John Keats - A MIRACLE CALLED KEATS, LIFE, KEATS AND ITALY, WORKS, FEATURES AND THEMES, ODE ON A GRECIAN URN
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty, - that is all
Ye know on earth, and all
ye need to know”
(Ode on a Grecian Urn)
On the cover: John Keats in a portrait by J. Severn(London,
MIRACLE CALLED KEATS
achievement, if set against the shortness of his life, has something of the
miraculous. He died at twenty-five, yet it is in some of his poems that English
romantic poetry seems to reach the acme of artistic perfection. Other poets may
rank higher than he for the range and variety of their achievement, but none
possessed a able awareness of the métier
of poetry or struggled as much as he did to render his vision with extreme
purity of form and language. Keats has indeed become a symbolic ure in
English literature, the ure of the artist who regards his life as a priesthood in the service of poetry and poetry as a
religion. “My immagination is a
monastery”, he once wrote in a letter to Shelley, “and I am its monk”. Keats matured rapidly both as a man and as a
poet in the short space of only a few years.
Keats was born in London
towards the end of October 1795, the eldest son of humble but well-off family.
His father Thomas, was a stable-keeper, married his master’s daughter and had
three other children: George, Tom and Fanny. From about 1803 to 1810 or 1811 he
attended a private school in Enfield and,
following the early deaths of his father, killed in a riding accident, and of
his mother for tubercolosis, he was apprenticed to a surgeon at Edmonton. In 1815 became
a medical student in London,
where in the following year he obtained a certificate authorizing him to
practise as an apothecary. In 1816 Keats made friends with the poet and the
critic Leigh Hunt and with the painterRobert Haydon. They took him to see
the famous Elgin Marbless, the sculptures brought to England by lord Elgin
from the Acropolis in Athens, and kept in the BritishMuseum. Greek plastic art enchanted him
and deeply influenced his future poetry. In 1817, with the help of the same
Leigh Hunt and Shelley, he published his first volume of verses: “Poems, by John Keats”. In June 1818 the
poet’s brother, George, got married and decided to emigrate
Keats accompanied him as far as Liverpoll and, together with his friend Charles
Brown, set out on a walking trip through northern England
This proved excessive for him: physical faticue, rain and a rough diet gave him
a violent cold, which would eventually result in tubercolosis. So he was
obbliged to return to London.
In 1818 “ Endymion” appeared. It was also in 1818 that
Keats fell deeply in love with Fanny Brawne, to whom he wrote some of the most
beautiful and passionate love letters in English literature, but whom he was
infortunately unable to marry because of in health and professional setbacks.
following year, 1819, was his “Annus
mirabilis”, when he composed almost all of his greatest poems. In 1820
Keats coughed up blood and the symptoms of consumption became evident. In
September of the same year Keats travelled to Italy
in an effort to recover his health, but died in Rome in February 1821. He was buried in the
protestant cemetery at Rome,
not far from the place where Shelley was to lie a year after. Keats dictated
his own epitaph to his friend Joseph Severn: “Here lies one whose name was writ in water”. These words reflect
the poet’s view of himself and his art.
Italy was the country that inspired
Keats, Shelley and Byron for some of their productions. While Byron and Shelley
come to Italy for choice or
vocation, John Keats arrived in Italy
affected by tubercolosis revealed to him when he was 25 years old; before that
period he had got a very good health.
had lost his brother Tom for the same illness, so in this way he under stood his own disease. His doctor suggested him the
italian mild climate. Shelley wrote to him inviting
him to Pisa but Keats had already rent a small
flat in Rome,
in 26 Sna square (now it has became foundation dedicated to him) with the
help of his friends. On September 1820 he sailed for an atlantic
journey with his friend, the painter Severn.
The ship stopped in Naples, so Keats reached Rome by carriage, after a
trip in the desolate countryside which appeared to him an ocean but even
cruel to e his arrival in Italy
to Byron and Shelley’s one: Rome
wasn’t for him a cultural destination, but a terminal hospital. He lived from
November to February in the small flat of Sna square, assisted by his friend
who heated the food, bought in a restaurant near the house, in the chimney.
wasn’t able to read and to write, except for a goodbye letter. His obsession
was to die in a too brief time before writing praiseworthy works. We don’t know
how much we have lost with his death but at least his obsession is unfonded: in
only 25 years of life Keats offered to humanity some of greatest odes and other
masterpieces. Maybe he’s the greatest among the three, he has Leopardian pace.
The only thing he knew in Italy
was Naples port where he waited still, like in
an anguished dead calm; the only things he knew in Rome were flocks’ breats and herds’ lows
coming from the countyside to the dawn and the quitness and continuos rusteing
of the fountain. He asked Severn to deliver to
the coffin with his body his girlfriend’s letters and a hairlock that she had
given him. At four p.m. on 23 February he called his friend feeling that he was
going to die. When Severn approched to him, he
said to him hugging: “…” and again: “…”.
Italy puts on a great importance for
Keats and all english romantics, wheter for its
landscapes, or for its artistic tradiction. The Mediterranean
sea, like cradle and keeper of artistic
beauty, was a loved patrimony for the whole european romanticism but, in
particular, englishes feel the phenomenon in drammatic way. In their opinion,
in fact, Italyrepresent that sense of beauty which they see languishing in
the utilitarian England
of industrial revolution. Its nature, still uncontaminated by
factory and smokes, offeres them a rinnovated spiritual and corporal life.
cities appear in romantic english poetry in their
straordinary armony between natural enviroment and architectonic splendour:
this is in contrast with the new hell-city of industrial age. His ancient
poetic and artistic treasure is the instrument that leads the romantic poet to
the far origins of european culture which the new
England seems want to forget. So Italy becomes an isolated et
that the English poet loves and mythicizes as nature and artistic tradiction.
wrote about a hundred and fifty poems, but his best works were composed in the
short span of only three years, from 1816 to 1819.
earned everlasting fame for works that he wrote before he was twenty-five: no
other major poet was able to do so much in so short life.
production can be roughly grouped into:
EARLY MINOR POEMS
-On First Looking into Chapman’s
Homer, on his
delight at readingGeorge Chapman’s 17th-century translation of Homer’s Odyssey.
-Sleep and Poetry, showing Keat’s indebtness to
Wordsworth and containing an invective against the Augustan tradition in
-I Stood Tip-toe, which shows Keat’s enthusiasm for
Greek myth and natural beauty.
-Endymion, the first long poem in four books in rhymed
couplets the following year. It’s full of undisciplined luxuriance, of
sensation introduced for its own sake, so that the story –the greek myth of the
sheperd of Mount Latmos, who was loved by the moon– is lost in the abundance of
contrived settings through which he takes his hero: each setting being the
excuse for the exercise of Keats’ rich descriptive power rather than playing an
organic part in the development of the story or the enrichment of its meaning.
Keats knew the faults of Endymion
before he had finished it: in his preface he admitted that it was written in
that dangerous stage between childhood and full manhood, in aperiod of
adolescent mawkishness. But it was for him a necessary stage.
-Isabella, or the Pot of Basil, published in 1820. Abandoning the
rhymed couplet for “ottava rima”, he rendered this strange tale of love and
death and devotion which he got from Boccaccio in an idiom deliberately
primitive in feeling and colouring. There is a deliberate quaintness in the
narrative style; the emotion is not dwelt on but illustrated by carefully
chosen images: everything is bathed in clear white light. The poem is a piece
of craftsmanship which shows Keats giving objective poetic form to his response
to this medieval Italian tale.
-Hyperion, an unfinished epic and mythological fragment
on the defeat of the Titans by the Gods. It’s shows
the influence of Milton
in its relatively weighty and sonorous blank verse, a new style for Keats. As
in Endymion, the theme is from Greek
mythology, and again Keats endeavors to put profound allegorical meaning into
the story. But though the verse has a certain
grandeur, and an impressive musical and elegiac quality, and though some of the
descriptive passages stand out as perfectly chiseled set pieces, the ultimate
architectonic concept seems to be lacking and Keats was unable to keep the poem
-The fall of Hyperion, a revised version of Hyperion, where the style is less
obviously Miltonic and a deliberately discursive and philosophic note is
introduced; but this, too, he left unfinished, being unsatisfied with the
results of Milton’s influence on him and believing that this was not the way to
the union of thought and sensation to which he was moving in his final phase.
-The Eve of St.
early in 1819, Keats’ annus mirabilis,
is not only Keats’ greatest narrative poem but the poem in which those aspects
of his art which are conventionally called “romantic” are most perfectly
illustrated. It’s a romantic love story in the midst of a family feud,
reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet. Written in Spenserian stanzas, the poem is a
disillation of the medieval heroic concept of passion successfully braving
chill danger. Symbolic imagery is effectively used throughout: the storm
outside, the heraldic forms and colors, the exotic list of dainties, and the
central action itself, a young lover stealing away his bride from a hostile
environment. The atmosphere is that of the Middle Ages, but a symbolic Middle Ages, where art, ritual, superstition, revelry, and
luxury form a background against which nameless evil threatens perfect love.
-Lamia, the story of a witch transformed by Hermes
from a serpent into a beautiful maiden and then into a serpent again.
-La Belle Dame Sans Merci, a ballad, where Keats develops the
folk theme of beautiful but evil lady into an uncanily powerful expression of a
sense of loss, mystery and terror.
two sonnets When I Have Fears and Bright Star.
Great Odes: it is in the odes , in which the perfection of form combines with a
deeper and tragic sense of human experience, that Keats gave the fullest
expression of his poetic genius. The central theme of the best odes is that
peculiarly romantic sense of a conflict between the real and the ideal, between
the human longing after a life of beauty and happiness and the tragic awareness
of sorrow and death as the ultimate reality of man’s existence in the world.
They’re: - To Psyche
- Ode on a Nightingale
- Ode on a Grecian Urn
- Ode on Melancholy
-Ode on Indolence
-Letters (including the ones written to Fanny Brawne),
described by T.S. Elliot as “the most notable and the most important ever
written by any English poet”. They give a clear insight into his artistic
development. Written with freshness and spontaneity, they reveal his own
spiritual growth, and witness his passionate love for poetry.
some of the Romantic poets, he devoted only a small part of his energies to the
chief poetic form of subjective writing. In fact, his lyrical poems are not
fragments of a continual spiritual autobiography, like the lyrics of Shelley
and Byron. Certainly there is some deeply felt personal experience behind the odes
of 1819; but the significant fact is that this experience is behind the odes,
not their substance. Moreover, the poetical personal pronoun “I” does not stand
for a human being linked to the events of his time, but for a universal one.
Another feature of Keats’s striking departure from the central creed of
Romanticism is indicated by his remark: “scenery
is fine, but human nature is finer”.
common Romantic tendency to identify scenes and landscapes with subjective
moods and emotions is rarely present in his poetry; it has nothing of the
Wordsworthian pantheistic conviction, and no sense of mystery. Keats was truly
a student of his art, and this is another characteristic that distinguishes him
from most of the Romantic poets, especially from those of his own generation,
because if they occasionally theorised about poetry, they did not think much
was his belief in the supreme value of the Imagination
which made him a Romantic poet. The imagination of which Keats’s poems are
truly the fruit takes two main forms. In the first place, the world of his
poetry –of the long narrative poems in particular– is predominantly artificial,
one that he imagines rather than reflects from direct experience. Furthermore,
Keats has all the Romantic fondness for the unfamiliar and strange, and for the
remote in place and time. In the second place, Keats’s poetry stems from
imagination in the sense that a great deal of his work, even of the odes, is a
vision of what he would like human life to be like, stimulated by his own
experience of pain and misery.
strikes his imagination most is beauty,
and it is his disinterested love for it that differentiates him from the other
Romantic writers and makes him the forerunner of writers like Tennyson,
Rossetti, the Pre-Raphaelites, Oscar Wilde and the aesthetes, who saw in his
cult of Beauty the expression of the principle “Art for Art’s sake”. In fact,
the contemplation of beauty is the central theme of Keat’s poetry. It is mainly
the classical Greek world that inspires Keats. To him, as to the Hellenes, the
expression of beauty is the ideal of all art. thus the
world of Greek beliefs lives again in his verse, re-created and re-interpreted
with the eyes of a Romantic.
first apprehension of beauty proceeds from the senses, from the concreteness of
physical sensations. All the senses, not only the nobler ones, sight and hearing, as in Wordsworth’s poetry, are involved in this
process. This physical beauty is caught in all the forms nature acquires, in
the colours it displays, in the sweetness of its perfumes, in the curves of a
flower, in a woman. Beauty can also produce a much deeper experience of joy, as
Keats affirmed in the opening line of Endymion,
“A thing of Beauty is a Joy for ever”,
and it introduces a sort of spiritual beauty, that is the one of love,
friendship and poetry. These two kinds of beauty are closely interwoven, since
the former linked to life, enjoyment, decay and death, is the expression of the
latter, related to eternity. Thus through poetry Keats is also able to reach
something that he believes to be permanent and unchanging in a world
characterised by mortality and sorrow.
the idea of the immortality of beauty, Keats also formulated a theory of
“negative capability”, the ability to experience
“uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact
and reason”. When a man can rely on yhis negative capability, he is able to
seek sensation, which is the basis of knowledge since it leads to beauty and
truth, and allows him to render it through poetry. This is a new view of the
ON A GRECIAN URN
ode was written in 1819. For Gitting the ode is an answer to two Haydon’s
articles, published on “Examiner” in 2 and 9 May. The “Ode on a Grecian Urn” was
published in 1 January 1820 on “The Annals of the Fine Arts” and later, with
some corrections, it was included in the collection of 1820.
Thou still unravished bride of quiteness,
of silence and slow time,
Sylvan historian, who canst
A flowery tale
more sweetly than our rhyme:
legend haunts about thy shape
or mortals, or of both,
or the dales of Arcady?
What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What
struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?
Heard melodies are sweet, but
therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual
ear, but, more endeared,
Pipe to the
spirit ditties of no tone:
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst
Thy song, nor ever
can those trees be bare;
Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the
goal–yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast
not thy bliss,
wilt thou love, and she be fair!
Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
Your leaves, nor
ever bid the Spring adieu;
And, happy melodist,
For ever piping songs for
More happy love! more happy, happy love!
For ever warm and still
to be enjoyed,
panting, and for ever young;
All breathing human passion far above,
leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloyed,
burning forehead, and a parching tongue.
Who are these
coming to the sacrifice?
To what green
altar, O mysterious priest,
Lead’st thou that heifer lowing
at the skies,
And all her silken flanks with garlands drest?
What little town by
river or sea-shore,
Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
of this folk, this pious morn?
And, little town,
thy streets for evermore
Will silent be; and not a
soul to tell
Why thou art desolate,
can e’er return.
Attic shape! Fair attitude! With brede
Of marble men and
With forest branches and the
silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity:
When old age shall
this generation waste,
shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to
man, to whom thou say’st,
“Beauty is truth,
truth beauty,–that is all
know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
applies to an ancient grecian urn, over which two
scenes are cut in marble: a young who tries to kiss a girl in a pastoral
background and an priest who prepares oneself to perform a sacrifice.
the pot or urn, that has inspired the poet, the critics have different
opinions: 1) the pot of Sosibio (in that period in Paris) 2) Bourgeois pot 3)
the Wedgwood reproductions of classic urns 4) Townley pot 5) the southern
ornament of Parthenon’s marbles. Today we can affirm that the urn is a fruit of
many details of different origin and it is breeded by Keats’mind.
themes of poetry are the mean themes of Keats: youth, beauty and love,
described in the “romantic” contrast between dream and reality. The scene,
represented on the urn with its immobility that annuls the running of the time,
becomes for the poet the symbol of the world of dream, where beauty and love
continue eternal. There is the ison between the world of pot and the
world of reality, where all things die.
poet wants try to conclude positively the ode with a famous message in the
penultimate verse: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty”. This message is discussed
very much and T.S.Eliot, for example, said “meaningless”. But the affirmation
on the ode is included in the romantic theory about the poetry like knowledge
where the fantasy isn’t only a faculty that creates the beauty but also the best
tool to know. In fact Keats wrote a letter to Benjamin Baily, where he said:
“What the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth”.
beauty, delivered from action of the time, is represented by the sound of
reed-pipe, the beauty of girl, the spring; the beauty is connected with joyful
and many youthful vitality. For these reason Keats opposes to these forms the
real life of man, marked by the pains, delusion (at the end of stanza III).
man is actratted by the eternity and wants to go beyond his limits but he
verses 49-50 are more discussed of all the work and the punctuation is
uncertain too: the first problem is “who speaks to whom?”.
The answer of critics are very different: 1) the urn speaks to man 2) the man
speaks and applies to urn 3) the verses are said by the poet and he applies to
the ures on the urn 4) who speaks is the urn but the poet applies his
message to readers 5) the first verse is said by the urn and the second verse
is the comment of poet, applied to the urn 6) the first verse is said by the
urn and the second verse is the comment of poet, applied to readers.
in verses 44-48 Keats is identified with the humanity-readers, using “us” and
“ours”, later he passes to “ye”: for this reason the first affermation seems
the only correct.