By Joshua Philipp

The poetry of John Keats is known for its light and dreamy nature. Even in his time, in the early 1800s, he was considered old-fashioned, both in his topics and in his style of writing. He was set in sharp contrast to one of his contemporaries, Lord Byron, who he was often at odds with, and who often focused on darker and more serious themes.

I recently read through Selected Poems: John Keats, published by The Folio Society in 2015, and which largely pulls its selection of poems from The Complete Poems published by Penguin Books in 1988. This version is one that’s made to last—with a sturdy binding and decorated with prints of some classical styled engraving from the artist Simon Brett.

Andrew Motion makes an interesting observation of the works of Keats in the book’s introduction, stating “According to tradition, he is someone who generally held himself apart from the life of his times.” He notes that Keats is often shown in contrast to other poets of the time who were more focused on the French Revolution, Napoleon’s wars, and other social issues. Motion goes on, however, to argue that contrary to this general observation of Keats, that Keats actually did have political leanings, and was closely associated with some of the emerging radicals of the time, particularly John Clark who ran one of the great “Dissenting Universities” that opposed the Church of England.

These are interesting observations into the nature of Keats, his works, and his conflict with Byron. As we know, Byron was famously friends with his neighbor Mary Shelley, author of “Frankenstein,” and was likewise associated with the more extreme radicals within Shelley’s circle. Shelley was of course the daughter of then-infamous feminist Mary Wollestonecraft, and the occult radical William Godwin, who was part of the Jacobin Club which led the most violent segment of the French Revolution and a father of modern anarchy.

An engraving in “Selected Poems: John Keats.” (The Folio Society)

Keats was, and still is, known for his (as Motion puts it) “sensuous medievalising.” While, similar to Byron, Keats showed a distaste for the hypocrisy of the church—which was a broad theme in society at the time—he was also known to speak well of other religious traditions; and he would often glorify nature, love, and simple joys.

Take the beginning of “Endymion: A Poetic Romance,” for example:

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.
Therefore, on every morrow, we are wreathing
A flowery band to bind us to the earth,
Spite of despondence, of the inhuman dearth
Of noble natures, of the gloomy days,
Of all the unhealthy and o’er-darkened ways
Made for our searching: yes, in spite of all,
Some shape of beauty moves away the pall
From our dark spirits. Such the sun, the moon,
Trees old, and young, sprouting a shady boon
For simple sheep; and such are daffodils
With the green world they live in; and clear rills
That for themselves a cooling covert make
‘Gainst the hot season; the mid forest brake,
Rich with a sprinkling of fair musk-rose blooms:
And such too is the grandeur of the dooms
We have imagined for the mighty dead;
All lovely tales that we have heard or read—
An endless fountain of immortal drink,
Pouring unto us from the heaven’s brink.

Some of his poems would display all of these traits within a single breath. Take “Addressed to [Haydon]” as an example:

Great spirits now on earth are sojourning;
He of the cloud, the cataract, the lake,
Who on Helvellyn’s summit, wide awake,
Catches his freshness from Archangel’s wing:
He of the rose, the violet, the spring,
The social smile, the chain for Freedom’s sake:
And lo!—whose steadfastness would never take
A meaner sound than Raphael’s whispering.
And other spirits there are standing apart
Upon the forehead of the age to come;
These will give the world another heart,
And other pulses. Hear ye not the hum
Of mighty workings?—
Listen awhile ye nations, and be dumb.

But Keats also showed unique praise for the old kings, a lament at the fading of the old world, and a glimmer of hope for the future. His time was one of transition—just following the creation of the United States, and on the brink of an emerging age of smoke-stacked factories and electric machines. Byron often wrote with satire and a somewhat dark lament at the nature of his time, while Keats approached it with more of a quiet longing for the simplicity of the natural. In “The Fall of Hyperion. A Dream,” Keats wrote of a vision of the God, Saturn, fallen with a weeping Goddess before him.


I looked upon them: still they were the same;
The frozen God still bending to the earth,
And the sad Goddess weeping at his feet;
Moneta silent. Without stay or prop,
But my own weak mortality, I bore
The load of this eternal quietude,
The unchanging gloom, and the three fixed shapes
Ponderous upon my senses a whole moon.
For by my burning brain I measured sure
Her silver seasons shedded on the night,
And every day by day methought I grew
More gaunt and ghostly. Oftentimes I prayed
Intense, that death would take me from the vale
And all its burthens. Gasping with despair
Of change, hour after hour I cursed myself—
Until old Saturn raised his faded eyes,
And looked around and saw his kingdom gone,
And all the gloom and sorrow of the place,
And that fair kneeling Goddess at his feet.
At the moist scent of flowers, and grass, and leaves,
Fills forest dells and a pervading air
Known to the woodland nostril, sot he words
Of Saturn filled the mossy glooms around,
Even to the hollows of time-eaten oaks,
And to the windings in the foxes’ hole,
With sad low times, while thus he spake, and sent
Strange musings to the solitary Pan:

“Moan, brethren, moan; for we are swallowed up
And buried from all godlike exercise
Of influence benign on planets pale,
And peaceful sway above man’s harvesting,
And all those acts which deity supreme
Doth ease its heart of love in. Moan and wail.
Moan, brethren, moan; for lo! the rebel spheres
Spin round, the stars their ancient courses keep,
Clouds still with shadowy moisture haunt the earth,
Still suck their fill of light from sun and moon,
Still buds the tree, and still the sea-shores murmur
…”

 

“John Keats,” by William Hilton, 1822.

 

 

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One Response

  1. Damian Robin

    Thank you, Mr Philipp for your approachable and informative review.

    Mentioning the type of binding and the pictures and showing a photo of these (and a link to more) helps us to acclimatize to published written work. When reading books, the feel (smell even) of the paper, binding, and the style of the typography can have a subliminal effect on our attitude.

    You have situated Keats in his time and related him to other big names neatly. There’s a lot to be said for looking at Keats’ subject matter and how it sits in the present. Your review also makes me want to go look at Byron to get a better understanding of satire and where it might be in the future of classical poetry.

    Most of all, good to see a review that lets the reader take a big visual drink of the original. Your comments become sign posts and the quotes picture postcards of the terrain of a country you admire. And so we want to go visit — again or for the first time, to one vista or another venue.

    Your review should give confidence, if needed, to poets to incorporate the subject, content, and attitude of admired poetry, as well as classical form, structure and language, in the poems they will write in the future.

    Reply

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