“On Sitting Down to Read King Lear Once Again” by John Keats

KeatsI was flipping through my copy of English Romantic Writers when I came upon this sonnet. I had underlined parts, so I assume I read it in college, but honestly, I don’t remember. Anyway, I read through it a couple of times so that I could get a deep sense of the poem.

O golden-tongued Romance with serene lute!
Fair plumed Syren! Queen of far away!
Leave melodizing on this wintry day,
Shut up thine olden pages, and be mute:
Adieu! for once again the fierce dispute,
Betwixt damnation and impassion’d clay
Must I burn through; once more humbly assay
The bitter-sweet of this Shakespearian fruit.
Chief Poet! and ye clouds of Albion,
Begetters of our deep eternal theme,
When through the old oak forest I am gone,
Let me not wander in a barren dream,
But when I am consumed in the fire,
Give me new Phoenix wings to fly at my desire.

I must confess that I really wanted to like this poem more than I actually did. I mean, it’s John Keats writing about King Lear—it has to be good, right? This was one of the reasons I read it twice in the sitting; I couldn’t help thinking that it was better than I thought and I therefore must be missing something.

As I think about it now, it was all the exclamations that turned me off. It just felt like forced ostentation, like he was intentionally trying to be showy. One, maybe two exclamations would have been OK, but five is just overkill.

While I didn’t care for the poem’s style, the emotion and ideas contained in the poem were interesting for me. Keats is setting aside his urge to create poetry to indulge himself in one of Shakespeare’s greatest works. But more importantly, he seems to be replacing his muse with Shakespeare. Instead of supplicating to some divine entity for inspiration, he turns to the works of another human. I think this is pretty major, especially since Keats seemed to be obsessed with ideals: Truth, Beauty, etc. To seek these in the works of man as opposed to the divine was quite a change.

I found the ending of the poem to be the most thought-provoking part. Not only did I picture Lear wandering, lost, suffering the repercussions of his choices, but I also pictured Dante in the woods, abandoning all hope as he enters into the Inferno. Then, after the flames burn away the sins and regrets of mortal life, Keats longs to rise from the ashes and have his soul become one with his desire, which is the divine source of Truth and Beauty.

Overall, it is not a bad poem, just not as good as it could have been. And again, what I didn’t like about it was very subjective. Others may like it. Feel free to share your thoughts. Cheers!!

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