Detoured Genius: On the Work of John Keats

October 1, 2015 | 1 book mentioned 7 7 min read


John Keats’s 220th birthday falls this Halloween. Born on October 31, 1795, Keats survived only 25 years, but in that time developed into a poet of superhuman range, energy, and craftsmanship. The middle child of an orphaned family, Keats lived in a London populated by Dickensian characters: His father died in a freak fall from his horse, a loss that withered Mrs. Keats, who eventually succumbed to grief. His caretaker, Richard Abbey, was a weasley miser who jilted the Keats children out of their inheritance by hiding the money and playing their suspicions against each other.

The major events of Keats’s life also seem luminous enough to be taken from literature. His older brother, George, migrated to America where he was cheated out of his savings by none other than John James Audubon, a desperate shipping investor who had yet to become the famous naturalist. A younger brother, Tom, died of Tuberculosis in Keats’s arms. Trained as a physician, he abandoned the profession to make his living with poetry, an ambition that sounded less hubristic at that time than it would now, but still seemed childish enough to the saturnine Abbey, who took the announcement as an opportunity to cut Keats off from what little inheritance he had been granting him.

As a Londoner connected with one or two major publishers, Keats also met nearly every literary monolith of his day: Percy Bysshe Shelley became a friend and admirer, William Wordsworth got tipsy and joked with him at a dinner party, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge shook his hand after a chance encounter on the street. Coleridge was no medical man, but he sensed that Keats was ill: “There is death in that hand,” he said afterward. Keats was underground in less than two years.

From the meeting with Coleridge until his death, Keats spent the better share of his time juggling his poverty, disease, and genius. The first two would eventually bury him, but the third elevated his work to the grandest heights of English literature. His best poems are like xeriscapes: they surprise us with luxurious harmonies without burdening the language from which they’ve grown. Take for example the famous beginning of “Hyperion,” where the dethroned titan Saturn sits in a vale

                                      …quiet as a stone,
Still as the silence round about his lair;
Forest on forest hung about his head
Like cloud on cloud.

The double resonances of repeated nouns and alliterative consonants — “Forest on forest;” “Still as the silence;” “hung about his head;” “cloud on cloud” — succeed each other rapidly without clogging the lines. Not just here, but throughout “Hyperion” and all the poems of this period, Keats combines classical and medieval source material with rich soundcraft and miraculous ease. The lines are majestic enough to be carved on a tomb, casual enough for table talk. Though he never achieved fame in his lifetime, posthumous readings were intensified by his tragic death and lead to a rapid ascent. He was a household name before Wordsworth, who’d once called Keats’s early “Endymion” “a Very pretty piece of Paganism” — perhaps with a dismissive wave — had met his own gentler fate.

Retrospect, especially about the lives of famous men, can elevate the mundane into the monumental, but the intensity of Keats’s commitment to art and the passionate goodwill he brought to friendships make it difficult to discuss his biography without a calcifying grandeur. Even his contemporaries tended to reshape Keats according their presuppositions about poetry and poets. William Hilton’s famous portrait is a visual example: using angle and shade, the painter elongated Keats’s strong face, and collapsed his alert posture, into the Romantic stereotype of the tender dreamer. The actual, burlier man picked schoolyard fights habitually in childhood, enjoyed vigorous exercise, and wouldn’t flinch at an open cadaver.

Most of all, Keats was driven by the desire to be “numbered among the English poets,” a destiny he predicted for himself, and eventually gained after his death thanks to a ravenous international readership. His work, derided by successors as famous as W.B. Yeats as that of “a schoolboy…With face and nose pressed to a sweet-shop | window…” has nonetheless become an academic industry, and a touchstone for all writers who hope to blend rococo imagery with the sound of sense.

covercoverMost often, Keats’s short life is read as an allegory about the power of persistence on the approach to a fixed creative object. But the actual story is more complicated. Keats was fired by the ambition to write an epic; an ideal that typified the contemporary perception of the master poet. In the wake of his many efforts to do this float grand fragments, but nothing in the genre that could approach Wordsworth’s Prelude for scale or command of subject. Aided by time and experience, Wordsworth learned to abandon classical inspiration and make an odyssey from his biography. The result, in a Napoleonic era where nationalist epics like The Faerie Queene seemed passé and even questionable, was a work calibrated to its time. Yet Keats never enjoyed the luxury of long reflection, and during the seasons he was working furiously at long narratives like “Hyperion” and “Isabella”, he relieved the pressure by writing cast-offs that would later be recognized as his masterpieces.

One of these was “The Eve of St. Agnes,” a short vignette about erotic love set in a snowbound medieval castle. Just after Tom’s tortured death from tuberculosis, Keats traveled south with his friend Charles Brown to shake off the grief. At coastal Chichester, working unsuccessfully to finish “Hyperion,” he diverted his forces to a subject his acquaintance Isabella Jones once suggested: the legendary evening when young women, if they followed a careful script of prayer and ceremony, could see visions of their future husbands. As biographer W. Jackson Bate recounts, with Spencer’s court romances rattling in his head, Keats shut himself in the home of some friends and finished the poem within a week. His hosts could hear him coughing from his room — the tuberculosis that would kill him, passed possibly from his brother, was already incubating.

“St. Agnes” is only one example of an apparent Keatsian sideshow that retrospect reveals to be the main event. For modern readers and especially writers, the poem is a reminder that mastery follows less from the grandeur of our plans than the measure of our effort. The great epics Keats hoped to write fizzled even at their best. But the statuesque perfection of “St. Agnes” is proof that Keats’s genius was at its finest when on a detour. Like the rest of his life and work, the poem both encourages and warns its readers, especially those who hope to make memorable literature during their own, inevitably rushed productive seasons.

“Prolonged work at any serious poem,” Bate wrote during his chapter on this phase in Keats’s life, “…frequently produced another result for Keats…If he turned temporarily to a less ambitious poem in a different form, the gate would quickly open and he would find himself…writing with remarkable fluidity…” “Remarkable fluidity” is accurate not only to the composition but the texture of Keats’s best romance. It is a ballet in gypsy costumes, its language concentrated to saturation point but stepping lightly at each turn of phrase, visually baroque yet cuttingly glib in its discourse on sex and love:

                                                     …Safe at last,
             Through many a dusky gallery, they gain
             The maiden’s chamber, silken, hush’d, and chaste;
             Where Porphyro took covert, pleas’d amain.
His poor guide hurried back with auges in her brain.

In love with the ravishing Madeline, Porphyro has discovered that tonight she plans to follow the old superstitions about St. Agnes’ Eve. A bolt of lust-charged inspiration hits him: convince her handmaid Angela to lead him to Madeline’s bedroom. He packs a feast, and plans his appearance exactly according to legend, a conquest that will both grant him sexual access and convince her of his worthiness.

Hidden in her chambers, he watches Madeline follow the delicious stipulations of the legend: to sleep undressed, never taking her eyes from heaven. Rising from prayer, she steps in front of moonlit stained glass. At this moment Keats’s ornamentation and syntactic force reach their peak — this casement, he writes, is filled with triple windows,

              And in their midst, ‘mong thousand heraldries,
              And twilit saints, and dim emblazonings,
A shielded scutcheon blush’d with blood of queens and kings.

In the following stanza, these religious and heraldic images are offset by eroticism: Madeline disrobes in a flood of lines the consonance of which echoes the texture of sliding cloth. All the senses are engaged – Keats even finds time to note the transferred warmth still lingering in her dress’s jewels.

Of all its wreathed pearls her hair she frees;
Unclasps her warmed jewels one by one;
Loosens her fragrant boddice; by degrees
Her rich attire creeps rustling to her knees.

coverBarely able to contain himself, Porphyro waits for her breathing to steady, then wakes her with a song, possesses her, and finally escapes with her into the night. He has enemies at court, and his union with Madeline carries the finality of a lifelong contract, meriting huge risks. Keats leaves their future ambiguous, if not outright doubtful. But the abrupt ending suits his concerns. Like Ovid in The Metamorphosis, Keats most wanted to distil the unbearable passion that transforms those it possesses.

The key turns, and the door upon its hinges groans…
          And they are gone: ey, ages long ago
          These lovers fled away into the storm.

Susceptible to the creative trends of his time, Keats was haunted by an apparent lack of ability to realize a grand suite of characters in an urgent plot. But the simple and compact “St Agnes” has more elegance even than the Prelude, and achieves a florid energy within the line of which Wordsworth was incapable. And Keats’s characterization is just as fine: no longer burdened by “Hyperion’s” large cast, he renders the palsied, gossipy handmade Angela with Shakespearian subtlety. Porphyro comes off as the perfect teenage Romio, elevated to temporary brilliance by sallionlike lust; and Madeline’s humanity is visible beneath the ornament. Her escapade with Porphyro may have been inaugurated by a trick, but it ends for her part with decisive action in the face of serious physical and social dangers.

Though both poems date from the same period in Keats’s life, “St. Agnes” is greater than the celebrated “Hyperion.” While the latter drags under the weight of its intricacies, eventually collapsing before the drama can properly start, “St. Agnes” showcases a master poet at the height of his creative control. That Keats didn’t comprehend this superiority is a reminder of just how young he was: big-hearted and ambitious above all else, his mistake was to be too hard on himself, conforming to an artistic type when he could have been more sensitive to the nature of his gifts.

Given time, Keats’s sharp critical eye would doubtless have noticed that his talent flourished within the charged compression of the lyric. His great odes, “to Psyche,” “on Indolence,” “to a Nightingale,” “on a Grecian Urn,” and “To Autumn” followed soon after “St. Agnes” — a creative season so explosive it could have blown back even William Shakespeare’s magnanimous curls. But Keats stuffed these lyrics among his scrap papers. It was too early for foresight. It always is.

Yet we inheritors of the poetic tradition he did so much to shape will still do Keats dignity if we try to benefit from his example, combining the fraction we can muster of his inexhaustible energy with a willingness to abandon any convention that emaciates our writing. One of his famous letters had it that a real literary genius is capable of “being in uncertainties.” He partly meant that we all inhabit uncertainties — not the least about the length of life — but that a brave intellect inhabits the doubt without “reaching after” an escape. At 25, in Italy, Keats ended by facing the unknown with dignity. Back in England, his accumulated work was waiting to teach the readers who had ignored him the certainty of his greatness.

Image Credit: Wikipedia.

is a staff writer for The Curator and the co-author of A Bow From My Shadow, a collection of poems written in dialogue with Luke Irwin. His essays and poems have appeared in The Conversation, Transpositions, Pif, The Curator, The Denver Syntax, Lake Effect, and ken*again. He is an adjunct professor of Western literature at Gordon College in Wenham, Mass., and high school English and Rhetoric teacher. He lives in Beverly, Mass. You can follow him on Twitter: @miller_jr.


  1. “He was a household name before Wordsworth, who’d once called Keats’s early “Endymion” “a Very pretty piece of Paganism” — perhaps with a dismissive wave — had met his own gentler fate.”

    I find it hard to believe that Keats, who died not just unsung but rubbished by the critics of the age, was a household name before Wordsworth. Wordsworth published the Lyrical Ballads with Coleridge in the 1790s. By the time Keats was a young man, Wordsworth, in his forties, was revered as the greatest poet of the age. By no other than Keats himself, who was thrilled at the prospect of meeting his hero. That he turned out to be a pompous person and that Keats felt deeply slighted by his remark about “a very pretty piece of Paganism” is another story.

    Wordsworth was famous long before Keats became famous. He was named poet laureate in 1843. Keats’ posthumous rehabilitation had only just started with his first biography being published in that year. It was only in the next twenty years that his star began to rise and shine brightly, propelled there by the new poet laureate Tennyson, who was a great admirer.

  2. “He was a household name before Wordsworth, who’d once called Keats’s early ‘Endymion’ ‘a Very pretty piece of Paganism’ — perhaps with a dismissive wave — had met his own gentler fate.”

    NNMf: I think you might have misread my syntax here. The fault is mine, no doubt, for overburdening the sentence structure. My observation is that Keats was a household name before Wordsworth “met his fate”–that Keats was a well-known poet during Wordsworth’s lifetime. As you say, Wordsworth was certainly the more revered poet during his own career. But both were on their way to canonization by the time Wordsworth died.
    You are also right to imply that the nature of Wordsworth’s famous comment about Keats’ “very pretty piece of Paganism” is up for debate. Keats’ friends were offended by the comment, but Bate’s biography points out that the emphasis may well have been on “very pretty” rather than “Paganism.” In one record of that conversation, the “Very” is capitalized, perhaps indicating just such an emphasis. There is another article to be had from this question alone.
    Thanks very much for your readership and your comments. It’s good to be hounded about the details.

  3. Thank you for replying.

    Now that you’ve pointed it out, I take back my objection. I misread your sentence about Keats being a household name before Wordsworth. And yes, the paganism comment was endlessly debated. It’s nice to know though that on the whole the elder and younger poet did get along and that they once tramped on Hampstead Heath together.

  4. My pleasure. It is certainly fun to imagine the two of them getting along together, sipping wine and trading jokes at the famous dinner party.

  5. Love that you guys review poetry, even centuries old poetry. And that it really matters to you. Please keep ’em coming. This is a great piece that makes me want to run out and re-familiarize myself with Keats. thanks!

  6. If Keats had lived much longer, he would have without a doubt written a great epic.

    The fact that he was already writing great fragments before he died at 25 shows what could have potentially written.

    I was 46 years old before I had mastered verse enough to start writing the Hermead, my epic about philosophers. In the 4.5 years since, I have written 122,000 lines of blank verse about 26 Greek philosophers.

  7. As a writer, and a reader of many biographies, I can tell you that Bate wrote the best biography of a writer that exists on this planet.

    Bate understood that the writing pilots the life.

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