Keats was just 25 when he died, in 1821, but there is no argument whatsoever about his reputation. The work he produced in his few years of poetic effusion is almost universally considered outstanding.
It is easy to understand why, if one considers only the great Odes on which largely his reputation rests. There is a unity of tone in all of them, but the subject matter that rouses his melancholia differs widely. The Grecian Urn is an inanimate object, of beauty, but also of animation, which allows a characteristic perception
Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d,
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:
The Nightingale rouses him through song, which makes him long to escape into her carefree world and
Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget
What thou among the leaves hast never known,
The weariness, the fever, and the fret
Here, where men sit and hear each other groan
And Autumn, to my mind the most memorable of short poems in English, moves from the plenitude of early autumn, through the gleaning that empties the fields and squeezes dry to juicy apples, to the bare stubble where
the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
Thinking of Shelley perhaps, students sometimes claim the poem looks forward to spring, but that is to ignore what I would characterize as the apotheosis of Keats’ concept of Negative Capability, namely his rejection of conventional positives, and his ability to celebrate what is usually deplored. He enunciates the concept further in the Ode on Melancholy, which might be considered a sort of flagship. For Keats indeed there is no alternative to Melancholy, which pervades everything, including the fair mistress who …. dwells with Beauty — Beauty that must die;
And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips
Bidding adieu; and aching Pleasure nigh,
Turning to poison while the bee-mouth sips;
Ay, in the very temple of delight
Veiled Melancholy has her sovran shrine
So it makes sense to
glut thy sorrow on a morning rose,
Or on the rainbow of the salt sand-wave
The canonization as it were of Melancholia can be seen in Isabella, where the heroine keeps in a pot of basil the head of her loved Lorenzo, whom her brothers had killed as being unworthy of her
And she forgot the stars, the moon, and sun,
And she forgot the blue above the trees,
And she forgot the dells where waters run,
And she forgot the chilly autumn breeze;
She had no knowledge when the day was done,
And the new morn she saw not: but in peace
Hung over her sweet Basil evermore,
And moisten’d it with tears unto the core.
This is pretty strong stuff, and it gets stronger, for Keats certainly makes his point
O Melancholy, linger here awhile!
O Music, Music, breathe despondingly!
Compared with this, Lamia is relatively tame. That is the story of a snake who became a woman and was able to live with young Lycias whom she loved; but his tutor Apollonius recognized what she was, and under his penetrating gaze her senses chilled and the transformation could not last.
Do not all charms fly
At the mere touch of cold philosophy
There was an awful rainbow once in heaven:
We know her woof, her texture; she is given
In the dull catalogue of common things.
Philosophy will clip an Angel’s wings,
Conquer all mysteries by rule and line, 235
Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine—
Unweave a rainbow, as it erewhile made
The tender-person’d Lamia melt into a shade.
Lycias, of course, did not survive the shock
And Lycius’ arms were empty of delight,
As were his limbs of life, from that same night.
On the high couch he lay!—his friends came round–
Supported him—no pulse, or breath they found,
And, in its marriage robe, the heavy body wound.
All this may seem a bit excessive, but Keats did allow for one happy ending, in his best known longer poem, The Eve of St. Agnes, where the young lovers are able almost magically to meet, and to escape the castle, in spite of the animosity to the boy of the girl’s father. However even here the virtuous old people who had been on the side of the lovers have a sad fate
They glide, like phantoms, into the wide hall;
Like phantoms, to the iron porch, they glide;
Where lay the Porter, in uneasy sprawl,
With a huge empty flaggon by his side;
The wakeful bloodhound rose, and shook his hide,
But his sagacious eye an inmate owns:
By one, and one, the bolts full easy slide:—
The chains lie silent on the footworn stones;—
The key turns, and the door upon its hinges groan.
And they are gone: ay, ages long ago
These lovers fled away into the storm.
That night the Baron dreamt of many a woe,
And all his warrior-guests, with shade and form
Of witch, and demon, and large coffin-worm,
Were long be-nightmar’d. Angela the old
Died palsy-twitch’d, with meagre face deform;
The Beadsman, after thousand aves told,
For aye unsought for slept among his ashes cold.
I should note however that, despite his natural – and well thought out – melancholia, there were other aspects to Keats, as in his entertaining impressions of Oxford
The Gothic looks solemn,
The plain Doric column
Supports an old Bishop and Crosier;
The mouldering arch,
Shaded o’er by a larch
Stands next door to Wilson the Hosier….
There are plenty of trees,
And plenty of ease,
And plenty of fat deer for Parsons;
And when it is venison,
Short is the benison,–
Then each on a leg or thigh fastens.
And his record of reading Homer in Chapman’s translation has one of the most vivid images of the joy of experience literature can convey
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific–and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise–
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
That last line, with its startling opening, evokes a sense of wonder beyond measure.
In the end, though, Keats was the celebrant of negativity, able to ‘burst Joy’s grape against his palate fine’ so as to make us understand both why life is so wonderful, and why we must accept and appreciate its limitations. Let me end then with one of his most moving short poems, lyric and elegy together.
In drear-nighted December,
Too happy, happy tree,
Thy branches ne’er remember
Their green felicity:
The north cannot undo them
With a sleety whistle through them;
Nor frozen thawings glue them
From budding at the prime.
In drear-nighted December,
Too happy, happy brook,
Thy bubblings ne’er remember
Apollo’s summer look;
But with a sweet forgetting,
They stay their crystal fretting,
Never, never petting
About the frozen time.
Ah! would ’twere so with many
A gentle girl and boy!
But were there ever any
Writhed not at passed joy?
The feel of not to feel it,
When there is none to heal it
Nor numbed sense to steel it,
Was never said in rhyme