John Keats’ poetry mixes lush lyricism with social commentary

by Courtney McKee | 2/22/19 2:15am

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty, — that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

Tomorrow is the 198th anniversary of John Keats’ early death at age 25 from tuberculosis. Keats, one of the most prominent Romantic poets of the 19th century, wrote lyrical meditations on many themes, including nature, love, beauty and death, arguably the most famous of which are his odes “To Autumn,” “Ode on a Grecian Urn” and “Ode to a Nightingale.” Criticized in its time for its frivolity, Keats’ poetry soon became widely recognized for its mastery of poetic forms, delicate evocations of the natural world and heartfelt representations of love and loss. 

The quintessential Romantic poet, Keats displayed a profound receptivity to the hardships of the world. In his poem “Bright Star! Would I were as steadfast as thou art,” he wishes for permanence, to be a fixed point like a star in the night sky. In his poem “When I have fears that I may cease to be,” he worries prophetically that death will find him before he has done all he wants to do. In “Ode to a Nightingale,” he envies a songbird for its separation from the mournful human world, “where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies.” In much of Keats’ poetry, he writes of a fanciful world of fair youths, myrtle wreaths and babbling brooks; a world to replace our own, where no one dies and the air is sweet with the scent of lilacs. When first reading Keats’ poetry at the tender age of 16, I felt a certain companionship with the suffering poet, in his deep melancholy, dissatisfaction at the state of the world and sincere pleas to flee his lot. 

But is that all we should take Keats for, a sensitive escapist with a penchant for sonnets? Andrew Motion, poet laureate of the U.K. from 1999 to 2009, argues not. In 2016, Motion selected poems and excerpts from Keats’ oeuvre to include in a book of Keats’ poetry, as part of a series of books on nature poets from Faber and Faber. The cover of the Keats edition features his famous nightingale, aloft a tree ripe with berries in a verdant landscape of swirling skies. The bird doesn’t sing but rather turns backwards and eyes something in the distance with suspicion. In his introduction, Motion writes that Keats was “a dangerously subversive figure — lower class, badly educated, and the friend of radicals,” a man who garnered criticism from the literary establishment because of the potentially inflammatory undertones of his work.

In my adolescent understanding of Keats as a troubled youth who bemoaned the cruelty of the world, this new interpretation bothered me. Keats’ poetry was not political — it was far from it. It was a dreamscape, swelled with images of sun-ripened berries and morning dew. He had created his own kingdom, existing outside of time or anything earthly, so how could his poetry encourage anything but dreams? 

The opening poem of the collection is “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer,” in which Keats writes about reading George Chapman’s translation of Homer’s “The Odyssey.” His imagination is enlivened by the playwright’s reframing of a world with which he is already familiar, like he is reading about it for the first time. Motion’s choice of the opening poem was deliberate, preparing readers for a reframing of their own and showing the opportunity that the editor is given to create a new narrative out of existing parts. 

Throughout the book, Keats’ more traditionally Romantic poems are interspersed with others less fantastical, exhibiting the breadth of the poet’s practice. Early in the book, Motion includes an excerpt from Keats’ epic poem “Endymion” that warns against power working on a narcissistic mind: “There are who lord it o’er their fellow-men with most prevailing tinsel, who unpen with baaing vanities.” Later, there is a verse from “The Fall of Hyperion. A Dream, in which Keats emphasizes the need for common education, writing that “every man ... hath visions, and would speak, if he had loved, and been well-nurtured in his mother tongue.” 

Motion’s thoughtful selections prove that the power of Keats’ poetry is not his descriptions of fair maidens and the winnowing wind, but his honest discourse about the inadequacy of the existing societal structures. In that way, Keats’ work is startlingly subversive. In a world of increasing industrialism and political conservatism, Keats speaks of an instead, what the world should be. Moreover, Motion reminds us that Keats’ poetry did not come out of a vacuum, but was in response to the environment in which he lived. His poems, though embellished with metaphors and allusions to Classical mythology, speak to material truths, from class oppression to personal despondency. Beauty is truth, Keats wrote, truth beauty, and because of Motion’s careful selection, I believe I know what he meant by that.