High culture is often riddling poetry readers with the assertion that John Keats wrote an enormous amount of great work in a very short period. It may seem rather annoying, even absurd, especially if you find his poems unbearable. In the interest of his upcoming birthday, and his somewhat marmite-like relationship with students and humans in general, let’s explore the factors that define his poetry, and even why some of them can be quite unfashionable.
Contemporary readers’ issues with Keats’ poetry spring from both form and content. For example, his use of iambic pentameter and other metres is incredibly elegant and diverse, yet heroic couplets and other strict rhyme schemes are distinctly old-fashioned, and his extension of these forms into attempts at epics can appear strained. In our times of experimentation with free verse, it has become increasingly difficult to spot the inherent value of these forms. Additionally, longer poems, such as his ‘Hyperion’ sequences and ‘Endymion’, can be hard to stomach unless the reader is versed in ancient mythology.
Keats appears as the antithesis to the concision of the Imagist movement and modern free-verse in general
Using an admittedly very loose historical framework, we can perhaps trace a growing apathy towards Keats through various developments in 20th century poetry. Indeed, Yeats and Eliot expressed distaste towards popular Romantic poets, and Keats appears as the antithesis to the concision of the Imagist movement and modern free-verse in general. On the other hand, Keats’ letters have provided critical ways of considering poetry that remain pertinent.
We may wish to cherry-pick the lasting phrases – ‘A thing of beauty is a joy for ever’, for example. Yet, the contemplative and somewhat repetitive aspects of Keats’ work are essential, presenting the philosophical and imaginative musings of a man living in constant fear of death. The vibrant images are a respite for the poet and the reader, but we must remember that Keats was incredibly wise, even if his ponderings appear outdated in the modern world of very suggestive and (often) deeply visual poetry. He is deeply interested in mortality, but also what it means to be a poet, especially one amongst nature.
This elusive perception of Keats’ poetry is perpetuated by a fear towards poetry in general; a notion of misunderstanding some great theme or idea. Typical advice is to simply immerse yourself in the poem, and Keats actively encourages this. Using ‘Hyperion’ as an exemplary difficult poem, we can explore inner beauty within an intimidating shell. He writes of the Titan Saturn, ‘Forest on forest hung about his head / Like cloud on cloud’, suggesting a vastness that overshadows the defeated Titans, yet also presenting an image of ancient figures that is tangible.
There is no question of the technical mastery on display
The assumed loftiness of classical mythology is rendered deeply tragic, human, and almost relatable. Thematically, these images convey a great loss, but, even detached from this, Keats’ descriptions of nature and objects is remarkably unique and imaginative. Consider the bubbles of wine ‘winking at the brim’, or the ‘murmurous haunt of flies’ – both from ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, perhaps his masterpiece. Of course, the language is dense and evocative, yet much of the joy of the poems comes from how animated and close to exaggeration these images are. There is no question of the technical mastery on display, although we can also understand a distaste towards Keats through his tendency for excess.
Ultimately, newer readers may well find that this beauty is obscured rather than highlighted by the constant references to ‘Nymphs’ and ‘Dryads’, as well as other now-anonymous creatures cruelly dulled by the passage of time. In contrast to this, and in spite of even his own fears of the contrary, Keats’ poetry has not vanished yet.