By Annabelle Fuller

John Keats (born October 31, 1795 – died February 23, 1821) began life as the son of a stable-owner, and ended it as an unmarried, poor and tuberculosis-ridden young man. Somewhere along the way, he managed to become one of the most beloved poets of the English language and a perfect example of Romanticism.

This list is intended to collate the poems which reflect Keats’ extraordinary genius and ability to handle a range of themes and form, rather than simply his most famous. Since we have chosen to focus on his shorter poems here, an honourable mention must go to four of his longer narrative poems: “Isabella,” “The Eve of St Agnes,” and “Lamia.” Many more great poems haven’t made it, but here is our choice of the 10 greatest poems by John Keats.

 

10. “Fancy” (1818)

Inspired by the garden at Wentworth Place, this poem makes the list because it affords us a window into Keats’ creative process. It’s no secret that his imagination manages to elevate the everyday and produce what can be described as escapist poetry. The richness of the language showcases the classic Romanticism found in much of Keats’ work, with the imagery touching on hedonism, as well as his preoccupation with nature and the seasons (which is explored further in poems such as “To Autumn”).

Ever let the Fancy roam,
Pleasure never is at home:
At a touch sweet Pleasure melteth,
Like to bubbles when rain pelteth;
Then let winged Fancy wander
Through the thought still spread beyond her:
Open wide the mind’s cage-door,
She’ll dart forth, and cloudward soar.
O sweet Fancy! let her loose;
Summer’s joys are spoilt by use,
And the enjoying of the Spring
Fades as does its blossoming;
Autumn’s red-lipp’d fruitage too,
Blushing through the mist and dew,
Cloys with tasting: What do then?
Sit thee by the ingle, when
The sear faggot blazes bright,
Spirit of a winter’s night;
When the soundless earth is muffled,
And the caked snow is shuffled
From the ploughboy’s heavy shoon;
When the Night doth meet the Noon
In a dark conspiracy
To banish Even from her sky.
Sit thee there, and send abroad,
With a mind self-overaw’d,
Fancy, high-commission’d:—send her!
She has vassals to attend her…

(Above is an excerpt. Read the rest of the poem here)

 

 

9. “Ode on a Grecian Urn” (1819)

One of several great odes Keats wrote in 1819, this is one of Keats’ most philosophical poems. It discusses the link between art and humanity (as shown by the creation of the urn), and how essential true beauty is to man. Unlike the more despondent “Ode On Melancholy” or “Ode To A Nightingale”, this poem leaves us with a small thrill of optimism: the figures on the urn are in a constant state of pleasure, ‘For ever piping songs for ever new’, never to be ravished by time. The Romantic concept is about as Keatsian as it gets, so here are the poem’s first two stanzas.

Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness!
Thou foster-child of Silence and slow Time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fringed legend haunts about thy shape
Of deities or mortals, or of both,
In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
What men or gods are these? what maidens loath?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d,
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
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,
Forever 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, unwearied,
For ever piping songs for ever new;
More happy love! more happy, happy love!
For ever warm and still to be enjoy’d,
For ever panting, and for ever young;
All breathing human passion far above,
That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy’d,
A 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,
Is emptied 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.

O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede
Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou 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
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know

 

8. “To Lord Byron” (1814)

Though we have already compiled a list of the 10 Greatest Sonnets Concerning Other Poets, this poetic message from poet to poet has to be included in Keats’ best compositions. This poem was in fact written while Keats was just nineteen, and had not yet even met Byron. Here Keats praises what would later become a common feature of his own work – the paradoxical beauty of sadness. Though a short poem, he still manages to include much of the lyrical imagery for which he later became famous.

Byron! how sweetly sad thy melody!
Attuning still the soul to tenderness,
As if soft Pity, with unusual stress,
Had touch’d her plaintive lute, and thou, being by,
Hadst caught the tones, nor suffer’d them to die.
O’ershadowing sorrow doth not make thee less
Delightful: thou thy griefs dost dress
With a bright halo, shining beamily,
As when a cloud the golden moon doth veil,
Its sides are ting’d with a resplendent glow,
Through the dark robe oft amber rays prevail,
And like fair veins in sable marble flow;
Still warble, dying swan! still tell the tale,
The enchanting tale, the tale of pleasing woe.

 

7. “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” (1819)

It will perhaps be bemoaned that one of Keats’ most famous poems merits such a modest place on the list (though with so many to choose from such decisions will never be easy); after all, “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” is an iconic poetic figure, plucked from Arthurian legend and immortalised in Keats’ sparse, melodic verse. The desolate setting and bleak rhyme scheme convey the poem’s creative merit, but the power balance between man and woman is also a central theme, especially when compared with other works like “Lamia” and “The Eve Of St Agnes”. Here are the first few verses of the narrative poem.

O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.

O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
So haggard and so woe-begone?
The squirrel’s granary is full,
And the harvest’s done.

I see a lily on thy brow,
With anguish moist and fever-dew,
And on thy cheeks a fading rose
Fast withereth too.

I met a lady in the meads,
Full beautiful—a faery’s child,
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.

I made a garland for her head,
And bracelets too, and fragrant zone;
She looked at me as she did love,
And made sweet moan.

 

6. Ode on Melancholy (1819)

Brimming with dazzlingly vibrant imagery, this poem manages to describe death only by encompassing the many beauties of life and the natural world. As a piece of contradictions, it isn’t necessarily simple to decide whether this ode is optimistic, pessimistic, or perhaps a mixture of the two. Either way, the careful crafting and sheer volume of images has cemented it as one of Keats’ best poems.

No, no, go not to Lethe, neither twist
Wolf’s-bane, tight-rooted, for its poisonous wine;
Nor suffer thy pale forehead to be kiss’d
By nightshade, ruby grape of Proserpine;
Make not your rosary of yew-berries,
Nor let the beetle, nor the death-moth be
Your mournful Psyche, nor the downy owl
A partner in your sorrow’s mysteries;
For shade to shade will come too drowsily,
And drown the wakeful anguish of the soul.

But when the melancholy fit shall fall
Sudden from heaven like a weeping cloud,
That fosters the droop-headed flowers all,
And hides the green hill in an April shroud;
Then glut thy sorrow on a morning rose,
Or on the rainbow of the salt sand-wave,
Or on the wealth of globed peonies;
Or if thy mistress some rich anger shows,
Emprison her soft hand, and let her rave,
And feed deep, deep upon her peerless eyes.

She dwells with Beauty—Beauty that must die;
And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips
Bidding adieu; and aching Pleasure nigh,
Turning to poison while the bee-mouth sips:
Ay, in the very temple of Delight
Veil’d Melancholy has her sovran shrine,
Though seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue
Can burst Joy’s grape against his palate fine;
His soul shalt taste the sadness of her might,
And be among her cloudy trophies hung.

 

5. Ode to a Nightingale (1819)

Yet another ode composed in Keats’ annus mirabilis of 1819, this poem again gives us an insight into his perception of creativity and composition. The suggestion of magic and potion-making springs forth, with abstract ingredients like ‘a beaker full of the warm South’. The nightingale as both creature and symbol is unattainable, leading us as the reader on a vivid flight of Keatsian fancy. As one of the longer odes, here are the first two stanzas.

My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk:
‘Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,
But being too happy in thine happiness,—
That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees
In some melodious plot
Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,
Singest of summer in full-throated ease.

O, for a draught of vintage! that hath been
Cool’d a long age in the deep-delved earth,
Tasting of Flora and the country green,
Dance, and Provençal song, and sunburnt mirth!
O for a beaker full of the warm South,
Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,
With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,
And purple-stained mouth;
That I might drink, and leave the world unseen,
And with thee fade away into the forest dim:

(Read the rest of the poem here)

 

4. “To Sleep” (1816)

As much a hymn as anything else, this poem concerns a longing to escape sadness in sleep. For Keats, sleep becomes a snapshot of death, which he approaches with conflicting fear and desire. Is it a plea to God for a speedy death, or a statement of frustration that only God can control Keats’ life? The complex philosophical idea, rendered so beautifully in tight, syllabic verse, earns “To Sleep” a position high on the list.

O soft embalmer of the still midnight,
Shutting, with careful fingers and benign,
Our gloom-pleas’d eyes, embower’d from the light,
Enshaded in forgetfulness divine:
O soothest Sleep! if so it please thee, close
In midst of this thine hymn my willing eyes,
Or wait the “Amen,” ere thy poppy throws
Around my bed its lulling charities.
Then save me, or the passed day will shine
Upon my pillow, breeding many woes,—
Save me from curious Conscience, that still lords
Its strength for darkness, burrowing like a mole;
Turn the key deftly in the oiled wards,
And seal the hushed Casket of my Soul.

 

3. “On Seeing the Elgin Marbles” (1817)

Poets responding to objects of great beauty is a fairly common trope – think Shelley’s “Ozymandias” or Lazarus’s  “New Colossus” – but there’s something about this one that makes it more powerful than many rival ekphrastic poems. We can really feel Keats’ reaction to Phidias’ sculptures; rather than describing the now-controversial art, Keats tells us about what they represent, allowing us to paint a vivid enough picture of our own.

My spirit is too weak—mortality
Weighs heavily on me like unwilling sleep,
And each imagined pinnacle and steep
Of godlike hardship tells me I must die
Like a sick eagle looking at the sky.
Yet ‘tis a gentle luxury to weep,
That I have not the cloudy winds to keep,
Fresh for the opening of the morning’s eye.
Such dim-conceived glories of the brain
Bring round the heart an indescribable feud;
So do these wonders a most dizzy pain,
That mingles Grecian grandeur with the rude
Wasting of old Time—with a billowy main—
A sun—a shadow of a magnitude.

 

2. “To Autumn” (1819)

This poem’s first line is one of the most iconic of all time. Arguably, no other poet has managed to create such a beautiful depiction of the season so deftly, or with such a kaleidoscopic wealth of images. Keats is able to convey the synaesthesia of three months in just three days. The naturalistic, almost pastoral language is reminiscent of Hardy in places, though achieves as much with a fraction of the words.

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

Where are the songs of spring? Ay, Where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

 

1. “Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art-” (1819)

Here we go – the best poem ever written by Keats. Though experts disagree on whether it was written or revised for Fanny Brawne, she is certainly agreed to be central to the poem. It has Shakespearean scope, and a strange air of elevated calm about it. Written less than three years before Keats’ death, it darts from the cosmic to the earthly, blending them together to produce a poem that speaks to the soul.

Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art—
Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like nature’s patient, sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors—
No—yet still stedfast, still unchangeable,
Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever—or else swoon to death.

 

There you have it – Keats’ many dozens of wonderful works whittled down to the top ten. Some much-loved poems have certainly been missed off, so if you want justice for a particular poem (or simply feel that some reorganisation is in order), please comment below.

 

Annabelle Fuller is a student and poet from Yorkshire who writes for The Indiependent. She has had poems displayed in the V&A, Sigmund Freud Museum and Oxford University Church, and won her category of the Ilkley Literature Festival in 2016 and 2017. Her work can also be found in New Poetry Magazine and on the Poetry Society website.

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5 Responses

  1. James Sale

    It’s always great to read and re-read Keats’ poetry and Annabelle Fuller has done a great service here, and she is so right in saying that ‘many more great poems haven’t made it’ – so profoundly right! We all have our favourites, of course, and the danger is that it can become too subjective; but the purpose of criticism is to extend reasons that go beyond the subjective, so that the case for ‘something’ is empowered. Thus, Bright Star could be never be Keats’ no 1 poem, as it is too laboured and sentimental, although its runner-up, To Autumn, arguably could. But arguably is not enough, for Keats is so high in the poetic pantheon not just because he wrote the most superb lyrics (La Belle Dame, a personal favourite of mine included here), but because he is an epic poet. A failed one – he died at 26 – but epic nonetheless; and so what is truly missing from this list are his two greatest works: Hyperion and the revised Fall of Hyperion. What is staggering about these two poems is that I cannot think of one poet post Milton who achieved the grandeur, the sublimity, the elevation of language in blank verse that Keats achieved in these two fragmentary masterpieces. It is true that the inspiration is fading by the time one gets to Book 3 of his original Hyperion, which he knew himself, and so he swotted up on Dante, and introduced a whole new dimension in the revised version, but the fact remains that he is ‘epic’ in the true sense, and that is such a rare distinction it is worthy of celebration.

    Reply
    • David Gosselin

      I somewhat agree. One could argue Hyperion would have been his best work, had it been truly finished. The irony is that Keats complained of the miltonisms of the first Hyperion.

      I think the real issue however is that Keats is not a Romantic. It has to be squarely said that Keats represented a true revival of classical metaphor, that distinguishes itself by going beyond what one can touch, taste, see, hear, or smell, what one can “imagine” as Keats described himself when making the distinction between Byron and himself (as was mentioned in the comments before. Wordsworth and Coleridge, along with Byron represented a distinctly opposite moral and intellectual standard. This was in fact made explicit in the release of Coleridge and Wordsworth’s lyrical ballads released with a preface explaining they were not striving to use high and elevated language and high ideals that only alienate ‘the common’ man. The Romantic is obsessed with sensuality and wallows in it, while a Keats, a Shakespeare or Dante only use sensuality as a means of jumping off into that nether world, largely done by demonstrating where the senses breaks down i.e. Classical irony.

      It’s no coincidence that Keats modelled all his great Odes on Dante’s canzone form. Keats was defending and upholding the classical tradition.
      With that said I would say Ode to a Grecian Urn is arguably the Mona Lisa of English poetry because of the choice of form and subject.
      From my experience, perhaps the greatest article written on Keats and his poetry is from the Schiller Institute. I knew nothing about Keats until I read this and it forever changed my life.

      http://schillerinstitute.org/poetry/2009/keats_odes_leach.html

      Reply
  2. B. S. Eliud Acrewe

    I admired the poetry of John Keats in my youth. His experiments with the odes have helped me on my own poetic journey through life. Yet, I must admit I find much of his poetry tiresome now, as my tastes tend to be more classical; and, in this respect, I suspect, I am entirely out of sync not only with the tastes of most of the members of the SCP, but nearly all of my contemporaries as well.

    Still, I appreciate Ms. Fuller’s attempt to list the ten greatest poems of John Keats, an impossible task, and her bringing to light a poem of Keats I had not known—that sonnet to Byron—which suggested a paltry [a word Keats well understood] sonnet of my own.

    I have the following quote in mind from John Keats to his brother George in September 1819: “You speak of Lord Byron and me—There is this great difference between us. He describes what he sees—I describe what I imagine—Mine is the hardest [sic] task.”

    There was “great difference” between the two
    of them—George Gordon Byron and John Keats;
    but not what Keats imagined was the true,
    but rather that which Byron could perceive.
    John Keats too sweetly sang his melodies,
    his failed “epics,” filled with whimpering,
    indulged so much in dulcet miseries
    the poetry comes off as simpering.
    While Byron’s poetry kept humour with
    his melancholic, artificial pose;
    in peppered, pompous, pretty-powered pith,
    he still remembered Alexander Pope.
    Keats strove for greatness in his gracious odes,
    but Byron drove along much rougher roads.

    I do agree with Mr. Sale that it is hard to place a single sonnet as the best work of Keats; but, in my mind, “Bright Star” accomplishes what “Hyperion” does not—completed, successful, artistic thought. I understand that Mr. Sale finds the “Hyperion” and “The Fall of Hyperion” to be filled with “grandeur…and sublimity”; but I find the blank verse there less than satisfying, especially compared to that of Milton, and such a far remove from Shakespeare’s blanks verse, as to irritate me in the way that so much of Romantic, Victorian, Modern, Postmodern, and New Millennial verse does. As such, I doubt whether Mr. Sale could disabuse me of such obtuseness.

    Nevertheless, in Keats’ sonnet, the language is impeccable, albeit “strange.” And I would go so far as to say that this sonnet is superior to many of Shakespeare’s own remarkable sonnets, the extraordinary balance between octave and the sestet, the well-placed repetition, the imagery, the linguistic structure, and the striking simile. His couplet is very Shakespearean in its import as well. I also agree that the poem “darts from the cosmic to the earthly,” a nice phrase Ms. Fuller uses to catch Keats’ art.

    As I have elsewhere explained, it is the Odes and “The Eve of Saint Agnes,” completed poems, that I would place at the top. of Keats’ oeuvre.

    Reply

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