For many, John Keats fits the quintessential image of a tortured-artistic-genius. Born on 31st October 1795 as the eldest son of Thomas and Frances Keats, his origins were working class. His father was a stable-keeper and it is rumoured the poet might have been born in the stables of the public house in Smithfields, London, where his father worked (and which was owned by his maternal grandfather). His early years and family life were happy and comfortable: the poet grew up with brothers George and Thomas and sister Fanny, who was born in 1803. Despite their working-class background the family were comfortable enough to let John attend a small village school in Enfield. Far from the studious, bookish and sensitive child we might expect, John’s classmates reported that he was robust and healthy – and he particularly enjoyed fighting!
However, the events of 1804 were to send Keats’ childhood in a completely different direction. His father died in a riding accident and his mother remarried only two months later. The marriage was short-lived and financially disastrous, with Frances losing the family stables and some of her inheritance after separating from her new husband. She left the family, possibly to live with another man, and John and his siblings were sent to live at the house of his maternal grandmother, who had some small inheritance. Frances would return to her family some years later, but died of tuberculosis (then called consumption) in 1810.
The loss of both parents instilled in the young Keats a newfound seriousness and he matured through his exposure to emotional anguish. His younger brother Tom died on 1st December 1818, and Keats went to stay with his friend Charles Armitage Brown at Wentworth Place. It was here that he met the 18-year-old Fanny Brawne, who was lodging there with her family. This would be the most artistically meaningful romantic relationship of his life, and they rapidly fell in love and became privately engaged. It was in this period that Keats began work on The Eve of St. Agnes in January 1919, and in April he completed the conflicted and anxiety-ridden La Belle Dame sans Merci. These were trying times financially and emotionally (his only surviving brother was showing signs of illness) and his own health was also in decline.
Passionately in love and with rising financial and health worries, this physical and emotional upheaval fed into the composition of Keats’s odes. His most powerful and enduring works, these meditations on the subject’s relationship to truth and beauty have been his most studied works. At the same time Keats began working on ‘Lamia’, his last full-length poem, on the Isle of Wight. In September 1819 Keats moved to Winchester to compose To Autumn.
Keats’ health was declining just as his literary career was in the ascension, with the collection Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes and Other Poems receiving favourable reviews in the Edinburgh Review and London Magazine. But, in February of 1820, he began coughing up blood and diagnosed himself with having terminal tuberculosis. Keats began to purposely distance himself from Fanny, but spent his last months in England living with her and her mother after falling out with Leigh Hunt. In November 1820, Keats travelled to Italy with his friend Joseph Severn with the aim of recovering his health. After a few months of struggle he died there on 23rd February 1821. He asked his gravestone to be unnamed, and to be marked merely with the epitaph: ‘Here lies one whose name was writ in water’.
He died young and in love, passing away from tuberculosis at 25. But the work he left behind — much of it written in just a few short years — is acclaimed and has achieved cultural significance. His odes and epics were musically unmatched and emotionally urgent, and, like other Romantic poets, he strove for the eternal and ‘sublime’, trying through poetry to explore the “untrodden region[s] of [his] mind.”
IB Learner Profile: inquirers
“We nurture our curiosity, developing skills for inquiry and research. We know how to learn independently and with others. We learn with enthusiasm and sustain our love of learning throughout life.”IB Learner Profile
If any historical figure can be considered an inquirer it might be John Keats. In his short life he not only became one of the most accomplished Romantic poets, but he also studied at Guy’s Hospital in London, taking – and passing! – his surgeon’s exam, allowing him to practice medicine.
Reading Keats’ poems, especially his wonderful ode sequence, can be thought of as a type of inquiry. All composed in a few short months, the odes ask you to contemplate abstract concepts such as what it means to suffer, the nature of happiness and sadness, the point of art, what is beauty, and more. These are not the kinds of subjects to which you can find easy answers – so best to approach these poems in the spirit of inquiry and curiosity.
Lang and Lit Concept: creativity
“Creativity plays an important part in the experience of reading and writing. The concept is fundamental to analyse and understand the act of writing, and the role that imagination plays. When applied to the act of reading, creativity highlights the importance of the reader being able to engage in an imaginative interaction with a text which generates a range of potential meanings from it, above and beyond established interpretations. Creativity is also related to the notion of originality and to the question of the extent to which it is important or desirable in the production and reception of a text.”IB Lang and Lit Subject Guide
By studying John Keats’ writing, you’re joining a long history of those who have been inspired by this brilliant genius who died before achieving his greatest work. You should take a moment to consider how great acts of artistic creativity are able to outlast the grinding of time and the capriciousness of critics who, at various points, have either ridiculed or elevated Keats’ work. In some literary circles Keats’s sensuousness was deemed as effeminate, even unmanly, while he remained fairly obscure to the wider public. However, things gradually began to change. A group of Cambridge undergraduates known as the Apostles dedicated themselves to revaluate and celebrate Keats’s work. Among these students were Alfred, Lord Tennyson and Richard Monckton Milnes, who both became majorly responsible for fostering Keats’s legacy in the Victorian era.
1848 was a turning point for Keats’s reputation. This year saw the formation of the Pre- Raphaelite Brotherhood, a group of artists who were dedicated to bringing about a new sense of vivid realism to visual art. They were attracted to the lush descriptiveness and sensuous verse, the medieval settings and intense symbolism of Keats’ poems. La Belle Dame Sans Merci was adapted by many painters associated with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Likewise Hunt’s depiction of the escape of Madeline and Porphyro from Keats’s The Eve of St. Agnes illustrates how Keats’ rich palette of descriptive language inspired the visual arts decades after his death. Keats was championed by the influential art critic John Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti introduced the Victorians to the poet’s medieval and Gothic aspects, which in turn greatly informed Tennyson’s medieval-inspired works.
Keats’s ideas about the relationship between beauty and the physical senses were an influence on the growing Aesthetic movement, in which writers such as Oscar Wilde and Walter Pater expressed the urge to consider art’s sensory effect on the individual. By the end of the 19th century Keats’ reputation as a classic and universal English poet was widely accepted, with the critic Matthew Arnold declaring in 1880 that he had joined Shakespeare in the pantheon of great English writers.
Areas of Exploration: intertextuality
- How do conventions and systems of reference evolve over time?
- How valid is the notion of a classic text?
Ode on a Grecian Urn
Keats’ six famous odes, written in May 1819, are considered to be almost perfectly formed, borrowing literary devices and patterns from the sonnet and putting them to work in service of praise.
“Ode on a Grecian Urn” is a complex meditation on mortality. Death preoccupies the speaker, who responds by seeming to both celebrate and dread the fleeting nature of life. The scenes on the urn depict a Classical world that has long since passed—and yet, in being fixed on the urn itself, these scenes also evoke a sense of immortality. The urn is therefore a contradiction — its scenes speak of vibrant humanity and, because they are frozen in time, seem to represent a kind of eternal life. At the same time, everything and everyone in the urn’s world is no more. Sensing this contradiction, the speaker tries to make sense of mortality — both that of others and their own—without ever coming to a comfortable resolution.
In terms of technical features, apostrophe abounds, with Keats delighting in the many ways —“bride of quietness,” “mysterious priest,” “Cold Pastoral” — he can name the ancient vase at the poem’s center. Paradoxically, the more questions he asks and the more intense his attention grows, the more ‘mysterious’ and ‘desolate’ the object itself seems to become. The poem’s ending has been and remains the subject of varied interpretation; the urn itself delivers the last lines, telling the speaker — and, in turn, the reader — that truth and beauty are one and the same.
Be Klever like Keats…
Poetry that is written about an object, such as a work of art like a decorated urn (be it Grecian or otherwise) is called ekphrastic poetry. You should learn this word if you want to sound clever.
- Ode on a Grecian Urn (Litcharts)
- Hear the poem read aloud by actor Michael Stuhlbarg
- Odes, Objects and Oblivion (Critical Response)
- Some readers have suggested that the urn symbolises both the beauty of perfection on the one hand – and cold sterility on the other. Do you agree with this assessment?
- Do the images on the urn suggest that art is good and that life is bad – or is their effect more complex than this?
- Does Keats intend to create the impression that his poem has been as artfully constructed as the urn about which he is writing? How?
One aspect that you have no doubt encountered in class discussion and in your study is the ironic and even paradoxical nature of this poem. For example, classical odes were traditionally set to music, or even sung, whereas this poem is characterised by quietness and even a silent response to the speaker’s questions. It’s a paradox that Keats selects a musical tradition to celebrate the noiselessness of an object.
Write a one-two page learner portfolio entry about paradoxes and ironies you have discovered in Ode on a Grecian Urn. Identify different paradoxes and speculate as to what Keats is trying to express and explore through drawing our attention to so many contradictions.
Ode on Indolence
“This morning I am in a sort of temper indolent and supremely careless … Neither Poetry, not Ambition, nor Love have any alertness of countenance as they pass by me: they seem rather like three figures on a Greek vase – a Man and two women – whom no one but myself could distinguish in their disguisement. This is the only happiness; and is a rare instance of advantage in the body overpowering the Mind.”Written in a letter from Keats to his brother and sister, March 1819.
Depending on the kind of student you are, you might find much to appreciate in this poem, in which Keats seems to praise laziness and slovenliness. He even imagines that his own poetic talent (which he names Poesy) is one of three demons sent to distract him from his natural pursuits of idleness and insolence. A letter from his brother George had forced Keats to review his personal situation. Poetry was not supplying him with either money or fame; he needed financial security if he was to marry his intended, Fanny Brawne. This Ode is one of the few poems Keats wrote which are directly concerned with his own situation. It seems to stem from his own struggle with conflicting impulses: fame, love and poetry on one side, indolence on the other.
Be Klever Like Keats…
Technically, there is an interesting use of allusion in stanza 3: a third time pass’d they by. This sounds like an echo of Macbeth, and could be a reference to the witches’ prophecies in Shakespeare’s play. A more definite Macbeth allusion is From a man’s little heart’s short fever-fit; Macbeth says, ‘After life’s fitful fever he sleeps well.’ Are Ambition, Love and Poesy Keats’ version of the three witches who tempt Macbeth towards his damnation?
- ‘The poem is important for what it tells us about Keats’ beliefs about creativity.’ What are these beliefs?
- After reading the poem, can you explain why Keats thought that indolence is a worthy subject for an ode – a poem of praise?
- How do the themes of this poem compare with those of the other odes?
Ode to a Nightingale
“In the spring of 1819 a nightingale had built her nest near my house. Keats felt a tranquil and continual joy in her song; and one morning he took his chair from the breakfast table to the grass plot under a plum tree, where he sat for two or three hours. When he came into the house, I perceived he had some scraps of paper in his hand, and these he was quietly thrusting behind the books. On inquiry, I found those scraps, four or five in number, contained his poetic feeling on the song of our nightingale.”Written by Charles Brown, with whom Keats was living in London.
Ode to a Nightingale considers the idea that nothing can last. The speaker sits in a forest, listening to the beautiful song of a nightingale, and fancies he can hear ‘immortality’. He thinks about how the bird is unbothered by human feelings such as anxiety, and does not fear its own death. He fixates on the song of the bird, which he imagines has been sung for centuries – it is unbounded by time. Eventually, the nightingale flies away, leaving the speaker with a deep sense of loss and the belief that everything inevitably fades away.
Interestingly, this ode begins not with a bright, vivid image of the bird he is praising, but with a dull, unexplained pain, a vague ‘ache’ of emptiness and ‘drowsy numbness’. Having witnessed the death of his brother Tom from tuberculosis a few months previously, Keats was now succumbing to the same illness, so would be familiar with the effect – and consequence – of ‘The weariness, the fever, and the fret’ which had already caused him ‘leaden-eyed despairs’.
Be Klever Like Keats…
Fond of paradoxes, Keats writes this poem like an elegy, a poem for somebody who has passed away. The difference here is that he writes it for something that has not yet died. Clever, clever Keats.
- Why are there so many images of death in the poem?
- In what ways is this a poem about the co-existence and interdependence of pleasure and pain?
This poem contains another of those paradoxes of which Keats is so fond: on the one hand the nightingale’s song brings relief from the day-to-day pains of living, ‘the weariness, the fever and the fret’; on the other hand the seeming immortality of birdsong makes Keats painfully aware of the fragility of his own life and how quickly death can come. Keats seeks escape from this paradox – and he turns to the power of imagination.
Write a one-two page journal entry about the power of imagination in this poem. You could consider ideas such as:
- How the poet imagines escaping his tragic human existence;
- The beauty of art;
- The limitations of art and imagination.
Ode on Melancholy
Be Klever like Keats…
- This poem ties together the two extremes of pleasure and sorrow. Do you find this mingling of extremes in any of Keats other poems?
- Do you think the structure of the poem suggests the proposition of, testing of, and resolution of an argument?
- Why is it that those who have the greatest capacity for joy are also subject to the greatest despair?