This year marks the bicentenary of the death of John Keats. When he died in 1821, aged just 25, he had only been publishing poetry for four years. His work was slammed by the critics of his day: he was called a “vulgar Cockney poetaster”, who wrote in “the most uncouth language”. And yet he persisted, penning beautiful sonnets, a series of odes to the natural world, and long epics inspired by the Ancient Greeks. After his death, his fellow poets despaired. Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote the mournful elegy Adonais in tribute to him: “But now, thy youngest, dearest one, has perish'd.” Keats’s reputation grew throughout the rest of the 19th Century, and he is now considered one of the finest English poets.
Keats was one of England’s great Romantic — with a capital “R” — poets. Like Wordsworth, Shelley and Byron, his poetry was in thrall to emotion. He was also a romantic with a small “r”. Although he never married, he wrote passionate love letters to his neighbour Fanny Brawne: “Love is my religion – I could die for that – I could die for you.” His poem Bright Star was also written for her.
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As with all the Romantic poets, the natural world featured heavily in Keats’s poetry. His works mention over 100 species of plants, animals and birds. His ode To Autumn, in which he describes the changing of the seasons, is rated by Jonathan Bate, Professor of English Literature at Oxford, as “one of the most nearly perfect poems in English”. Two centuries later, are we losing touch with the natural world?
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Like many of us, Keats loved beautiful things. But it is not just about admiring a thing’s appearance: for the Romantics, appreciating beauty was a philosophical route to truth. “What the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth,” Keats once wrote in a letter. He repeated this sentiment in his Ode on a Grecian Urn: “Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty.”
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Keats was inspired by Greek and Roman classical art, particularly the poetry of Homer (including The Odyssey and The Iliad). Some of his poems, such as On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer, respond directly to this. Other poems, like The Fall of Hyperion, draw from the characters and styles of poets including Virgil, Dante and Milton. Keats hoped his work would last as long as the classics.
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Keats was six years old when his father died. At 15, his mother died, and when Keats was 23, his brother died. So, he was preoccupied with thoughts of his own death. These concerns were justified: he died aged 25 in Rome. He feared he had left behind nothing of worth, but many poets have been inspired by his work. Shelley called him “the loveliest and the last”. How do we respond to death now?
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