John Keats

Bert Hornback looks at the work of this highly influential and much-loved Romantic poet.


It is always exciting to sit down to read John Keats’s poems.  Keats:  born in 1795, dead in 1821 at twenty-six, of tuberculosis. He published one book of poems in 1817, another in 1820.  And he left behind, at his death, nearly a hundred more poems.

Life is short—Keats’s life much shorter than most.  So I want to talk—write—briefly about just a few things in a few poems, and let you get busy reading those poems. 

Keats was twenty-one the evening when, visiting a friend, he first encountered Homer, in John Chapman’s translation.  He ran home that night with a poem—a sonnet—in his head: 

              On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer 

             Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold,

                 And many goodly sweets and kingdoms seen. . . . 

The first eight lines are as formal (and properly empty) as an eighteenth century dance.  But then he hears Chapman—an early seventeenth century translator of Homer—“speak out loud and bold.”  And the poem explodes into a big blossom of awe:

                        Then felt I like some watcher of the skies

                            When a new planet swims into his kin;

                        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, on a peak in Darien. 

This is the first great Keats poem.  It is followed in the next two years by the four great odes—the “Nightingale,” the “Grecian Urn,” “Autumn,” and “Melancholy.”

            Everybody has read the “Ode on a Grecian Urn.”  It is usually read as an almost piously honorific or even worshipful poem.  I don’t think it is—and I want to propose a very different reading.

            The third word should make us pause:  “unravished.” Does Keats mean simply that the urn has survived unbroken all these centuries?  Or does the young man on the urn want to rape one of the “maidens loth”?  Whether the figures on the urn are gods or men, they are in “mad pursuit” of   those “maidens loth,” who “struggle to escape” their “wild ecstacy.”

            The second stanza is more restrained. Pipers are playing “ditties of no tone.”   Isn’t that odd?  Toneless music?  Or is he simply noting that they are figures on the urn, not actual pipers.  The “fair youth, beneath the trees” can never quit playing—and “never, never canst thou kiss,” Keats says.  The “happy melodist, unwearied,” will remain, “For ever piping songs for ever new.”  And this, Keats says, is “More happy love!  More happy, happy love!”

            In the third stanza, he leaves the “happy” scene of immortally unrequited love, and turns the urn around.  A garlanded heifer is being led “to the sacrifice.”  Poor cow!  And everybody is out to see the fun—which means that the                       

                                        little town  by river or sea shore

                                   Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,

                                        Is emptied of its folk, this pious morn. 

And—forgetting about the scene upon the urn and the coming “sacrifice”—Keats laments the

the fate which he is imagining for that “little town”:

                                   And, little town, thy streets for evermore

                                       Will silent be; and not a soul to tell

                                            Why thou art desolate, can e’er return.

            The final stanza is full of unpleasant language, unpleasant images, as Keats address the urn:

                                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!

                                   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’s a truism—where a lie is meant.  And Keats answers the urn, that “Cold Pastoral”

work of art:

                                                                               --that is all

                               Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.   

            Keats has a wonderful sense of humor, but we don’t see it very often.  The urn’s “brede / Of marble men and maidens overwrought” is an example, if we read the pun in

“overwrought.”  Here, however, is a funny doggerel poem that is also a serious one.  You may appreciate it more if you think of the great American poet Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself.  Keats’s poem is entitled                      

                                             A Song About Myself


                                             There was a naughty boy,   

                                                 A naughty boy was he,

                                             He would not stop at home,

                                                 He could not quiet be—

                                                      He took

                                                      In his knapsack

                                                      A book

                                                      Full of vowels

                                                      And a shirt

                                                      With some towels—

                                                      A slight cap

                                                      For a night cap—

                                                      A hair brush,

                                                      Comb ditto.

                                                      New stockings

                                                      For old ones

                                                      Would split O!

                                                      This knapsack

                                                      Tight at ’s back

                                                      He riveted close

                                               And follow’d his nose

                                                      To the north,

                                                      To the north,

                                               And followed his nose

                                                      To the north.



                                               There was a naughty boy

                                                       And a naughty boy was he,

                                                For nothing would he do

                                                       But scribble poetry—

                                                             He took

                                                             An ink stand

                                                             In his hand

                                                             And a pen

                                                             Big as ten

                                                             And away

                                                             In a pother

                                                             He ran

                                                             To the mountains

                                                             And fountains

                                                             And ghostes

                                                             And postes

                                                             And witches

                                                             And ditches

                                                             And wrote

                                                             In his coat

                                                             When the weather

                                                              Was cool,

                                                              Fear of gout,

                                                              And without

                                                              When the weather

                                                              Was warm—

                                                              Och the charm

                                                              When we choose

                                                To follow one’s nose

                                                               To the north,

                                                               To the north

                                                To follow one’s nose

                                                               To the north



                                                There was a naughty boy,

                                                    And a naughty boy was he,

                                                He ran away to Scotland

                                                    The people for to see—

                                                             There he found

                                                             That the ground

                                                             Was as hard,

                                                             That a yard

                                                             Was as long,

                                                             That a song

                                                             Was as merry,

                                                             That a cherry

                                                             Was as red—

                                                             That lead was as weighty,

                                                             That fourscore

                                                             Was as eighty,

                                                             That a door was as wooden

                                                             As in England—

                                                       So he stood in his shoes

                                                             And he wondered,

                                                            He wondered,

                                                       He stood in his shoes

                                                            And he wondered.


That’s Keats playing with the idea that he called, famously, “Negative Capability.” 

“Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties,           Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”

His walking trip in Scotland also gave him a more poetic version of the idea: not doggerel verse, but a sonnet:

                                     Sonnet Written upon the Top of Ben Nevis

                                    Read me a lesson, Muse, and speak it loud

                                        Upon the top of Nevis, blind in mist!

                                    I look into the chasms, and a shroud

                                        Vapourous doth hide them,—just so much I wist

                                    Mankind do know of hell; I look o’erhead,

                                        And there is s sullen mist,—even so much

                                    Mankind can tell can tell of heaven; mist is spread

                                        Before the earth, beneath me,—even such,

                                    Even so vague is man’s sight of himself!

                                        Here are the craggy stones benearth my feet,—

                                    Thus much I know that, a poor witless elf,

                                        I tread on them,—that all my eye doth meet

                                    Is mist and crag, not only on this height,

                                    But in the world of thought and mental might!


            But Keats’s best expression of “Negative Capability” is in what, to me, is his finest poem, the very late sonnet


                                    When I Have Fears

                                    When I have fears that I may cease to be

                                          Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain,

                                    Before high-piled books, in charct’ry,

                                         Hold like rich garners the full-ripen’d grain;

                                    When I behold, upon the night’s starr’d face,

                                        Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,

                                     And think that I may never live to trace

                                        Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance;

                                     And when I feel, fair creature of an hour!

                                        That I shall never look upon thee more,

                                     Never have relish in the faery power

                                        Of unreflecting love!—then on the shore

                                     Of the wide world I stand alone, and think

                                     Till Love and Fame to nothingness do sink.

            If I could only have one poem to keep with me, I would choose “When I Have Fears.”   It is  not a poem about Keats’s “fears” of imminent death, but rather a poem about how he must—will—live, in spite of his fears.  And what—or how—he will think when he has those fears.

            Looking at “the wide world” before him he will quit worrying about “Love and Fame:  he will let them “sink” to “nothingness.”  And what he will have before him, then, is “the wide world.”  Do “Love and Fame” matter?  No.  When Keats faces death, life is what matters:  life in “the wide world.”

            This is what “Negative Capability” is about.  And yes, Keats had that capability.   

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