“I find that I cannot exist without poetry—without eternal poetry—” –John Keats

I was just beautifying him, don’t you know. A thing of beauty, don’t you know. Yeats says, or I mean, Keats says.
– James Joyce, Ulysses

Born in 1795 on this day, John Keats was orphaned at fifteen. Because his father’s finances were in a wreck, Keats always had to struggle for money. He thought of going into medicine and apprenticed himself to a surgeon. At the same time, he began to write. He was inspired by other people, he was suggestible. Example:

His first really well-known poem is “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer”, which everyone has to read in high school. To a 20th century kid like myself, and I’m sure like many others, the poem was like, “Okay, wait, who are these people? Who’s George Chapman?” You need context to even get why the poem is/was such a big deal. George Chapman was an Elizabethan playwright who translated the Aeniad into English. Keats, reading Chapman’s translation, suddenly “got” the Aeniad – so he wrote a sonnet in response. There were other translations available at the time, really famous ones like Alexander Pope’s. So, if I’m understanding the issues correctly: Keats responding this way to Chapman was controversial. So … if you think of it like … parents listening to Frank Sinatra, their kids listening to the Rolling Stones, and the parents being like “what is that horrible NOISE”.

I know John Keats is as canon as it gets, but it’s important to get how radical he was when he arrived, how DIFFERENT he was from everyone else, how hugely inspirational he was because he was so youthful and open. It’s like what James Dean – who also died young – did to a generation – generations, actually – of aspiring actors.

On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer

Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-brow’d Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific—and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

Things moved fast for Keats. As he was growing as a poet, his brother Tom died of consumption, and Keats developed consumption himself. Keats met Percy Bysshe Shelley the two became friends, of a sort, and Shelley helped Keats publish his first book in 1817. Keats fell madly in love with Fanny Brawne (see the wonderful movie Bright Star), and she with him. The love affair was haunted by his impending death, giving it an urgency and passion that alarmed everyone around them: everything Keats did had this passion (he knew he didn’t have much time). Keats traveled a lot, even as the consumption worsened. He died – and was buried – in Rome in 1821.

Shelley wrote a passionate ode to Keats when he died, starting with:

As a coda to this: Shelley died with a copy of Keats’s poems in his back pocket.

Keats’ “Ode to Autumn” overwhelms with its bombardment of images. But the poem is not just about seeing. It’s about feeling. Nature assaults John Keats. Beauty assaults him. This is very important, it’s part of what set him apart, and still sets him apart. Garrison Keillor suggests that Keats’ sensitivity to nature, how overwhelmed he got by it, came from the fact that Keats was a city boy. He saw it fresh.

SEASON of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease;
For Summer has o’erbrimm’d their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
Drowsed with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twinèd flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings, hours by hours.

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—
While barrèd clouds bloom the soft-dying day
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river-sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The redbreast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

Byron, a contemporary, referred to Keats as a “miserable self-polluter of the human mind.” Takes one to know one, right George? But Byron was not alone in thinking this way. When Keats’s first books came out, they were attacked. He was seen as unmanly. Beauty was unworthy of the “masculine” pursuit of poetry: Poetry was supposed to be philosophical and intellectual. Keats said, “I have loved the principle of beauty in all things.” This seemed dangerous and amoral at the time. The famous final lines of “Ode on a Grecian Urn” – “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” – went off like a bomb. It was the Romantic age swinging into prominence.

Keats was young when he died and his poems are the poems of a young man. In his preface to Endymion, he wrote:

The imagination of a boy is healthy, and the mature imagination of a man is healthy; but there is a space of life between, in which the soul is in ferment, the character undecided, the way of life uncertain, the ambition thick-sighted.

Let’s talk about his famous epitaph.

It’s one of the great epitaphs of all time (and I am very interested in epitaphs). Keats wanted it to read, simply, “Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water.” Beautiful, right? Profound. Keats’ two supportive pals, however, who were with him when he died, were upset that their friend didn’t get the critical reception he deserved during his short lifetime, and so they added a bitter prologue to Keats’ original. The epitaph reads in full:

This Grave
contains all that was Mortal
of a
Young English Poet
on his Death Bed
in the Bitterness of his Heart
at the Malicious Power of his Enemies
these words to be engraved on his Tomb Stone
“Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water.”

There’s a wonderful 2016 article about Keats’ epitaph in The Paris Review.

I had to read “Ode on a Grecian Urn” in high school, and honestly I just absorbed it through osmosis even though I didn’t vibe with it at all. When I came back to it on my own, years later, I was shocked at how fresh and new it seemed, how it felt as though I’d never read it before.

This extract from “Endymion” is so a part of my lexicon I have to stop myself from over-quoting it. I mean, you can’t include “a thing of beauty is a joy forever” in EVERY PIECE you write.

And, finally, I am indebted to Keats for his “Ode on Melancholy”. Keats refers to melancholy as “wakeful anguish.” Mind. Blown. It’s one of the most accurate descriptions I am aware of. I thank him for that. So much of the experience is beyond language, and having “wakeful anguish” in our arsenal HELPS.

Ode On Melancholy


NO, no, go not to Lethe, neither twist
Wolfs-bane, tight-rooted, for its poisonous wine;
Nor suffer thy pale forehead to be kiss’d
By nightshade, ruby grape of Proserpine;
Make not your rosary of yew-berries,
Nor let the beetle, nor the death-moth be
Your mournful Psyche, nor the downy owl
A partner in your sorrow’s mysteries;
For shade to shade will come too drowsily,
And drown the wakeful anguish of the soul.


But when the melancholy fit shall fall
Sudden from heaven like a weeping cloud,
That fosters the droop-headed flowers all,
And hides the green hill in an April shroud;
Then glut thy sorrow on a morning rose,
Or on the rainbow of the salt sand-wave,
Or on the wealth of globed peonies;
Or if thy mistress some rich anger shows,
Emprison her soft hand, and let her rave,
And feed deep, deep upon her peerless eyes.


She dwells with Beauty—Beauty that must die;
And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips
Bidding adieu; and aching Pleasure nigh,
Turning to poison while the bee-mouth sips:
Ay, in the very temple of Delight
Veil’d Melancholy has her sovran shrine,
Though seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue
Can burst Joy’s grape against his palate fine;
His soul shall taste the sadness of her might,
And be among her cloudy trophies hung.

I have Keats to thank for articulating a concept very important to him (and, ultimately, to everyone in the human race – if only we all practiced it): “negative capability”. This means being able to tolerate doubt/mystery/uncertainty, and to stay there without grasping for certainty and answers. In a December 1817 letter to his brothers George and Tom, Keats elaborated:

several things dovetailed in my mind, & at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in Literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously—I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason—-Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half knowledge. This pursued through Volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.

You can see within why he was controversial. Beauty “obliterate[s] all consideration”? His critics cried: This attitude is the downfall of civilization! What a better world it would be if we all practiced “negative capability” – if it could be taught in schools as a possible practice, an alternative and preferable way of being, a potentiality, at the very LEAST. It is something one can practice. Try to tolerate doubt. Attempt to SIT with not knowing something. Don’t get “irritable” and “reach after fact & reason”. I understand how threatening his concept was, and still is, and will be, forevermore. Mankind grasps for facts and reason almost intuitively.

But … if you PRACTICE negative capability, the world is a much richer and more interesting and beautiful place. It’s a “both-and” kind of thing. My desire to practice “negative capability” – which is NOT, by the way, never making a choice, or never having an opinion – is one of the reasons why I left Twitter. Twitter – or, the internet as a whole – encourages the opposite of “negative capability”, in fact negative capability is impossible on the internet. Our brains are being impacted negatively by all this “irritable reaching after fact & reason”, and something in me buckles against it. Sometimes a situation is such that “fact & reason” are welcome, and indeed necessary. Wisdom comes when you can distinguish when you need “negative capability” and when it is not useful.

The essential mystery at the heart of life is a mystery. I’d rather grapple around in the mysteries, doubts, uncertainties … because – in my experience – that’s where all the good stuff lies. That’s where you have the best conversations!

On that note, let’s get on with the QUOTES.


Harold Bloom, The Best Poems in the English Language:

Of all nineteenth-century poets who wrote in English, Keats has demonstrated the most universal power to move readers in our own time. His effect upon later nineteenth-century poets was extraordinary, from Thomas Hood through Tennyson, Arnold (an unwilling and even unrecognized case of influence), Hopkins, Rossetti, and Morris, but a vast audience did not come to him until the twentieth century. The modern common reader and literary critic have agreed on Keats, for somewhat different reasons, and his influence is still vital in several major twentieth-century poets, particularly in Wallace Stevens. It seems justified to observe that Keats has the most secure and uncontested reputation of any poet since the Renaissance, an astonishing eminence for a unique but flawed artist who did not live long enough to perfect more than a handful of works.

Matthew Arnold:

Keats as a poet is abundantly and enchantingly sensuous, but the question with some people will be, whether he is anything else.

Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae:

Like Blake and Wordsworth, he tries to abolish sexual personae. But he is haunted by daemonic hierarchic females. By becoming the identity-free chameleon poet, Keats eliminates gender. Dissolution of identity also abolishes the female sex. In “To Autumn,” woman is unneeded, for she has been internalized by the poet, with his capacious, fecund, and self-irrigating imagination…Keats’s poems, opening the reader to nature, close off the poet in his own rigorous ritual precinct.

John Keats:

The camelion Poet is every thing and nothing. He has no Identity–he is continually in for–and filling some other Body…When I am in a room with People if I ever am free from speculating on creations of my own brain, then not myself goes home to myself: but the identity of every one in the room begins to press upon me that I am in a very little time annihilated–

Clive James, Cultural Amnesia:

John Keats exemplifies the difference between the past and yesterday. Wordsworth and Coleridge are in the past. Even Browning, who came later and who in so many ways was a prototype of what we call the modern, is still in the past. But Keats, like Byron, is just yesterday. Every modern poet is obliged to have a view on Keats, as if he were part of the living competition.

Lionel Trilling:

We are ambivalent in our conception of the moral status of eating and drinking…But with Keats the ingestive imagery is pervasive and extreme.

William Butler Yeats:

Keats and Shelley, unlike Wordsworth, intermixed into their poetry no elements from the general thought, but wrote out of the impression made by the world upon their delicate senses.

Arthur Henry Hallam, on Keats and Shelley, 1831:

So vivid was the delight attending the simple exertions of eye and ear, that it became mingled more and more with trains of active thought, and tended to absorb their whole being into the energy of sense.

John Keats, on Chatterton:

I always somehow associate Chatterton with autumn. He is the purest writer in the English Language. He has no French idioms, or particles like Chaucer – ’tis genuine English idioms in English words.

By Anne Spencer

Ah, how poets sing and die!
Make one song and Heaven takes it;
Have one heart and Beauty breaks it;
Chatterton, Shelley, Keats and I—
Ah, how poets sing and die!

Elizabeth Bishop, letter to Robert Lowell, May 15, 1959:

Well–I had read Keats’ letters before, I interject–but I just got that big new edition. Both he and Byron seem to have been killed off really by medical ignorance–ghastly deaths. A very stupid review by Louis Simpson of the life of Byron–in Kenyon?–seemed to show more lack of education.

Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae:

The great ode “To Autumn” is a series of lush holograms. By a cinema of kinesthesia, the Dionysian feelies, Keats reproduces the harvest fruits as they “swell” and “plump” with mouth-filling fatness. Words bubble with nascence. Language itself is in advanced pregnancy. “To Autumn” internalizes the nature mother at her fleshiest. Keats’s indolence slows the male body to the fecund rhythms of natural process, that creeping, interminable cycle in which women live.

Oh Camille I love you.

She’s not wrong: see below:

John Keats to Benjamin Bailey:

I am certain I have not a right feeling towards Women–at this moment I am striving to be just to them but I cannot–Is it because they fall so far beneath my Boyish imagination?…When among Men I have no evil thoughts, no malice, no spleen–I feel free to speak or to be silent–I can listen and from every one I can learn–my hands are in my pockets I am free from all suspicion and comfortable. When I am among Women I have evil thoughts, malice spleen–I cannot speak or be silent–I am full of Suspicions and therefore listen to no thing–I am in a hurry to be gone.

Robert Graves comparing Shelley and Keats:

Shelley was a volatile creature of air and fire: he seems never to have noticed what he ate or drank, except sometimes as a matter of vegetarian principle. Keats was earthy, with a sweet tooth and a relish for spices, cream and snuff, and in a letter mentions peppering his own tongue to bring out the delicious coolness of claret. When Shelley in Prometheus Unbound mentions: “The yellow bees in the ivy-bloom”, he does not conjure up, as Keats would have done, the taste of the last hot days of the dying English year, with over-ripe blackberries, ditches full of water, and the hedges grey with old man’s beard. He is not aware of the veteran bees whirring their frayed wings or sucking rank honey from the dusty yellow blossoms of the ivy.

John Keats, letter to J. H. Reynolds, April 1817:

I find that I cannot exist without poetry—-without eternal poetry—-half the day will not do—-the whole of it—-I began with a little, but habit has made me a Leviathan—-I had become all in a Tremble from not having written any thing of late—-the Sonnet over leaf did me some good. I slept the better last night for it.

A Pig’s-Eye View of Literature
By Dorothy Parker

The Lives and Times of John Keats,
Percy Bysshe Shelley, and
George Gordon Noel, Lord Byron

Byron and Shelley and Keats
Were a trio of Lyrical treats.
The forehead of Shelley was cluttered with curls,
And Keats never was a descendant of earls,
And Byron walked out with a number of girls,
But it didn’t impair the poetical feats
Of Byron and Shelley,
Of Byron and Shelley,
Of Byron and Shelley and Keats.

Clive James, Cultural Amnesia:

On any objective estimate, he was a prodigy: and a prodigy not just on the level of raw verbal talent, but in the breadth and reasonableness of his mind … We tend to think he was jumpy, because we tend to believe Byron had something when he mocked Keats for letting bad reviews get to him: the mind, that very fiery particle…snuffed out by an article. (Because the rhyme clicked, the barb stuck: a couplet, like a caricature, can set the terms of discussion far into the future.)

Elizabeth Bishop, letter to Robert Lowell, March 30, 1959:

[Now] am finishing the new edition of Keats’ letters–all to what purpose I’m not sure, but all fascinating. At the moment I find the Keats the best of the lot, though. Except for his unpleasant insistence on the palate he strikes me as almost everything a poet should have been in his day. The class gulf between him and Byron is enormous. As Pascal says, if you can manage to be well-born it saves you thirty years.

John Keats to his lover/soulmate Fanny Brawne:

You have absorb’d me.

Benjamin Haydon, on witnessing Keats recite “Endymion” to Wordsworth, who wasn’t into it:

It was rather ill-bred to hurt a youth, at such a moment when he actually trembled, like the String of a Lyre, when it has been touched.

Harold Bloom, The Best Poems in the English Language:

Haunted, like all his major contemporaries, by the shadow of Milton’s splendor, Keats was also both burdened and aided by his perceptive reading of Wordsworth.

T.S. Eliot, from “Andrew Marvell”, 1921:

The wit of the Caroline poets is not the wit of Shakespeare, and it is not the wit of Dryden, the great master of contempt, or of Pope, the great master of hatred, or of Swift, the great master of disgust. What is meant is some quality which is common to the songs in Comus and Cowley’s “Anacreontics” and Marvell’s “Horatian Ode.” It is more than a technical accomplish meet, or the vocabulary and syntax of an epoch; it is, what we have designated tentatively as wit, a tough reasonableness beneath the slight Iyric grace. You cannot find it in Shelley or Keats or Wordsworth.

Lord Byron on Keats:

“… a sort of mental masturbation — he is always frigging his Imagination.”

Dude. You are the most scandalous man who ever lived. To this day. Chill.

Clive James, Cultural Amnesia:

Lack of confidence was not his problem. He would just have liked to live, thrive and grow. There is no good reason to believe that he would not have gone on developing: there are reasons, but they are all bad.

John Keats on Fanny Brawne:

beautiful and elegant, graceful, silly, fashionable and strange … pale and thin … monstrous in her behavior flying out in all directions, calling people such names.

Harold Bloom, The Best Poems in the English Language:

There is a third quality in Keats more clearly present than in any other poet since Shakespeare. This is the gift of tragic acceptance, which persuades us again that Keats was the least solipsistic of poets, the one most able to grasp the individuality and reality of selves totally distinct from his own, and of an outward world that would survive his perception of it.In his final poems he succeeds miraculously in communicating to us what would be like if we shared the most uncommon and most gracious of human gifts.

Keats to his brother, on Chatterton

Chatterton’s language is entirely northern. I prefer the native music of it to Milton’s cut by feet.

Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae:

Keats, Shelley’s slain Adonis, supplements and corrects Wordsworth. Keats’s nature welcomes rather than abandons, because he restores it to the sensuality and eroticism that Wordsworth removed. But Keats, as much as Wordsworth, cannot bear the daemonism Coleridge sees in sex and nature. Reviving the femmes fatales of The Faerie Queen, Keats revises the unpalatable facts of female power…His clear, simple style is as much a defense mechanism as Blake’s in the stormy, opaque prophetic books. Keats’s sexual anxiety, suppressed in the poems, is perfectly apparent in his letters.

Patricia Hampl, on Katherine Mansfield:

Keats (dead at twenty-five, also of TB), was her saint. She wrote of him in her journal as a colleague. Like her, he was a hero-worshiper: he lugged around a portrait of Shakespeare wherever he lived. I perceived in – or created from – this relationship a lineage that lifted Mansfield out of the low-rent housing where she lodged in the anthologists’ rented rooms. Boldly (if privately) I attached her to the great Romantic dynasty, as configured expressly by and for me: Shakespeare → Keats → Mansfield. I dragooned her into the firmament.

Harold Bloom, The Best Poems in the English Language:

John Keats, enraptured by this Shakespearean capability, seems to have associated it with Coleridge’s Organic analogue, as when Keats observes that if a poem does not come as naturally as leaves to a tree, than it had better not come at all.

John Keats, letter to Shelley:

You I am sure will forgive me for sincerely remarking that you might curb your magnanimity and be more of an artist, and “load every rift” of your subject with ore. The thought of such discipline must fall like cold chains upon you, who perhaps never sat with your wings furl’d for six Months together. And is this not extraordinary talk for the writer of Endymion? whose mind was like a pack of scattered cards–

Notes from the Edge
By Judith Wright

I used to love Keats, Blake
now I try haiku
for its honed brevities,
its inclusive silence.

Robert Lowell, letter to Elizabeth Bishop, April 7, 1959:

Keats–I read the letters fall a year ago. Better than anything except Laforgue’s. I think his bold opinions on his friends impressed me more than anything. I wouldn’t be that mature, if I lived to ninety, and memorized Montaigne and had hallucinations that I was Santayana.

William Faulkner:

The writer’s only responsibility is to his art. He will be completely ruthless if he is a good one. He has a dream. It anguishes him so much he must get rid of it. He has no peace until then. Everything goes by the board: honor, pride, decency, security, happiness, all, to get the book written. If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is worth any number of old ladies.

From Seamus Heaney’s Nobel lecture:

In fact, in lyric poetry, truthfulness becomes recognizable as a ring of truth within the medium itself. And it is the unappeasable pursuit of this note, a note tuned to its most extreme in Emily Dickinson and Paul Celan and orchestrated to its most opulent in John Keats, it is this which keeps the poet’s ear straining to hear the totally persuasive voice behind all the other informing voices.

Keats on Endymion:

…a feverish attempt, rather than a deed accomplished.

William Carlos Williams, Autobiography (1948):

Keats was my god. Endymion really woke me up.

Harold Bloom, The Best Poems in the English Language:

One of the puzzles of Keats’s rapid development was that the poet in him did not catch up with the man until the autumn of 1818. In the year between the ages of twenty-three and twenty-four, certainly one of the most fecund ever experienced by any poet, Keats wrote almost all of his major poetry.

Michael Schmidt on Keats’ “Chapman’s Homer” in Lives of the Poets:

Keats – ridiculed by his educated contemporaries for being unable to read Homer in the original and for confusing Balboa with Cortez – was right: Chapman “speaks out loud and bold.

Gerard Manley Hopkins, letter to R.W. Dixon, December, 1881:

This modern medieval school is descended from the Romantic school (Romantic is a bad word) of Keats, Leigh Hunt, Hood, indeed of Scott early in the century. That was one school; another was that of the Lake poets and also of Shelley and Landor; the third was the sentimental school, of Byron, Moore, Mrs. Hemans, and Haynes Bailey. Schools are very difficult to class: the best guide, I think, are keepings. Keats’ school chooses medieval keepings, not pure nor drawn from the middle ages direct but as brought down through that Elizabethan tradition of Shakespeare and his contemporaries which died out in such men as Herbert and Herrick. They were also great realists and observers of nature.

Keats on Robert Burns:

One song of Burns is of more worth to you than all I could think of for a whole year in his native country. His Misery is a dead weight on the nimbleness of one’s quill … he talked with Bitches, he drank with blackguards, he was miserable. We can see horribly clear in the works of such a Man his whole life, as if we were God’s spies.

The Grave of Keats
by Oscar Wilde

RID of the world’s injustice, and his pain,
He rests at last beneath God’s veil of blue:
Taken from life when life and love were new
The youngest of the martyrs here is lain,
Fair as Sebastian, and as early slain.
No cypress shades his grave, no funeral yew,
But gentle violets weeping with the dew
Weave on his bones an ever-blossoming chain.
O proudest heart that broke for misery!
O sweetest lips since those of Mitylene!
O poet-painter of our English Land!
Thy name was writ in water——it shall stand:
And tears like mine will keep thy memory green,
As Isabella did her Basil-tree.

John Keats on meeting Coleridge:

–I walked with [Coleridge] at his alderman-after-dinner pace for near two Miles I suppose. In those two Miles he broached a thousand things– let me see if I can give you a list–Nightingales, Poetry–on Poetical sensation–Metaphysics–Different genres and species of Dreams–Nightmare–a dream accompanied by a sense of touch–single and double touch–A dream related–First and second consciousness–Monsters–the Kraken–Mermaids–southey believes in them–southeys belief too much diluted–A Ghost story–Good morning–I heard his voice as he came towards me–I heard it as he moved away–I had heard it all the interval–if it may be called so.

Harold Bloom, The Best Poems in the English Language:

A summer walking tour, largely in Scotland, ended suddenly in August 1818 with the first signs of the tuberculosis that was to kill him. Autumn 1818, when the glorious year of poetry started, was largely spent nursing his brother Tom, who was dying, with agonizing slowness of the family disease. In December, Tom died, and soon after Keats fell genuinely in love with Fanny Brawne–a relationship that was never to be fulfilled, as Keats gradually began to realize but naturally could not accept. He worked at his first Hyperion fragment, but could not advance in it. In January 1819, surely in tribute to Fanny Brawne, he wrote “The Eve of St. Agnes,” his least tragic major poem. The great self-recognition of his imaginative life began in April, with the composition of “Ode to Psyche” and “La Belle Dame Sans Merci.” In May, the great odes “On a Grecian Urn,” “On Melancholy,” and “To a Nightingale” were written. “Lamia, probably his only poem to be overrated consistently in our century, began to be drafted in June and July. Culmination came in August-September, with the superb fragment The Fall of Hyperion and the perfect ode “To Autumn.”

Gerard Manley Hopkins, from “Fragments of Richard” (1864):

Here at the very furthest reach away
(The furthest reach this side, on that the bay
Most dented) lay Sylvester, reading Keats’
Epistles, while the running pastoral bleats
Of sheep from the high fields and other wild
Sounds reached him.

Michael Schmidt:

The virtue of Keats’s poetry is precisely that he does not “philosophize”. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he evades the systematic distortion of a worldview that, when it recognizes itself, adjusts the world to fit.

Clive James, Cultural Amnesia:

Many poets before Keats had caught his tone of realism, but he sustained it, and one of the most remarkable of his many precocities is that he intensified it, all the way to the end. The end came too soon and much of his realism was veiled in romance, but underneath the romance he saw things as they were, and wrote them down as if to record the texture of life were his deepest compulsion. He probably felt the same way about dying, but he could no longer lift his pen.

John Keats:

That which is creative must create itself–In Endymion, I leaped headlong into the Sea, and thereby have become better acquainted with the Soundings, the quicksands, & the rocks, than if I had stayed upon the green shore, and piped a silly pipe, and took tea & comfortable advice.–I was never afraid of failure, for I would sooner fail than not to be among the greatest.

L.M. Montgomery:

On the whole, I do not like Keats. His poems are, in reality, too full of beauty. One feels stifled in roses … There is little in Keats’ poems except luscious beauty — so much of it that the reader is surfeited.

Cowden Clarke, friend of Keats:

He ramped through [Spenser’s Fairie Queen] … like a young horse turned into a Spring meadow.

John Keats on John Clare

The Description too much prevailed over the sentiment.

John Clare on Keats

He often described Nature as she appeared to his fancies and not as he would have described her had he witnessed the things he described.

John Keats:

I look upon fine phrases as a lover.

Michael Schmidt:

Keats does not imitate his masters: he has assimilated them. The odes – ‘To a Nightingale,’ ‘On a Grecian Urn’, ‘To Autumn’, and the lesser ‘To Psyche’ and ‘On Melancholy’ — are incomparable. The charge that he ‘lacked experience’ is fatuous; nor are they ‘merely sensuous’. They are the step beyond moral romance to the romance of feeling itself, feeling as subject, the ‘true voice’.”

Louis MacNeice on Keats:

… a sensuous mystic.

John Keats:

The poetical Character has no self–it is every thing and nothing–It has no character–it enjoys light and shade; it lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated–It has as much delight in conceiving an Iago as an Imogen. What shocks the virtuous philosopher, delights the chameleon Poet. It does no harm from its relish of the dark side of things any more than from its taste for the bright one, because they both end in speculation.

Robert Graves:

Keats was short-sighted. He did not see landscapes as such, so he treated them as painted cabinets filled with interesting objects … His habit was to allow his eye to be seduced from entire vision by particular objects … He saw little but what moved: the curving, the wreathing, the slanting, the waving – and even then, it seems, not the whole object is in motion but only its edge, or highlight.

John Keats:

What shocks the virtuous philosopher delights the chameleon poet.

Michael Schmidt:

Did Keats get “La Belle Dame sans Merci” from [Chaucer’s The Book of the Duchess]? Lines 448-49 and what precedes and follows, the dense wood, the aloneness, the color:

“Lord,” thoght I, “who may that be?
What ayleth hym to sitten her?”

Matthew Arnold:

Keats’s yearning passion for the Beautiful is not a passion of the sensuous or sentimental poet. It is an intellectual and spiritual passion.

John Keats on John Milton:

Milton had an exquisite passion for what is properly, in the sense of ease and pleasure, poetical luxury, and with that, it appears to me, he would fair have been content, if he could, so doing, preserve his self-respect and feeling of duty performed.

John Keats:

Poetry should strike the reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost a remembrance.

The Norton Anthology of American Literature entry on Emily Dickinson:

Among the English Romantics, she valued John Keats especially.

Robert Graves:

Although he was male-minded enough in ordinary sexual business, as his letters to Fanny Brawne, and his song ‘Give me women, wine and snuff,’ show, the critics were right: he did mix the sexes in his poems.

Michael Schmidt:

His last five years brim with human experience; he decided to abandon medicine for poetry and his world opened out. His writing matured in a matter of months. The earliest surviving work reveals skill in phrasemaking: he uncannily snares an image in a memorable phrase or line. “I look upon fine phrases as a lover,” he wrote. “I stood tiptoe upon a little hill” displays this early power and its faults. Volleys of adjectives and occasional mixed metaphors give way to lucid visualizations. The clouds are “pure and white as flocks new shorn” sleeping “On the blue fields of heaven”; we hear “A little noiseless noise among the leaves, / Born of the very sigh that silence heaves.” He decrees himself a poet of praise who watches “intently Nature’s gentle doings”; and if, as Edward Thomas believes, we are given no sense of actual setting, we do experience particular natural phenomena: minnows, flowers, breezes. We meet Apollo, a presiding spirit; images of looking upward to heaven and the gods, of ascent and final soaring are crucial to several poems. In “I stood tiptoe” emotion spills over images but does not fuse with them. In later mature work he contains emotion in particulars: indeed emotion unifies them. The father of poets may still have been the “dear delight / of this fair world.” But nature he apprehended as isolated phenomena; the countryside was a vast natural gallery; its underlying processes, which [John] Clare and Wordsworth witnessed, were invisible to the casual walker.

John Keats was a huge inspiration for Harlem Renaissance poet Countee Cullen.

To John Keats, Poet, At Spring Time
By Countee Cullen

I cannot hold my peace, John Keats;
There never was a spring like this;
It is an echo, that repeats
My last year’s song and next year’s bliss.
I know, in spite of all men say
Of Beauty, you have felt her most.
Yea, even in your grave her way
Is laid. Poor, troubled, lyric ghost,
Spring never was so fair and dear
As Beauty makes her seem this year.

I cannot hold my peace, John Keats,
I am as helpless in the toil
Of Spring as any lamb that bleats
To feel the solid earth recoil
Beneath his puny legs. Spring beats
her tocsin call to those who love her,
And lo! the dogwood petals cover
Her breast with drifts of snow, and sleek
White gulls fly screaming to her, and hover
About her shoulders, and kiss her cheek,
While white and purple lilacs muster
A strength that bears them to a cluster
Of color and odor; for her sake
All things that slept are now awake.

And you and I, shall we lie still,
John Keats, while Beauty summons us?
Somehow I feel your sensitive will
Is pulsing up some tremulous
Sap road of a maple tree, whose leaves
Grow music as they grow, since your
Wild voice is in them, a harp that grieves
For life that opens death’s dark door.
Though dust, your fingers still can push
The Vision Splendid to a birth,
Though now they work as grass in the hush
Of the night on the broad sweet page of the earth.

‘John Keats is dead,’ they say, but I
Who hear your full insistent cry
In bud and blossom, leaf and tree,
Know John Keats still writes poetry.
And while my head is earthward bowed
To read new life sprung from your shroud,
Folks seeing me must think it strange
That merely spring should so derange
My mind. They do not know that you,
John Keats, keep revel with me, too.

American poet Katy Evans-Bush is also inspired by Keats, and wrote a poem about his death mask:

The Life Mask
Keats, 1816

They think you were dead, John! But you were just patiently waiting
— facemasked in plaster — with eyes closed, for someone to tap it
and cheerfully tell you that’s it! You can get up and talk now!
Your jaw’s clenched to stop you from laughing, or letting ideas
become exclamation – it’s all in your temples, the effort,
and also a certain excitement – while Haydon, your sculptor,
admonishes you to keep still or you’ll die without cracking
that old childhood mystery: how do I look with my eyes shut?
The turban he’s wrapped round your hairline, to keep it from pulling –
he’d never have done that if this were a death mask, no need to.
And your eyes, even shut in cold plaster, are so nearly twitching
you no more look dead than the way people look when they’re hiding,
peeking behind their hands, counting out – ready or nothing
and someone hears breathing and opens the curtains, and finds them.

John Keats:

Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an Intelligence and make it a soul? A Place where the heart must feel and suffer in a thousand different ways!

A.S. Byatt, Virgin in the Garden:

Stephanie sat in a chill brown classroom, whitened over with chalk dust, and taught the Ode on a Grecian Urn to those girls who had not gone to Blesford Ride. Good teaching is a mystery and takes many forms Stephanie’s idea of good teaching was simple and limited: it was the induced, shared, contemplation of a work, an object, an artefact. It was not the encouragement of self-expression, self-analysis, or what were to be called interpersonal relations. Indeed, she saw a good reading of the Ode on a Grecian Urn as a welcome chance to avoid these activities…

She required also that her mind at least should be clear of the curious clutter of mnemonics that represented the poem at ordinary times, when the attention was not concentrated upon it. In her case: a partial visual memory of its shape on the page, composed, in fact, of several super-imposed patterns from different editions, the gestalt clear, but shifting in size: a sense of the movement of the rhythm of the langauge which was biological, not verbal or visual, and not to be retrieved without calling whole strings of words to the mind’s eye and ear again: some words, the very abstract ones, form, thought, eternity, beauty, truth, the very concrete words, unheard, sweeter, green, marble, warm, cold, desolate. A run of grammatical and punctuational pointers: the lift of frozen unasnwered questions in the first stanza, the apparently undisciplined rush of repeated epithets in the third. Visual images, neither seen, in the mind’s eye, nor unseen. White forms of arrested movement under dark formal boughs. Trouble with how to “see” the trodden weed. John Keats on his death-bed, requesting the removal of books, even of Shakespeare. Herself at Cambridge, looking out through glass library walls into green boughs, committing to memory, what? Asking what, why?

She read the poem out quietly, as expressionless as possible, a ditty with no tone. And then again. The ideal was to come to it with a mind momentarily open and empty, as though for the first time. They must all hear the words equally, not pounce, or tear, or manipulate. She asked them chilly, “Well?” prolonging the difficult moment when they must just stare, finding speech difficult and judgment unavoidable.

She sat there, looking into inner emptiness, waiting for the thing to rise into form and saw nothing, nothing and then involuntarily flying specks and airy clumps of froth or foam on a strongly running grey sea. Foam not pure white, brown and gold-stained here and there, blowing together, centripetal, a form cocooned in crusts and swathes of adhesive matter. Not relevant, her judgment said, the other poem, damn it, the foam of perilous seas. The thing had a remembered look, not pleasant, and she grimaced, as she saw it. Venus de Milo, Venus Anadyomene. The foam-born, foam from the castrated genitals of Kronos. Not a bad image, if you wanted one, of the coming to form from shapelessness, but not what she had meant to call up.

“Well,” she said to the girls, “well, what do you see?”

They began to talk about when Keats required his reader to see an urn and when a landscape, what colours he called up and what he left to chocie, and moved from there to the nature of the difficulty of seeing what is formed to be “seen” by language alone, marble men and maidents, the heifer and altar, a burning forehead and a parching tongue, cold pastoral.

Heard melodies are sweet but those unheard
Are sweeter,

said Stephanie. Clever Gillian commented that the word desolate was the centre of the poem, almost allowing one to be taken out of it, like the word forlorn in the Nightingale. They talked about beauty is truth, truth beauty. They talked, as Stephanie had meant them to, about a verbal thing, made of words so sensual and words not sensual at all, like beauty and truth. She talked about what it could mean, that the turn should “tease us out of thought As doth eternity”. It is a funeral urn, said Zelda. That is not enough to say, said Susan, staring at Stephanie.

Things moved in the classroom, amongst eight closed minds, one urn, eight urns, nine urns, half realised, unreal, white figures whose faces and limbs could be sensed but not precisely described, bright white, the dark, the words, moving, in ones, in groups, in clusters, in and out of whatever cells held their separate and communal visual, aural or intellectual memories. Stephanie talked them out of the vocabulary she was supposed to be teaching them and left them with none, darkling. Gillian, who was enjoying the process, reflected that words could be quickly enough snatched back, when the occasion required it. Stephanie reflected that this poem was the poem she most cared for, saying ambivalently that you could not do, and need not attempt, what it required you to do, see the unseen, realise the unreal, speak what was not, and that yet it did it so that unheard melodies seemed infinitely preferable to any one might ever hope to hear. Human beings, she had thought, even as a very small child faced with The Lady of Shalott, might so easily never have hit on the accidental idea of making unreal verbal forms, they might have just lived, and dreamed, and tried to tell the truth. She had kept asking Bill, why did he write it, and the answers had been so many and so voluble and so irrelevant to the central problem, that she closed her mind to them, even whilst effortlessly committing them to memory for future use, as Gillian now must and would.

The bell rang.

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19 Responses to “I find that I cannot exist without poetry—without eternal poetry—” –John Keats

  1. george says:

    Keats put me off poetry when in school I had to read Ode To A Grecian Urn (an ode to an urn, I thought – really? not a woman, or beauty, or love, or… ?). So it was only fitting that he put me back on poety with “The Day Is Gone And All Its Sweets Are Gone, read by Larry Darrell/Tyrone Power in TheRazor’s Edge after learning of Sophie’s death. It was the first time I had sprung for a book of poetry and it was because I just had to know the rest of it (this was pre-internet).

    Now Keats doesn’t need my defending him and probably wouldn’t want to be defended by the poetically challenged, but here I go. I have no problem with characterizing something but hate it when the characterization reaches critical mass; much and such is too this or that – Milton’s too wordy, Beethoven’s too loud, Faberge’s eggs are too well done. I’ll resort to Orson Welles’ I know what I like and leave it at that.

    Reading this back to myself, it occurs to me I may have fallen in with the critics and become overly critical – nevertheless, I feel better for it.

  2. sheila says:

    // he put me back on poety with “The Day Is Gone And All Its Sweets Are Gone, read by Larry Darrell/Tyrone Power in TheRazor’s Edge after learning of Sophie’s death. It was the first time I had sprung for a book of poetry and it was because I just had to know the rest of it (this was pre-internet). //

    God, I love anecdotes like that.

    You’re right there is a bandwagon-effect of certain kinds of criticism that ends up flattening out into these sound bites- you can see it in film criticism too – and it gets boring. I feel that I can tell an honest response, as opposed to an obligatory “let me jump on the bandwagon” response. Enthusiasm (or contempt) is hard to fake. If you hate something that everyone else likes, then gather your forces, and put down in no uncertain terms WHY. (I won’t read it if it’s dismissive, as in: “Citizen Kane sucks” or some such nonsense. Either you engage with the actual film/book/whatever – or you certainly won’t have me as a reader. I like critical thinking.) There’s also a problem when criticism becomes about the other criticisms – as opposed to being about the actual work of art. It’s weird how that happens.

    AS Byatt writes about this kind of thing a lot – mainly in Possession, with her story of modern-day literary theorists investigating two 19th century poets. The problem being: There is so much that has been said already about … Keats/Shakespeare/Milton/Citizen Kane/whatever … How on earth can anyone ever say anything NEW? How can any of these things be seen FRESH? It can paralyze some people.

    I’m not intimidated that way – but then again, I’m not trying to write my dissertation on Shakespeare or someone like that, and trying to come up with something that someone hasn’t already said 5000 times.

  3. seang says:

    I love Keats too–“Thou still unravished bride of quietness…” -wow! –I really liked Jane Campion’s movie “Bright Star” too.

  4. seang says:

    I still can’t believe Keats is writing about an urn, a bloody urn, in those opening lines! Plus, “Thou foster-child of silence and slow time” . I mean it’s avant-garde!

  5. Thai guy says:

    I’m a guy and it took a guy like Tyrone Power to read this peom with passion when he starts of “The day is gone and
    all its sweets are gone!” It made me too go to the “net to read the rest. I consider myself
    masculine and if pressed most guys would say they have a touch of poetry in them too.
    Powers reads as he should,a professional actor, which I account for his dramatic short
    reading and expression.

  6. Amy says:

    Beautiful article, Sheila, and very timely for me.

    I’m currently attending lectures on “Tender is the Night” at my local library – the first class was last night. The professor explained the reference in the title, which was news to me. I’m not entirely sold on the book (still in progress, though) but I’m fascinated by the link back to Keats and want to explore him more. This post gives me a lot to dig into.

  7. Melissa says:

    Lucy Maud Montgomery’s quote is funny to me, since it seems a little bit of the pot calling the kettle black. I adore her writing — the Anne series was basically the bible of my childhood — but she’s not exactly a stranger to suffocating amounts of beauty in her descriptions of scenery and trees and such. She gets pretty darn flowery, in fact. ;-)

  8. Melissa Sutherland says:

    Really great piece, and I loved George’s letter. I had no idea Garrison Keillor had written on Keats. Can you give me the ref? Would love to check it out. Thanks.

    • sheila says:

      Hmm. I can’t remember where I found that. Keillor has edited a number of poetry volumes – maybe in one of those. Let me double-check.

  9. george says:

    Seeing a comment of mine head up the parade – kinda had a ‘Twilight Zone” moment there.

    I repeat myself in part but…
    It was the poems of Keats that first animated me to wonder about poetry and then to dive in; his poems made up the first collection of poetry I had invested in.

    His little ode to Burns ending “as if we were God’s spies”, indeed beautiful, had also the effect of reminding me imeediately of this:

    “…whatsoever is true, whatsoever is honorable, whatsoever is just; whatsoever is pure, whatsoever is lovely, whatsoever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think on these things”
    (Philippians 4:8). St. Paul’s letter to the Christians at Philippi

    If Burns was one of God’s spies, Keats was one of His evangelists.

  10. Whenever I think of Keats I think fondly of Sir Ralph Richardson, the first person I heard read Keats’ work aloud. Although there can be no doubt that Keats was the greater genius for being able to capture so much in his poetry, Sir Ralph responded from the roots of his being to the nobility contained in it and sang the words with all the feeling and reverence he possessed. His delivery was so much like song, so close to pure emotion embodied in a continuous line of music that it lifts us and carries us aloft as music does. Consider his reading of Keats’ poem, Ode to Autumn. In the following video, Richardson goes from being his ordinary, notoriously quirky (and in this case rather nervous) self in an interview to gradually identifying completely with the content of the poem. Watch his face, his body, and his eyes. In Autumn, a time of reflection upon the ending of things, I miss him.

  11. Jack says:

    ‘Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water.’

    …how perfectly beautiful is that.

    I wish they had honored his wish and left him with only his own words to mark him.

  12. KathyB says:

    When I was a student teacher, spring semester 1986, I had a class of Senior English students who were antsy of course. Class met just before lunch. Decided to to do something different. Staged a wedding to go with Ode to a Grecian Urn. Moved rows of desks aside to make an aisle. Lots of snickering as “bride” and “groom” leaned in for wedding kiss and WERE STOPPED JUST before touching. Peak of emotion. So much easier to explain the poem, and urn, and Romantics in that teachable moment.

    Decades pass. Visited Rome in 2000. Toured Keats Shelley Museum at foot of Spanish Steps. Told my other half we may not have cared so much about Italy without the Romantics.

  13. Bill Wolfe says:

    An addition to your list of references to Keats comes in the last verse of Rod Stewart’s best song:

    I couldn’t quote you no Dickens, Shelley, or Keats
    ‘Cause it’s all been said before
    Just make the best out of the bad, just laugh it up…HA! (The “Ha” makes it work)
    You don’t have to come here any way
    Just remember every picture tells a story

    Not sure how Keats would feel about this, except I’m pretty sure he’d be dumbfounded to learn that he’d become so emblematic of England that even the naïve country boy whose persona Stewart adopts for this song is assumed to know his name.

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