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.
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.
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.
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."