John Keats

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  • Topic: John Keats, Ode to a Nightingale, Ode on a Grecian Urn
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  • Published : February 21, 2013
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John Keats lived only twenty-five years and four months (1795-1821), yet his poetic achievement is extraordinary. His writing career lasted a little more than five years (1814-1820), and three of his great odes--"Ode to a Nightingale," "Ode on a Grecian Urn," and "Ode on Melancholy"--were written in one month. Most of his major poems were written between his twenty-third and twenty-fourth years, and all his poems were written by his twenty-fifth year. In this brief period, he produced poems that rank him as one of the great English poets. He also wrote letters which T.S. Eliot calls "the most notable and the most important ever written by any English poet."       His genius was not generally perceived during his lifetime or immediately after his death. Keats, dying, expected his poetry to be forgotten, as the epitaph he wrote for his tombstone indicates: "Here lies one whose name was writ in water." But nineteenth century critics and readers did come to appreciate him, though, for the most part, they had only a partial understanding of his work. They saw Keats as a sensual poet; they focused on his vivid, concrete imagery; on his portrayal of the physical and the passionate; and on his immersion in the here and now. One nineteenth century critic went so far as to assert not merely that Keats had "a mind constitutionally inapt for abstract thinking," but that he "had no mind." Keats's much-quoted outcry, "O for a life of Sensation rather than of Thoughts!" (letter, November 22, 1817) has been cited to support this view.       With the twentieth century, the perception of Keats's poetry expanded; he was and is praised for his seriousness and thoughfulness, for his dealing with difficult human conflicts and artistic issues, and for his impassioned mental pursuit of truth. Keats advocated living "the ripest, fullest experience that one is capable of"; he believed that what determines truth is experience ("axioms are not axioms until they are proved upon our pulses"). The publication of Keats's letters, with their keen intellectional questioning and concern with moral and artistic problems, contributed to this re-assessment. His letters throw light on his own poetic practices and provide insight into writing in general. 

John Keats was born on October 31, 1775 in London. His parents were Frances Jennings and Thomas Keats. John Keats was educated at Enfield School, which was known for its liberal education. While at Enfield, Keats was encouraged by Charles Cowden Clarke in his reading and writing. After the death of his parents when he was fourteen, Keats became apprenticed to a surgeon. In 1815 he became a student at Guy's Hospital. However, after qualifying to become an apothecary-surgeon, Keats gave up the practice of Medicine to become a poet. Keats had begun writing as early as 1814 and his first volume of poetry was published in 1817. In 1818 Keats took a long walking tour in the British Isles that led to a prolonged sore throat, which was to become a first symptom of the disease that killed his mother and brother, tuberculosis. After he concluded his walking tour, Keats settled in Hampstead. Here he and Fanny Brawne met and fell in love. However, they were never able to marry because of his health and financial situation. Between the Fall of 1818 and 1820 Keats produces some of his best known works, such as La Belle Dame sans Merci and Lamia. After 1820 Keats' illness became so severe that he had to leave England for the warmer climate of Italy. In 1821 he died of tuberculosis in Rome. He is buried there in the Protestant cemetery.

Keats and Romanticism

      Keats belonged to a literary movement called romanticism. Romantic poets, because of their theories of literature and life, were drawn to lyric poetry; they even developed a new form of ode, often called the romantic meditative ode.       The literary critic Jack Stillinger describes the typical movement of the romantic ode: The poet, unhappy with the...
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