“If Poetry comes not as naturally as leaves to a tree it had better not come at all.”
John Keats, one of the greatest English poets and a major figure in the Romantic Movement, is the person who has left his indelible mark on English poetry. Science may one day ascertain the laws of distribution and descent which govern the births of genius; but a birth like that of Keats presents to the ordinary mind a striking instance of nature’s inscrutability.
Keats was dedicated to the excellence of poetry marked by vivid imagery that has expressed a philosophy through classical legend.
Birth & Early Life
Keats was born on 31 October 1795, the first of Frances Jennings and Thomas Keats’s five children. At the age of eight Keats entered Enfield Academy. Soon after his father died, this would-be genius young man was left to brave the bitter realities of life.
At school, Keats drew closer to the headmaster, John Clarke, and his son, Cowden. Keats’s sense of the power and romance of literature began as the Clarkes encouraged him to turn his energy and curiosity to their library. According to Cowden Clarke, he “devoured rather than read” the books, he borrowed.
Keats as a Poet
The most momentous event in Keats’s life was the publication of his first poem in ‘The Examiner’. There was little critical reception, but Keats was attracting new friends who shared his literary tastes, among them Leigh Hunt, Benjamin Haydon and John Reynolds. He was already borrowing as many books as possible from various friends, and became an ardent admirer of Spenser and Shakespeare. This devotion to reading, which had begun after his father’s death and remained throughout his life, inspired his most famous poem of 1816, ‘On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer’.
First Work Published
The following year, 1817, was even more momentous for Keats. While living with his brothers George and Tom in Cheapside, he continued to write poetry; his first volume, Poems, was published by C and J Ollier on 3 March, 1817.
Keats and Romanticism
Keats belonged to romanticism. Romantic poets, because of their theories of literature and life, were drawn to lyric poetry.
The first two generations of Romantic poets lived through a time of extraordinary upheaval. The French Revolution and the acceleration of the Industrial Revolution led to unprecedented changes in the cultural and political structures of European society. The majority of poets writing through this period reflect these changes in their work. The young Wordsworth and Coleridge are deeply involved in the life of their times; Blake is a fiery radical ‘an outsider attacking the status quo. Shelley and Byron, for all the privileges of their birth, become critical exiles. And Keats? Keats is the great exception, according to received wisdom. He collapses onto a sickbed while his contemporaries leap to the barricades. He listens to the song of the nightingale while they catch the chant of the mob. He celebrates the alternative power of the imagination, while they describe the shadows of dark satanic mills.
All of the Odes of John Keats were written in May 1819, “Ode to a Nightingale,” “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” and “Ode on Melancholy” grew out of a persistent kind of experience which dominated Keats’s feelings, attitudes, and thoughts during that time. It is an admitted fact that each of them is a unique experience. They give union of joy and pain. This union is the fundamental fact of human experience that Keats has observed and accepted as true.
As in “Ode to a Nightingale” and “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” Keats tries to free himself from the world of change by identifying with the nightingale, representing nature, or the urn, representing art. These odes, as well as “The Ode to Psyche” and the “Ode on Melancholy,” present the poet as dreamer.
In 1818, John Keats went on a walking tour in the Lake District. His exposure and overexertion on that trip revealed the first symptoms of the tuberculosis, which finally ended his life. This literary giant went to the eternal abode on Feb 24th 1821 at the age of 25. His last request was to be buried under a tombstone, without his name.
Although Keats lived only twenty-five years and four months (1795-1821), yet his poetic achievement is extraordinary and unrivalled. His writing career lasted a little more than five years (1814-1820), and three of his great odes–“Ode to a Nightingale”, “Ode on a Grecian Urn” and “Ode on Melancholy”–were written in one month. John Keats also wrote letters which T.S. Eliot calls “the most notable and the most important ever written by any English poet.”
Keats was professionally trained as an apothecary that means a druggist.
Lord Byron and Shelley used to discuss Keats’s poetic achievements, and disagreed entirely on their success, although Byron came to appreciate Keats’s work later on.
John Keats’s mother, brother, and good friend Richard Woodhouse all died of tuberculosis, it was then termed as ‘consumption.”
He had deep wish to go abroad but despite moving to Rome, he succumbed to “consumption” in the winter of 1821.
The acute realization that he was likely to die an early death gives poignancy to lyrics like “When I have fears that I may cease to be/ Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain” and “O for ten years, to overwhelm myself in poesy!”
Famous Poems by John Keats
‘Bright Star, Would I Were Steadfast as Thou Art’
‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’
‘Ode On A Grecian Urn’
‘Ode To A Nightingale’
‘The Eve of St. Agnes’