Portrait of John Keats John Keats

early poems



(A young man with a noble heart, inspired by nature and great poetry, translates into verse the things that fascinate him.)

All text except quotations is copyright 2000 by David Lahti, and represents his views alone.
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Tidbits of Significance

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"For what has made the sage or poet write / But the fair paradise of Nature's light?" Keats asks as he stands on a hill looking up at the moon. And he certainly was inspired by the wonders of "wide plains, fair trees, and lawny slope; / The morn, the eve, the light, the shade, the flowers; / Clear streams, smooth lakes, and overlooking towers." But in these compositions of his 18th through 22nd year (which make up nearly half of the complete number of his poems), Keats's imagination and poetic genius were just as stimulated by those sages and poets who went before him, as by nature. Keats revered those old poets such as Shakespeare and Spenser, and trembled at the thought that he himself might become the latest in that line of great founts of imagination and inspiration which his country had produced over the last half millennium (e.g., "Hymn to Apollo").


Keats felt he had something to say, a message for the world. Aiming somewhere near the mark, one might say that his message-- at least in these poems-- was poetry itself. Long live the imagination!! Keep the eye of the spirit open!! One can hear him shout this in nearly every poem, whether he speaks of friendship as in "On leaving Some Friends at an Early Hour", a woman as in "To G. A. W.", the history of poetry as in "Ode to Apollo", silent contemplation as in "Sonnet to Solitude", nature as in "On the Sea", poetry itself as in "An Epistle to George Felton Mathew", or a combination of these as in "'I stood tiptoe upon a little hill'". His outlook is infused with romance, chivalry, nobility, beauty, and reverence. He is perceptive and open-hearted, and celebrating what he feels, sees, and realizes.


But this poetic outlook was not his only gift, as rare and worthy as it might be. Keats possessed this in combination with a magnificent talent for representing his ideas and emotions. His vision would have been his own alone, were it not for his ability to reduce or translate it into language in such a way that it seems to lose little of its luster and fascination in the transferal from his head to ours. From a very early age he seems to have thought in poetry, so smooth is his delivery-- which is understandable given the depth of influence other poets had on him.


Keats seeks to awaken us as he was awakened: to wonder, and to joy.


To top of Keats' early poems



Summary (poems are listed in approximate order of composition; asterisks mark the ones I like the best):

*"Imitation of Spenser"

-Beautiful natural (or preternatural) imagery.


*"On Death"

-Optimistic perspective on life and afterlife, the fusion of realism and idealism.


"To Chatterton"

-An elegy: eerily applicable to Keats as well.


"To Byron"

-A sympathy for the public disgraces of Byron, and an encouragement.


"'Woman! when I behold thee flippant, vain'"

-The unconditional, unrelenting obsession of a man shot by Eros, for a beautiful woman.


"To Some Ladies"


"On receiving a Curious Shell and a Copy of Verses from the Same Ladies"


"Written on the Day that Mr. Leigh Hunt left Prison"

-Hunt was in prison, but with literature his spirit was unfettered.


*"To Hope"

-Simple and conventional but encouraging psalm for hope in all things.


"Ode to Apollo"

-Brief history of great bards, set in Apollo's temple.


"Hymn to Apollo"

-Keats wonders at his audacity in aspiring to be one of the great Poets.


"To a Young Lady who sent me a Laurel Crown"

-He feels mighty after a gift of a laurel wreath from a lady.


*"Sonnet: 'How many bards gild the lapses of time'"

-The influence of earlier poets affects him like pleasant sounds as he works.


"Sonnet: 'Keen, fitful gusts are whisp'ring here and there'"

-It's cold outside and his journey is long, but a good book along the way makes him forget all of that.


"Spenserian Stanza, written at the Close of Canto II., Book V., of 'The Faerie Queene'"

-By learning and reading, liberal men become moral and change things for the better (expresses a difference from the more conservative Spenser).  [I think that although learning can help, it is insufficient. Something more basic must happen to a person to make one “become moral”-- a contrary spirit can be obstinate to learning.]


*"On leaving Some Friends at an Early Hour"

-Being in the company of friends inspires him to write great poetry, about which he fantasizes here.


*"On first looking into Chapman's Homer"

-The discovery of realizing the greatness of a literary work firsthand.


*"Epistle to George Felton Mathew"

-A celebration of fine poetry and the inspiration it excites, and of the sources of inspiration for it: nature, great men, friendship; infused with imagination.


*"To --: 'Hadst thou liv'd in days of old'"

-The beauty, grace, and enchantment of his beloved would have made for sublime inspiration in the days of the Classic poets or of chivalry.


"Sonnet: 'As from the darkening gloom a silver dove'"

-Heaven is wonderful-- why do we grieve?


**"Sonnet to Solitude"

-Being alone is best experienced in Nature; but better still is being there with a kindred spirit!


"Sonnet: 'To one who has been long in city pent'"

-Relief from the city is acquired by reading a love story in a field under the sky.


"To a Friend who sent me Some Roses"

-Roses sent from a friend even surpass those in nature, because of the thoughts behind them.


"Sonnet: 'Oh! how I love, on a fair summer's eve'"

-He likes to go into nature on a warm evening and contemplate great English poets and their lives.


"'I stood tiptoe upon a little hill'"

-Mental wanderings: Nature, to Poets, to classical themes, to Diana and her loves.


*"Sleep and Poetry"

-Praise for sleep, poetry, and the imagination; he seeks to bring back the imagination into a drier, blander culture; but he trembles at the prospect. Then imagination, like sleep, rejuvenates him.


"Epistle to my Brother George"

-On the poetic inspiration, and Keats's doubt but awe at the prospect of being a Poet.


"To my Brother George"

-The wonders of the sky and sea-- but the thought of his brother acts as a catalyst for the realization of these things.


*"To -- 'Had I a man's fair form, then might my sighs'"

-He is not a Cassanova, but he must love her-- so he'll do it, by magic if he has to!


"Specimen of an Induction to a Poem"

-Anticipation of a tale of chivalry, and homage to Spenser.


*"Calidore: A Fragment"

-Picturesque scene of a youth rowing home to a castle; infused with romance, beauty, nature, chivalry...


"Epistle to Charles Cowden Clarke"

-Thoughts on the poetic mind, and its outpouring; and his friend's contribution to this.


"To My Brothers"

-Sweet reflection on brotherhood and the pursuit of the poetic.


"Addressed to Benjamin Robert Haydon"

-Praise for Wordsworth and Hunt and their ideals.


"To Kosciusko"

-Praise for heroism and heroes.


"To G. A. W."

-Praise for a graceful, thoughtful woman.


"Stanzas: 'In a drear-nighted December'"

-Light nature ode in winter, for children.


*"Written in Disgust of Vulgar Superstition"

-A Blakean repulsion for the dry and uninspiring Christian practices and mindset; with a hope for its replacement with something more eternal and poetic.


"Sonnet: 'Happy is England! I could be content'"

-A wandering verse, praising England and other places, Englishwomen and other women.


"On the Grasshopper and the Cricket"

-The two insects' complementary singing periods illustrate the continuity of "nature's poetry".


"Sonnet: 'After dark vapours have oppress'd our plains'"

-On the things a sudden warm day in winter brings to mind.


"Written on the Blank Space at the end of Chaucer's Tale of 'The Floure and the Lefe'"

-Praise for Chaucer's ability to weave his words and fill the heart.


"On Seeing the Elgin Marbles"

-Ruins remind him of mortality and passed greatness.


"To Haydon (with the preceding sonnet)"

-On humility in the face of great things, and praise for unrecognized greatness.


"To Leigh Hunt, Esq."

-We live in no faerie or golden-age land; but some joy can be found in pleasing friends nevertheless.


"On the Sea"

-The sometimes gentle, soothing vastness of the ocean.


"Lines: 'Unfelt, unheard, unseen'"

-The tender passions stirred by the sight and sound of his beloved.


"On -- 'Think not of it, sweet one, so'"

-Loving consolation for his beloved who weeps in mourning.


"On a Picture of Leander"


"On Leigh Hunt's Poem 'The Story of Rimini'"


**"Sonnet: 'When I have fears that I may cease to be'"

-He muses upon death and how it could separate him from his writing and his beloved at any time; therefore, earthly things lose their meaning.


"On seeing a Lock of Milton's Hair"

-Encomium on Milton, his influence on Keats's mind.


"On sitting down to read 'King Lear' once again"

-Raising the themes of King Lear and Shakespeare's greatness.


"Lines on the Mermaid Tavern"

-Light praise of a pub.


**"Robin Hood"

-Dirge on the passing of the age of Robin Hood-- but a call to honor the things of romance nevertheless.


"To the Nile"

-Keats first has doubts, then casts them aside, regarding the deservedness of the Nile's praise for cultural fruitfulness.


"To Spenser"

-Keats asks Spenser's inspiration and influence.


"Song written on a Blank Page in Beaumont and Fletcher's Works"

-Praise of the spirit of poetry, romance, and pleasure.


*"Fragment: 'Welcome Joy and welcome Sorrow'"

-"Fair and foul I love together"-- the complementarity of pleasure and pain, joy and sorrow.


*"What the Thrush said"

-Encouragement to receptivity and idleness, to heighten the less intellectual parts of our soul.


*"Written in Answer to a Sonnet ending thus: 'Dark eyes are dearer far / Than those that mock the hyacinthine bell.'"

-Remains on the sublime color blue-- especially when in an eye!


"To John Hamilton Reynolds"


*"The Human Seasons"

-On the four seasons of the human (romantic) mind.


To top of Keats' early poems



Tidbits of Significance

"Can death be sleep, when life is but a dream...?"

-"On Death"



"...thou thy griefs dost dress

With a bright halo, shining beamily,

As when a cloud the golden moon doth veil".

-"To Byron"



"From such fine pictures, heavens! I cannot dare

To turn my admiration, though unpossess'd

They be of what is worthy,-- though not drest

In lovely modesty, and virtues rare."

-"'Woman! when I behold thee flippant, vain'"



"In the long vista of the years to roll,

Let me not see our country's honour fade:

O let me see our land retain her soul,

Her pride, her freedom; and not freedom's shade."

-"To Hope"



"Let me write down a line of glorious tone,

And full of many wonders of the spheres:

For what a height my spirit is contending!

'Tis not content so soon to be alone."

-"On leaving Some Friends at an Early Hour"



"There must be too a ruin dark and gloomy,

To say 'Joy not too much in all that's bloomy.'"

-"Epistle to George Felton Mathew"



"With reverence would we speak of all the sages

Who have left streaks of light athwart their ages:"

-"Epistle to George Felton Mathew"



"Why, you might read two sonnets, ere they reach

To where the hurrying freshnesses aye preach

A natural sermon o'er their pebbly beds;"

-"'I stood tiptoe upon a little hill'"



"For what has made the sage or poet write

But the fair paradise of Nature's light?"

-"'I stood tiptoe upon a little hill'"



"Ah! surely he had burst our mortal bars"

-"'I stood tiptoe upon a little hill'"



"Stop and consider! life is but a day;

A fragile dewdrop on its perilous way

From a tree's summit; a poor Indian's sleep

While his boat hastens to the monstrous steep

Of Montmorenci. Why so sad a moan?

Life is the rose's hope while yet unblown;

The reading of an ever-changing tale;

The light uplifting of a maiden's veil;

A pigeon tumbling in clear summer air;

A laughing school-boy, without grief or care,

Riding the springy branches of an elm."

-"Sleep and Poetry"



"Is there so small a range

In the present strength of manhood, that the high

Imagination cannot freely fly

As she was wont of old?"

-"Sleep and Poetry"



"Could all this be forgotten? Yes, a schism

Nurtured by foppery and barbarism,

Made great Apollo blush for this his land.

Men were thought wise who could not understand

His glories: with a puling infant's force

They sway'd about upon a rocking-horse,

And thought it Pegasus. Ah, dismal-soul'd!"

-"Sleep and Poetry"



"Why were ye not awake? But ye were dead

To things ye knew not of, --were closely wed

To musty laws lined out with wretched rule

And compass vile: so that ye taught a school

Of dolts to smooth, inlay, and clip, and fit".

-"Sleep and Poetry"



"...Poesy, that it should be a friend

To soothe the cares, and lift the thoughts of man."

-"Sleep and Poetry"



"What though I am not wealthy in the dower

Of spanning wisdom; though I do not know

The shiftings of the mighty winds that blow

Hither and thither all the changing thoughts

Of man: though no great minist'ring reason sorts

Out the dark mysteries of human souls

To clear conceiving: yet there ever rolls

A vast idea before me, and I glean

Therefrom my liberty; thence too I've seen

The end and aim of Poesy."

-"Sleep and Poetry"



"These lines; and howsoever they be done,

I leave them as a father does his son."

-"Sleep and Poetry"



"'What though I leave this dull and earthly mould,

Yet shall my spirit lofty converse hold

With after times.'"

-"Epistle to my Brother George"



"Just like that bird am I in loss of time,

Whene'er I venture on the stream of rhyme;

With shatter'd boat, oar snapt, and canvas rent,

I slowly sail, scarce knowing my intent;

Still scooping up the water with my fingers,

In which a trembling diamond never lingers"

-"Epistle to Charles Cowden Clarke"



"Show'd me that epic was of all the king,

Round, vast, and spanning all, like Saturn's ring".

-"Epistle to Charles Cowden Clarke"



"Highmindedness, a jealousy for good,

A loving-kindness for the great man's fame,

Dwells here and there with people of no name,

In noisome alley, and in pathless wood:

And where we think the truth least understood,

Oft may be found a 'singleness of aim'".

-"Addressed to Benjamin Robert Haydon"



"The poetry of earth is never dead:"

-"On the Grasshopper and the Cricket"



"A sun-- a shadow of a magnitude."

-"On seeing the Elgin Marbles"



"O ye! who have your eyeballs vex'd and tir'd,

Feast them upon the wideness of the Sea;"

-"On the Sea"



"What the Imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth-- whether it existed before or not".

-Letter to Benjamin Bailey, probably referring to "Lines: 'Unfelt, unheard, unseen'"



"'Tis ignorance that makes a barren waste

Of all beyond itself."

-"To the Nile"



"Let us open our leaves like a flower and be passive and receptive; budding patiently under the eye of Apollo and taking hints from every noble insect that favours us with a visit-- Sap will be given us for meat, and dew for drink."

-Letter to Reynolds, quoted before "What the Thrush said"



"...He who saddens

At thought of idleness cannot be idle,

And he's awake who thinks himself asleep."

-"What the Thrush said"



To top of Keats' early poems



Photo of English countryside  

Read this when...

...you are, or desire to be, imaginative and exultant; or, you want a spirited exhibition and advocacy of poetry and the romantic frame of mind.


To top of Keats' early poems



If you like this, you'd also like...

(for the poetic romantic:)

-William Wordsworth, poems (1793-1847)

-Samuel Taylor Coleridge, poems (1794-1834)

-George Gordon, Lord Byron, poems (1807-1823)

-Percy Bysshe Shelley, poems (1813-1822)

-John Keats, (other) poems (1818-1820)


(for the delver into the literary sources of Keats's inspiration:)

-Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales (1387ff)

-Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene (1590-1596)

-William Shakespeare, Sonnets (1609) (and plays)

-Thomas Chatterton, poems (1768-1770)


To top of Keats' early poems



Find Keats' poems at Amazon.com

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To top of Keats' early poems