John Keats (1795-1821) is the greatest member of that group of the second generation of Romantic poets who blossomed early and died young.
He is Romantic in his relish of sensation, his feelings for middle ages, his love for the Greek civilisation. He made all these elements very much his own. He was able to fuse the romantic passion and the cold Neo-classicism.
Keats was born in London in 1795, he was the first of five children and he attended a private school in Enfield. After the deaths of his father and mother was apprenticed to become a surgeon in 1810. Six years later, he left the profession and started his devotion to writing verse in a beautiful sonnet ‘On first looking into Chapman’s Homer’.
Helped by the poet Leigh Hunt, Keats became an acquaintance of the leading writers and artists of the period. In 1818 Endymion, a long and mythological poem, appeared.
After a lot of difficulties he wrote a series of masterful poems during the following year:
- The Eve of St Agnes, rich of romantic features (superstition, art, ritual and luxury);
- Ode to a Nightingale, Ode on a Grecian Urn, To Autumn, Ode on Melancholy, To Psyche are great odes (Keats explores between the relations between pleasure and pain, happiness and melancholy, art and life, reality and imagination);
- La Belle Dame sans Merci (taste for medieval themes and form);
- Hyperion (influence of Milton in sonorous blank verse).
In 1820 Keats coughed up blood and the symptoms of consumption became evident. In 1821 he traveled to recover in Italy but he died in Rome.
2. The Substance of his Poetry
His lyrical poems are deeply felt personal experience behind the odes of 1819.
Moreover, the poetical personal pronoun ‘I’ doesn’t stand for a human being but for a universal one.
The common romantic tendency to identify scenes and landscapes with subjective moods and emotions is present in his poetry.
3. The role of imagination
The supreme value of the imagination made him a Romantic poet. His imagination takes two main forms: firstly, the world of his poetry is artificial, secondly imagination has a great deal of his work and it’s a vision of what he would like human life to be (experience of pain and misery).
4. Beauty and Art
Keats’s imagination is rich in beauty and differentiates him from the other Romantic writers and makes him the forerunner of Victorian writers. To him the expression of beauty is the ideal of all art.
The world of Greek beliefs lives again in his verse, recreated and reinterpreted with the eyes of Romantic. The physical beauty is caught in all the forms nature acquires, in the colors it displays, in the sweetness of its perfumes, in the curves of a flower, in woman.
Beauty can produce a much deeper experience of joy like a ‘spiritual beauty’ (love, friendship and poetry). Moreover, Keats identifies beauty and truth as the only type of knowledge in Ode on Grecian Urn.
5. Negative capability
In Keats’s view the negative capability is the ability to experience uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without reaching after fact and reason.
Negativity refers to the capability the poet has to deny his certainties and personality in order to identify himself with the object which is the source of his inspiration and the place where Truth resides.
When the poet can rely on this negative capability he’s able to seek sensation and allows him to render it through poetry.
6. Ode on a Grecian Urn (1820)
In the first stanza, the writer stands before an ancient Grecian urn and addresses it. He describes the urn as a “historian” that can tell a story. He wonders about the figures on the side of the urn and asks what legend they depict and from where they come.
He looks at a picture that seems to depict a group of men pursuing a group of women and wonders what their story could be.
In the second stanza, the writer looks at another picture on the urn, this time of a young man playing a pipe, lying with his lover beneath a glade of trees. He tells the youth that, though he can never kiss his lover because he is frozen in time.
In the third stanza, he looks at the trees surrounding the lovers and feels happy that they will never shed their leaves.
He is happy for the piper because his songs will be ‘for ever new’, and happy that the love of the boy and the girl will last forever, unlike mortal love.
In the fourth stanza, Keats examines another picture on the urn, this one of a group of villagers leading a heifer to be sacrificed. He wonders where they are and from where they have come. He imagines their little town, empty of all its citizens, and tells it that its streets will ‘for evermore’ be silent, for those who have left it, frozen on the urn, will never return.
In the final stanza, the writer addresses the urn itself. He thinks that when his generation is long dead, the urn will remain, telling future generations its enigmatic lesson.
“Ode on a Grecian Urn” follows the same ode-stanza structure as the “Ode on Melancholy,” though it varies more the rhyme scheme of the last three lines of each stanza. Each of the five stanzas in “Grecian Urn” is ten lines long, metered in a relatively precise iambic pentameter, and divided into a two-part rhyme scheme, the last three lines of which are variable.