John Keats (1795—1821)

Classic Writings on Poetry - William Harmon 2003

John Keats (1795—1821)

It is probable that John Keats produced more great poetry at an earlier age than any other major poet in English. Readers can play a game that asks, “What would Shakespeare’s (or Milton’s, or anyone else’s) reputation be if he or she had died, like Keats, at twenty-five?” In almost every case the answer is “Zilch.”

Keats’s father, who kept a livery stable, died in a mishap in 1804; his mother died of consumption a few years later, when Keats was fourteen. As a teenager Keats was apprenticed to a surgeon and was qualified as a “dresser” and subsequently as a surgeon, in accordance with the medical regulations of the day.

Keats’s first poems were written under the influence of Edmund Spenser, and all of Keats’s work shows something of a Spenserian blend of sensuousness and intellectual depth, along with a love for the past, especially classical antiquity and the Middle Ages. Keats renders the sights and sounds that we are accustomed to in poetry, but, more than any other, he also attends to tastes, odors, and textures.

Friendship with the poet and editor Leigh Hunt was most helpful to Keats in his brief career as a poet. Thanks to Hunt, Keats’s poetry was published in the Examiner and Keats got to meet Wordsworth and Shelley. When his poetry was viciously attacked in conservative magazines (such things were much rougher two centuries ago than is the rule today), Keats retreated somewhat into himself, at the same time having to take care of younger siblings (two brothers and a sister) who depended on him for friendship and support.

Toward the end of his life Keats lived in Hampstead next door to the house occupied by the family of his fiancée, Fanny Brawne. By 1819 Keats was ill with tuberculosis, possibly contracted from his brother Tom. Later, in search of a better climate, he went to Italy, but he died in Rome in early 1821, having asked that his epitaph read, “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.”

Keats was never a formal critic of the sort who writes essays, reviews, and dissertations, but his marvelous letters display one of the finest critical minds ever in England. Some of his poems that delight in the pleasures and powers of poetry itself have become important critical documents. Keats was writing just when universal free public education was catching on in Europe and America, with a newly literate public eager to read and learn. To serve these new readers, literary periodicals proliferated in great numbers, and writers capable of furnishing the journals with writings of all sorts also proliferated. Keats was the most sensuous of poets, and one of those most devoted to sound and feeling. But he was also a reader, for whom the experience of specifically sitting down to read was profoundly emotional and intellectual. His poetry reports some of the experience of sitting down to read; he also records the experience of being a poet in England, with a living community of companions and a virtually living continuity of tradition going back far in time but not far at all in space.



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.


O golden-tongued Romance with serene lute!

Fair plumed Syren! Queen of far away!

Leave melodizing on this wintry day,

Shut up thine olden pages, and be mute:

Adieu! for once again the fierce dispute,

Betwixt damnation and impassion’d clay

Must I burn through; once more humbly assay

The bitter-sweet of this Shakespearian fruit.

Chief Poet! and ye clouds of Albion,

Begetters of our deep eternal theme,

When through the old oak forest I am gone,

Let me not wander in a barren dream,

But when I am consumed in the fire,

Give me new Phoenix wings to fly at my desire.


Souls of poets dead and gone,

What Elysium have ye known—

Happy field or mossy cavern,

Choicer than the Mermaid Tavern?1

Have ye tippled drink more fine

Than mine host’s Canary wine?2

Or are fruits of Paradise

Sweeter than those dainty pies

Of venison? O generous food!

Drest as though bold Robin Hood

Would, with his Maid Marian,

Sup and bowse from horn and can.3

I have heard that on a day

Mine host’s signboard flew away,

Nobody knew whither, till

An astrologer’s old quill

To a sheepskin gave the story,

Said he saw you in your glory

Underneath a new-old sign

Sipping beverage divine,

And pledging with contented smack

The Mermaid in the Zodiac.

Souls of poets dead and gone,

What Elysium have ye known—

Happy field or mossy cavern,

Choicer than the Mermaid Tavern?

1. Mermaid Tavern: Dating back to the sixteenth century, this tavern stood in London, to the east of St. Paul’s Cathedral, with one entrance on Friday Street. There was a Friday Street Club, which is said to have included Shakespeare, Raleigh, Donne, and Jonson.

2. Canary wine: light sweet wine from the Canary Islands; mentioned more than once by Shakespeare.

3. bowse: booze.