Had the trustee of John Keats’s inheritance not been such a desperately horrible money manager, the second-wave Romantic literary figure we know today as one of the most magnificent poets writing in English may have completed his medical training and lived life out as a surgeon. However, the loneliness of living over the surgery drove him to long walks to see his prior headmaster Cowden Clarke and the academic’s library. Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene awakened his imagination and, following nights of long discussion with Clarke, Keats began to perceive poetry, rather than medicine, as his objective.
This, of course, is an extremely abbreviated version of the events at this time in Keats’s life, which was punctuated by great suffering. Influenced by the romanticism of Wordsworth and informality of Hunt, he published “Solitude” in 1816.
“O Solitude! if I must with thee dwell,
Let it not be among the jumbled heap
Of murky buildings; climb with me the steep, —
Nature’s observatory—whence the dell,
Its flowery slopes, its river’s crystal swell,
May seem a span; let me thy vigils keep
’Mongst boughs pavillion’d, where the deer’s swift leap
Startles the wild bee from the fox-glove bell.”
The Poetry Foundation’s Keats page contains a much more exhaustive account of the poet’s journey, including an examination of his Huntian-influenced language use. Surprisingly, he had no formal literary training and critics often roundly attacked his works. However, Keats had a keen eye for what he read, and quickly surpassed Hunt, later producing one of his most recognizable ballads, “La Belle Dame sans Merci” as well as “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” While Keats was uneasy amongst some other poets and only began to publish in the last few years of his life—he died exceedingly young—his reputation grew posthumously and “La Belle Dame” was to become one of the most analyzed poems in the English language.
“O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has wither’d from the lake,
And no birds sing.
I met a lady in the meads,
Full beautiful—a faery’s child,
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.
And there she lulled me asleep,
And there I dream’d—Ah! woe betide!
The latest dream I ever dream’d
On the cold hill’s side.
I saw pale kings and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
They cried—“La Belle Dame sans Merci
Hath thee in thrall!”
Keats is known for his impressively wide range of form (in such a small body of work, as well), and it is perhaps fitting that my own first poetic analysis in university was a compare/contrast between “La Belle Dame” and Wu Cheng’en’s Journey to the West—a unique pairing that surprised my professor, but one that worked well nonetheless. Sensual, emotional, natural imagery characterizes much of his work, mythical and legendary themes fill his odes. He toiled feverishly though the few years he took up poetry and then published. Even moments in his early death (at age 25) were not exempt from his poetic passion as he at one point, gripped by pain from insufficient oxygen as well as food—a strictly miniscule diet as part of a regimen his doctor ordered to alleviate the consumption that gripped him and aimed at keeping the blood flow to his stomach in check—he stated that he was living a “posthumous existence.” His fear that he had left nothing to be remembered by proved incorrect, as his legacy is that of one of the most beloved English poets.