John Keats Keats, John - Essay


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

John Keats 1795–1821

English poet and dramatist.

See also, Hyperion Criticism.

John Keats, today renowned as a leading poet of the Romantic movement, was viciously snubbed by many contemporary critics and by other poets. During his lifetime, Keats struggled against the obstacles of his lower-middle class social standing, limited education, early association with the "Cockney School" of poetry, and poor health, as he sought to develop his skills as a poet and advance his poetical theories. Even after his premature death at the age of twenty-five, and well into the nineteenth century, Keats's poetry continued to be disparaged as overly sensitive, sensuous, and simplistic. By the twentieth century, however, his position within the Romantic movement had been revalued by critics. Keats continues to draw scholarly, critical, and popular attention. Issues examined by modern critics include Keats's political leanings; his theories regarding poetic imagination and "negative capability"; the rapid development of his poetry from the Cockney style to his more complex efforts, such as Hyperion, The Fall of Hyperion, and his later odes; and Keats's treatment of women in his poetry.

Biographical Information

Keats, the oldest of four children, was born in London in 1795 into a working, middle-class family. He lost both his parents at an early age; his father died when Keats was seven, and his mother died six years later. The Keats children were then placed within the care of a guardian. While attending the Clarke school in Enfield, Keats did not display any proclivity toward literature until the age of fifteen, when his friend Charles Cowden Clarke, the son of the school's headmaster, helped to interest Keats in mythology and travel-lore. At about the same time, Keats's guardian apprenticed the teenager to an apothecary-surgeon. Keats entered medical school and in 1816 passed the examinations required to become a surgeon. That same year, Keats met Leigh Hunt, who published the liberal journal the Examiner. In 1817, Keats published a volume of poems, which is typically characterized as an immature effort, although the few reviews the volume received were not wholly unfavorable. The 1818 publication of Endymion is regarded as a transitional effort by Keats, in which the influence of Hunt and his Cockney

style is still detected in the use of colloquialisms, and in the luxurious and sentimental style. Yet the poem also displays an increasing level of skill and maturity that would culminate in Keats's next volume of poetry, Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes, and Other Poems (1820). This publication would also be Keats's last; shortly after the publication of Endymion, the first symptoms of tuberculosis, the disease that had killed his mother and his brother Tom, began to trouble Keats. In the autumn of 1820, in an effort to stabilize his health in Italy's fair climate, Keats left England, what remained of his family, and his love, Fanny Brawne. Keats died in Rome five months later.

Major Works

Endymion, while still displaying some of the flaws of Keats's earlier poetry, was also graced with mythological, poetical, and artistic imagery. The story itself, chronicling the love of Endymion and Diana, is based in myth, although Keats's knowledge of it was taken from other English renderings of the myth, as Keats never learned Greek. The primary theme of the poem has been described by critics Samuel C. Chew and Richard D. Altick (1948) as "the quest of a unity transcending the flux of the phenomenal world." Keats's Hyperion, published in his 1820 volume of poetry, was followed by the incomplete The Fall of Hyperion, which is regarded by most critics as Keats's attempt to revise the earlier work. Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion, like Endymion, focus on mythological themes; the story centers on the Titans' fall to the triumphant Olympians. Some critics have suggested that the history of the French Revolution played some role in Keats's construction of the poem. Other works considered to be among Keats's greatest are the odes published in the 1820 volume, including "Ode to Psyche," "Ode to a Nightingale," and "Ode on a Grecian Urn." The poems examine such themes as the relationship between art and life, and the nature of human suffering.

Critical Reception

One issue modern critics have studied is the discrepancy between the initial, often negative, reception of Keats and his poetry and the stellar literary reputation Keats enjoys today. Marjorie Levinson (1988) focuses her study on the barrier posed by Keats's social standing, pointing out ways in which his lower-middle-class status affected his work and influenced the negative reviews offered by his critics. Concentrating on politics rather than class status, Nicholas Roe (1992) similarly maintains that Keats's potential political subversiveness was the reason his poetry was deprecated by contemporary critics. Like Roe, Morris Dickstein (1983) examines Keats's politics, demonstrating that early on, Keats was associated not only with Leigh Hunt's poetry, but also with his liberal politics. Dickstein further argues that Keats makes his revulsion for the politics of the day and his desire for social and political progress explicit themes in both his poetry and his letters.

Keats's letters are often studied by critics to gain insight into his poetical theories. Wolf Z. Hirst (1981) examines Keats's letters to his family and friends and discusses what the letters reveal about Keats's theories of "negative capability," the truth of Imagination, and "soul-making." Hirst interprets that by negative capability, Keats was referring to the ability of a poet to suppress his ego, to be "capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason… ." Keats's letters also reveal his belief that human suffering is a necessary experience in the processes of personality development and soulmaking, and that what the imagination apprehends as beauty must be truth. These theories are also reflected in Keats's poetry, and critic A. E. Eruvbetine (1984, 1987) examines the qualities of Keats's poetic imagination and of beauty as an aesthetic ideal, as displayed in his poems. Eruvbetine argues that to Keats, imagination served as the "true voice of feeling," that through the imaginative experience truth was revealed and new experiences could be envisioned. In the essay on beauty, Eruvbetine asserts that beauty represented to Keats a medium for accessing truth. While truth and beauty were apparently resolved into a single aesthetic ideal, the critic notes, beauty remained the focus of the ideal.

In addition to exposing his poetical theories, Keats's letters also conveyed his mixed emotions about the love of his life, Fanny Brawne. Critics such as Margaret Homans (1990) examine Keats's remarks to and about Fanny Brawne in his letters as a means of understanding the way in which women are portrayed in his poetry. Homans likens the objectification and distancing of Brawne in the letters to Keats's objectification of women in his poetry, and to the poet's attempts to exclude female readers from gaining access to his poems. Similarly, in Karla Alwes's 1993 study of Keats's exploitation of the female "not only as an ideal to be achieved but as an obstacle to that achievement," Alwes suggests that Keats's difficult relationship with Brawne is related to the depiction of the female in "La Belle Dame sans Merci," in which the critic argues "the male is seen as most vulnerable."

In addition to these areas of scholarship, modern critics still study Keats's poetry in more traditional ways, analyzing his imagery, style, and the structure of his poems. For example, Richard Harter Fogle (1949) explores the way in which the "concreteness" of Keats's imagery affects the metrical structure of his poems; François Matthey (1974) examines the development of the structural complexity of Keats's poetry; Jack Stillinger (1990) asserts that through narrative analysis Keats's poems can be better understood; and John A. Minahan (1992) investigates Keats's use of music in his poetry.

Most modern students and scholars appear to be interested in Keats as an individual and as a poet, noting that to fully appreciate the poetry, one must fully appreciate the man. As Jerome McGann (1979) argues, Keats must be approached historically, rather than in the strictest literary sense, if analysis of his poetry "is to achieve either precision or comprehensiveness."

Principal Works

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Poems (poetry) 1817

Endymion: A Poetic Romance (poetry) 1818

Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes, and Other Poems (poetry) 1820

Life, Letters, and Literary Remains of John Keats (letters and poetry) 1848

Another Version of Keats's "Hyperion" (poetry) 1856

Letters of John Keats to Fanny Brawne (letters) 1878

Letters of John Keats to His Family and Friends (letters) 1891

The Complete Poetical Works and Letters of John Keats (letters and poetry) 1899

Walter Jackson Bate (essay date 1945)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Apprenticeship: The Early Sonnets," in The Stylistic Development of Keats, The Humanities Press, 1958, pp. 1-19.

[In the following excerpt, originally published in 1945, Bate analyzes the style and structure of Keats's early poetry, particularly the sonnets. Bate explores the influence of Leigh Hunt, most notably in Keats's word and image choices, and in Keats's use of the caesura and metrical variations.]

"So this Poem must rather be considered as an endeavour than a thing accomplish'd: a poor prologue to what, if I live, I humbly hope to do."

—From the rejected Preface to Endymion.


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Samuel C. Chew and Richard D. Altick (essay date 1948)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "John Keats," in A Literary History of England, edited by Albert C. Baugh, Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc., 1948, pp. 1241-51.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1948, Chew and Altick offer a brief overview of Keats's life and works. The critics conclude by observing the impact of Keats on Victorian arts and literature.]

Keats,1 like Théophile Gautier, was "a man for whom the physical world exists." His genius was objective and concrete, moving not so readily in the world of abstract thought as in the world of imaginative realization.2 Yet critics who regard him as the lover and creator of sensuous beauty are opposed by those...

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Richard Harter Fogle (essay date 1949)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Concrete and Abstract Imagery," in The Imagery of Keats and Shelley: A Comparative Study, Archon Books, 1949, pp. 184-240.

[In the following excerpt, published originally in 1949, Fogle examines the characteristics of what many critics describe as the "concreteness" of Keats's imagery. Fogle demonstrates that Keats's technique of focusing his perceptions upon single objects results in the extraction of "the last drop of beauty and meaning" and also affects the metrical structure of the poetry.]


Critics are generally agreed that the imagery of Keats is "concrete." Robert Bridges, for example, in comparing his "Sleep and Poetry" with...

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Patricia M. Ball (essay date 1968)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Egotistical and Chameleon: Byron, Shelley, and Keats," Ch. 4 in The Central Self: A Study in Romantic and Victorian Imagination, The Athlone Press, 1968, pp. 103-51.

[In the following excerpt from her chapter, Ball argues that Keats 's poetry is marked by both egotism, in the poet's focus on his poetic vision as well as his own emotional needs, and by his chameleon-like response to his subject matter, that is, his ability to identify with and lose himself in the object of the poetry.]

… Keats in his letters darts like a bird above the rough ground where his poems stumble and fight their way forward. The letters perceive in flashes, the poems must fulfil his...

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François Matthey (essay date 1974)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Pyramidal Structure," in The Evolution of Keats's Structural Imagery, Francke Verlag Bern, 1974, pp. 145–93.

[In the following essay, Matthey argues that Keats employs within his poetry an increasingly complex structure, characterized by "rising and falling" imagery and symmetrical patterns, in order to complement the themes of the poems and heighten their emotional effects.]

A Sentimental Journey

The letters (27th April and 3rd May) in which Keats informs Reynolds of the completion of "Isabella" put an end to the young poet's evolution, so far as the structure of his poems is concerned. Indeed events take a dramatic turn as Keats...

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Priscilla Weston Tate (essay date 1974)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Mature Myth: From the Odes through 'The Fall of Hyperion: A Dream'," in From Innocence through Experience: Keats's Myth of the Poet, No. 34, edited by Dr. James Hogg, Institut fur Englische Sprache und Literatur, Universitat Salzburg, 1974, pp. 84-147.

[In the following essay, Tate explores how Keats's later poems reinforce his "myth of the poet." Tate explains that several major themes—including identity, "soulmaking," the visionary nature of a poet's quest, the role of the imagination, and the relationship between beauty and truth—exemplify Keats's belief that the role of the poet is to achieve a "mythic understanding of human life."]

In the...

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Jerome McGann (essay date 1979)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Keats and the Historical Method in Literary Criticism," in Modern Language Notes, Vol. 94, No. 5, December, 1979, pp. 988-1032.

[In the following essay, McGann first reviews the principles of historical literary analysis and then argues for the significance and necessity of using the historical approach in studying Keats's work, despite the "virtually unanimous decision of Western literary critics " that historical analysis is irrelevant to the understanding of Keats's poetry.]

Conflicts between formal or stylistic analysis and historical scholarship are a traditional problem in literary studies. In the field of hermeneutics, where the lines of disagreement...

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Wolf Z. Hirst (essay date 1981)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Letters," in John Keats, Twayne Publishers, 1981, pp. 32-50.

[In the following essay, Hirst demonstrates the significance of Keats's letters, asserting that within them, Keats reveals the details of his theories regarding "negative capability, " "soul-making," and the "truth of Imagination."]

I General Characteristics

Keats's 251 surviving letters provide a detailed record of his three most creative years and of the last year, when he no longer wrote poetry. They give us a clear picture of his personality, trace his development as a poet, and are full of spontaneous pronouncements on the nature of poetry which have become...

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Morris Dickstein (lecture date 1983)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Keats and Politics," in Studies in Romanticism, Vol. 25, No. 2, Summer, 1986, pp. 175-81.

[In the following lecture, given in 1983 and published in 1986, Dickstein argues that critics have wrongly "walled off Keats from the unseemly political passions of his contemporaries, " and goes on to identify the political aspects of Keats's poetry.]

It is no doubt a thankless task to try to open up the question of "Keats and Politics" in a ten-minute paper, especially in a setting so unpolitical as a panel on "Aesthetic Creation in Keats." Try to imagine a comparable session devoted to something called "aesthetic creation" in Byron, or Shelley, or even Wordsworth; the...

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A. E. Eruvbetine (essay date 1984)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Beauty: the Keatsian Aesthetic Ideal," in Studia Anglica Posnaniensia, Vol. 17, 1984, pp. 251-69.

[In the following examination of the function of beauty in Keats's poetry, Eruvbetine maintains that beauty is idealized by Keats because it serves as the medium for apprehending truth. While Keats resolves beauty and truth into one aesthetic ideal, Eruvbetine explains, beauty is the primary concept and the focus of the ideal.]

When Keats wrote "Sleep and Poetry" in the summer of 1816, he expressed the wish for "ten years that [he] may overwhelm/[Himself] in poesy; so [he] may do the deed/That [his] soul has to itself decreed" (96-8). However, as early as January...

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A. E. Eruvbetine (essay date 1987)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "John Keats's Notion of the Poetic Imagination," in Studia Anglica Posnaniensia, Vol. 20, 1987, pp. 163-77.

[In the following essay, Eruvbetine examines Keats's conception of the poetic imagination, stating that to Keats, the poetic imagination enabled the poet to "suspend his rigid instinctive and egotistical identity," and to become his subject by exploring and capturing the distinctive characteristics of the subject. Eruvbetine identifies several qualities of Keats's poetic imagination and argues that Endymion illustrates the qualities and function of the imagination.]

The Romantic sensibility derives its distinctness from a high sensitivity to...

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Marjorie Levinson (essay date 1988)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: An introduction to Keats's Life of Allegory: The Origins of A Style, Basil Blackwell, 1988, pp. 1-44.

[In the following excerpt, Levinson surveys aspects of Keats's life and writing within their original social context and studies the relationship between his life and works, noting that Keats was born into a lower social class than many other Romantics, including Wordsworth, Byron, and Shelley. After discussing the way social disadvantages affected Keats's writing, Levinson reviews some of the early criticism of Keats's work, particularly that of Byron.]

The true cause of Mr. Keats's failure is, not the want of talent, but the misdirection of...

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Margaret Homans (essay date 1990)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Keats Reading Women, Women Reading Keats," in Studies in Romanticism, Vol. 29, No. 3, Fall, 1990, pp. 341-70.

[In the following essay, Homans examines the reaction of female readers of Keats to his poetry, and observes the manner in which Keats viewed females and female readers. Homans also studies Keats's letters to Fanny Brawne, noting how he objectified and distanced himself from her; Homans compares this tendency to Keats's resentment of the power of female readers and to his attempts to exclude female readers from having access to his poetry.]

This paper began as an inquiry into women readers of Keats and the complex resistance—to borrow Judith...

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Jack Stillinger (essay date 1990)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Reading Keats's Plots," in Critical Essays on John Keats, edited by Hermione de Almeida, G. K. Hall & Co., 1990, pp. 88-102.

[In the following essay, Stillinger asserts that poetry should be read as fiction, in the sense that poems have plots, characters, points-of-view, and settings. Stillinger then reviews the several plots of Keats's poetry, arguing that examining the poems as narratives may yield a more complete understanding of them.]

A multitude of causes unknown to former times have combined to produce, in the minds of students, teachers, scholars, and English department administrators, a sharp and theoretically unjustifiable distinction between...

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Nicholas Roe (essay date 1992)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Keats's Lipsing Sedition," in Essays in Criticism, Vol. 42, No. 1, January, 1992, pp. 36-55.

[In the following essay, Roe suggests that one of the reasons Keats's politics and poetry were largely neglected by his contemporaries, and why his political interests are rarely recognized even today, was due to an effort by critics such as John Lockhart to discredit Keats as a man and a poet. Roe maintains that Lockhart and others took such measures because they recognized Keats's potential for subversiveness, and for threatening the "discourse of masculine authority" and the "prevailing codes of manliness."]

Keats's friend Richard Woodhouse wrote in his copy of...

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John A. Minahan (essay date 1992)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Varieties of Musical Experience," in Word Like a Bell: John Keats, Music and the Romantic Poet, The Kent State University Press, 1992, pp. 29-44.

[In the following essay, Minahan investigates the various functions of music in Keats's poetry, noting that music serves as an enjoyable escape, as a magical, "special" experience, and as an imaginative experience which offers insight into the ordinary. Minahan also observes the connection between music and one of Keats's most lauded ideals, truth.]

Allusion as articulation: Keats's use of music as an idea, although it tells us a great deal about the poet's attitude toward music, also tells us much more. We might...

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Karla Alwes (essay date 1993)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Introduction to Imagination Transformed: The Evolution of the Female Character in Keats's Poetry, Southern Illinois University Press, 1993, pp. 1-9.

[In the following essay, Alwes surveys Keats 's treatment of women in his poetry, asserting that the female is exploited "not only as an ideal to be achieved but as an obstacle to that achievement. " Alwes states that in Keats's poetry women symbolize the imagination and all it entails, from the joy of creation to the fear over its possible loss.]

A reader of Keats's works cannot help being struck by the abundance of female figures. Every major poem involves at least one feminine character—often more than...

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Vincent Newey (essay date 1995)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Keats, History, and the Poets," in Keats and History, edited by Nicholas Roe, Cambridge University Press, 1995, pp. 165-93.

[In the following essay, Newey explores the influence of other poets' political ideals on Keats and argues that Keats was "rather more conservative in outlook than is commonly assumed. " Newey states that despite Keats's "libertarianism and exposure of abuses," he appears to have assumed the superiority of the English over other cultures while favoring democratic, anti-authoritarian ideals.]

Keats's relation to 'the poets' is as much a factor in his thought and writing as are the fall of Napoleon or civil unrest in England, Waterloo or...

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Further Reading

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)


Stillinger, Jack. "John Keats." In The English Romantic Poets: A Review of Research and Criticism, edited by Frank Jordan, pp. 665-718. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1985.

Bibliographic study covering editions of Keats's works, biographies of Keats, as well as general criticism, "specialized" studies, and criticism of individual works.


Bewell, Alan J. "The Political Implication of Keats's Classicist Aesthetics." Studies in Romanticism 25, No. 2 (Summer 1986): 220-29.

Studies the relationship between the...

(The entire section is 762 words.)