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John Keats is one of the most famous and beloved poets ever to have lived. That being said his inclusion on many English literature courses at second level probably means he’s also one of the most hated. Living only till the age of twenty five and publishing work a mere four years before his death, it is astounding that Keats managed to write as much and as successfully as he did. Growing up in a very middle class family, Keats initially studied to become a doctor but dropped those ambitions to instead become a poet, a career choice that perhaps should not be imitated. However, Keats quickly gained a reputation among other Romantic poets such as Lord Byron and Percy Shelley, and today is recognised as one of the greats of the Romantic era. From his famous Odes to a simple rhyme about wine and women, these are the five reasons why you should read John Keats.
1) Ode on Melancholy
Yes, it is exactly as dramatic as it sounds. Ode on Melancholy is one of Keats’ most provocative odes. It is difficult to read his rich descriptions of melancholia falling over the landscape and not feel a chill down your spine as you do so.
But when the melancholy fit shall fall
Sudden from heaven like a weeping cloud,
That fosters the droop-headed flowers all,
And hides the green hill in an April shroud.
The imagery the Keats presents the reader is intense and specific, morbid and beautiful. One is horror reading it but cannot pull their eyes from the page. This is typical of Keats’ writing, saturated with imagery and a choice of words that would shame any poet.
She dwells with Beauty – Beauty that must die;
And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips
Bidding adieu, and aching Pleasure nigh,
Turning to poison while the bee-mouth sips.:
2) Women, Wine, and Snuff
‘Women, Wine, and Snuff’ is not exactly the poem you would expect from one of the most respected writers in history, and it’s certainly not the poem that teachers reach for when they want to show their classes the poetry of John Keats. But what this lovely little poem does in its own way is far more important than that, it shows a lighter side to what can be viewed as a difficult poet. There is nothing difficult about this poem, there are no illusions, metaphors, or complex literary devices. It’s just six simple lines about how much John Keats loves women, wine, and snuff.
Women, Wine, and Snuff
Give me women, wine, and snuff
Until I cry out, ‘Hold, enough!’
You may do so sans objection
Till the day of resurrection;
For bless my beard they aye shall be
My beloved Trinity.
3) ‘Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art-‘
One of the final poems that John Keats wrote, discovered in fact on a blank page of his copy of Shakespeare’s poems, ‘Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art-‘ is one of his most beautiful and moving love poems.
Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art –
Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like nature’s patient, sleeping Eremite,
The speaker throughout the poem addresses a star, who he wishes he was more like as he is pressed against the chest of his lover. He wishes to become a constant, all seeing star so he can gaze on the beauty of his lover forever. This sonnet like many of Keats’ poems contains a lot of feeling in very few words. Throughout reading the poem the reader can sense the outpouring of love the poet is sending his lover. He is an immensely moving poem, a good one for Valentine’s day.
4) On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer
Although not his most famous works, ‘On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer’ holds a strange charm in regards to the wider context of Keats’ work. To give some history, Homer was an ancient Greek poet who wrote the epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey. Although most learned Englishmen in Keats’ time spoke Latin, very few could read ancient Greek and thus the works of Homer were largely unknown to them. However, George Chapman’s English translation of these epics opened the door to Keats to the heroic world of the Greeks and Trojans. This spawned a poem that is centred around the emotional power of a great work of art.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-browed 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;
Keats equates his arrival into this new and magical world to discovering a new planet or new land. His excitement at his discovery almost leaps of the page at the reader. This is why this poem is so magnetic, it’s a literary nerd essentially nerding out, but in an incredibly beautiful lyric verse.
5) To Autumn
‘To Autumn’ is John Keats’ most famous works, and for good reason, it’s one of the greatest poems in the English language. It’s as simple and a complicated as that. It’s an incredible poem about the arrival of autumn. There are little words to describe this poem so it’s best just get on and read it, it will not disappoint. Or better yet, listen to Ben Whishaw read it:
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