Category Archives: John Keats

‘To Autumn’ by John Keats

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

If you have read any of my other posts on poems by Keats, you will know that to say I am a big fan is a massive understatement. For me, and for most people, it seems, the odes are his among his greatest hits. I have come late to this particular ode, however, perhaps because Ode to a Nightingale and Ode on a Grecian Urn consumed me so absolutely in my late teens that they rather overshadowed this one… I still think that those poems are superior in their exquisite mix of music, beauty and thought; for me, they are the “songs of Spring” mentioned in Ode to Autumn, but Autumn (as the poem tells us) has “[its] music too”. It is this subtler, “mellow”, generous, nostalgic autumnal music that really touched me as I read this poem the other day, inspired by the present season.

The obvious connection between seasons and the progress of our own lives through childhood, youth, through to middle-age and then old age, is clearly present in this poem. Much of Keats’ work explores the dualities and paradoxes of the human experience; in Ode on Melancholy, he writes that “in the very temple of Delight/Veil’d Melancholy has her sovran shrine”. He was searingly aware that there is but a thin veil between the realms of bliss and those of melancholy, between Beauty and our sense of our own mortality. It is a similar vein that the poet evokes the beauty of Autumn – its beauty is in its capacity for nostalgia, reflection, sadness, but also in its generosity and learned wisdom.

Keats’ vision of the harvest season is coloured by many suggestive adjectives such as “mellow”, “fruitfulness”, “maturing”, “ripeness”… In the first stanza, I love the image of Autumn as a generous, life-giving force, “Conspiring” with the sun “how to load and bless/ With fruit the vines”. Throughout the piece, there is almost a parental presence, in the way the season seemingly takes care of nature – to “fill all fruit with ripeness to the core” and to “set budding more,/ And still more, later flowers for the bees”. Keats uses these examples in nature to illustrate the fact that Autumn is by no means the end of new beginnings.

Like many of his other odes, this one is addressed directly to its subject. Autumn, in this piece, is an entity with its own character, and, to my mind, represents the person entering middle-age. I love the images given of “Thee sitting careless on a granary floor/ Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind”. This image to me is very beautiful, and there seems a playful, almost childish aspect to it. I particularly like the word “careless” because it delivers the sense that this person has lost the seriousness of youth (I mean, the way youth can tend to take itself tooseriously). Keats mentions “thy store”, the “granary floor”, the “laden head” of Autumn and its “patient look” – there is wisdom here, and generosity.

The final verse is interesting in the way it opens with the poet imploring us (or “Autumn”) not to think of the “songs of Spring” (the passion and romance of youth). Here, Keats acknowledges that it is natural to be nostalgic as we age, but encourages us to appreciate the beauty of the “soft-dying day”. He mentions many of the treasures of autumn – the “full-grown lambs”, the songs of the “Hedge-crickets”, and the soft “treble” of the “red-breast” in a “garden-croft”. These images remind us that the coming of Autumn heralds many treasures and much beauty to look forward to.

The final line is one of great hope, as it evokes the “gathering swallows twitter[ing] in the skies.” This image, of birds preparing excitedly to fly south for the winter, reminds us that there is joy and love and warmth to be had at all stages of our lives. I feel that this line also hints at some kind of spiritual or religious hope.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer’ by John Keats

Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-brow’d Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
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, upon a peak in Darien.

This sonnet is a typically Keatsian feast of glorious sounds and luxurious rhymes. It is based upon Keats’ first experience of reading Chapman’s translation of Homer, and explores notions of the power of literature and the imagination. The poet tells us that Chapman’s work has inspired him to write; he intimates that he had never created “pure” poetry until “bold” Chapman encouraged him to “speak out”. On first looking into Chapman’s Homer is a tribute to Homer, to literature, and also, I think, to the genius of the poetic mind.

From the opening line of the poem you might notice a connection to many of Keats’ early sonnets. It begins with a beautiful, mysterious, alluring statement, akin in tone to “Great spirits now on earth are sojourning” and “The poetry of earth is never dead.” As with so much of Keats’ work, the sheer music of his words is enough to entice and delight.

The speaker begins by equating the act of reading with travelling. This metaphor extols the glory of the imagination, the “realms of gold”, where the narrator has journeyed, symbolising the great literary works of man. Keats had a great fascination for the imagination; in fact, he once wrote that he was “certain of nothing” but the “truth” of the imagination. The sonnet depicts the travels of Odysseus around the “goodly states”, “kingdoms” and “islands”, which are described in Homer, and which Keats, through reading Chapman’s translation, has experienced himself. Keats often alludes to his belief in the potency of literature, and does so notably in his other sonnet ‘Keen, fitful gusts’. In that poem, he remembers the great works of Milton and Petrarch as he confronts the harshly critical literary world. These memories inspire him, and give him confidence, ensuring that he feels “little” of the “bleak air”.

For me, the fact that Keats mentions so many great names from the distant past in this poem (Apollo, Homer and Cortez) highlights his burning ambition for recognition as a poet, and his concern for the writer’s role in society. He often refers to great poets of the past such as Milton and Shakespeare, as well as to fellow Romantic artists like Wordsworth and Haydon. I feel like he was continuously comparing himself to the masters, reminding himself of that which he dreams of achieving. The reference to Apollo here prefigures the more important role that the god of poetry will play in Keats’ later works such as Hyperion.

Within the octet there is an unmistakable impression of restlessness. The speaker is seemingly wandering from book to book, with no purpose or direction in mind. I think this reflects Keats’ early difficulties in finding poetic confidence. He speaks of how he had oft “been told” of “deep-brow’d Homer”. Perhaps Keats is acknowledging a feeling of inadequacy here — of being dwarfed by such a literary giant as Homer (often venerated as the first poet). This is consistent with much of Keats’ early verse, where there seems to be evidence of self-doubt and self-consciousness with regard to his credibility as a poet. For example, returning to ‘Keen, fitful gusts’, he acknowledges his youth and inexperience as he admits “I have many miles on foot to fare”. Likewise, in On first looking into Chapman’s Homer he infers that he had never created anything of beauty until he was inspired by this translation of Homer; (“never did I breathe its pure serene/ Till I heard Chapman speak”.) It is as though Keats had felt like an intruder in the closeted world of literature — that poetry was strictly the “demesne” of Homer and such. But Chapman encourages Keats, urging him to speak out “loud and bold”.

In the second half of the poem, as we enter the sestet, the verse completely alters in tone. The speaker is now inspired, empowered, and purposeful because of what he has read. Keats has created an intriguing connection between himself and the reader in this piece. The poem is a result of his inspiration from Chapman, and by writing his own beautiful sonnet, Keats seduces his reader into his poem in the same way that he was originally enthralled by Homer. The writer and reader share in the same experience. Keats compares himself to an astronomer and a famous explorer; since reading Homer the poet’s confidence has clearly grown rapidly! He also becomes more poetic here, as he likens the discovery of his own creative genius to an astronomer’s discovery of a new planet, and to Cortez discovering South America. The caesura in the final line “Silent, upon a peak in Darien”, is wonderfully dramatic, and seems to echo the awe that the poet feels at realising his poetic potential, and the vast landscapes of beauty that his imagination is capable of conjuring.

Another thing that I find really interesting in this poem is that it seems to show Keats’ ambition. It is hard to read it and not derive from it some notion of the immense task that Keats seems to have set himself. This is something that I have noticed in quite a lot of Keats’ work (perhaps it is most obvious in the piece ‘When I have fears’). Keats’ endeavours to perfect ancient and difficult poetic structures such as the ode and sonnet also seem to support this idea of ambition; he mentions it himself in a letter to Hessey, which he wrote while writing ‘Endymion’. He writes that through attempting to master these challenging forms he had “ leaped headlong into the Sea” of poetry, and so become “better acquainted” with it than if he had “stayed upon the green shore” and taken “tea and comfortable advice.” Keats was uncompromising; he refused to take heed of the criticism of anyone but himself. And I think it’s a very good thing that he didn’t!

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

“A Thing of Beauty is a Joy Forever” by John Keats

One could hardly think of a British poet of the nineteenth century who is as soulful and lyrical as John Keats. His life was very short – he died from tuberculosis at the age of 25, – yet he managed to leave a great poetic legacy.

John Keats had an eye for beauty – he saw it in all the things that surrounded him. His own poems enabled him to come closer to the beauty and wonders of life, and to reveal them to anyone who was ready to it.

The author phrases his creative credo in the introduction to his first large-scale work, the epic poem “Endymion” written in 1817. The credo was as follows: “A thing of beauty is a joy forever”. Shortly after its creation the introduction received a new life as a separate poem. Keats stayed in the history of British poetry as a person forever mesmerized by beauty.

The poet emphasized the transiency of life, he probably had a presentiment that his own life path won’t be long. That’s why he did not want to lose time. He phrased the three principles of poetry at the age of 18. The poem “A Thing of Beauty is a Joy Forever” reflects each of them. According to Keats, “poetry should surprise by a fine excess and not by singularity”. He also claimed that poetry should not leave lack of understanding or unsatisfied curiosity. According to the third principle, if a poem does not agree with the first two principles, it should not exist.

Throughout his life as a poet Keats was always trying to stick to this manifesto. Contrary to the traditions of the romantic literature, he was looking for the sources of beauty not in the world of fantasy or the past, but in real life. For him, beauty was an immortal muse and an embodiment of the truth. And the beauty could be found in all the things surrounding us.

Moreover, according to Keats, only the person who is capable of discovering “the idea of Beauty in all things” is capable of either creating or understanding poetry. Only the person who is gifted with great imagination and interest to the absolute beauty can fully perceive poetry and appreciate its wonders. He believes that understanding of beauty starts with tender stories and continues in pleasant and harmonious natural phenomena and even the elements.

The poem “A Thing of Beauty is a Joy Forever” can be heard in the drama film Bright Star directed by Jane Campion (2009). The movie telling the story of Keats and the love of his life is wonderfully complemented by the lines of this poem, a wonderful hymn to beauty.

Reviewed by Katerina Sidoruk

‘Bright Star’ by John Keats

Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art—
Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like nature’s patient, sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors—
No—yet still stedfast, still unchangeable,
Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever—or else swoon to death.

This is such a beautiful love poem, and I am in love with it! I came to this poem fairly late in my Keats obsession (which is ongoing!), by which I mean that I read the odes and other sonnets first. I never properly appreciated the love story that existed between Keats and Fanny Brawne until I saw Jane Campion’s film Bright Star a couple of years ago (which is a wonderful film!) I had been so enthralled by his poetry and philosophy and discourse on the nature of poetry that I hadn’t really understood that aspect of his life.

This is an astoundingly beautiful sonnet to the poet’s “Bright star”. As with all of Keats’ work, this is full of the most delicious word pairings and phrases… I love “her tender-taken breath”, I think it is ingenious. I also love the image of the “moving waters at their priest-like task/ of pure ablution”… and “a sweet unrest”, too… I love all of it, in fact!

I have a book of Keats’ poems and letters, and I read through the letters chronologically for the first time while I was still at school. By doing this, you can trace Keats’ life and thought in some sense. His letters are so beautifully-written, touching, charming, philosophical, revealing and terribly sad, and I remember when I came to the last letter — the first time I read it at 18 — I was in tears! Keats’ final letter was to his friend Charles Brown, on 30th November 1820. At this time he was in Italy, dying of tuberculosis. I would like to post the final lines of that letter here because I think it is the most touching ending to a letter that I have ever read. And I’ll leave this at that:

“I can scarcely bid you good bye even in a letter. I always made an awkward bow.” 

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘On the sea’ by John Keats

It keeps eternal whisperings around
Desolate shores, and with its mighty swell
Gluts twice ten thousand caverns, till the spell
Of Hecate leaves them their old shadowy sound.
Often ’tis in such gentle temper found,
That scarcely will the very smallest shell
Be moved for days from where it sometime fell,
When last the winds of heaven were unbound.
O ye! who have your eyeballs vexed and tired,
Feast them upon the wideness of the Sea;
O ye! whose ears are dinn’d with uproar rude,
Or fed too much with cloying melody, –
Sit ye near some old cavern’s mouth, and brood
Until ye start, as if the sea-nymphs quired!

This poem speaks about the solace and freedom that can be found in nature. The sea is the embodiment of nature here, and is presented in great contrast to the artificiality of urban life. As a Romantic, John Keats was inclined to reject the new realities of the Industrial Revolution and the monotonous drudgery of life in the cities, preferring to seek solitude for his thoughts in the natural beauty of wild, remote landscapes. This rebellious, Romantic spirit in Keats is reflected in his contempt for the “uproar rude” and “cloying melody” that are the vulgar sounds of modern urban society. Nature, he tells us in this poem, is the solution for all those wearied by modern life. The Romantic poets who preceded Keats, such as Coleridge and Byron, had also been preoccupied with condemning the evils of the modern age of industry, and extolling the virtues of nature as its opposite. All this also promotes the idea of the contrast between the artificial nature of ‘polite society’, and the more natural, honest nature of the unrefined.

From the opening lines of this poem, Keats laments that man has forsaken nature for the city. This is a common grievance expressed in Romantic poetry. We are given a vision of “desolate shores” – an image of nature abandoned by man. The scene is beautiful, yet no one but the poet, it seems, sees or admires it. The “mighty swell” of the sea, this great energy in nature, “keeps eternal whisperings” around the barren landscape so carelessly deserted by man. I get the impression here of something spiritual, almost pagan; the “eternal whisperings” lend a mythical, mysterious feeling to the poem, with its resemblance to religious chanting. You could derive an image here of the seas protecting the shores as it “keeps” them and “gluts” the “caverns”, as a benevolent deity protects his people. This is a clear example of ‘god in nature’, which is another popular theme of Romantic poetry. Keats and his fellow poets had a tendency towards non-conformism with regard to orthodox religion, and were more inclined to believe that there was a god who inspired the imaginative and spiritual. The reference to the goddess Hectate also encourages this notion, and the idea of the transitory nature of gods and religions. Nature, in contrast, is “eternal”.

Perhaps, though, Keats’ depiction of the sea is intended to represent the artist himself. The Romantic poets were essentially keeping “eternal whisperings” around the “desolate shores” of the world. Poets have, through the ages, seen this as their task; to voice truth amid the chaos and confusion of the societies in which they found themselves. Keats also observes that “often” the poet finds himself at a loss for inspiration; so much so that “scarcely will the very smallest shell/ Be moved” from where it “sometime fell”. Here the “shell” appears to represent the idea given to him by “the winds of heaven”. This derives from the creed held by many of the Romantics that the poet’s inspiration comes from some divine being. Keats also describes the reality of a poetic blockage; he often cannot make progress “for days”. This ‘blockage’ occurs when the poet is in a “gentle temper”, which implies that he needs to become impassioned in order to write.

In the second half of the poem Keats speaks to all those who are weary of the modern world. He commands them to “feast” their eyes upon the “wideness of the sea”. It is in simply the vastness of the sea in which he suggests we can find peace. In the city there are many intricate designs in architecture, there is complex machinery to understand. The sea is massive, and seemingly eternal. Keats here draws an important comparison between life in ‘civilised’ society during the 19th Century, where there were petty conventions and customs that one was obliged to be constantly aware and cautious of, and life in rural areas, where things were considerably less complicated, but more honest, and beautiful. In the same way that Keats finds peace in nature, he also seems to be suggesting that it exists within the poet’s soul. Keats, in godlike fashion, creates this beautiful scene in the poem himself; with his imagination. He imports the notion through this poem that it is not simply the exterior landscapes in which we can find inspiration, but also in interior landscapes; the landscape of our own imaginations. This was an extremely important idea for the Romantics. Keats appears to be condemning the trivial conventions of polite society, inferring that ‘natural’ behaviour is the most desirable.

Keats tells us to “feast” our eyes on the sea and “brood/ until ye start”. These lines deliver the notion that the poet wants us to allow nature to ‘awaken’ us. It is as though he believes that society has been sleeping of late; living apathetic lives. Man’s pursuit of profit has seemingly dehumanised him, left him dead to such things as beauty. Keats’ reference to “sea-nymphs” singing is again one that imports a notion of the supernatural and the mythical; things of the imagination. The poet ends this poem with one final, desperate attempt to awaken the imagination of his readers. I think this is what most attracts me about Keats: there is something so heroic about his poetry.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ by John Keats

Thou still unravished bride of quietness,
Thou foster child of silence and slow time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fringed legend haunts about thy shape
Of deities or mortals, or of both,
In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
What men or gods are these? What maidens loath?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endeared,
Pipe to the spirit dities of no tone.
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal—yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss
Forever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;
And, happy melodist, unweari-ed,
Forever piping songs forever new;
More happy love! more happy, happy love!
Forever warm and still to be enjoyed,
Forever panting, and forever young;
All breathing human passion far above,
That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloyed,
A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.

Who are these coming to the sacrifice?
To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
Lead’st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,
And all her silken flanks with garlands dressed?
What little town by river or sea shore,
Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
Is emptied of this folk, this pious morn?
And, little town, thy streets for evermore
Will silent be; and not a soul to tell
Why thou art desolate, can e’er return.

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

This poem has had an enormous impact on my life since I first read it. It has given me a great amount of pleasure (and still does). I don’t want to do a detailed analysis because it would be such a long blog and nobody would read it. I just want to talk about the final two lines, which are probably the most famous words that Keats ever wrote.

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty”—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

I think the most obvious, surface explanation of this is something like: if beauty is truth, then, if art is not based on truth to a certain extent, then how can beauty exist in art? It’s the idea that art must contain aspects of reality in order to be beautiful and sublime.

But there is also a deeper, philosophical meaning to it which relates, I think, to how we reach Truth. How we find truth, how do we recognise it, and what is its source? For Keats, logic was not the answer. He did not believe that Truth could be reached by consecutive reasoning. He believed that since one can argue anything (logic can be applied to reasoning that does not lead to Truth) then Truth must come from some other source. That other source might be Beauty. As Keats wrote in a letter in 1817, “What the imagination seizes as beauty must be truth”.

I think that “Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty” is also connected to Keats’ views about the nature of poetry. He wrote that “if poetry does not come as naturally as leaves to a tree then it had better not come at all.” He described poetry as an “experience beyond thought” — the music or Beauty of the poetry contains Truth just as much as the meanings of the words. It makes sense that this kind of Truth is more trustworthy, because we have an innate understanding of what is beautiful, whereas logic can easily hoodwink us and have us believe falsehoods.

Keats wrote that poetry was best to be understood “through the senses”, and that is certainly true of this poem — it is a symphony of words and rhythm. For me, the meaning is almost secondary.

If you look at the beginning of the poem, there is a link to all of this. Keats describes the urn (which represents Art is all its forms) as a “still unravish’d bride”, “foster-child” and “Sylvan historian”. This mysterious opening allows us to understand that the urn is beautiful (an “unravish’d bride”) and knowledgeable (a “Sylvan historian). So art can be a source of both beauty and truth… and this of course foreshadows famous last lines of the poem.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh