JOHN KEATS (1795 – 1821)

keatsKeats belongs to the second generation of English romantic poets. Unlike Byron and Shelley, he does not have any political or social commitment as a poet. He is concerned only with the sensuous aspect of Romanticism and Romantic sensibility. He chooses beauty and love as subject matter and dedicates all his life to Art. He has been one of the most read English romantic poets. He had written to his brother “I think I shall be among the English Poets after my death”, and he was right.

He was born into a family of modest origins (his father kept a livery stable) and lived a tragically short and difficult life. When his father died killed in an accident, he was only 8. His mother got married a second time but her second marriage ended very soon. She died when John was still young and the children were taken over by appointed guardians. He was sent to study medicine and qualified as an apothecary, a career he abandoned to follow poetry. The reading of Chapman’s translation of Homer involved him too much and promoted his early sonnet On Fist Looking into Chapman’s Homer. The radical journalist and poet Leigh Hunt helped him in the development of his poetic style and introduced him into the literary circles where he met Shelley and Lamb. During these years, he lived a busy social life  and also had adventures with various women. This because he believed that a poet had to experience all sensations in order to develop his art. Suffering with tuberculosis, he was obliged to go to live in Italy, where the climate was warmer. He fist stopped in Naples and then moved to Rome where he died at the age of 25. He was buried in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome.
WORKS: Keats was well aware that he had only a short time to find a place in English Literature and wrote all his best poetry at an early age between 1816 and 1819.
The beginnings were not successful. Endymion and Hyperion were not well appreciated by the critics. He was violently attacked by Tory journals mainly for his friendship with  Leigh Hunt. During that period he did not believe he would achieve posterity and composed for himself an epitaph which is on his tomb:” Here lies one whose name was writ in water”.
His works may be grouped as follows: early minor poems, narrative poems and lyrical poems. He also wrote many letters which T. S. Eliot described as the most beautiful personal letters in English literature and as “the most important ever written by an English poet”. They contain and explain his personal ideas on poetry, love, philosophy and give a deep insight into his artistic development. In some of his minor works such as On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer (Chapman had made a translation of Homer’s Odyssey) and I Stood Tip-toe, we can find his enthusiasm with the Ancient Greece, which will influence his poetry. They also contain the theme of natural beauty which he will develop in his later works.
Among the narrative poems we may mention: Endymion, on the love of the shepherd prince Endymion for Cynthia the Moon Goddess who put him to sleep eternally in order to enjoy his beauty ; Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion: fragments of an unfinished epic poem on the defeat of the Titans by the Greek gods; The Eve of Saint Agnes, a romantic love story with reminiscences of Romeo and Juliet; Lamia, the story of a witch transformed by Hermes from a serpent into a beautiful maiden and into a serpent again; La Belle Dame sans Merci ( The Beautiful woman without mercy), a medieval Ballad with Gothic elements about a mysterious and cruel Lady.
Among the lyrical poems the most beautiful are The Odes: To Psyche, To a Nightingale, On a Grecian Urn, On Melancholy, On Intolerance and To Autumn.
INFLUENCES: A part from Spenser, Homer, Milton and The Middle Ages, Keats’s poetry was influenced by the tragic events of his life: family tragedies (father, mother and a brother died before him), financial problems, hopeless love (because of his illness he was unable to marry Fanny Browne, the girl he loved ) and his delicate health. Most of his works express a sense of melancholy, death and mortality. Another great influence was the interest in the world of Ancient Greece which became a source of poetic inspiration and a means to express his imagination. This interest originated by a visit to the British Museum, where he was struck by   the Elgin Marbles (sculptures, inscriptions and architectural features chiefly from the Parthenon in Athens, brought to England  by Lord Elgin and housed in the Elgin Room at the British Museum).

POETRY: Like the other romantic poets, Keats refused reason as a source of truth. He believed in the importance of sensation and its pleasure to grasp reality. In one of his letter he wrote he wished for himself “a life of sensation rather than of thoughts”. He considered poetry as the only reason of life and the only means to overcome and defeat death. Poetry should spring naturally from the soul: “if art does not come spontaneously almost unconsciously as leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all”. Unlike the other romantic poets, Keats thought that poetry didn’t have to contain a message but only reproduce what the poet’s imagination suggested to him. Poetry had no other function than that of conveying the sense of Beauty.

TASK OF THE POET:The poet has to search for beauty and to render it as effectively as possible in words. “With a great poet the sense of beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all considerations”.The poet has no identity, no self. He is passive and submissive to things and people as they are, without trying to change or explain them. He must have the “NEGATIVE CAPABILITY”, that is the acceptation that we can’t solve everything. It is a great quality in Art. Art must not solve the problems but only explore them. Great men, above all the poets, possess this quality. He explained it in one of his letters: “I mean negative capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reading after facts and reason”.

THEMES: The main themes of Keats’s works were: Beauty, permanence and transience, art and life, imagination and reality, Love and nature.

NATURE: It was another source of inspiration. He didn’t see nature in a pantheistic or neo platonic way. He simple saw it as another form of beauty.

BEAUTY: Keats has been described as the “prophet of Beauty”. He considered Beauty as the main source of life and of inspiration and the only consolation he found in lifeIt was to him a source of joy, too:”A thing of Beauty is a joy for ever (Endymion)”. He believed that the purest Beauty was to be found in Ancient Greece. Beauty was the only way to reach knowledge. In one of his letters he wrote:” I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the heart’s affections and the truth of imagination. What the imagination seizes as beauty must be truth”. Beauty and truth are closely united: “Beauty is truth, truth Beauty”. He considered imagination as a means to reach perfection in beauty because we can imagine things as we want them to be . Beauty felt trough the imagination has not the limits imposed by reality: “Unheard melodies are more beautiful than heard melodies”; so imagined beauty is more beautiful than the visible one because the real can’t reach or overcome the ideal.

Beauty can be either physical or spiritual. They are not in opposition but interconnected since physical beauty is also the expressions of spiritual beauty. The only difference is that spiritual beauty is eternal while the physical one is temporal and decaying. What makes spiritual beauty eternal is the power of Art which can reach perfection through the imagination. 

KEATS/AESTHETES: Keats was considered as a forerunner of the Aesthetic Movement. The Aesthetes saw in Keats’s exaltation of beauty above all human qualities, the exaltation of their “Art for Art’s sake”. Unlike the Aesthetes, who saw beauty as an aesthetic concept, Keats also saw it as an ethical one: it was not only the joy of Art but also a source of good and consolation. While the Aesthetes and Wilde believed that Art shouldn’t have a moral purpose and that the artist should not teach anything, Keats believed that Art had a moral purpose and that the role of the artist was to communicate not only the joy of art but also and above all the joy of life itself.

KEATS/WORDSWORTH: They had different views on poetry and on the role of the poet. Wordsworth thought that poetry should teach man to find true reality; Keats believed that poetry had no other function than conveying the sense of Beauty. The poet  was not a teacher but the creator of beautiful things. According to Keats, all the senses, not only the hearing and the sight, were involved in the process of perceiving the beauty of things.  While Wordsworth needed the work of memory to transform the beauty of nature into poetry, Keats thought that his own imagination was enough because Beauty imagined was far superior to Beauty perceived, the senses being more limited than creative imagination. As far as nature, unlike Wordsworth, Keats did not see any mighty Spirit in nature but only another form of Beauty.


THOU still unravish’d bride of quietness,
Thou foster-child of Silence and slow Time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fringed legend haunts about thy shape 5
Of deities or mortals, or of both,
In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy? 10

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d,
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave 15
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal—yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair! 20

Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;
And, happy melodist, unwearièd,
For ever piping songs for ever new;
More happy love! more happy, happy love! 25
For ever warm and still to be enjoy’d,
For ever panting, and for ever young;
All breathing human passion far above,
That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy’d,
A burning forehead, and a parching tongue. 30

Who are these coming to the sacrifice?
To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
Lead’st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,
And all her silken flanks with garlands drest?
What little town by river or sea-shore, 35
Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
Is emptied of its folk, this pious morn?
And, little town, thy streets for evermore
Will silent be; and not a soul, to tell
Why thou art desolate, can e’er return. 40

O Attic shape! fair attitude! with brede
Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
Thou, silent form! dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral! 45
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’ 50

urn2This Ode is contained in the volume of poems published in 1820. It is centred on the contrast between Reality and Illusion, Life and Art, Art and Beauty.
OCCASION: Keats drew inspiration from a decorated vase from Greece he saw during a visit to the British Museum. The decoration presented different scenes: musicians,a young man chasing a maiden,a procession of people following a priest leading a young cow to an altar to be sacrificed to the gods.  

STRUCTURE: It is made up of five stanzas of ten lines each. The rhyme pattern is the same for the first seven lines of each stanza, that is ABABCDE, while the other three lines vary. Sometimes there are imperfect rhymes ( second stanza, lines two and four ‘play on/ tone’; fourth stanza lines six and ten, ‘ morn/return’). The poem is rich in archaism (thou/you, shalt/shall, wilt/will, thy/your, canst/can, doth/does etc.) and in vocatives both referred to the Urn (l.1 unravish’d bride, l.2 foster-child, l. 3 Sylvan historian, l. 41 Attic shape, l. 44 silent form, l. 45 cold pastoral) and to other things or people ( l.15 Fair youth, l. 17 Bold lover, l. 23 happy melodist). The Urn is personified and the poet addresses to it as to a living creature.
SETTING: The Ode describes an Ancient Greek urn decorated with classical motifs. There are two scenes carved on its sides : a Dionysian Festival with dances and music in a pastoral setting and a procession of townspeople led by a priest going to sacrifice a cow to the Gods. In the former scene there are people, may be gods or men, and there is a piper under the trees. There are also some girls, and one of them is trying to escape from a young man who wants to kiss her. The second scene is set outside a little empty town. The atmospheres of the two scenes is different: it is idyllic and full of joy in the former and a little sad in the latter.
SYMBOLS: The Urn symbolizes the eternal beauty of Art; it is perfect, unchanging and always beautiful; it contrasts human life and love which are never perfect and short-lived.
THEME: the striking contrast between the transience of life and the immortality and perfection of art. Art sublimates life turning the real into the ideal. Art is the only solution to mortality.
MESSAGE: The message of the urn to mankind is that Beauty is the only permanent truth in life. Beauty is all that man can know and he has no need to know anything else: “ Beauty is truth, truth beauty. That is all ye need know on earth and all ye need to know”. The perception and the creation of beauty gives us consolation. There is a price to pay for eternity:immobility and lack of vitality. The people on the urn, frozen in a moment of pure beauty, are ‘cold‘ marble people, the boy will never reach the girl, the piper’s music is a silent ‘unheard melody,the sacrifice  will never be completed,the inhabitants will never return, the village will remain for ever empty and so on . Art may be eternal but  it also means death and silence. Though life is subject to decay, it can at the same time be enjoyed while it lasts.

STANZA 1: An Ode is usually addressed to someone or something. This Ode is addressed to a Grecian Urn. The poet addresses to the Urn through a series of vocatives using a technique of contrast through paradox: unravish’d bride of quietness (like a virgin before marriage, it is perfect and intact and has preserved its original state because it is untouched by the passing of time)….,Foster-child of Silence and slow time ( though it is very old, the process of time has been much slower with the marble urn than with human beings)…. ,Sylvan Historian ( because the scenes carved on it tell a story of ancient Greece in a pastoral setting). The scene is described indirectly through a series of rhetorical questions and contrasts: deities and mortals pursuit and escape; men or gods pursuit reluctant girls to submit them to their sexual demand.
STANZA 2: It starts with an apparently paradox:”Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter “. Keats wants to stress out the perfection of Art. Of course, looking at the urn, no melody can be heard; we can only look at the young lover piping his song to the girl. The poet does not complain about the fact that he cannot hear the lover’s melodies because he thinks that the melodies he imagines played by the musician on the urn are more beautiful than real audible music . Whereas the melodies heard through the sensual ear may convey an idea of physical pleasure, “the unheard ditties of no tone”, which exist only in our mind, can be heard through the ear of the mind and convey a spiritual pleasure: the real can never reach or surpass the ideal. Wordsworth in “Daffodils” says something like that maintaining that the natural setting of the daffodils is more beautiful if seen in “a vacant and pensive mood…. and recollected in tranquillity” through the “inward eye” of memory. Lines 25-20 stress the idea of art seen as the only thing that can hold a moment of happiness and make it eternal. The poet addresses to the “fair youth” and to the “bold lover” and invites them not to complain about their situation: “ yet, do not grieve”. The fair youth piping under the trees will never stop playing and the trees will never be bare; the  bold lover  will love the girl for ever even if he never reaches her; the girl will forever be fair. They will always be happy because Art can stop both a   moment of beauty and an emotions. The beauty of the girl, the passion of the lover and the pleasure of music will never fade:”She cannot fade…. For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!”
STANZA 3: This stanza reinforces what said before: the imagined pleasure is sweeter and lasts more than the consummated one. It also adds some other examples of the immutability and eternity of Art trough the repetition of “for ever” and “happy”. On the contrary the human passions and love bring pain and sorrow leaving “a heart high-sorrowful and cloy’d, A burning forehead, and a parching tongue”. This is however the limit of beauty and love found in the Art: being above the pains and human experience, they lack the sorrow and the warmth of life.
STANZA 4: It describes the other side of the urn: a procession of people who have left their town to go uphill and sacrifice a cow to the Gods. Stanza 3 had ended on a bitter reflection on the short-lived passions of men and women. Stanza 4, after opening in an idyllic serenity, introduces a note of sadness and desolation . It focuses on an emptied, silent and desolate town. The scene is described indirectly through a series of some more questions and contrasts: the procession of people contrasts with the emptied town while the “heifer lowing at the skies” contrasts with the streets that “for evermore will silent be”. The silence of the little town is different from the silence of the urn, because it is caused by absence of people, while the silence of the urn is that of peace and art. The poet really sees the priest leading a heifer to the sacrifice and a procession of people. The sacrifice near an altar, the little town by the river and the empty town are only imagined.
STANZA 5:In these stanza the urn is no longer personified and becomes a lifeless object. It is addressed to as “Attic form…Fair attitude”( it was made in Ancient Greece), “Silent form” and “cold pastoral “ (being of marble, it is cold to the touch). Eventually the urn is personified again and referred as “A friend to man” because it helps man  by teaching them the lesson of eternal beauty . Being permanent, compared to the transient presence of man on the earth, it can offer man the consolation implied in the aesthetic contemplation of beauty, reassuring him that something permanent exists in a world characterized by transience and decay.
The last two lines, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty. That is all ye know on earth and ye need to know”, have been variously interpreted. According to T.S. Eliot and other critics, these lines are meaningless in the context of the Ode. Others, instead, think that they mean that aesthetic beauty is the only permanent value of human life because the other things, physical beauty, love and life itself pass away.
This Ode is highly romantic because it stresses out the power of the imagination and declares its supremacy over the other things.


About rosariomario

retired teacher docente in pensione
This entry was posted in appunti di letteratura inglese per studenti italiani e non, tratti da testi vari. Notes of English Literature for Italian/non-Italian students taken from various school textbooks and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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