John Keats Biography His Life and Literary Activities
His Life and Literary Activities[John Keats Biography]
The first thirty years of the nineteenth century have remained remarkable in the history of English literature for the presence of a number of highly talented literary personalities. To them belongs much of the finest literature of the century. Wordsworth and Coleridge, Shelley and Byron, Sir Walter Scott and Charles Lamb have immensely enriched this literature, known as romantic literature.
Among such literary giants, one name, not of less significance and creative excellence, is often forgotten. He is John Keats, a perfect expressionist of romantic marvel and wonder, elegance and tenderness.
That Keats was a West Countryman by descent, but a Londoner by birth. His family, unlike Shelley’s or Byron’s, had no aristocratic bearing nor financial affluence. His father, Thomas Keats, was an ostler in some livery stables and succeeded to the business by marrying his master’s daughter Frances Jennings. The couple had four sons—John (the poet), George, Tom and Edward, who died in infancy, and one daughter Fanny. Keats was born in 1795.
Of course, Keats’s parents, though not at all aristocratic, were well-to-do and honourably ambitious. They did, to the best of their means, to educate their sons. Keats, along with his brothers, was sent to a reputed private school at Enfield, kept by the Rev. John Clarke. Here Keats got his first and intimate acquaintance with English literature, particularly English verse.
After his father’s death in 1804, Keat’s mother married again in 1805, rather unhappily. Within a short time, she left her second husband and settled at her mother’s house at Edmonton, with her children.
Keats’s study, however, continued and thrived. He read a good deal of history, fiction, classics, travel books. He was very much drawn to Homer, Virgil, Spenser and Elizabethan masters. Under their inspiring influences, Keats started writing verses. One of his earliest verses happened to be An Imitation of Spenser. In the meantime, his mother had died of consumption in 1810 and thereafter, he left for London to read medical science, but left that altogether in 1817 and devoted himself fully to verse writing. His first volume of Poems came out in 1817, followed by Endymion, in the very next year.
But Keats’s poetic endeavours received no prompt and favourable response. Critics appeared severe to his Endymion in particular. From that time, Keats’s sky began to darken. First, his second brother George and his wife emigrated to America. Sharply offensive reviews of his poetry first in the Blackwood’s Magazine and then in the Quarterly deeply hurt Keats. Some days later there fell upon him another much heavier blow. His brother Tom, dearly loved and nursed by him, died of consumption. His love for Fanny Browne proved ill-fated, as he was the victim of the hereditary enemy in his blood-consumption.
Still Keats carried on his poetical vocation earnestly amid the growing gloom of his physical decline and mental depression and wrote some of his immortal odes like Ode to a Nightingale, Ode on a Grecian Urn, Ode to Autumn, Ode to Melancholy, Ode to Psyche, and so on. The last volume of his Poems came in 1820 to establish his credentiality and reputation in the literary circle.
But it was the last flicker (propy) before the final darkness. Keats struggled to write on, but his malignant ailment steadily crept in. He was taken to Naples on the doctors’ advice. But no effort of his friends was of any avail, and he passed away on February 23, 1821, and was buried three days later in the Protestant cemetery in Rome, not far from the place, where Shelley was to lie a year after. His epitaph was of his own dictate :
“Here lies one whose name was writ in water”.
Keats died, and his tenderness and genius were celebrated by Shelley in his poetic triumph Adonais. The dead poet is made ever alive in the living lines from another warmly living poet. This is the fitting testimony to his triumphant poetry, that shall remain, ‘in midst of other woe than ours, a friend to man’.
His Chief Poetical Works
Poems, Endymion, Lamina and other Poems, Hyperion, Isabella, The Eve of St Agnes, Odes, and a number of shorter lyrics.
1. His Poetry : Chief Characteristics
Keats, the youngest of the romanticists, is in no way least in his originality as a poet, and stands equal to his great poetic comrades, Byron and Shelley. Of course, his poetry has not the high seriousness of Wordsworth’s, the prophetic vision of Shelley’s, or the impulsive vigour of Byron’s. But in the depiction of romance and beauty, in the poetic elegance, he seems to have hardly an equal.
What is more, Keats’s poetry has a suggestiveness that is enchanting, a sensuousness that is appealing and an aesthetic philosophy that adores beauty above all things. Indeed, Keats occupies a high place in the temple of poetry, along with those great talents of English poetry, who died prematurely—Marlowe, Collins, Shelley and Byron.
The essence of Keatsian poetic originality lies in a number of factors. In the first place, there is his deep love for beauty. ‘The yearning passion for the beautiful, runs all through his poetry. His poetic motto echoes in his assertion—”A thing of beauty is a joy forever.”
In the second place, there is his sensuous portrayal of nature. He has not sublimated or humanised nature, but is basically a painter of nature and seems to anticipate the Pre-Raphaelites. In fact, in his poetry, nature is all alive and graceful with external charms and appeals.
The third important feature in Keats is his subjectivity, which is deep and, at the same time, bears, like Shelley’s lyrics, a melancholy strain. His personal agony, depression and despondency are all echoed in his odes in particular.
The mark of his originality is found in his curious felicity of expressions. For the magic of compound words, for wonderful phrases and for memorable lines, Keats stands out uniquely.
The next quality, in which his poetry excels, is music-sonorous music. The luxuriance of his poetical sensation is well matched with the luxuriance of his poetical experession. Keats is usually taken as the most musical of the English poets. His verses have a continous flow of melody that enchants and captures. The musical effects of Keats’s great odes are hardly surpassable.
2. Keats’s Concept of Beauty as Expressed in his Odes.
Keats is acknowledged as a poet of beauty. Of course, his is no appraisement of gross, physical beauty, but of beauty in the absolute sense, that touches the mind and impels the heart, His creed of beauty is the essence of his poetic philosophy. This is well borne out in his celebrated odes, of which Ode to a Nightingale, Ode to Autumn and Ode on a Grecian Urn deserve a specific mention.
As a poet of beauty, Keats is found to immortalise beauty in its ever appealing and never perishing effect. ‘A thing of beauty’ is to him ‘a joy for ever. This is the essence of his contention both in his Ode to a Nightingale and in his Ode on a Grecian Urn. To the poet’s romantic imagination, the song of the nightingale is a thing of beauty, and, therefore, it has no change, decay, or death—”Thou wast not born for death, O Immortal Bird”. The sculptural art on a marble vase of ancient Greece is equally deathless. It has remained a joy to the generation of men and women amid the changes of the world
“Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st, Beauty is truth, truth beauty,”
Of course, Keats has a different approach in the other ode, Ode to Autumn. The poet is concerned here with natural beauty and serenity in the season of autumn. The emphasis here is on the sensuousness of beauty, the effect that the loveliness even of the decadent season of autumn produces.
The appeal of beauty, as conceived by Keats, endures, but man, subjected to transcience, is unable to relish this beauty for long. The sordid, tragic earthly life hardly allows human beings to have the taste of eternal beauty. This painful experience of human life is expressed, very powerfully no doubt, in the concluding stanza of Ode to a Nightingale.
It may be noted here that Keats’s beauty is not limited to any purely physical or sensuous element. As already implied, his beauty has an absolute conception, and is not confined to any particular thing or idea. What specifically draws him is the appeal of beauty, and this may be in nature, or in man, or in man’s creation of art.
The central point is the imperishable appeal of beauty that is beyond the frailty or fatality of the mortal world. The nightingale, as an individual bird, is perishable, but its song, representing ‘absolute beauty’, is imperishable, just as the beauty of autumn has an unforgettable appeal in its sights, spirits and songs.
This philosophy of the immortality of beauty, no doubt, forms a cardinal aspect of Keats’s concept of beauty. But this is not all, and, as seen in Ode On a Grecian Urn, the poet probes deeper into the aesthetic effect of the whole issue.
He is no more content with the assertion that ‘a thing of beauty is a joy for ever’, but goes to attribute to it a moral force, an ethical grandeur. He assimilates truth and beauty not as two distinct things, nor even as twin elements, but as one and the same thing, looked only from different angles. What is truth is beauty, just as beauty is nothing but truth. A thing of beauty must have its foundation on truth, and when there is no such foundation, this is false, and cannot stand long. Similarly, when there is no beauty, it is presumed that truth is lacking.
Indeed, Keats’s concept of and approach to beauty is quite original, though not all simple to all. He takes truth and beauty as intimately connected, rather interfused, and may be interpreted differently, only from different points of view. The sculptural art on the marble vase of ancient Greece is a specimen of beauty, but this beauty, in his view, is nothing but truth, and as such lives for ever, as truth can never die. There is perceived a fine fusion of aesthetics and ethics in the poet’s triumphant clarion call in the concluding lines of his poem :
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty—that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
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