The year 2021 is not just the anniversary of Dante’s death 700 years ago but also that of Keats 200 years ago. Fitting therefore to reflect on his life and poetry.
The key question is why Keats holds such a special place in the hearts of the English people. There is something pivotal about his poems. He looks back, sometimes overtly, at other times more subtly, to Chaucer, Shakespeare and Milton. His poetry is steeped in Roman and Greek Classicism which, along with the King James Bible, is the bedrock of English culture. He stood during his lifetime in the midst of that second great wave of poesy in the company of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley and Byron. And yet, there is something that sets him apart from them. It was a time of huge alterations in the world with new ideas swirling around and with radical political change in the air and these can be seen reflected in his poems.
There are phrases in Keats’ poems which are deeply ingrained in the collective memory of the English:
“Alone and palely loitering” (La Belle Dame sans Merci)
“tender is the night” (Ode to a Nightingale; chosen by F. Scott Fitzgerald as the title of his novel)
“A thing of beauty is a joy for ever” (Endymion; unfortunately appropriated by the commercial world to the point where it has become a cliché)
Despite the profundity of his thought, he could also write with charming sensitivity about the natural world thus tapping into another deep vein in English poetic tradition which was picked up by poets like John Clare and Thomas Hardy later in his century. Both artistically and in the way his life played out, dying as he did at the age of 25, he anticipates the early death of writers like D. H. Lawrence. But above all, he is the writer of the heart and soul. He touches us particularly at this time when thousands are being carried off by disease.
We have an obligation to share this great poet with Italians; after all he drew inspiration from Dante and from Boccaccio and it was in Rome that he died and was buried. In the following poems, each commented on by a different English person, we attempt to explain to you what it is that so strongly affects us and what sets Keats apart in English literature. The final contribution is a very lovely video which sums up Keats’ rebellious spirit, explores his links with Cockney London and juxtaposes his sensitivity to nature with the turbulent social and political events of his time:
La Belle Dame Sans Merci – Sleep and Poetry – Endymion
(Thoughts from Dave Betterton – Englishman, Brought Up in Berkshire)
A staple of 20th. century literary education in England, I believe, was Palgrave’s “Golden Treasury”, which contained sample poems from English writers up to the early days of that century. This Golden Treasury anthology included a poem with a strange title in a language clearly not my own. It was called “La Belle Dame Sans Merci”, a title filled with mystery. I remember trying to read the poem but not really absorbing all the words: but one line, repeated, struck deep and strange. “And no birds sing”. This was my introduction to Keats. I was a farmworker’s boy, perhaps I was nine or ten years old, attending the small village school which followed the traditional 1950s Church of England ethic. Here the – let us say – “higher” literature comprised mainly the King James Bible and this Golden Treasury amongst other poetry anthologies the names of which are now lost to me.
Thus a part of my brain forever is linked to this name of “Keats”. It has a strange otherness and intangible darkness heralded by a mysterious language and represented by an absence of birdsong.
I guess Wordsworth had it right with his line “the child is father of the man”. Those moments as a child opened a strange and dark place in my mind, a place which contained an “otherness” which insisted on being explained, nurtured, and revisited. A place which made real the notion that the world which I had hitherto inhabited had a dimension of mystery which was new and necessary. This, I am sure, is a common experience, but for me the catalyst for my version of the experience was those moments with Keats.
The excellence of that village school I attended meant that I was able to move with some good fortune through the English education system of those days. Exposure to great literature and poetry was thus available and guaranteed, but as I reflect on this now, I can recall no other literary moments which struck as viscerally in those Grammar (High) School years. Of course, there were resonances when I came across lines such as these in Keats’ early (1816) poem and his incomparable style in “Sleep and Poetry”:
“The visions all are fled—the car is fled
Into the light of heaven, and in their stead
A sense of real things comes doubly strong,
And, like a muddy stream, would bear along
My soul to nothingness: but I will strive
Against all doubtings, and will keep alive
The thought of that same chariot, and the strange
Journey it went.”
Literary critics will tell us that this chariot or car with its charioteer, represents the higher poetic imagination which embodies the delight, the mystery and the fear that define the grander poetic genres, such as epic. For those of us in the lower levels of critical knowledge, lines such as these are layered in ways which define a heroism in us all as we face doubtings on the one hand, and on the other, the possibility of finding a route to paradise. We know this because the lines tell us it is a route which has been travelled before.
In Keats’ early epic “Endymion” this concept of a journey is central, and it was in this poem where I found myself drawn into the journey, following, as one must, the pursuit by Endymion of an immortality through his perfect love as embodied by the Goddess of the Moon. For Keats, this poem was to be his first attempt at a true epic, decided in advance to be 4000 lines long, and to place him hopefully in the Temple of Fame. History tells us that Keats himself felt this attempt had failed, and certainly “Endymion” was not universally well received. As I write this now, I read from Keats’ own apologetic preface to the poem: “the imagination of a boy is healthy and the mature imagination of a man is healthy but there is a space of life between in which the soul is in a ferment, the character undecided, the way of life uncertain…”. A journey, then, which Keats recognised, and which his muse would map with increasingly transcendent skill.
On my own journey in Endymion, I came across these lines:
“There lies a den,
Beyond the seeming confines of the space
Made for the soul to wander in and trace
Its own existence, of remotest glooms.
Dark regions are around it, where the tombs
Of buried griefs the spirit sees, but scarce
One hour doth linger weeping, for the pierce
Of new-born woe it feels more inly smart:”
These lines drew me deeply into the passage which followed, and they brought me back to those moments with the place where “no birds sing” from my first encounter with Keats and his Belle Dame.
“And in these regions many a venom’d dart
At random flies; they are the proper home
Of every ill: the man is yet to come
Who hath not journeyed in this native hell.
But, how strange:
But few have ever felt how calm and well
Sleep may be had in that deep den of all.
There anguish does not sting; nor pleasure pall:”
It seems then that in the darkness and otherness, where misery and despair have reached depths which seem impossible to bear, the misery changes by some marvel to a deep contentment. And so the poet declares to Endymion (also named Carian):
“Hail, gentle Carian!
For, never since thy griefs and woes began,
Hast thou felt so content: a grievous feud
Hath let thee to this Cave of Quietude.”
For me, in the thought processes of youth, the idea of this Cave of Quietude struck deep, as it was a perfect image of a benevolent darkness where the soul’s disasters can be placed and mitigated by a process of mystery. The nature of that mystery was one which belongs to a faith that all will be well, because Quietude was the promise. The journey remained perilous, because there was always going to be the life of common and material things to negotiate, but with Keats’ imagery as companion, the perils were going to be manageable.
Ode to a Nightingale
(Thoughts from Pip Rolls – an Englishman, Born in London)
Keats “Ode to a Nightingale” gives me a minds-eye photograph album to call on. I can conjure up the beech woods near my home and the evening arias of a blackbird or thrush sung from a prominent spot on their territory, and my poor children have suffered from my enthusiasm as I regaled them with:
“Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,
Singest of summer in full-throated ease”
And then when I wander in the woods or sit in my garden, and experience the real thing, the words of Keats are re-printed in my mind.
When I drink a particularly flavour-some wine I can’t help but repeat, at least in my mind, since my wife has now heard the words too often:
“O, for a draught of vintage! that hath been
Cool’d a long age in the deep-delved earth,
Tasting of Flora and the country green,
Dance, and Provençal song, and sunburnt mirth !
O for a beaker full of the warm South”
That final line came to my aid when I had to work away from home in the cold north of Scotland when I thought of my wife and the comforts of home in the ‘warm South’.
Re-reading the poem before penning these few words I was struck by the opening words capturing Keats ennui in the sanatorium where he was suffering from tuberculosis:
“My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk”
I think we have all felt a bit like that on some days during the Coronavirus lockdown.
Sifting through the half dozen anthologies of English poems that I have, it seems that “To Autumn” and “Ode to a Nightingale” are the most popular of Keats’ poems and, even though nightingales are rare in England, their blackbird and thrush understudies are equally evocative.
When I have Fears That I May Cease to Be
(Thoughts from Nick Parker – an Englishman, Born in Hampshire)
“When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain,
Before high-pilèd books, in charactery,
Hold like rich garners the full ripened grain;
When I behold, upon the night’s starred face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour,
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
Of unreflecting love—then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.”
This is surely the ultimate epitaph. What is so tragic is that it was written by Keats in 1818, at the age of 22. The sentiments are those one might expect of somebody in their sixties or seventies. But Keats had already seen his mother die of tuberculosis and his brother, Tom, was about to go in the same manner. There is, then, a sense of incongruity about this and yet, older folk reading this can take some comfort from it; if Keats at such a tender age can be so accepting of his fate, surely we all can be as philosophical. What is perhaps more appealing is that there is no recourse to a power above. England is no longer a profoundly religious land and I think many people will take comfort from Keats’ ability to face the unknown without the intervention of a deity.
There is, in the image of gleaners and garners, a comforting connection to the rural world. Many of us like to think of ourselves still as a rural people and the idea that our life’s work can be measured like that of country folk who pick up spilt corn in the fields and store it in a granary taps into this idea we have of ourselves.
In his time, Keats was strongly criticisized for the colloquialisms in his verse. In particular, critics took exception to the use of –y and –ly modifiers as in ‘charactery’. But to us, in this century, I think this is part of his charm. We like the fact that he was declassé and lumped in with ‘the Cockney school’. We can, perhaps, relate to him more easily than to the high-minded Wordsworth or the aristocratic Byron.
The middle part of the sonnet reflects, without bitterness, on ‘that which might have been’; romantic liaisons we might have had and loved ones we might have spent more time with before we die. I don’t suppose this is a preoccupation which is unique to English people, but we do wallow rather in unrequited love. Perhaps ‘English reserve’ makes us more susceptible to this than other cultures; we are slow to declare our love for somebody.
The end of the poem is uniquely English. It is the endless litany of ‘the island nation’ taken up enthusiastically by Matthew Arnold in ‘To Marguerite’:
“Yes! in the sea of life enisled,
With echoing straits between us thrown,
Dotting the shoreless watery wild,
We mortal millions live alone.
A God, a God their severance ruled!
And bade betwixt their shores to be
The unplumb’d, salt, estranging sea.”
And in every century, I feel sure that it will be our eternal leitmotif:
“The river is within us, the sea is all about us;”
(T.S. Eliot; Four Quartets, No. 3)
Endymion – La Belle Dame Sans Merci – To Autumn – On The Grasshopper and the Cricket
(A Visual Celebration of Keats – Roy and Belinda Milani – an English couple, Born and brought up in London)
We put this video together in the spirit of Keats’ idea of “Negative Capability”. To quote him “…that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason”
Here are some notes to accompany the video:
00:15 First lines of “Endymion” book 1 1817
00:45 The Sex Pistols “Anarchy in The U.K.” 1976; The Sex Pistols, A London band, you might say Cockney, prominent in punk subculture. Keats in the 1970’s a punk maybe?
00:55 “Massacre at St Peter’s” by George Cruikshank 1819. On 16 August 1819 a mass rally in St Peter’s Field, Manchester calling for parliamentary reform ended in massacre when cavalry charged killing 17 and injuring hundreds. This was later ironically dubbed The Peterloo Massacre. Some argue that Keats’ “To Autumn” 1819 references Peterloo.
01:13 “John Keats” portrait by William Hilton 1822.
01:20 First lines of “Endymion” book 3 1817. Written 2 years before Peterloo these lines clearly indicate Keats’ political leanings earning the contempt and ire of the establishment.
02:00 The mysterious Z, later identified as John Gibson Lockhart, was not sparing in his invective against “Endymion”.
02:05 “John Gibson Lockhart” photograph by Robert Adamson and David Octavius Hill 1794.
02:20 Blackwood’s Magazine in which Z wrote and used the disparaging term “Cockney School of Poetry” to ridicule Keats and his work. An attack on class and culture.
02:35 “Knees Up Mother Brown” a Cockney pub song dating back to the early 1800s.
02:50 First lines of “There Was A Naughty Boy” 1818.
03:00 Extract from “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” 1819; “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” by Frank Cadogan Cowper 1924; “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” by Frank Bernard Dicksee 1901; “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” by John William Waterhouse 1893.
04:15 Trevi fountain, Rome. Rome is where Keats spent the last months of his life.
04:30 “One whose name was writ in water”. Words Keats requested should be written on his gravestone.
04:35 “John Keats” by Charles Brown 1819.
04:50 First lines of “On The Grasshopper and the Cricket” 1816.