Poetry Study: John Keats

FRom the pRL / originally written in english / C19TH / Europe / england
Course Hero literature instructor Russell Jaffe provides an introduction to the main themes of the six odes of John Keats.


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 1819, 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. 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.

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

Words inspire images and images inspire words. This 1893 painting by John William Waterhouse was inspired by La Belle dame sans Merci and is an example of how interdisciplinary creativity can be fostered by great works of poetry.

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 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 re-evaluate and celebrate Keats’s work. Among these students were Alfred Lord Tennyson and Richard Monckton Milnes, who both became majorly responsible for fostering Keats’ 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. 

Part 1: Keats’ famous Ode sequence

The great odes of the spring and fall — Ode to Psyche, Ode to a Nightingale, Ode on a Grecian Urn, Ode on Melancholy, To Autumn (written in September), Ode on Indolence (not published until 1848, and often excluded from the group as inferior) — are among the greatest achievements of Romantic art. The order of the odes has been much debated; it is known that Ode to Psyche was written in late April, Ode to a Nightingale probably in May, and To Autumn on 19 September 1819, but although Ode on a Grecian Urn and Ode on Melancholy are assumed to belong to May, but no one can be certain of any order or progression. In style and power the odes represent Keats’s finest poetry.

Ode on a Grecian Urn

This tracing of the Sosibos vase was made by Keats himself.

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.

Klever 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.

Discussion Points

  1. ‘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?
  2. Do the images on the urn suggest that art is good and that life is bad – or is their effect more complex than this?
  3. Does Keats intend to create the impression that his poem has been as artfully constructed as the urn about which he is writing? How?

Learner Portfolio: Ode to…

Ekphrastic poetry is poetry written about objects and artworks. Ode on a Grecian Urn is a famous, oft-cited example of ekphrastic poetry.

Explore this poetic form by writing your own ekphrastic poem. Choose an object or piece of artwork about which to write an ode. Challenge yourself to include a select range of poetic devices similar to those John Keats used; for example, you can use apostrophe in your own poem.

Ode on Indolence

Chatterton, by Henry Wallace (1856) Although this painting is of poet Thomas Chatterton rather than Keats, it’s pre-Raphaelite image of suffering has become synonymous with the image of the young, Romantic poet.

“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.

klever 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?

Discussion Points

  1. ‘The poem is important for what it tells us about Keats’ beliefs about creativity.’  What are these beliefs?
  2. After reading the poem, can you explain why Keats thought that indolence is a worthy subject for an ode – a poem of praise?
  3. How do the themes of this poem compare with those of the other odes?

Learner Portfolio: Practise for Paper 1 (Literature students only)

If you are a Language A: Literature student, at the end of your course you will sit Paper 1: Guided Literary Analysis. This paper contains two previously unseen literary passages. SL students write a guided analysis of one of these passages; HL students write about both passages. The passages could be taken from any of four literary forms: prose, poetry, drama or literary non-fiction. Each of the passages will be from a different literary form.

Keats’ Odes would fall under the category of ‘poetry’. A complete poem (or extract from a longer poem), should one appear on in this paper, will be accompanied by a guiding question to provide a focus or ‘way in’ to your response. Complete this Learner Portfolio entry in the style of Paper 1: Guided Literary Analysis by writing about Ode on Insolence using the guiding question:

  • Comment on the methods by which Keats effectively suggests an internal conflict in his Ode on Indolence.

Ode on Melancholy

“The melancholy fit shall fall… that fosters the droop-headed flowers all and hides the green hill in an April shroud…”

Ode on Melancholy was most likely written in May of 1819, although the exact date of composition is uncertain. The poem is about how to cope with a deep, almost unbearable sadness, which Keats believes is an inescapable part of human experience. Keats’ speaker is like an advisor or councillor who warns against consuming drink or drugs in order to find relief from melancholy. Instead, the speaker agues that melancholy should be embraced. The reason is quite surprising: Keats believes that, because anything good is doomed to end, all beauty is suffused with a kind of poignant sadness. Therefore, the poem leaves the reader with the impression that Joy and Melancholy are not opposite emotions at all, but deeply intertwined.

klever keats

Keats argues that Joy and Delight are impermanent emotions. He associates them with Beauty, that must age, wither and die. You’ll notice how he personifies these emotions through capitalisation throughout the poem. Hopefully, you’ll also spot that Melancholy is personified in the same way. Does that mean that sadness is also impermanent, that it will fade with time? Well… yes, exactly. Keats believes that all human experience is transitory. That’s why he argues that you should not rush to escape Melancholy; instead embrace sadness as an inevitable, but temporary, part of life.

Discussion Points

  1. This poem ties together the two extremes of pleasure and sorrow. Do you find this mingling of extremes in any of Keats other poems?
  2. Do you think the structure of the poem suggests the proposition of, testing of, and resolution of an argument?
  3. Why is it that those who have the greatest capacity for joy are also subject to the greatest despair?

Learner Portfolio: Paradoxes

Paradox abounds in Keats’ odes, and none more-so than in Ode on Melancholy. Put simply, Keats poem reveals that the more beautiful, delightful or joyful something appears to be, the more melancholy it contains. In Keats’ mind, happiness and sadness are not polar opposites, but instead two sides of the same coin.

Write a Learner Portfolio entry about the paradox of joy as presented in the poems you have read. Consider the idea that it is impossible to experience joy without feeling sadness as well.

Ode to a Nightingale

A portrait of Keats listening to a nightingale on Hampstead Heath, by his friend Joseph Severn, completed in 1845.

“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’. 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.

Discussion Points

  1. Why are there so many images of death in the poem?
  2. To what end are images of a verdant natural world put to use?
  3. In what ways is this a poem about the paradox of pleasure and pain?

Learner Portfolio: Imaginary Realms

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 – but knows that by escaping his own pain he will fall into an imaginary realm from which there is no return.

Write a one-two page journal entry about imaginary realms in this poem, with links to others you have studied. You could use some (or all) of the following ideas:

  • A realm outside of time;
  • A wondrous realm of natural beauty;
  • The faery realm;
  • The realm of Lethe.

Ode to Autumn


Learner Portfolio: Practise for Paper 2

Write this Learner Portfolio in the style of a practice Paper 2 response. You can use one of the prompts below, or another prompt given to you by your teacher. Although Paper 2 requires you to write about two literary works, for the sake of this exercise you could focus only on your response to Keats’ poetry, or you could try to compare your ideas to another literary work you have studied (visit this post for more help with Paper 2 compare and contrast skills)..

Choose one of the following prompts (or use another prompt you have been given), talk with your teacher about how to approach and structure your writing, then complete your portfolio entry:

  1. If beauty is a relative term, how does one or more of the works you have studied explore this idea?
  2. “All that glitters is not gold.” Discuss how appearances are misleading in literary works you have studied.
  3. In what ways, and with what techniques, do writers you have studied appeal to the emotions of the reader?
  4. Discuss the ways in which philosophical or aesthetic ideas are represented in literary works you have studied.

Part 2: Love, Beauty and the Supernatural

Mainly published in a collection of 1820, each poem in its own way deals with themes of love, with often bleak or tragic overtones. ‘Lamia’, a long narrative poem set in classical antiquity, uses supernatural elements to question how love and beauty can stand up to reality. ‘The Eve of St Agnes’ is a medieval romance which deals with a dangerous affair. ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’, the sparest and least narrative-driven of the poems, leaves much to interpretation and is often considered to be a rumination on the perils of love.

La Belle Dame sans Merci

While appearing to be a short and simple poem, La Belle Dame Sans Merci is perhaps the most mercurial of Keats’ narrative work. First published in 1820, readers and critics have long puzzled over the faery lady, who she is, and what she might represent. At the time of writing Keats was in a state of emotional and physical upheaval. His brother had died of tuberculosis the year before and the poet himself was slipping into ill health, having contracted the same deadly disease. Yet at the same time, Keats was also at the height of his infatuation with Fanny Brawne, who he had met while lodging at a friend’s house. This was the most meaningful romantic connection Keats had in his life – yet a love that was to remain unconsummated. Generations of readers have interpreted these autobiographical details into the fearful presentation of ‘the beautiful woman without pity’.

Frank Dicksee; La Belle Dame sans Merci; Bristol Museums, Galleries & Archives; oil on canvas; c.1901.
klever keats

The title, written in French, is an allusion to a medieval epic romance by Alain Chartier. Keats’ poem presents some of the same elements as a medieval romance: a courtly knight-at-arms, a fair lady, supernatural creatures, a dream sequence, and so on. By titling the poem with a line from a famous romance, Keats brings all those associations to mind; but as you read, think about how Keats’ ballad subverts many of the reader’s expectations when it comes to these traditional conventions.

Discussion Points

  1. The poem abounds with natural imagery. What are some of the functions of nature and the landscape in this poem?
  2. Why is the poem so ambiguous? Does it improve or detract from your enjoyment of the poem? What effect do the things Keats doesn’t tell you have on your imagination?
  3. Why do you think Keats chose to write his title in French? What impact might this have had on a reader in Keats’ time and a reader today?

Learner Portfolio: Who is the Pitiless Lady?

‘In classical mythology the muses were goddesses who inspired the artistic and scientific endeavours of mortals. Since then the idea of the muse has functioned as an allegory for ‘artistic creation’ – the moment when a new idea comes in to being. It may be that Keats’ poem is itself an allegorical representation of the poetic muse, and the lady represents the inescapable, exquisite – but personally harmful – hold that inspiration has on the poet.’

Who or what do you think the lady in the poem represents? Create a graphic guide or character profile of The Lady without Mercy, including symbolic, allegorical, and your own personal interpretations of who the lady in the poem might be. Include important quotations and details from the poem.

Towards Assessment: Higher Level Essay

A student wanting to write an impressive HL Essay need look no further than Keats’ poetry. Rich and linguistically dense, the poems offer up a wealth of possible topics to investigate in detail. Remember, your essay should treat Keats’ poetry as a literary body of work, so choose an aspect of his poetry that you have noticed in two or three poems you have studied. Ideas include, but are not limited to, the following investigations. Speak to your teacher for more ideas, and refer to your Learner Portfolio work as well:

  • Explore Keats’ presentation of the natural world in selected poems.
  • What is the importance of eating, drinking and consumption in John Keats’ poetry?
  • Sound is both a theme and a method in Keats’ poems. To what extent is reading Keats’ odes an auditory experience?
  • In what ways can Keats’ poems be interpreted as a meditation on the writing of poetry itself?
  • Explore the existence of irony and paradox in selected poems by John Keats.
  • How, and why, does John Keats explore death and dying so frequently in his odes and poems?
  • What is John Keats’ relationship with time? How does he explore this relationship in his poetry?

Towards Assessment: Individual Oral

Supported by an extract from one non-literary text and one from a literary work (or two literary works if you are following the Literature-only course) students will offer a prepared response of 10 minutes, followed by 5 minutes of questions by the teacher, to the following prompt: Examine the ways in which the global issue of your choice is presented through the content and form of two of the texts that you have studied. (40 marks)

Please find suggestions here; but always be mindful of your own ideas and class discussions and follow the direction of your own programme of study when devising your assessment tasks.

John Keats’ poetry would be a good choice with which to conduct this oral assessment. The poems explore several themes which can be used to create Global Issues: the role of art and imagination, mortality and time, nature, sadness and melancholy – even the dangers of drinking as a form of escapism! Now you have finished reading and studying the poetry collection, spend a lesson working with the IB Fields of Inquiry: mind-map Keats’ poems, come up with ideas for Global Issues, make connections with other Literary Works or Body of Works that you have studied on your course and see if you can make a proposal you might use to write your Individual Oral.

Here are one or two suggestions to get you started, but consider your own programme of study before you make any firm decisions about your personal Global Issue. Whatever you choose, remember a Global Issue must have local relevance, wide impact and be trans-national:

In several of his poems – notably, Ode on a Grecian Urn, Ode to a Nightingale – Keats considers objects of ‘art’ and wonders at their aesthetic and inspirational qualities. In Ode to Insolence he personifies his own creativity as if it is at war with opposing forces such as laziness.

A theme Keats returns to time and time again is mortality, and his coping with the knowledge that he is succumbing to tuberculosis, the same disease that took his uncle, mothers and younger brother. Ode on Melancholy and La Belle Dame sans Merci deal with these issues most poignantly, as do other poems.


1 reply »

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s