A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:

Its loveliness increases; it will never

Pass into nothingness; but still will keep

A bower quiet for us, and a sleep

Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.


Keats: an introduction

Keats lost his father before he turned 10 and his mother a few years later. She died of consumption and was nursed by Keats in the final months of her life. Before this she had been an absent mother for several years having gone off to live with another man after a brief second marriage failed. Keats grew up, therefore, with suffering. And suffering forms one of the central themes of his poetry. In his earlier poetry, the imagination is given a compensatory role that is critiqued in the later odes. Keats creates parallel universes in many of his poems in which loss can be staged and examined. His poetry is characterised by a duality in which real detail is juxtaposed with symbols. He creates a mythical world which is peopled by half real and half mythical figures. These poems have a strange familiarity and are yet allegorical. They insist that they are artistic creations, deliberately created things, while seeming to be real. Keats came to believe that the batterings, sufferings and celebrations of life provided a school in which the self could fulfil a great human purpose, what he called ‘soul-making’. The school of life enables people to achieve a more resilient philosophical dimension. This progression is never easy but for Keats was always the proper response to experience.

The epic, for Keats, gave him the possibility to create entire imaginative world and these formed a counterpart to modern times. Powerful poetry, he felt, could create a self-sufficient universe. The technique enables Keats to stand back from the real world and yet comment on it, while at the same time lamenting the disappearance of the virtues that he associated with classical antiquity. He seamlessly combines classical and actual landscapes so that they begin to feel part of the same world. These worlds are at once real and imaginary.

Beyond both is poetry. In almost all Keats’s poetry he tries to reconcile contrasts. He brings together home and the world, thought and sensation, for example. They are all necessary to poetic progress.


Keats was against overtly didactic poetry. Powerful poetry, he maintains, does not express the author’s personal opinions but creates a self-sufficient imaginative universe in which readers are invited to make their own critical decisions and moral judgements. There is no trace of the egotistical sublime in Keats’s conception of the chameleon poet. He was influenced by his friend and fellow writer Leigh Hunt, though, to think that poetry should advance, but not directly, a liberal argument and reinforce this argument with a subversive idiom. This earned them the wrath of the establishment and the appellation, “Cockney poets”.

Right from the beginning, Keats’s poetry shows his trademarks. It is always authentic and full of sumptuous detail. There are many classical references and painterly gestures. Beauty is not merely a lovely escape from the world; an interaction and awareness of the beautiful is an active form of engagement with it. All these ideas are to be found in his mature work. There is always a longing for escape but also an acknowledgement that ultimately difficulties cannot be avoided. His poetry also reflects his ambivalent feelings towards women; they are potentially attractive but also destructive because of the feelings they elicit and the vulnerability that attends these feelings.

While Keats creates an alternative universe in his poems, he never doubts that the only true test of belief is that it should be proved upon the pulses. His appeal to a life of sensations does not entail an escape from the intellect, though, so much as the view that everything that we think should be tested by what the heart feels to be true. He argued for a balance between the intellect and the emotions.

Politically Keats was a sceptical Republican. He was a critic of all that was represented by the establishment. He does not attack the establishment directly in his poems, though. Rather he writes poems that “would be a remedy against… wrongs within the pale of the world”.

Like Wordsworth, Keats is a poet of nature but for him nature is much more suburban; it is to be found in the sheltered spaces which one visits but in which one does not stay. He is more concerned with the picturesque than the sublime.

He always composed very quickly, as though creation itself was an overflow that was spontaneous. ‘Endymion’ is set in a paradise of nature’s light; it celebrates Greek pantheism in language which is lush and very different from that of Wordsworth. Keats advised Shelley to become more of a poet and ‘load every rift of his subject with ore’. His own poetry certainly exhibits this quality. Keats always paid a lot of attention to the sound of a poem, believing that melody was integral to a poem’s meaning.

Keats was strongly influenced by William Hazlitt, especially by Hazlitt’s ideas about how writers reconcile their commitment to the external political world with their emotions and the imagination. This led Keats to develop his faith in the self-annulling character of the poet and underlies his idea of negative capability and the chameleon poet. He also had an elevated idea of the importance of poetry. When he gave up his career as a doctor he turned self-consciously to a career of healing the mind rather than the body.


Keats was a poet dedicated to the beautiful. ‘Endymion’ (see anthology 1344) begins with the words: ‘a thing of beauty is a joy for ever:/its loveliness increases; it will never pass into nothingness; but still will keep a bower quiet for us, and a sleep full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.’ For Keats, though, beauty was not an escape, but an education. His letters are full of statements about beauty. “What the imagination seizes as beauty must be truth”; “I cannot conceive any beginning to such a love as I have for you but beauty”; “I have loved the principle of beauty in all things.” Keats considered beauty as capable of delivering general salvation and not merely personal individual pleasure. It does not just arrest the flow of time but it also provides a critique of corrupt power. It has a role in promoting intellectual and human growth, and its transformative and redemptive capacities are related to self-forgetting. He had a great faith in the fundamental truth of the imagination. For him beauty and the imagination represented a natural theology that was opposed to institutionalised Christianity and all forms of repressive power. A sense of beauty and the practice of human love provided, he believed, a way to find the immortality of the soul; it enabled him to transcend but not escape reality. He set great store on love and friendship.

His poetry, which provides a contrast between the real and ideal, forms a chronicle of the growth of the imagination. This is also the root of his erotic imagination, which reconciles worldly desire with transcendental longing. As Keats would write: “I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the heart’s affections and the truth of imagination – what the imagination seizes as beauty must be truth – whether it existed before or not. For I have the same idea of all our passions as of love: they are all, in their sublime, creative of essential beauty.” (Anthology, 1349)

For Keats, belief depended on the willingness to accept contradictions. This is another aspect of his poetry. He also explores the gap between the sort of human love that is available and distant ideal love. In ‘Endymion’, he tries to define a community which rejects the condition of the present age and idealises an antique sense of order in which liberty, love and democracy are respected and not obstructed.


Another important idea of Keats’ is creative indolence. This idea is most famously explored in his letter to George and Tom Keats (anthology 1351). This is also connected to his idea of the chameleon poet. He had heard Hazlitt insisting that Shakespeare was nothing in himself and was the least of an egoist that it was possible to be: “he not only had in himself the germs of every faculty and feeling, but he could follow them by anticipation, intuitively, to all the conceivable ramifications, through every change of fortune, or conflict of passion, or turn of thought… When he conceived of a character, whether real or imaginary, he not only entered into all its thoughts and feelings, but seemed instantly, and as if by touching a secret spring, to be surrounded with all the same objects.” He relates an excess of power to an absence of identity: “I think poetry should surprise by a fine excess and not by singularity… If poetry comes not as naturally as leaves to a tree it had better not come at all.”

The long narrative poem ‘Isabella’ contains Keats’s most explicit critique of capitalism and colonialism. It is an exploration of how orthodoxies are constructed. He also explores his anxieties about the connection between love, selfhood and materialism in the poem. The poem is notable in the sense it conveys that its most intense life is lived outside the main narrative. Identity and truth are explored in the poem by way of an enquiry into social codes and fiscal conventions. The poem also explores the characteristic Keatsian theme of how truth and beauty can be combined.

At this time, in a letter to Reynolds on 27 April, Keats argues that by choosing philosophy over luxury one is doing good for the world. Life is compared to a mansion of many apartments; there is a thoughtless chamber and what he calls the chamber of maiden thought in which the burden of the mystery is felt. He writes:

Well – I compare human life to a large Mansion of Many Apartments, two of which I can only describe, the doors of the rest being yet shut upon me – The first we step into we call the infant or thoughtless Chamber, in which we remain as long as we do not think – We remain there a long while, and notwithstanding the doors of the second Chamber remain wide open, showing a bright appearance, we care not to hasten to it; but are at length imperceptibly impelled by the awakening of the thinking principle – within us – we no sooner get into the second Chamber, which I shall call the Chamber of Maiden-Thought, than we become intoxicated with the light and the atmosphere, we see nothing but pleasant wonders, and think of delaying there for ever in delight: However among the effects this breathing is father of is that tremendous one of sharpening one’s vision into the heart and nature of Man – of convincing ones nerves that the World is full of Misery and Heartbreak, Pain, Sickness and oppression – whereby This Chamber of Maiden Thought become gradually darken’d and at the same time on all sides of it many doors are set open – but all dark – all leading to dark passages – We see not the balance of good and evil.  We are in a Mist – We are now in that state – We feel the “burden of the Mystery,” To this point was Wordsworth come, as far as I can conceive when he wrote ‘Tintern Abbey’ and it seems to me that his Genius is explorative of those dark Passages.  Now if we live, and go on thinking, we too shall explore them.  He is a Genius and superior [to] us, in so far as he can, more than we, make discoveries, and shed a light in them


Keats and his friend Charles Brown went on a very long walking tour through northern England and Scotland. His descriptions of nature in his letters at this time are memorable and vivid. The landscape, he writes, “make all disagreeables evaporate.” In a letter to his brother Tom he writes: “what astonishes me more than anything is the tone, the colouring, the slate, the stone, the moss, the rock weed; or, if I may say so, the intellect, the countenance of such places.” Later he observes, though, that he can’t just write descriptions of scenery. He also parts company with Wordsworth and Coleridge when he writes in a letter to Reynolds on 13 July, “fancy is indeed less than a present palpable reality, but it is greater than remembrance.” Keats and Brown visited the tomb of Robert Burns on tgheir walking tour. Both Keats and Burns were self-creating geniuses and both set themselves against authority. They both drew on native literary traditions and associated moral health with the ability to overcome and admit the hardships and vicissitudes of existence.


Keats’s views towards women are notoriously complex. He was drawn to them but did not trust them. Some have attributed this to his experience with his mother when he was a boy. In a letter to Reynolds he writes that: “I am certain I have not a right feeling towards women – at this moment I’m striving to be just to them but I cannot – is it because they fall so far beneath my boyish imagination?” He felt that his chances of happiness with women were undermined by his bookish idealism and a sense of inferiority – his short height, his background etc. He struggled to break from the scars of abandonment which had shaped his childhood. Much of his great poems grow out of his self-awareness of the complexity of his feelings towards women. As Andrew Motion says: “they all struggle to allow, or at least understand, a movement from last to love, from generosity to grief.” For Keats a commitment to others is always a form of vulnerability. This was true of his intense friendships with men and might be linked to his ideas about the chameleon poet who is someone whose ego is subordinate to a sensuous intelligence. this makes them susceptible to the identity of others pushing in on them. In a letter to George and Georgina he writes that ‘resourcefulness of imagination is dependent on negative capability.’

He reimagines the Greek story of the battle between the Titans and the gods in ‘Hyperion’. It has been said that the two main figures in the poem, Hyperion – the Sun God and the only Titan who still remains a ruler – and Apollo, the new sun god and the god of music, healing and prophecy – are aspects of Keats himself. Hyperion represents his old morbid fears and forebodings while Apollo represents his new self: confident, enlightened and humanist. The poem also has a political theme: the replacement of an old stagnant society and social progression as seen as natural. The project of renovation is promoted by the disinterested exertions of artists. As Shelley does in ‘Prometheus Unbound’, Keats argues in ‘Hyperion’ for the revitalising role of aesthetic creation and its importance for social and political renewal.

On 27 October Keats writes his famous letter to Woodhouse in which he argues against the egotistical sublime and for the lack of identity of the poet. He also argues that the poet should rely on the beautiful rather than positive responses to his work. As Motion writes, ” rejected by the critics, he promotes his fondness for the beautiful to the point at which he realises that he may be tempted to lose all interest in human affairs.” His poetry does become less overtly political at this time. He also reacts to criticism. Nevertheless the spirit of his poetry remains resolutely pagan. The voluptuous imagery of ‘the Eve of St Agnes’ is an example. He still criticises financial dependency and the orthodox codes of power, though. He explores the temptation to escape time in the odes while also registering the weight of history. His poetry also signals his belief that poetry should be an active manipulation of experience rather than merely a reaction to it.

‘Eve of St Agnes’ is based on his discovery that the Eve of St Agnes was the day on which virgins practised divination in order to discover the identity of their future husbands. The poem goes far beyond its Gothic parentage. Keats’s handling of the traditional quest romance is original, intimate and intense, not to say ambiguous. The poem is built on a series of oppositions:

light is placed against darkness, warmth against cold, fulfilment against frustration, youth against age. The chilly owl, the limping hare, the numb beadsman, the ‘palsy-twitched’ maid Angela, and the’sculptur’d’ dead in the chapel – these speak of exclusion and mortality. In due course they are balanced against the ‘poppied’ warmth of Madeline’s sleep, the glow of the ‘shielded scutcheon’ in her bedroom, Porphyro’s ‘heart on fire’ with love, the excitement of his ‘close secrecy’ in Madeline’s chamber, and so on” (Motion: 339).

The oppositions seem to be resolved at the end of the poem, or rather at its climax, when Porphyro melts into Madeline’s dream. But in fact they are not actually resolved at the end of the poem, just cast in a new form. The poem has received various interpretations; it has been seen as an allegory of identity, and as a narrative about the role of the poeticimagination, for example. But whatever the interpretation, the three stanzas in which the lovers’ love-making is described are always central. Does Madeline welcome Porphyro or are we in the realm of rape? All these questions are endlessly asked but can never be finely resolved. Is Madeline’s remoteness a sign of her excitement at the prospect of seeing her lover or does it express uncertainty about the whole venture? What does the poem say about sex in general? Is sex a false paradise or does it hold out real possibilities of transcendence? Is adolescent passion dangerous or admirable for its intensity? Does Porphyro really merge with Madeline or is this meeting imagined? Does the poem celebrate a reciprocal physicality or a preference for something more solitary? Keats, the poet with no identity, leaves all these questions up in the air. Finally it is a work that is as concerned with the responsibilities of the imagination as it is “with the pleasures and perils of love.” The voluptuous artfulness of the poem also means that the poet adopts an ironical attitude towards his own creation.


Keats was preoccupied with the relationship between feeling and knowledge. He explores the possibility that the mental and spiritual efforts that are required to come to terms with the suffering of life can be transformed into perceptions and art by the poet that might do the world some good. This belief encouraged him to fulfil himself as a poet. For the rest of his life the simultaneous apprehension of pleasure and pain was an all too present reality.

The most common reading of the poem ‘La belle Dame Sans Merci’ is that it is about the wasting power of sexual attraction and love or, alternatively, the enslavement of the poet by his muse. In opposition to such a reading, though, we can see that the fourth, fifth, sixth and eighth stanzas of the poem as presenting the Knight as someone who creates his own fate. Not long after finishing the poem, Keats writes in a letter to George and Georgina about his idea of the world and life as a project of soul-making. The letter contains an important exploration of the purpose of suffering. Keats argues for a system of salvation in which individuals are responsible for their own destinies. This is an alternative to schematic religion. He sees a close correspondence between soul-making and identity.

Although each of the great odes is different and has a different focus, they also display common themes: the value and nature of the creative process and the role of negative capability. Another theme is the relation between conscious and unconscious forces, between art and life and between philosophy and sensation. All the odes parallel sexual feelings with mental activity and struggle to transcend time even as they are conscious that they are bound by time and operate within it. Together the odes form a fluid narrative of self-definition. Each stage of each ode contains questioning, modification and contradiction. Keats finds in them a way in which he can celebrate the triumph of art while at the same time conceding the need to endure the harsh facts of historical time. He was still undecided about the relationship between poetry and suffering, though. In a letter to his friend Bailey, Keats maintains that in order for an artist to successfully reach out to society he must remain apart and delve inwards.

His great poem ‘Lamia’, with its half human, half demon lover also raises many questons. Should we see love as the fulfilment of the self or as leading to its destruction? Is the poem about the revelatory possibilities of love or about its illusory nature? The transformation of Lamia crackles with sexual excitement . Despite her love for Lycius, she will always be a shape shifter and therefore always vulnerable to discovery. The poem is governed by ambiguity. Lamia herself invites both wonder and revulsion; she is sincere but slippery. Her deception humanises her. While her lover is proud and domineering, she is fearful and sensitive, intelligent and imaginative. Her unmasking at the wedding banquet seems brutal.


Keats turns again to ‘Hyperion’, presenting the poet as both healer and philosopher: “a poet is a sage,/a humanist, physician to all men.” In some of the most famous lines of the poem, he writes: “the poet and the dreamer are distinct,/diverse, sheer opposites, antipodes./The one pours out of balm upon the world,/the other vexes it.” The source of the poet’s power is his ability to combine pain and pleasure but at the same time art might lead in a different direction altogether. The unveiled Moneta is his image in the poem of the ideal poet and an emblem of complete disinterestedness. She is not an agent of the supernatural religion but a compassionless humanness. As the only survivor of the age of Saturn, she embodies the survival of an archaic mode of thought and imagination. At the same time Keats realises that the prophetic role of the poet is more difficult in the present context of materialism and revolution than it was in the classical past. The poem as a whole combines a public and private history in a vision of progress.

In his famous love letter to Fanny Brawne, Keats says that she has absorbed him. His letters to Fanny oscillate between surrendering to his feelings for her and restraint. They explore the ambiguities of love.

His great ode ‘to autumn’ was preceded by aletter to Reynolds about the season of autumn in which he associates the poet Chatterton who committed suicide while still a youth with autumn because he is the purest writer in English language. Keats finds parallels between autumn’s mixture of fulfilment and finality and Chatterton’s career. The poem itself explores the tension between abundance on the one hand and the certainty of decline and loss on the other. In doing so it tries to achieve a balance between the forces of life and the forces of death. What emerges in Keats’ odes and also in its letters is that his most sacred loyalty was to the principle of beauty in all things. In ‘Bright Star’ he extends this idea to love which is presented as a kind of religion.

Keats' death mask made by the artist  Joseph Severn who nursed Keats in Rome on his deathbed

Keats’ death mask made by the artist Joseph Severn who nursed Keats in Rome on his deathbed

Keats is buried in the Protestant cemetry    in Rome. Shelley, who wrote a famous elegy for Keats, 'Adonais', is    buried here too.

Keats is buried in the Protestant cemetry in Rome. Shelley, who wrote a famous elegy for Keats, ‘Adonais’, is buried here too.

The rest of Keats’s short life is the tragic and moving story of his illness and death. He wrote letters in the last year of his life but little poetry.

It is notable that even in his last desperate hours, he did not embrace what he described as “the pious frauds of religion” or betray his belief that suffering was a means of soul-making. In his poetry he always celebrated a humane paganism and used it as a means of criticising his own barbarous age.

He had always continued to refine his attempt to combine thought and sensation.

The amazingly rich worlds of his invention, it has been said, deserve our attention because they “contain a very great deal of reality.”

Source: Motion, A. 1997. Keats. London: Faber and Faber.



BBC Radio 4 In Our Time series – The Later Romantics