John Keats was an amazing poet during England's Romantic Movement. He
produced extraordinary work in his short 25 year life span. "...Had he lived it is possible
that he would have taken his place among the 'big three' of English Literature - Chaucer,
Shakespeare, and Milton" ("Before You Read" par.1). Keats achieved such a remarkable
accolade despite a less than desirable childhood. Born on October 31, 1795, he was raised
in Moorsfields, London where he was the eldest of four children. His father, a stable
keeper, died when Keats was only eight. Around this time period, he began to attend
Clarke's School at Enfield. Keats' mother died when he was fourteen, and soon after, he
was sent to live with relatives. He was pulled out of school and apprenticed to a local
apothecary. Three years later Keats became a student at Guy's Hospital. The next year,
after being licensed as an apothecary, Keats began to write serious poetry. He abandoned
his medical career and devoted his life to becoming an astounding poet. Keats was
diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1820. He died one year later ("Keats' Chronology" par.1).
"By the time of his death at the age of 25, he had accomplished more than all but the finest
writers have achieved in a full lifetime" ("John Keats" par.1). Analyzing critiques by
Elisandra Garza, Wolf Z. Hurst, Jeff Burley, and Alaiy Lazuli allow us to fully
comprehend the magnanimity of Keats and his work.
John Keats lived in England during its Romantic Movement from 1792-1822
(Lazuli par.1). "In many ways, Keats's life modeled the period he lived in; it was very
short, yet still produced some of the most influencial [sic] poetry in the history of the
world" (Burley par.1). Keats was a great poet who was never able to see his fame for
himself. In many ways, he wasn't able to complete his life. He didn't marry the woman he
loved, nor was he able to achieve the fame he dreamed of. This due in part to his untimely
demise, and the reaction of the critics to his work.
Keats was a determined young man, who had the talent of a phenomenal poet,
though society wasn't receptive to work from an untitled citizen. Keats died before he
was able to prove himself. He didn't have the popularity with the critics that one would
have liked. "Since he was not formerly educated at Cambridge or Oxford nor held a title
of any kind, it was easy to label him as being distinctly 'lower class'" (Lazuli par.6). This
illustrates society's bigotry toward the lower class, even when presented with an amazing
talent such as John Keats. "He was one of the first 'middle class' poets of the then
emerging middle class to gain the attention of a public which was then very snobbish about
class and social status" (Lazuli par.2). Keats strived to overcome tremendous social
barriers, and to a degree, he succeeded, though this success did not become apparent until
after his death. "Keats never thought of himself as a great success" (Burley par.7). This
is a shame when we now realize just how enormous his value to English literature really is.
One of Keats' most renowned poems was La Belle Dame Sans Merci. Keats, like
many, if not most poets, expresses his life experiences in his poetry. He displays not only
the reality of his life, but also his imagination's take on it, be it paranoia or oblivion.
Elisandra Garza's critique on La Belle Dame Sans Merci helps us understand this point.
She tells us the classic villainess of the poem is indeed, Fanny Brawne, the love of Keats'
life. "...He [Keats] expected much more...perhaps much more than anyone could give"
(Garza par.1). He romanticized their relationship to the point of delusion. With Keats'
inevitable death nearing, he began to confuse reality with his own insecurities. " ...In some
way he [Keats] feels bitter that the love of his life will not be joining him [when he dies].
He wants to have what Romeo and Juliet had--one could not live without the other"
(Garza par.3). Keats wanted what was only possible in the fictional world of English
Sometimes a poem is just a poem. In Wolf Z. Hurst's critique on La Belle
Dame Sans Merci, he concentrates on the poem itself, clarifying what the poetic
characters are experiencing, not what they symbolize. He argues that many of the theories
that other critics propose, can't be proven. "We only know for certain, however, that the
knight is a victim of his supernatural adventure and no longer finds his bearings in the
natural world of birdsong, harvest, and decay" (Smith 115). The only absolute that can be
deducted from the poem are the feelings of the knight himself. According to Hurst, this is
the only viable interpretation of Keats' work. It allows us to see the haggard knight for
what he really is, instead of some symbol of Keats' life. "In his vain attempt to die into the
life of fairyland the knight separates from the natural order and thus becomes a double
loser: cheated of both the wonders of elfin land and of nature, he suffers a kind of
death-in-life" (Smith 115). The knight now becomes a helpless man who has lost all
purpose to live. It's easy to see now what we might have missed before. This leaves us
pondering what will happen to the knight next; the sense of wonderment will never cease.
Garza's critique on La Belle Dame Sans Merci tends to be the more relied upon of
the two. It's hard to believe that a poem with such ardent emotion doesn't have any
spiritual meaning. Keats' actions toward Brawne help support this opinion. As he began
to near his inevitable death, Keats' attitude became much more abusive towards her. His
expectations of Brawne skyrocketed into near impossibility, though she stayed loyal till the
end. "She endured Keats's erratic mood swings and obsessive jealousy with incredible
grace, tolerance, and understanding" ("Some Background" par.10). This attitude provides
us with some insight into his thoughts and sometimes delusional actions.
Perhaps Keats most famous poem was Ode On A Grecian Urn. In this poem, he
depicts a fictitious urn that struck him as beautiful. "The urn, itself a product of Keats's
imagination, has eternalized the features of the transient passion of mortals, and now
Keats's imagination in turn animates the frozen eternity of the urn" (Smith 130). Keats
describes the moment of true joy that has been immortalized in the stone of the urn.
The moment just before a kiss is of greater pleasure than the actual kiss. The anticipation
is often better than the act, and that brief instant is what the urn illustrates. Keats sees this
moment as perfect and captures it with the words of his poem. Ode On a Grecian Urn
contains the most famous couplet that Keats ever penned. The last two lines of the poem,
put in quotes, possible indicating that they are inscribed on the urn, have been pondered by
hundreds of critics over the years. "'Beauty is truth, truth beauty,--that is all / Ye know
on earth, and all ye need to know.'" Keats believed that these two concepts were
interchangeable; that if it was one, it was the other. "Messenger, town, priest, and urn
itself did not exist before Keats created them, but being beautiful they are true" (Smith
131). With this philosophy, he created his own imaginary world that he shared with others
through his poetry. He also created quite a controversy with his words by what they
meant and whether they were accurate. No agreement has been reached as of yet.
Keats' use of exquisite imagery ignites the senses. He captures the beauty of the
urn with words on paper. A task only accomplished by a poet of Keats extraordinary
caliber. Despite this labor, the lines that receive the most attention are the last two.
"Beauty is truth," this can be fairly easily explained. "...The highest expression of art are
the most sublime expressions of wisdom and truth" (McDaniel par.5). Something that is
truly beautiful must be natural. It reflects the most unadulterated truth, for nature cannot
lie. However, the second half is debatable. "Truth, beauty," implies that all truth is pure
and good. This isn't always the case. Keats himself is a testament to this. He knew he
would die from tuberculosis, and he was bitter. This was the truth, yet it was certainly not
beautiful. The perpetual optimist might find some beauty in this. Though, those of us
with any realistic outlook on life find that extremely hard to do. Perhaps the latter part of
the line made sense in Keats' mind, and perhaps we will come to understand it as well
someday, but for the moment, one must disagree with him.
These critiques depict John Keats in his eminence of the English Romantic
Movement. The selected poems are a sampling of his exceptional work. Alaiy Lazuli
wrote these words describing her first encounter with Keats and his work; "I was
absolutely struck down by it, especially when I found out that Keats did die at a young
age" (par.19). Keats has a profound effect on all those his work touches. He writes with
such honesty and expression, that one is inevitably drawn to his work. Though he didn't
receive the recognition he deserved during his lifetime, his presence won't be forgotten for
many other lifetimes to come.
"Before You Read." N.p. Kadets. n.p. Online.
http://www.kadets.d20.co.edu/english/britlit/labelle.html. (18 Apr. 1998)
Burley, Jeff. "John Keats." Ohio: Jackson High, 1997. Online. Jackson High.
http://jackson.stark.k12.oh.us/English/Keats/Keats.html. (17 Apr. 1998).
Garza, Elisandra. "Analysis on La Belle Dame sans Merci: A Ballad." Texas U., 1996.
Online. Texas U.
blic_html/keats4.html. (18 Apr. 1998).
"John Keats." N.p. The Kids. n.p. Online.
http://www.thekids.com/kids/background/1.keats/1.keats.html. (16 Apr. 1998).
"Keats Chronology." N.p. Geocites. n.p. Online.
http://www.goecites.com/Hollywood/Boulevard/1805/chron.html. (17 Apr.1998).
Lazuli, Alaiy. "Some Background." N.p. Geocites. n.p. Online.
http://www.goecites.com/Hollywood/Boulevard/1805/jkeats.html. (17 Apr.
McDaniel, Gerald. "The Sufficiency of Beauty." Texas: Nortexinfo, 1996. Online.
http://www.nortexinfo.net/McDaniel/k-urn.htm. (19 Apr. 1998).
Smith, Sarah W. R., ed. Twayne's English Authors Series: John Keats. Boston: G. K.
Hall & Co., 1981.