For years, John Keats has been a favorite poet of mine, yet until recently I had never deigned to read more than the odd poem or excerpt that I would run across in a poetry anthology or material that I might read in preparation for teaching literature. When I began collecting the Easton Press 100 Greatest Books Ever Written, one of the books I marked for purchasing was a chronological collection of Keats' poetry, The Poetry of John Keats. I bought it for the rainy days, the snowy days, the days where I might want to sit in the summer heat and dream of ruins and those belles dames san merci.
Reading Keats can be a moving experience, depending on how one approaches him. He is not a classicist like John Milton; his hymns are not sonorous but rather light upon first glance. Keats displays an appreciation for classical motifs, but he is as apt to self-deprecation (as witnessed in the excerpt quoted above) as he is to sing to his muse. When he appropriates classical characters, such as Hyperion, he does not fit his lines into well-worn literary channels. Rather, what makes Keats a joy to read are those moments in which the characters live, breathe, and ache.
Keats did not live long; he was dead before reaching his twenty-seventh year. Yet in a remarkable five-year period before his death in 1821 from tuberculosis, he created some of the most memorable passages in Romantic poetry. Here below is another passage from "Endymion" that I have reflected upon several times:
"I'll smile no more, Peona; nor will wed
Sorrow the way to death; but patiently
Bear up against it: so farewell, sad sigh;
And come instead demurest meditation,
To occupy me wholly, and to fashion
My pilgrimage for the world's dusky brink."
Perhaps some will find signs of youthful angst in those lines, but it is the grim resolution that attracts my attention. It is speaking to those who have passed through sorrow and romantic despair to the other side, to where meditative contemplation comes to fill the space left vacant by hope and then sorrow. In reading Keats, I focus not so much on how his lines are constructed (although they flow quite well), nor do I look upon his treatment of themes (wondrous as his longer poems are in recasting classical motifs), but rather upon how his words speak to me and how I react in turn.
Keats' imagery perhaps is the best quality in his poetry. Whether he be talking of the "season of mists and mellow fruitfulness," as found in "On Autumn," or if he be referring to the ghosts of lost love in "La Belle Dame Sans Merci," or if he references the dreams of fanatics in "The Fall of Hyperion," in just a few words vivid, almost palpable images spring up in the reader's mind. However, Keats does more than just imbue these images with just the faint semblance of life. Rather, he creates moments in which Lycius might find life before it is drained from him in "Lamia," or where wanderers coming upon ruins might perceive what had been and what might still be. Although there are rough patches where the lines might not match the elegance expected from classical works, Keats' strength is in the raw power of those scenes which he captures with just a few well-placed, emotional lines. It is this emotional power that re-creates for us moments which we have fleetingly experienced but never quite realized their power until Keats reveals them for us. For this, Keats will continue to speak to us long after this world has faded into another autumn night.