. The inspirational power of beauty transcends the search for objectivity: as the Ode on a Greek Urn expresses in its conclusion, Beauty is truth, truth beauty-that is all
The themes constituting the substance of John Keats”s poetry are numerous, but most of them are related to a few major concepts or perceptions in which myth and symbolism are intertwined: death, beauty and, more incidentally, Greco-Latin antiquity, which is presented as a theme in itself, but also as a fund from which to draw for settings and characters.
Even before his illness, Keats was haunted by the inevitability of death. For him, in the ordinariness of the day, small deaths occur constantly, which he records with care: the end of a loving kiss, the image of an ancient urn, the harvest of grain in autumn, not signs or symbols of death, but accumulated deaths. Let objects of great artistic beauty be offered to the poet, and death presents itself to accompany his thought; thus, in À la vue des marbres d”Elgin (1817), the meditation leads at once to the idea of disappearance:
On a personal level, Keats hopes to live long enough to emulate the glory of William Shakespeare and John Milton, as expressed in Sleep and Poetry, where he gives himself a decade to read, learn, understand and surpass his predecessors. The poem (eighteen stanzas of varying lengths) contains, among other things, a very precise poetic roadmap: three stages, first past the stage of Flora, i.e., pastoral romance, then Pan, i.e., epic narrative, and finally to the maturity that probes the loins and hearts:
Cohabiting with this initiatory dream is the impression that death may put an end to these projects, a premonition that Keats makes even more explicit in his 1818 sonnet, When I have fears that I may cease to be:
The Ode to a Nightingale takes up some of the notions seen in Sleep and Poetry, such as the simple pleasure of living and, in general, the optimistic mood that poetic creation brings, only to reject them: the impression of loss of the physical world, the awareness of entering a state of death, and, in particular, the final metaphor of the “clod of earth,” sod, a word that also connotes stupidity and vileness. Thus, it is perched on this small pile of ashes – or mediocrity, even wickedness – that the beautiful and invisible bird sings.
A similar approach is found in the Ode sur la mélancolie, where the vocabulary, focused on the idea of death and darkness, evokes without naming the Underworld, with Lethe and Proserpine, in a setting reduced to a simple yew, the tree that ensures the link between the living and the dead, and as stage props, a plethora of noxious poisons or insects that bring darkness and death. Thus death, even raised to the height of a supreme pleasure, “carries within it the impossibility of enjoying it”. We find here the argument of Epicurus: “The most frightening of evils, death is nothing to us, I said: when we are, death is not there, and when death is there, it is us who are not”.
In any case, death and pain, “its substitute”, both fascinate: irreparable fall of the duration, as in J”ai peur parfois de cesser d”être (see above), certainly recognized pleasure, but also feared because doomed to corruption, which evades or adulterates. Thus, in the Ode to a Nightingale, “I have been half in love with the helpful death”, or again in Why did I laugh this night, “Death is the great reward of life”.
It is certain that Keats, who at a pivotal moment in his life lost almost everyone he loved, his parents and his brother in particular, allowed himself to be obsessed with death – dying and being dead – and often shared with his readers the positive or negative thoughts that assailed him on the subject. On the whole, he felt that it was abnormal for a person to wallow in “the valley of tears” and to walk only on “the path of woe”.
The contemplation of beauty
The contemplation of the beauty proposes, not to delay the ultimate stage, but to value the life by the aesthetic enjoyment. Objects of art, landscapes of nature, the narrator swoons in front of a post-Hellenic urn (Ode on a Greek urn), gets excited at the reading of a collection translated from Homer by George Chapman (1816) (At the first reading of Chapman”s Homer), (Sitting down to read King Lear again), or giving thanks to the brilliance of the Shepherd”s Star (Sparkling Star), or the melodies of the songbird (Ode to a Nightingale). Unlike mortals who, like the narrator, are condemned to the wounds and wreckage of time, these beauties belong to eternity. The narrator of the Ode on a Greek Urn envies the trees that will never lose their leaves or the pipe players whose accents transcend the ages. Their singing so stirs the imagination that their melodies are made even sweeter by the fact that they are frozen in silence. If the lover never returns to his beloved, at least he is assured that she is as attractive as ever, just like the urn dedicated to eternal beauty and general admiration.
It happens that the aesthetic feeling exerts such a deep effect on the narrator that he leaves the real world to gain the kingdom of the transcendence and the myth, and that at the end of the poem, he returns from it armed with a new power of comprehension. If the absence is not material, at least it takes the form of a reverie carrying the conscience out of the rational sphere to gain the imaginary one. Thus, in Étincelante Étoile, a state of “sweet unrest” is created (verse 12) which keeps him forever rocked by the swell of the breath of the beauty he loves.
The concluding aphorism of the Ode on a Greek Urn crystallizes Keats” conception of beauty in two lines:
It is indeed the urn that speaks, otherwise John Keats would have used the personal pronoun we instead of ye. The aphorism “Truth is Beauty” can only be understood in relation to this “negative capacity” imagined by Keats. Nothing is reached by a chain of reasoning and, in any case, “the life of feeling is preferable to the life of thought” (O for a life of sensations rather than thoughts!). Thus, the Ode on a Greek Urn is an attempt to capture a moment in an art form. As for truth, “glimpsed, lost, found, it is the secret life of Keats”s poetry, though it is never assured once and for all. John Keats, in fact, shuns dogmas, definitions and definitive positions: the “negative capacity” helps him to accept the world as it is, luminous or obscure, joyful or painful.
Like his fellow Romantics, John Keats worshipped nature and found in it infinite sources of inspiration. Unlike William Wordsworth, he did not discern in it the presence of an immanent God, but simply saw it as a source of beauty that he transformed into poetry without going through memory, which his elder called recollection in tranquillity. He prefers the imagination that enhances the beauty of everything, like those accents emanating from the Greek urn that are all the more sweet because they are not heard.
In addition to the feelings that nature arouses, love, indifference, sometimes hatred, is established between the poet and the world that surrounds him a dialogue, always anthropomorphic – nature, by definition, does not speak the language of men -, the big question concerning its reaction to the impulses or afflictions of the poet: sympathy, love, indifference, impassivity? The same concern inhabits William Wordsworth (Tintern Abbey), Coleridge (Freeze at Midnight), Shelley (Ode to the West Wind) in England and Lamartine (The Lake), Hugo (Sadness of Olympio), Musset (The Night of December) and Vigny (The House of the Shepherd) in France
For Keats, the frequentation of nature invariably calls for comparisons with art and
Often, natural settings emerge from the imagination alone. Fancy offers a telling example. Composed just after the poet”s secret engagement to Fanny Brawne, the poem is titled Fancy, not Imagination, which refers to Coleridge”s distinction: “Imagination is the power of representing reality in its absence, in its organic unity; fancy, on the other hand, concerns the faculty of inventing unreal but new objects by recombining the elements of reality. Diverging somewhat from Coleridge”s conception, Fancy emphasizes the detachment from what is: imaginary consumption of love, escape from life. Here again, the influence of John Milton is felt, in a measured happiness reminiscent of the bucolic Allegro, with a rhythm that is lively but calm, “mostly short syllables that lift the verse, while the pounding of four tonics pull it to the ground.
Moreover, John Keats declines one by one the details of the “delights” proper to each season, the flowers of May, the clear song of the harvesters, the lark of the first days of April, the daisy and the marigold, the lilies, primroses, hyacinths, etc. Addressing “them”, undoubtedly the poets, he exhorts to give free rein to the “Sweet imagination! Give it freedom! Let the winged Imagination find you… “. However, since the imagination is only nourished by lived perceptions, there is a process of reliving similar to that of Saint Augustine who, in his Confessions, summons his memories at will in the immense treasure chambers of his memory:
“And I arrive at the vast palaces of memory, where the treasures of innumerable images are found. When I am there, I bring forth all the memories I want. Some come forward at once . I move them away with the hand of the spirit from the face of my memory, until the one I want pushes aside the clouds and from the bottom of its reduction appears to my eyes . I may be in darkness and silence, but I can, as I wish, represent colors by memory, distinguish white from black, and all the other colors from each other; my auditory images do not disturb my visual images: they are there too, however, as if lurking in their isolated retreat. I discern the perfume of lilies from that of violets, without smelling any flower; I can prefer honey to cooked wine, the polished to the rough, without tasting or touching anything, only by memory. It is in myself that all this is done, in the immense palace of my memory. It is there that I have at my orders the sky, the earth, the sea and all the sensations. It is there that I meet myself. Great is this power of memory, prodigiously great, oh my God! It is a sanctuary of infinite magnitude . Men go away to admire the tops of the mountains, the enormous waves of the sea, the wide course of the rivers, the coasts of the ocean, the revolutions and the stars, and they turn away from themselves.”
Since his childhood, passion still confirmed during the years spent in the school of John Clarke, John Keats lives in imagination in the splendors and miseries of the mythology and the literature of the Antiquity. It is especially, by force of circumstance since he did not study Greek, in the Roman part that he is interested. Ovid and Virgil are his favorites, and for the Greek part, he finds a lot of information in Archaelogia Graeca by John Potter. The classical background serves as a setting or subject for many poems, sonnets and epics. His longest poems, The Fall of Hyperon and Lamia, for example, are set in a mythical historical space close to that of Virgil, and mythology is never far away when he evokes Psyche or the Greek urn. Indeed, if the urn can still speak to observers two millennia after its creation, hopefully a beautiful poem or some successful work of art will cross the boundaries of posterity. In a letter to his brother George, dated October 14 or 15, 1818, he prophesied that he would be “among the most recognized English poets of his time.”
“For Keats, vowels are a passion, consonants are ecstasy, syntax is a life force. Orality dominates with him and, writes Marc Porée, “to bring the richness and sensuality of the world to the mouth, to chew it, to taste it, to crush it against the palate, to ingest it, to digest it, even to re-digest it, such is the sovereign good. “Take her sweet hand, and let her extravagantly
The anatomist of the language
An intuitive anatomist of the language, of its finely articulated skeleton, of its ligaments and fibers, of its muscular tensions and relaxations, of the corridors of the rhythmic breath, Keats is also an innate specialist of the origins of vocabulary and its mutations. With his pen – as with his doctor”s stethoscope – he takes the pulse of each word, listens to it and makes a diagnosis.
Keats cultivates his gift of the word with meticulousness, putting turns of phrase to the test, gauging the power of suggestion of images. With him, words become inevitable within the immense space of freedom that is his imagination. According to Stewart, this applies to his letters as well as to his poetry: the manuscripts abound in marginal comments, his verve being mostly exercised about Shakespeare and Milton, unless it is focused on himself.
John Keats has always placed sonority at the center of his preoccupations, but – at least during his apprenticeship – never at the expense of the English tradition. Since his Imitations of Spenser, his poems have remained disciplined, despite occasional outbursts. Thus, O Chatterton, a sonnet dedicated to a poet who committed suicide at eighteen, sounds like a cry, a hymn to the purity of a language without foreign borrowings, neither Latin nor Greek polluting the beautiful Anglo-Saxon sequence. This allows for subtle phonetic shortcuts, as in the phrase O how nigh
In Keats, Stewart writes, “words are the theater of a pregnant world of affect. The poem Lamia gives an eloquent example of this by its light shifts of words that immediately raise new implications, that by the metaphor and its approximations, its inversions and syntactic suspensions, its internal rhymes, its ironic etymologies, its prosodic eccentricity, its enjambments. At a few lines of the extreme end, under the eyes of the philosopher Apollonius, parody of Apollo, dies Lycius, after the evanescence of Lamia. The limits of the emotion are reached thanks to a stylistic zeugma, associating the abstract and concrete registers in the same construction:
In fact, the expression empty of, literally “empty of”, refers to the object of the embrace and, applied to the limbs, means “emptied of life”. Thus, biological death is instantaneous, but it is the grammar that makes it concomitant with the loss suffered.
The poet of silence
Empty of (“vide de”) here, silent space in Sommeil et poésie, silence a priori of the conventional poetry of the XVIIIth century, but especially reflection on the poet”s art. Keats has the intuition of a void at the heart of a poetic text or of the experience that leads to it, when he becomes aware that visions flee to make way for the nothingness of reality (II, 155-159). Poetry serves to fill the voids of the soul with wonder, as in Chapman”s sonnet on Homer, in Bright Star, At the Sight of Elgin”s Marbles, certain passages of Endymion.
In each, however, Keats speaks of the shock felt at the sight of a thing of beauty capable of both dispensing pleasure and overwhelming one”s being with what Keats calls a “suspended amazement,” a state of stupefaction born of the ambivalence with which the observer is confronted. The Greek urn is sublime, but remains a funerary vessel; and in Ode to a Nightingale, happiness overwhelms the narrator at the song of the bird, but too happy for the pain of belonging to such an imperfect world (stanza 3 and 4). In the end, the ambiguous desire is born to “cease to exist at midnight without pain the death of bias”, as Laffay writes.
The Ode on Indolence shows a more assertive resolution: instead of surrendering to the imaginary speechless Shadows, Keats ends his poem with a vehement retraction. Let the temptations of the imagination vanish: Vanish, ye Phantoms!
In the last texts, the Ode to Autumn for example, the splendor of the vision is relegated to the background by the sound symphony which fills the empty spaces. It is there, explains Fournier, a music which knows how to make the share of the silence, announcing Mallarmé and Rimbaud in France, Swinburne in England, John Cage in America. This poetry maltreats the scansion, unceasingly dislocated: in the great odes, the prosodic arrangement often remains indistinct, whether by default or excess. Uncertainty in verse 21 of the Ode to a Nightingale: ”Fade far a”way or Fade ”far a”way? A profusion of accented syllables in verse 25: ”Where ”palsy ”shakes a ”few ”sad ”last ”grey ”hairs. Here is a new poetic experience, to give the dizziness, as if, Fournier writes, “the spirit wavered itself in the breeze”.
The poet of slowness
Charles Du Bos writes of Keats that his tempo lets each term, one after the other, “develop its virtue in us. Indeed, Laffay explains that Keats is a poet of extreme slowness. Compared to Shelley, airy, dazzling, he can seem earthy. With him, the syllables have weight and, according to Sidney Colvin, “”. Thus, in this excerpt from the first stanza of the Ode on a Greek Urn, verses 4 and 5:
The iambes, because of their weight, although not innate, are badly distinguished from the spondees, which leads to an erosion of the prosodic rhythm, whereas the trochee (- u), more usual at the time of the substitutions, especially at the beginning of the verse, breaks it momentarily and soon restores it to its iaambic momentum. Moreover, the vowel ending “-ed”, as in leaf-fring”d (even if the elided “e” cuts off the word from the syllable “
A new feature, but a remnant of early works, is the abundance of ɪ and iː phonemes, as in heavenly and deities, which, combined with adjectival past participles, occur in many poems. There is a historical explanation for this that De Sélincourt has pointed out: “the English language,” he writes, “since it has lost its finals, in particular the inaccented ”-e”, is deprived of many of the prosodic effects usual in Chaucer (14th century). If this final succeeds in modulating the verse, it also has the consequence of producing a host of adjectives that are, so to speak, excessively succulent, as if in order to pass from the noun to the epithet, one were expressing all the flavour of the noun: this is once again a way of pressing down a noun and dilating it. On this account, Garrod adds, Keats” poetry “does not sing”.
Slowness in Keats is not only a matter of rhythm. The measured cadence is coupled with a quasi-immobility of images. At the beginning of the Ode to a Nightingale, the accumulation of muted assonances creates and sustains a semi-hypnotic state (numbness, drowsy, drink, full). This apparent stasis conceals a potential dynamic. Thus, in the Ode to Psyche, the couple Cupid and Psyche, frozen in a “quivering immobility”, presents a virtuality of movement. Moreover, objects appear to be inflated with sensations, charged with an intensity that poetry strives to capture: in the sonnet On a Dream, about a poet who falls asleep, it is the world that first loses awareness. Laffay summarizes this interaction between the subject and the external object: “he loses himself in the things and”.
The weaving of the senses
For Keats, sensory experience takes precedence over thought. Sensation, too, proves to be the bearer of a philosophical meaning necessary to poetic creation;
As for the majority of the poets, it is initially the sight which maintains a close relation with imagination and creation. It is a question of forming images in the mind, a process contained in the English locution the mind”s eye, which appeared in Chaucer around 1390 and was consecrated in William Shakespeare”s Hamlet. To imagine is to see from within, a relationship illustrated in several of the poet”s writings, for whom the imagination has its own visual function, intimately linked to creation. The poetic vision constitutes what only the poet can perceive and make apparent in his art. In his diary letter to George and Georgiana of September 17-27, 1819, John Keats compares Lord Byron”s way of writing to his own: “He describes what he sees – I describe what I imagine – which is far more difficult.
This imagination-perception relationship is extended to the other senses, hearing, which Keats calls my fancy”s ear. In How many bards guild the lasses of time! (the poet is about to compose when he is interrupted by the bards of old whispering in his ear. The noises of nature come to him and his verses turn to the song of the birds, the rolling of the waves, all transformed into music. The melody envelops his ear and he immediately begins to work and create.
Keats had already noticed different forms of touch as early as 1816, at Guy”s Hospital, which he related to the papillae, wherever they are located, in the palate, fingers and toes. Also, when he refers to the “palate of my mind” in verse 13 of his poem Lines to Fanny, he reveals an imagination of smell and touch, and in verse 4 he adds that “touch has a memory. Thus, the chest, the warm breath, the lips, it is the memory of these tactile sensations that exalts his poetic creation.
In the first stanza of the Ode to Psyche, the picture of Cupid and Psyche embracing each other is full of words and expressions firstly relating to touch, then secondly to hearing and smell:
In fact, here all the senses are called upon and the picture becomes synesthetic. The narrator addresses the heroine by describing her soft-conched ear, and then subtly evokes her shared bed, the lovers “lying side by side”, couched. The sonorities of the two expressions respond to each other, the second past participle (kaʊtʃt) echoing the first (kɒŋkt), an echo slightly altered as if by acoustic diffraction. In this rapprochement, sight and touch (the latter virtual) intermingle and unite: it only takes a substitution of a letter, “n” giving way to “u”, for the fusion to be complete. Further on, in cool-rooted flowers, fragrant-eyed, the association of two compound adjectives, separated by the common noun flowers, summons at least three senses, touch (freshness, grip), sight (the eye) and smell (the fragrance), so that the eye becomes the pseudo-metaphor of a flower carpel. Similarly, at the end of the stanza, everything seems to be seen by an eye-dawn (a
In the Ode to a Nightingale, for want of sight, the olfactory imagination helps to understand the world and create the poem. Added to the panoply of the senses, the breath, declined under various forms, the air, the breath, the vapors. In the sonnet Après que de noires vapeurs ont oppressé nos plaines (After Dark Vapours have Oppressed our Plains), the poet evokes the passage from winter to spring, but rather than painting the warm sun and the budding, he concentrates on the nauseating effluvia of the remaining coldness that oppresses and distresses; soon, the gentle south wind, with its soothing breath, restores to nature and men the happy health symbolized by the soft breathing of a child. In fact, everything is breath and respiration in John Keats” work, soothing breath of the vegetal boudoirs in Endymion (verse 5), of the lover”s breast in Étincelante étoile (verse 13), or then breath of death in Lamia when the creature vanishes and Lycius dies (verse 299).
Overall, the sensory experience is in the form of interlacing, braiding, garlanding. The root wreath (“garland, crown”) and the prefix -inter recur repeatedly, as in Endymion with interkint, intertwin”d, interlace, interbreath”d (verse I, 813, II, 412, 604, 666). Envelopment, entanglement, the experience makes entwine the senses, and the synesthesia appears as a hypersense, ” a braiding of sensations “. In Je me tenais sur la pointe des pieds au sommet d”une petite colline, there is a bower that serves as a vegetal boudoir from which the poet collects a tangled bouquet of may rose, marigold, wood hyacinth and laburnum, surrounded by a grassy area dotted with violets, sweet peas, goat”s beard and moss. The hole of greenery becomes bright, milky, and rosy, soliciting four sensory domains, sight, taste, touch, and smell: the barrier has disappeared, and the sensations are mixed with the image of the vegetation.
The adjective lush that qualifies the cytise appeals to both touch and taste, but Keats also uses it for bright colors. This is no longer synaesthesia, but hyperaesthesia according to John Barnard, a whole encompassing all the sensory domains. Conversely, if a sense is missing, a transfer takes place, as Helen Vendler shows about the Ode to a Nightingale, where the narrator loses sight and touch, gradually replaced by hearing (the murmuring haunt of flies lon summer eves) (verse 50), and then by the sense of smell, thanks to which he “guesses” the name and color of the flowers, rosehips, hawthorns, violets and other musky roses.
John Keats used a variety of prosodic patterns over the course of his career, dictated if only by the genres in which he was interested.
Of the sonnet, he retains all the forms, first the Italian or Petrarchan or even Pindaric, then the Shakespearean, and finally the Spenserian, close to the previous one, with three fused quatrains and a distich, which gives as rhyme scheme ABAB, BCBC, CDCD, EE. On First Looking into Chapman”s Homer is Petrarchan, with a rhyme scheme in ABBA ABBA CDCDCD; on the other hand, If dull rhymes or English must be chain”d, a nonce sonnet, ironically presents an unusual rhyme scheme, ABCADE CADC EFEF
Another prestigious set is the Spenserian stanza, composed of eight iambic pentameters and a final alexandrine (an iambic hexameter) in a cross-rhyming scheme: ABAB BCBC C (The Vigil of Saint Agnes). Among the traditional configurations remain the unrhymed iambic pentameter (Hypérion), the pair-rhyming heroic distich (Endymion) and the ballad (La Belle Dame sans Merci), a quatrain stanza of two iambic tetrameters alternating with two trimeters, in the sequence ABCD.
In fact, it is only in his 1819 odes that John Keats innovates. Here are three examples:
It best reflects the evolution of his poetic style. For example, while his early compositions abound in them, it presents only one example of median inversion, namely the substitution of an iambe (u -) in the middle of the verse, while thirty trochees (- u) are incorporated in the whole of the two hundred and fifty feet, and the caesura never falls before the fourth syllable.
It is composed of three stanzas, each comprising eleven lines. In this sense, it follows the pattern of the ancient ode, a triad both sung and danced, the “strophe” (a turn to the left), the “antistrophe” (a turn to the right) and the “epode”, sung afterwards (back to the starting point). This stanza differs from its counterparts in that it is one line longer than them, which allows the insertion of a distich (couplet), i.e. two rhyming iambic pentameters before the last line. Moreover, having neither narrator nor dramatic phases, it focuses on concrete objects. Paradoxically, it progresses while the objects evoked do not change. There is, according to Walter Jackson Bate, “a union of movement and stasis,” a concentration of energy at rest, an effect that Keats himself calls stationing, an internal progression without reference to chronological time. At the beginning of the third stanza, Keats employs the dramatic process of ubi sunt, “where are they,” which he associates with a sense of melancholy, to question fate about the fate of things that are gone, in this case the songs of spring.
John Keats privilégie les monosyllabes, tels que dans le vers : how to load and bless with fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run (” pour dispenser tes bienfaits “).
As for the other odes, the verse chosen is the iambic pentameter, with five tonic accents preceded by an unstressed syllable. Keats varies this scheme by the so-called “augustian” inversion, coming from the Poetic diction of the previous centuries, by substituting a spondee for an iambe (, especially at the beginning of the verse, as in ”Season of ”mists and ”mellow ”fruitfulness, which is repeated for each of the questions asked, the advantage of which is to delay the iambic flight and to weight the meaning from the opening of the verse.
Recognized as one of Keats” most beautiful poems, compact, dramatic, solid, the verses follow each other with a rare felicity. This poetic wandering is mainly due to the iambic regularity of the pentameters, whose weight is due to two complementary processes: the iambe and the spondee or trochee, though antagonistic, resemble each other, and it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between the two, so much so that the syllables supposed to be atonic are accentuated, and vice versa. Thus, in the first line, the feet of the first hemistiche are all accented because they are monosyllabic, an accentuation that can only be melodic: “NO, no! go not to Lethe, neither twist” [nəʊ – nəʊ –
The irruption of the negation is all the more striking for its suddenness: repeated over eight lines, it immediately plunges the reader into a world of fiery protest that grows with the examples: evocation of the Underworld and of poisons, itself spiced up by the negative semantics of the adjectives or adverbs (mournful, drowsily, etc.), which are repeated in assonance by the drown that follows:
Repeated sounds also stand out, mainly in their short form: some are used for rhyme, the others remain embedded in the body of the verse, but most often in an exposed position, for example at the end of the hemistiche (rosary, beetle, Psyche, anguish). As in the Ode on a Greek Urn, there is a historical explanation for this plethora: according to De Sélincourt, “the English language, since it has lost its finals, in particular the unaccented “-e”, is deprived of many of the prosodic effects usual in Chaucer (14th century).” If this final succeeds in modulating the verse, it also has the consequence of producing a crowd of adjectives that are, so to speak, excessively succulent, as if in order to pass from the noun to the epithet, one were expressing all the flavour of the noun: it is there still a way of pressing on a noun and of dilating it “.
In this respect, the Ode on melancholy is no different from its counterparts which, according to Garrod, “do not sing” (in contradiction with Shelley”s work, for example, it is not, light, airy, fleeting, a “lyric” poem in the first sense of the term, intended to be accompanied by the lyre. It is declaimed and tasted at the same time: see the hemistiche … while the bee-mouth sips, image of a bee sucking the nectar of the flower already carrying the sticky sweetness to the palate. In his Études sur le genre humain, Georges Poulet compares this writing technique to that of Proust who in À la recherche du temps perdu writes: “I was locked up in the present momentarily eclipsed, my past no longer projected before me that shadow of itself which we call our future; placing the goal of my life not in the dreams of this past, but in the felicity of the present minute, I saw no further than it. I was glued to the present sensation. Like Proust, Keats “became what he felt; he excluded himself from himself instead of going beyond the object, he sank into it.
“Is criticism worth anything?” writes Keats in the margin of his copy of Samuel Johnson”s study of As You Like It (and in a letter to his editor John Taylor, he adds, “It is easier to make up one”s mind what poetry should be than to write it.
The ferocity of the first attacks
As his biography shows, while John Keats”s genius was appreciated by many of his contemporaries, especially Shelley and Leigh Hunt, who admired his impulsive thinking and sensuous, voluptuous style – in short, what Keats recommended to Shelley in a letter of August 1820: “stuff every crack of your subject with (gold) ore” – official critics were not kind to the young Keats. John Wison Croker vilified his first volume of poems in the Quarterly Review in April 1818, but it seems that he hardly bothered to read it all (especially Endymion) and that his target was rather the poetry of Leigh Hunt. In the same vein, John Gibson Lockhart, of Blackwood”s Edinburgh Magazine, although he uttered in August under the pseudonym “Z” a number of linguistic outrages against his verses, attacked mainly the circle of his companions. Keats, however, keeps a reasonably cool head: in a letter to James Hessey, he says in substance that praise and blame are nothing compared to the criticisms that the lover of beauty addresses to himself; and in 1819, in his diary letter to George, he compares these attacks to “superstition” which swells in proportion to its inherent inanity (increasing weakness).
A self-taught teenager
If Keats wrote that “if poetry does not come as naturally as the leaves come to the tree, it had better not come at all,” his work is the product of long self-taught scholarship. His innate sensitivity is exceptional, but his early poems are clearly the work of a teenager still learning, cultivating vagueness, a kind of narcotic languor, and this in accordance with the advice given by his friend Charles Cowden Clarke who introduced him to the classics. The articles in the newspaper, Explicator, by his other friend Leigh Hunt, are part of this way of writing: indeed, Hunt despises the poetry of the so-called “French school” and attacks the early romantics such as Wordsworth and Coleridge, which earns Keats a temporary cold shoulder from these poets and also from Lord Byron, all of which are weapons for future attacks in Blackwood”s and the Quarterly.
The Cockney School
At the time of his death, John Keats” work was tainted by two influences that were deemed inadmissible. First, a presumed obscurity for having also broken with the tradition of Alexander Pope and rejected the obligatory language, the poetic diction of the previous century, while distancing himself from the simplicity of expression sought by the first romantic wave of Wordsworth, Coleridge and, to a lesser extent, Robert Southey; then, the deliberately commoner tendency of the so-called Cockney School – in reality, only Keats, a pure Londoner from the northern districts, was really a Cockney – cultivated by Leigh Hunt and his circle, which was joined by William Hazlitt.
In fact, like the first, but with differences, this second romantic generation also claimed to be politically and aesthetically revolutionary, challenging the status quo, which, the “establishment” feared, would promote the so-called lower classes. Hence the creation by conservative critics of the epithet cockney, a bellicose reference to the London underworld. Ironically, the term was taken up in the 1890s by poets from the working class, but despite this Belle Époque vogue, it remained attached to the generation of poets of which John Keats was then a part. It is not surprising, then, that his posthumous reputation was long mocked by the verve of caricaturists who portrayed him as a simplistic klutz killed by an excess of sensitivity.
1830”s: finally some praise
Among Keats” unconditional admirers in the 1930s were the Cambridge Apostles. They were led by the young Tennyson, who imitated Keats”s style and suffered the same criticism as he did, but who later became a popular Poet Laureate and ranked him among the greatest poets of his century. Constance Naden, a great admirer of his work, believes that his genius lies in his “exquisite sensitivity to all that touches beauty”. In 1848, twenty-seven years after Keats” death, Richard Monckton Milnes published his biography, which helped to place him in the canon of English literature. The Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, including John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, was inspired by his work and painted paintings illustrating The Vigil of Saint Agnes, Isabella and The Beautiful Lady without Mercy, lush, voluptuous, in perfect accord with the letter and spirit of the author”s text.
Litany of value judgments
In 1882, Algernon Swinburne wrote in the Encyclopædia Britannica that Ode to a Nightingale is among the greatest masterpieces of all time ever written. In the 20th century, John Keats became the cult poet of Wilfred Owen, the soldier-poet, who mourned each anniversary of his idol”s death, before he himself was killed at the front two days before the armistice on November 11, 1918. As for William Butler Yeats and T. S. Eliot, they never cease to exalt the beauty of the 1819 odes. In the same vein, Helen Vendler considers such poems to be the embodiment of the English language in its deepest fullness, and Jonathan Bate adds that “every generation has seen in Ode to Autumn the nearest to perfection in all English literature,” which M. R. Ridley corroborates when he adds that it is “the most serenely accomplished poem ever written in our language.
Conservation of archives
Most of John Keats”s letters, manuscripts, and papers are held in the Houghton Library at Harvard University. Other collections are held in the British Library at Keats House in Hampstead, the Keats-Shelley House in Rome and the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York.
The life and work of the young poet have inspired the novels of science fiction author Dan Simmons, notably in the Hyperion and Endymion cycles, as well as parts of the concept album The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway by the English music group Genesis.
Bright Star, Jane Campion”s film, selected for the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, features the poet at the time of his meeting with Fanny Brawne, who had already inspired Rudyard Kipling”s short story Without Thread (1902).
Tim Powers also incorporated real elements from the life of John Keats, as well as other authors such as Percy Shelley and Lord Byron, into a fictional novel The Stress of Her Regard.
It is possible that the poet”s name inspired the name of the English literature professor John Keating, played by Robin Williams, in the film The Dead Poets Society.
Many quotes or allusions to Keats” poems appear in various works. For example:
The National Curriculum in England lists John Keats in the lists of important pre-1914 poets and writers in the English language curriculum of Key stages 2, 3 and 4.
In the United States and Canada, the College Board has included John Keats as a representative poet for its Advanced Placement English Literature and Composition.
The poem Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art is studied by New Wales twelfth graders taking the Higher School Certificate in Advanced English.
The first biography of Keats, by Richard Monckton Milnes, was published in 1848 as Life, Letters, and Literary Remains, of John Keats, based on material provided by the poet”s friend, Charles Armitage Brown. However, according to Robert Gittings, it sees the “John Keats of the Regency with Victorian glasses, which has set the tone for almost all subsequent biographies”: the reason for this would be the falling out between the poet”s friends shortly after his death, which delayed the production of such a work.
In the foreword to his biography of Keats (1968 edition), the same Robert Gittings pays tribute to three of his predecessors, all Americans: C. L. Finney, W. J. Bate and Aileen Ward. He explains that the interest of the critics on the other side of the Atlantic is due to “a paradox of literary history”: in fact, most of Keats” manuscripts, poems, letters, notes, are preserved in the United States, while the elements relating to his life remain scattered in England in various collections.
The French poet Albert Erlande is the author of a biography entitled The life of John Keats, translated into English under the title The life of John Keat, prefaced by John Middleton Murry.
W. J. Bate received the 1964 Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography for his biography of Keats.
The Poetry Network page lists 91 articles about various facets of Keats: “John Keats” (accessed February 9, 2019).
Chapter 17 of the Cambridge Companion to John Keats, pp. 261-266, presents a selective but extensive bibliography by Susan J. Wolfson, including editions, facsimiles, major biographies, articles published during the poet”s lifetime, bibliographical references and critical studies up to 2001, the date of the book”s publication
A critical bibliography of Keats, dating from 2008, is proposed by Caroline Bertonèche, John Keats – Bibliographie critique, Lyon, ENS de LYON
Questia”s website offers a comprehensive overview of research about Keats: “John Keats” (accessed January 9, 2019).
On the occasion of the bicentenary of the 1819 odes, the Société des Anglicistes de l”Enseignement Supérieur (SAES), under the auspices of the Universities of Caen-Normandie and Grenoble-Alpes, organized a colloquium on February 1, 2019, chaired by Stanley Plumly (University of Maryland), author, among other works, of a Personal Biography of Keats (Keats, a Personal Biography) published by Norton in 2019.
The Queen”s Gold Medal for Poetry contains a quote from the conclusion of the Ode on a Greek Urn: Beauty is truth and Truth Beauty.
The Royal Mail issues a stamp with the effigy of the poet on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of his death in 1971.
Since 1998, the Keats-Shelley British Society has organized an annual prize for the best romantic poem, and on the initiative of the Royal Association for the Encouragement of the Arts, a blue plaque commemorating Keats was affixed in 1896 on the façade of the house where he lived.
The following were named after him:
Reference to the article in English