Thursday, January 14, 2016

John Keats overwhelms himself in poetry

A little book about John Keats’s library; I would like to read that.  His first book, Poems (1817), is mostly about his vocation as poet and his reading.

I am not surprised that a 21 year-old poet, no matter his talent, does not have much of a subject outside of what he has read.  The 22 and 23 year-old poet, though, had plenty to say, but that’s the Keats story, right, this rapid development in poetic power and conception until illness drops him.

O for ten years, that I may overwhelm
Myself in poesy; so I may do the deed
that my own soul has to itself decreed.

So Keats declares in “Sleep and Poetry,” the long poem that ends the 1817 book.  What sad lines.  Given what happened – what is in this very book – those lines are believable.  Boy, six or seven more years of a healthy Keats.

At this point, though, Keats is doing what he says, overwhelming himself in poetry, imitating Spenser and so on.  Trained by earlier Romantics, he writes about nature, or Nature, but look at why he is writing about nature:

Keen, fitful gusts are whisp’ring here and there
    Among the bushes half leafless, and dry;
    The stars look very cold about the sky,
And I have many miles on foot to fare.
Yet feel I little of the cool bleak air,
    Or of the dead leaves rustling drearily,
    Or of those silver lamps that burn on high,
Or of the distance from home’s pleasant lair:
For I am brimfull of the friendliness
    That in a little cottage I have found;
Of fair-hair’d Milton’s eloquent distress,
    And all his love for gentle Lycid drown’d;
Of lovely Laura in her light green dress,
    And faithful Petrarch gloriously crown’d.

He wants to get out of nature, out of the wind, so he can read!  So he can read Milton and Petrarch.

The most famous poem in the book, “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer,” is like something from a book blog – a blog written by a great poet – so not really – but it is about the translation neurosis.  The “loud and bold” seventeenth century Chapman triumphing over the mannered, fussy Pope .  Not that Keats is wrong.  One of the all-time great poems about reading.

More poems are about writing poetry rather than reading it; I don’t want to exaggerate.  In the verse letter “To George Felton Matthew,” Keats seeks out “ [s]ome flowery spot, sequester’d, wild, romantic” hoping that his muse will meet him there so they can “soft humanity put on, / And sit, and rhyme and think on Chatterton.”

The “Imitation of Spenser” puzzled me by being such a pure natural description – the sky, the lake, nine lines about a diving kingfisher – but the key is the third stanza where the poet, who has just spent two stanzas describing the landscape, wishes that he could describe it, meaning better, presumably.  He wants to describe the “wonders” so well that he cheers up grief-stricken Dido and “rob[s] from aged Lear his bitter teen [misery].”  Keats imagines a poetry so exquisite that it heals the greatest sorrows not in real life, not in his life, but in literature.  What a vision.  Poetry as Grail quest.


  1. very inspiring post! it's back to review some keats for me; i still think he's the best...

  2. I need to read his 1820 book, too, which is even stronger than this one. I had read all of these poems in a big collected edition (Oxford Major Works,but not thought about Keats's books as such.

  3. Whenever I have read Keats, I am almost always overcome by competing reactions: awe and sadness. I am awed by the poetry, and I am saddened by the early death of the genius. If he had lived as long as Wordsworth, he surely would have eclipsed all Romantics as THE great poet of the era.

  4. Enormous talent and intelligence. This earlier set of poems is generally less awe-inducing, although their elegance and variety are already first-rate.

  5. Thanks for this post. Lucky me, the two poems you quote are in the collection I'm currently reading.

    I have to confess that the ones about his reading are not my favorite ones.

    It's the first time I read his poems and although I miss out a lot because English is not my native language, I understand enough to feel their lightness.

  6. They're not my favorite, either. It is like Keats was introducing himself with this book. Which I guess he was.

  7. Keats imagines a poetry so exquisite that it heals the greatest sorrows not in real life, not in his life, but in literature. What a vision. Poetry as Grail quest.

    Lovely insight, Tom; I have the Wordsworth edition of Keats' poetry; I'll have to look out for those early poems about writing poetry.

  8. Your edition might even have them in order. The Oxford Major Works puts the poems in order of composition, useful in its own way, but then I lose Keats's self-shaping.