Excerpted from Complete Poems and Selected Letters of John Keats by John Keats. . Excerpted by permission of Modern Library, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
His genius was recognized and encouraged by early Mends like Charles Cowden Clarke and J. H. Reynolds, and in October 1816 he met Leigh Hunt, whose Examiner had already published Keats’s first poem. Only seven months later Poems (1817) appeared. Despite the high hopes of the Hunt circle, it was a failure. By the time Endymion was published in 1818 Keats’s name had been identified with Hunt’s ‘Cockney School’, and the Tory Blackwood’s Magazine delivered a violent attack on Keats as a lower-class vulgarian, with no right to aspire to ‘poetry’.
But for Keats fame lay not in contemporary literary politics but with posterity. Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton, and Wordsworth were his inspiration and challenge. The extraordinary speed with which Keats matured is evident from his letters. In 1818 he had worked on the powerful epic fragment Hyperion, and in 1819 he wrote ‘The Eve of St Agnes’, ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’, the major odes, Lamia, and the deeply exploratory Fall of Hyperion. Keats was already unwell when preparing the 1820 volume for the press; by the time it appeared in July he was desperately ill. He died in Rome in 1821. Keats’s final volume did receive some contemporary critical recognition, but it was not until the latter part of the nineteenth century that his place in English Romanticism began to be recognized, and not until this century that it became fully recognized.
1. Compare the speakers of "Ode on a Grecian Urn" and "Ode to a Nightingale." How would you describe each speaker's state of mind? In both poems, something exterior to the speaker serves as a catalyst for a vision. What is the vision that each speaker experiences? Are these visions compatible or competing? Discuss why it might be significant that "Ode on a Grecian Urn" ends with a statement while "Ode to a Nightingale" ends with a question.
2. Consider the role of the human senses in Keats's poems. Compare two or more poems that invoke the senses (such as "Ode to a Nightingale" or "The Eve of St. Agnes"). Why are the senses important? Do the poems value certain senses more than others? What is the relationship between the senses and poetic imagination/poetic insight that each of these poems offers?
3. Discuss the role of female figures in Keats's poems. Examine poems such as "The Eve of St. Agnes," and "La Belle Dame sans Merci." How are female figures used in each?
4. Consider Keats's letters as a statement of poetics. Discuss, in particular, Keats's letter to Richard Woodhouse, in which he claims, "A Poet is the most unpoetical of any thing in existence, because he has no Identity." What does he mean by this? What does he imagine is the poet's function in society-interpreter? creator? visionary? What, according to Keats, motivates the poet to write? Discuss his claim that, "I feel assured I should write from the mere yearning and fondness I have for the Beautiful even if my night's labours should be burnt every morning and no eye ever shine upon them."
5. Discuss Keats's definition of "Negative Capability" in his letter to George and Thomas Keats. What is Negative Capability, and who, according to Keats, possesses it? How might Negative Capability be related to his notion that the poet "has no identity"?
6. Keats's first collection of poems, published in 1817, received a barrage of negative criticism from Tory politicians. Examine John Wilson Croker's and John Gibson Lockhart's critiques of Keats's poems. What, specifically, do they find so offensive about Keats's language? What do they think is the appropriate language for poetry? In what ways does Keats's assertion that "with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration" threaten Croker's and Lockhart's assumptions about poetry?