John Keats (1795-1821)
Major Works: 1820: Hyperion, Lamia, "The Eve of St. Agnes," "Ode to Psyche," "Ode to a Nightingale," "Ode on a Grecian Urn," "Ode on Melancholy," "Ode on Indolence," "To Autumn" "La Belle Dame sans Merci"; Written 1819, pub. 1856: The Fall of Hyperion.
Biographical Notes: Keats was the son of a livery stable manager, and both his parents were dead by his 14th year, leaving the four surviving Keats children in the care of a tea merchant who controlled the children's £8000 trust mainly to his own advantage. After brief formal schooling, Keats was apprenticed four years to an apothecary surgeon and then entered medical studies at Guy's Hospital. Despite financial problems after he was licensed as an apothecary, Keats chose to earn his living writing poetry. He became friends with a number of important poets and artists and published poetry which received mild praise but did not sell well. Keats was attacked in the press as one of the "Cockney school" of bad upstart poets. When his brother, George, emigrated to America, Keats nursed his consumptive brother, Tom, who died in 1818. Keats himself caught tuberculosis and died at 26. He wrote seriously for only three and a half years, and in the last five months he was physically able to work, Keats produced an astonishing number of masterpieces: his 1820 collection of poems has often been called the greatest single volume of poetry in the English language. In his day, many viewed Keats's poetry as shockingly and inappropriately sensuous or voluptuous; too, it was often thought dense and strange to the point of obscurity). Alfred, Lord Tennyson, among others, saw Keats as the greatest poet of the 19th centurytoday, many rank Keats alone with Milton and Shakespeare in raw, natural poetic genius.
Notes: Why Keats is special
Keats was a self-made poet; he determined that he wanted to be one of England's greatest poets, and more than responding consciously to any "genius" he recognized in himself, he applied himself to learning to write great poetry until he accomplished his dream. His rapid development in poetic skill, moving quickly through various poetic forms and influences, is clearly discernible in his progress from relatively "bad" poetry influenced by his friend, the radical activist and poet, Leigh Hunt, to the powerful productions of his final efforts. (The "bad" poetry is considered "flowery and mawkish.")
Keats's mature work reveals a highly sympathetic imaginationwhat he was inspired by Hazlitt to recognize in Shakespeare as "negative capability." Keats thought great poets are capable of negating their own identities, ignoring the restraints of "reason" and "moral or rational judgment" and throwing themselves wholly, empathetically into the characters and objects they createnegative capability is the highest form of imaginative connection with the external world. In Keats's words:
"[The] poetical Character . . . has no selfit is every thing and nothingIt has no characterit enjoys light and shade; it lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevatedIt has as much delight in conceiving an Iago as an Imogen. . . . A Poet is the most unpoetical of any thing in existence; because he has no Identityhe is continually . . . filling some other Body" (October 27, 1818 letter to Woodhouse).
Or, as Woodhouse paraphrased in a letter to Keats's publisher, Taylor:
"The highest order of Poet will . . . be able to throw his own soul into any object he sees or imagines, so as to see feel be sensible of, & express, all that the object itself wod see feel be sensible of or express& he will speak out of that objectso that his own self will be 'annihilated.'"
This sense of "negative capability" is most evident in Keats's poetry through his density of powerful, concrete imagery, which packs a great number of things that can be visualized or vividly imagined through the other senses in the short space of a few lines. Similarly, Keats's poetry is compactly dense with specific suggestion and meaning. According to the experts, it is this rich, complex poetic style that explains the "greatness" of Keats.
Keats's best poetry combines intensity and control: intensity of feeling and passion, as well as sensual imagery, controlled through the construction of carefully measured and balanced lines and rhythms, the repetition and interplay of sounds (alliteration and assonance), and in diction often emphasizing more suggestively "active" words such as descriptive verbals and participles instead of adjectivesa kind of "stillness in motion," as in "to load and bless/ With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;/ To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees,/ And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core" ("To Autumn").
Keats scholar Jack Stillinger notes a recurrent motif in Keats's poetry of flight or escape from reality into a "higher" imaginative or visionary realm (dreams, poetic "trances," the supernatural, worlds of immortal gods, fairies, etc.), evident particularly in longer works such as Endymion and Lamia but present in most of Keats's major poems. Typically, the imaginative "flight" ends with a return to reality, but the poem's speaker or one of its main characters is changed by the experience, and now possesses a new understanding or a new attitude towards both self and situation (reminiscent of Wordsworth's and Coleridge's moments of revelation in nature).