Tag Archives: John Keats

“Sonnet to Sleep” by John Keats

Portrait of John Keats by Joseph Severn

O soft embalmer of the still midnight,
Shutting with careful fingers and benign
Our gloom-pleas’d eyes, embower’d from the light,
Enshaded in forgetfulness divine:
O soothest Sleep! if so it please thee, close,
In midst of this thine hymn, my willing eyes,
Or wait the Amen ere thy poppy throws
Around my bed its lulling charities.
Save me from curious conscience, that still hoards
Its strength for darkness, burrowing like the mole;
Turn the key deftly in the oiled wards,
And seal the hushed casket of my soul.

This poem is about the longing to escape physical and emotional suffering. Keats expresses deep anguish which appears to be a combination of bodily pain accompanied by thoughts and memories which torment him. As he lies awake in bed, he longs for the forgetfulness of sleep, but sleep eludes him.

Sleep is a common metaphor for death, and Keats uses certain words associated with death to convey the sense that he is weary of living and longs to pass from mortal existence. The words “embalmer” in the opening line and “casket” in the closing line actually serve as a way of entombing the entire poem. Also, the fact that the poem is set at midnight implies that he is at a symbolic threshold, ready to move on to the next plane of existence.

There is one last thing I feel is worth noting. In lines 7 and 8, there is a reference to the use of poppy, which in Keats’ time would be opium. It appears that Keats has turned to narcotics as a way to ease his physical and spiritual pain. But in spite of his self-anesthetizing, he is still unable to numb the darkness, “burrowing like the mole” into the deepest regions of his psyche.

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“On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer” by John Keats

Homer and Keats: Source - BBC

Homer and Keats: Source – BBC

Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-brow’d Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific—and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

This is considered to be Keats’ first great sonnet, which was composed after reading a translation of Homer by George Chapman, an Elizabethan poet (source: English Romantic Writers).

The poem is broken into two parts, and each section has a different rhyme scheme. The first eight lines comprise the first section which follows an ABBA pattern. This depicts Keats before reading Homer. He describes having visited “realms of gold” and “western islands.” These are metaphors for the poems that he had read up until that time. These were beautiful poems and worthy of Apollo, the god of poetry, but after reading Homer, his entire view on poetry changes, symbolized by the shift in rhyme pattern in the second half.

The last six lines follow an ABABAB scheme and describe how Keats became aware of realms he never knew existed. He first makes an allusion to William Herschel’s discovery of Uranus in 1781, an entire world which was previously unknown. He then compares himself to Cortez and uses the phrase “eagle eyes” to represent his new-found clarity of vision. He describes his feeling as standing upon a mountain in Darien (which is in Panama), and gazing out in awe at a new ocean, which symbolizes the vast depths of new and unexplored poetic inspiration.

I really relate to Keats’ emotions in this poem. I have felt this way in my life, as I am sure most of you have too. When you read that poem or book that changes your view of the world, or hear that song or see that film that opens up a whole new universe of possibilities. This is the true transformative power of art and it is why I read, and listen to new music, and watch films, and go to museums to see paintings.

Thanks for stopping by, and I hope you have an inspiring day.

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“When I Have Fears” by John Keats

Keats

When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain,
Before high piled books, in charactry,
Hold like rich garners the full ripen’d grain;
When I behold, upon the night’s starr’d face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour,
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the fairy power
Of unreflecting love;—then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.

As I was deciding what to read this morning, the title of this poem caught my eye; we all have fears, and I certainly have my share.

In this sonnet, Keats contemplates his death, and specifically, the things he will be unable to accomplish in his life as a result of his impending death. Considering Keats’ health issues associated with tuberculosis, this is understandable. But there is more here than just a “woe is me” sense of self-pity, which allows the reader to connect with what Keats was experiencing.

Keats felt that he had a purpose in life and that he was here for a reason. There were poems he needed to write, books he was meant to read, love he was supposed to experience. And as he stands alone at the threshold, he realizes at a deep level that he will not fulfill his life’s true purpose. This is the key to why this poem affects the reader at such a visceral level. It is a shared human emotion to feel that we each have a purpose in life, that we are here for a reason, to complete certain things. And this feeling becomes more pronounced when death is imminent. As we reflect back and think about what we wanted to achieve but failed to do, our dreams and aspirations “to nothingness do sink.” We have lost our opportunity, and therein is the tragedy of this sonnet.

We all have our “bucket lists,” things we want to do before we die. This poem reminds us that we need to pursue those dreams now, because we may not have time later. There is nothing worse than standing alone “on the shore of the wide world” and thinking: “If only…”

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“To Lord Byron” by John Keats

Keats

Byron, how sweetly sad thy melody,
Attuning still the soul to tenderness,
As if soft Pity with unusual stress
Had touch’d her plaintive lute; and thou, being by,
Hadst caught the tones, nor suffered them to die.
O’ershading sorrow doth not make thee less
Delightful: thou thy griefs dost dress
With a bright halo, shining beamily;
As when a cloud the golden moon doth veil,
Its sides are tinged with a resplendent glow,
Through the dark robe oft amber rays prevail,
And like fair veins in sable marble flow,
Still warble, dying swan, —still tell the tale,
The enchanting tale—the tale of pleasing woe.

Keats wrote this sonnet when he was just 19 years old. In my opinion, it’s not a great poem, but having said that, it is worth reading because we can see the beginning of what will later develop into his poetic genius.

Keats is expressing his admiration for Byron, particularly Byron’s ability to express sorrow through beauty, something Keats would later excel at. Byron is clearly an inspiration to the young poet, and you can learn a lot about artists by understanding where they drew their inspiration.

There are some truly gorgeous images conjured by this poem. My favorite is the image of the veiled moon that Keats describes as golden instead of the usual silver.

As when a cloud the golden moon doth veil,
Its sides are tinged with a resplendent glow,
Through the dark robe oft amber rays prevail,

Where this poems falls short, in my opinion, is in the language and the structure of the verse. It feels forced when you read it and the lines do not have a natural flow and rhythm. I found it very difficult to get a sense of the cadence. Still, for something written so early in his life, it’s pretty good. Certainly better than any poems I wrote at that age.

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“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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“Ode to a Nightingale” by John Keats

KeatsNightingale“Ode to a Nightingale” by John Keats is a pretty dark poem, in my opinion. Keats seems to express a longing to escape reality, either through drugs, death, or poetry. Reality is nothing but suffering and he wants nothing more than to leave the real world and lose himself forever in fantasy and imagination.

The poem opens with Keats expressing pain and his desire to numb himself to everything around him.

My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
         My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
         One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk:

He continues to portray a depressing view of life, which fuels his desire to escape. He wants to become like the nightingale, hidden from the harsh light of reality and existing only in forests of darkness, singing (or creating poetry) in a realm removed from life’s suffering.

Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget
         What thou among the leaves hast never known,
The weariness, the fever, and the fret
         Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs,
         Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;
                Where but to think is to be full of sorrow
                        And leaden-eyed despairs,
         Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,
                Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow.

At the end of the poem, Keats realizes that he cannot escape reality. He discovers that the realm of imagination created through his poetry is nothing but a lie. His words, rather than transporting him to another place, only bring him jarringly back to reality like the tolling of a bell.

Forlorn! the very word is like a bell
         To toll me back from thee to my sole self!
Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well
         As she is fam’d to do, deceiving elf.
When I studied English Romanticism in college, I appreciated Keats, but he was not my favorite by any stretch. I confess, though, that I find myself enjoying his works more now. Maybe my head is in a different place. Anyway, if you want to read the poem online, click here.

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“Ode on a Grecian Urn” by John Keats

GrecianUrnAs an English major in college, I was very interested in the Romantic writers. I had read Keats before, but studying his works gave me a deeper appreciation of his skill as a poet. It had been a while since I read Keats, so I figured I would read one of his more well-known poems today, “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” (Click here to read the poem online.)

The first thing that one should notice about this poem is the title. It is an ode on and not an ode to a Grecian urn. Keats is not writing a poem dedicated to the urn; he is writing about the poetic beauty that he sees within the imagery on the urn. The ode is comprised of the pictures that decorate the vase.

Keats claims that the urn expresses “A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme.” It appears that he feels words and poetry are less evocative than the silent visual impressions. While words and cadence of poetry can certainly stir emotions, Keats feels that visual imagery can do so much more effectively.

The following lines are possibly my favorite in the poem:

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
 Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d,
 Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:

There are two ways to interpret these lines. First, one could say that the unheard music is simply the lost songs of the ancients, which appear more desirous because we can never actually hear them. But I see a second interpretation, one that I feel is what Keats was actually getting at, which is that the divine, or what Keats calls Beauty later in the poem, cannot be expressed verbally, but can only be experienced by visual impressions projected upon one’s psyche. The music without sound is the symphony of images dancing within his consciousness.

I know that not everyone appreciates poetry, but this poem is so good it deserves to be read at least once. Personally, I am seriously considering dusting off my old school books and revisiting more of Keats’ works. It’s amazing how my reading list keeps growing!

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