Other literary forms

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In The Use of Poetry (1933), T. S. Eliot referred to the letters of John Keats (keets) as “the most notable and the most important ever written by any English poet,” primarily because “there is hardly one statement of Keats about poetry, which . . . will not be found to be true.” The letters also offer an important gloss on specific poems and have thus become important for understanding Keats. Besides many passing comments of brilliance, the central concept of the letters is “negative capability.” As defined by Keats, it is the capability to remain “in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason,” which implies a disinterestedness that permits even competing ideas full play to reach their potential. In his letters, Keats often carried an idea to its extreme with extraordinary intellectual flexibility; another day, its opposite will surface to be worked out, as all things “end in speculation.” The concept is also taken to include Keats’s understanding of the poetical character, or the ability to surrender one’s personal self to create characters and objects with independent life. Keats believed that the artist’s first responsibility was to create beauty, which implies that the artist’s personally held ideas and beliefs should be temporarily suspended or treated only partially so as to realize fully the work’s aesthetic potential. Through the use of sympathetic imagination, Keats attempted to become the thing he was creating, to intensely identify with its life, not to find his personal life reflected in it. The standard edition of Keats’s letters is The Letters of John Keats, 1814-1821 (2 volumes; 1958, Hyder Edward Rollins, editor). Text citations are to that edition.


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Without being facetious, one could identify John Keats’s greatest achievement as becoming one of the greatest poets of the English language in twenty-five years, three months, and twenty-three days of life, for Keats died before the age of twenty-six. Douglas Bush has said that no other English poet would rank as high as Keats if he had died as young—not William Shakespeare, John Milton, or Keats’s greatest contemporary, William Wordsworth. Whereas other poets, especially his Romantic contemporaries, have gone in and out of critical fashion, Keats’s reputation has endured since shortly after his death.

Keats followed the Shakespearean model of impersonality in art; that is, the surrendering of self to the fullest development of character and object, and it is this impersonality, coupled with intensity, that makes his poetry readily accessible to a wide range of modern readers. The reader does not have to re-create Keats’s time, empathize with Romantic norms and beliefs, or identify with the poet’s unique biographical experiences to appreciate his poetry fully. Keats is sane, honest, and open; his art is varied, intense, and rich in texture and experience. As he said of his poetic model, Shakespeare, Keats was as little of an egotist as it was possible to be, in the Romantic period, at least, in the creation of art.

Discussion Topics

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To what extent does John Keats’s concept of Negative Capability contradict the notion of lyric poetry as an expression of personal feelings?

How does Keats alter the Greek legend of Diana’s love for Endymion?

Comment on Keats’s letters as works of art.

Explain how Keats makes a Grecian urn vital to the reader.

Considering Keats and also some of his contemporaries, is it reasonable to regard 1819 as the most important year in English poetry?

Contrast the imagery of Keats’s “To Autumn” and Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind.”

How important for Keats’s poetry was his medical training?

(This entire section contains 105 words.)

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Bloom, Harold, ed. John Keats. Rev. ed. New York: Chelsea House, 2007. Contains essays on the poetry of Keats. Includes essays on the Hyperions, “La Belle Dame sans Merci,” and “The Eve of St. Agnes.”

Christensen, Allan C. The Challenge of Keats: Bicentenary Essays, 1795-1995. Atlanta: Rodopi, 2000. Contributors to this volume reexamine some of the criticisms and exaltations of Keats to find a new analysis of his achievement. Delivers an appraisal of the historical and cultural contexts of Keats’s work and an in-depth discussion of the influences and relationships between Keats and other poets.

Cox, Jeffrey N. Poetry and Politics in the Cockney School: Keats, Shelley, Hunt, and Their Circle. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. This monograph in the Cambridge Studies in Romanticism series examines the “second generation” of Romantics (those associated with Leigh Hunt) and challenges the common idea that the original Romantics, including Keats, were solitary figures, instead postulating the social nature of their work. An entire chapter, “John Keats, Coterie Poet,” is devoted to Keats.

Hebron, Stephen. John Keats. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. A biography of Keats that delves into his life and works.

McFarland, Thomas. The Masks of Keats: The Endeavour of a Poet. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. The well-known scholar of Romantic literature surveys the essence of Keats.

Motion, Andrew. Keats. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999. A biography that emphasizes Keats’s politics as well as his poetry and personality. Motion won a Whitbread Prize for his biography of Philip Larkin, but Keats is his first dealing with the Romantic period. Highlighting the tough side of Keats’s character, Motion puts to rest the image of Keats as little more than a sickly dreamer.

Robinson, Jeffrey C. Reception and Poetics in Keats: My Ended Poet. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998. Readings of other poets’ poems addressed to or about Keats, followed by an examination of Keats as a precursor to the visionary, open-form poetry of some of the modern age’s experimental poets.

Siler, Jack. Poetic Language and Political Engagement in the Poetry of Keats. New York: Routledge, 2008. Applies Peter Burger’s aesthetic categories in an interpretation of the poetry of Keats.

Sitterson, Joseph C., Jr. Romantic Poems, Poets, and Narrators. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 2000. An examination of narrative and point of view in the poetry of the Romantic poets William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Blake, and Keats. Close readings of the major poems, including Lamia, from various critical perspectives. Includes bibliographical references and index.

Whale, John. John Keats. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. Examines the poetry and letters of Keats with an emphasis on gender and sexuality as well as love and desire.


Critical Essays