John Keats 101
For many, John Keats is the prototype of artistic genius. His name, along with Shakespeare’s, is nearly synonymous with English verse. Indeed, the Western image of the poet—youthful, idealistic, inspired, awkward, ambitious, and even ailing—seems drawn directly from Keats’s biography. Such appraisals are not limited to mass culture. Edward Hirsch once called Keats “the Orphic voice of ... poetry itself,” and even T.S. Eliot, standard bearer of an impersonal Modernism, praised Keats’s “philosophic” mind, writing that he was “occupied only with the highest use of poetry.” Such high uses had unlikely origins. Born to a stable keeper, Keats struggled to support himself all his life; his social class, lack of an elite higher education, and progressive politics and poetics led some of his conservative contemporary critics to lump his work into the “Cockney School” of verse. He died young and in love, passing away at 25 from consumption (known now as tuberculosis). But the work he left behind—much of it written in a few short years—earns its extremely high acclaim and cultural prominence. His odes and epics were musically unmatched and emotionally urgent, and he strove for the eternal, helping to re-center the modern lyric on those “untrodden region[s] of [my] mind.” Arranged in order of composition, this handful of poems speaks to Keats’s immense talents as a thinker, technician, and talented explorer of the human psyche.
“On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer”
Keats wrote this sonnet, his first major work, in October 1816 after staying up all night with his friend Charles Cowden Clarke reading George Chapman’s translations of the Iliad and the Odyssey. Keats famously wrote the poem in just a few hours, and it likens literary discovery in reading to the awe explorers of the New World must have felt. In doing so, Tennyson later observed, Keats may have scrambled his facts: Balboa, not Cortez, was the first European to see the Pacific. Other critics have argued that Keats may not have intended to name the first but rather the followers—just as Chapman follows Homer. Regardless, what attracted Keats to Chapman was not the translations’ sophistication or accuracy but their immediacy, which is exactly what Keats captures so well within the tight frame of this Petrarchan sonnet. In its concluding sestet, he turns from gilded books and “goodly states” to sublime silence.
“On Seeing the Elgin Marbles”
Another ekphrastic sonnet, this 1817 poem is, in many ways, a mirror image of “Chapman’s Homer,” its darker “shadow.” Instead of awe, the encounter here with “Grecian grandeur” produces something awful—a sense of one’s own “mortality,” a word that “weighs heavily” on the poem’s sharply enjambed first line. The vertigo, or “dizzy pain,” that comes from glimpsing the vastness of history was one of Keats’s major subjects, something he contends with in poem after poem. Here he describes the “feud” as between “the brain” (which anticipates death) and “the heart” (which recoils from its horror). In this bout, the heart wins out—Keats makes no theories here, can find no stay against confusion, and his final lines collapse into despair, their syntax unraveling.
Though better remembered for his short lyrics, Keats was fascinated by the epic mode. In his school days, he apprenticed in verse by translating the Aeneid, and he continued to write longer works throughout his brief career, poems as diverse as “Hyperion,” “Lamia,” and “The Eve of St. Agnes.” At 4,000 lines, Endymion was his longest and one of just three books published in his lifetime. It was famously savaged by critics—so much so that Keats’s friends, and fellow Romantic poets such as Byron and Shelley, contended that Keats was killed by malicious reviews. In this brief excerpt from the beginning of the 1818 poem, you may get a sense why—at times its “loveliness increases” to the point of distraction. But in the epigrammatic opening and in the radical enjambments of his heroic couplets, you can also see Keats honing the tools he used in his most masterful poems. When he announces his project here—“I send / My herald thought into the wilderness,” he writes—you sense not only ambition and trepidation but also his greatness to come.
“Ode on a Grecian Urn”
Keats’s six famous odes, written in May 1819, are well-wrought marvels, borrowing literary devices and patterns from the sonnet to revise and expand this traditional form of praise. Here, for instance, apostrophe abounds, with Keats taking clear delight in the many ways—“bride of quietness,” “mysterious priest,” “Cold Pastoral”—he can name the ancient vase at the poem’s center. But such excitement is not mere showmanship—it’s revelatory, adding complexity to his argument. The more questions he asks and the more intense his attention grows, the more “mysterious” and “desolate” the object itself seems to become. Making the vase speak the poem’s famous last lines diffuses the poem’s tension somewhat, but its troubling qualities remain: even if Keats believes art is a timeless vessel for truth, it’s also a “cold” one, reminding us that “woe” may be history’s only constant.
“Ode to a Nightingale”
In a letter to his brothers in 1817, Keats described the essential quality of the poet as “negative capability,” or a receptivity to uncertainty, mystery, doubt, and the mutability of things. This poem, the longest of his 1819 odes, can be read as a study of this capacity, with the poet, at one point, “embalmed” in the darkness of the forest, literally unable to “see what flowers are at [his] feet.” He is ushered into this darkness by the nightingale bird, whose singing seems to promise both eternity and oblivion. The poem ends with neither—instead, the poet is returned to his “sole self” and the bird “buried deep / In the next valley-glades.” If the nightingale’s music has “fled” by the end of the poem, Keats’s own ecstatic singing is its residue, his rich stanzas full of rhyme and assonance, surprising stress and dramatic caesura.
Written in September 1819, “To Autumn” is the last of Keats’s famed odes. It also marked, in a way, the end of his poetic career—he became seriously ill a few months later, having contracted the illness that would kill him in little over a year. If this is a kind of last look, it is not one without melancholy—the speaker laments time’s passing in the final stanza, ripe with metaphor, wishing to hear spring’s songs again. But we also see signs of satisfaction and the possibility of near completion—“fruit with ripeness to the core”—everywhere in this landscape. Keats may be withdrawing from his chosen vocation—in an exhibit of true negative capability, the poet himself is almost entirely absent from the scene—but he can still linger in his departure, finding fullness in the little that remains to do and a music particular to this moment.
“Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art”
Keats’s friend Joseph Severn believed this to be last poem Keats ever wrote, though there’s some question among scholars about when it was composed and whether it was intended for Fanny Brawne, Keats’s fiancée, as is often presumed. What is clear, however, is its virtuosity: in lucent images and just one serpentine sentence, this Shakespearean sonnet bridges the cosmic and the domestic, love and death, while it neatly embodies Keats’s thinking about the relationship between desire and time. Indeed, his ardor here leaves a lasting impression. This poem has the rare distinction of inspiring a film—Jane Campion’s biopic Bright Star (2009)—and you can hear its echoes in other poems as various as Neruda’s love sonnet XVII and James Merrill’s own last work, “Christmas Tree.”
Benjamin Voigt grew up on a horse farm in upstate New York. He earned an MFA in poetry from the University of Alabama and is currently a visiting assistant professor of English at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota.