Keats: The Little Poetic Giant

February 22, 2010

Source: William Hilton

This essay on John Keats tied in with the release of Jane Campion’s movie Bright Star (2010) and appeared in an edited form as “The Odds Against Keats in The Straits Times (22 February 2010). It was published with an accompanying series of cartoons, Keats’s Odes Made Easy.

The English poet John Keats is an enigma to cultural historians. Born in 1795, he wrote almost completely against a backdrop of social and political turmoil that had gripped Europe since the French Revolution. But his works show very little of such disquiet and celebrate more the painful life of art and the eternal as glimpsed in beauty.

This quality makes Keats unique among the “Big Six” of English Romanticism, a pantheon that includes Keats’s own literary hero, William Wordsworth. Unlike Wordsworth, Keats was not spotted talent from the beginning partly because of his youth and lower-middle-class status. Regular belittling had led him to pay even more attention to his own artistic instincts and to hone them. Reacting to a reference to him as “the little Poet”, he quipped: “You might as well say Buonaparte [sic] is quite the little Soldier”.

Keats’s determination to excel poetically knew of its costs well, and he gladly abandoned his medical study at twenty to feed it. His early books were blasted by critics, with one advising this “boy of pretty abilities” to go back to “plasters, pills, and ointment boxes”. His own guardian – Keats being orphaned at a young age – confessed that his verse was like “the Quaker’s Horse”: it was “hard to catch, & good for nothing when he was caught”.

The preface to Endymion, published in 1818, nonetheless shows Keats’s willingness to reflect on his own setbacks from the vantage-point of a larger destiny. It acknowledges a “space of life” before artistic maturity when “the soul is in a ferment, the character undecided, the way of life undecided, the ambition thick-sighted”. Such insight grounding his perseverance was what would teach his later readers to see this juvenilia as training-ground for all his mature masterpieces.

Indeed, by the time his third volume appeared, Keats was already winning over some of his writings’ former sceptics. He had also met the great love of his life, Fanny Brawne, and produced the beautiful and often-cited Odes of 1819. His two incomplete Hyperion poems, executed during the same period of heightened creativity, are read today as proof of the frenzied rate at which his artistic vision was developing.

Friends were starting to liken Keats to William Shakespeare and John Milton, and the poet himself felt ready to venture into the genre of drama. But, just when fortune seemed at last to be favouring this struggling artist, Keats’s constant sickliness took a turn for the worse. His hurried trip to Rome in the hope of recovering there proved to be a mistake. He died from tuberculosis alone on foreign soil, at the age of twenty-five, in 1821.

The English have since come to recognise Keats as, among many things, a most quintessentially English poet. In a way not experienced before in a notable writer, all of his stylistic influences appear to be native in origin: Edmund Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, and so on. Even his requested epitaph, describing himself as “One whose Name was writ in Water”, drew from a play by Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher.

But every poet who has ever read Keats values above all his almost saintly commitment to art unmoved by money, quick fame and inauthentic comfort. Keats understood life’s transience but kept faith with a belief that only beauty and truth could be relevant pursuits. He famously described a power in poets to endure worldly mysteries, uncertainties, and doubts and to walk between the spheres of time and eternity. This “negative capability” perhaps gave him lightness at length to say: “I shall soon be in a second edition – in sheets – and cold press.”

Gwee Li Sui

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2 Responses to “Keats: The Little Poetic Giant”

  1. Gregory B. Says:

    Hello . . . who drew the Keats comics based on his poems? How can they be cited, thanks.

  2. Gweek Says:

    I did! 🙂 You can cite me (Gwee Li Sui), but let me know where you intend to use it? Thanks.


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