A natural Romantic

Keats’ deep attraction to Spenser’s world of romance and his own imaginative and emotional intensity made him a natural Romantic. In the last decades of the eighteenth century there was a reaction against the rules and ordered discipline of the Age of Reason. There was a new interest in the imagination and in personal feeling. Revolution was in the air – in politics, social reform and all the arts. Just as the French Revolution had emphasised the importance of freedom, so strict adherence to artistic rules was replaced by a reassertion of the individual.

Lyrical Ballads 

Lyrical Ballads (1798) by Wordsworth and Coleridge is the primary text of English Romantic poetry. It marked a break from the rational principles of the Age of Reason and Wordsworth and Coleridge were amongst the first poets to look for truth and meaning in the natural world. In common with many thinkers who were living through the Industrial Revolution, they felt that reason and the impersonal principles of science had alienated man from his feelings. Consequently, they valued the emotions as a means of reconnecting human beings with their inner lives.
In his Preface Wordsworth states that the function of his art is to write about things not as they are, but as they appear. Therefore, the poet must employ his senses and passions in order to drill beneath the surface of experiences to arrive at a deeper understanding. For Wordsworth, the poet is someone who sees more than ordinary people and who therefore has a duty to share his perceptions. The poet is, in Wordsworth’s words:
a man speaking to men; a man…endowed with a more lively sensibility, more enthusiasm and tenderness, who has a greater knowledge of human nature, and a more comprehensive soul … a man … who rejoices more than other men in the spirit of life that is in him. 

Keats and Wordsworth

William WordsworthAt the same time as Keats entered Guy's Hospital, he obtained a copy of Wordsworth’s 1815 Poems (in two volumes) and became increasingly excited by poetry very different from Spenser’s. Wordsworth’s naturalism and direct appeal to the imagination by means of the natural world was very different from Spenser’s world of romance and fantasy. 
Keats was influenced by Wordsworth’s use of the natural world as the reflection of a state of mind. He also shared with Wordsworth a delight in the purely musical effects of poetry and a belief that poetry should be, as he wrote in a letter to John Reynolds, ‘great and unobtrusive, a thing which enters into one’s soul’. 
Although Wordsworth’s work had such a profound influence on Keats’ development as a poet, he was ambivalent about the older poet. Keats said that he admired only ‘half of Wordsworth’, the ‘half’ represented by the second volume of the 1815 Poems. The first volume, which largely contained poems from Lyrical Ballads was not so much to his taste, containing as they do (in Wordsworth’s own words) ‘incidents and situations from real life’ using ‘the real language of men’. Keats seldom referred to these poems unless to satirise or deplore them.

Leigh Hunt

Keats was influenced not only by Leigh Hunt’s political writing but also by the poems he published in The Examiner in 1816. Keats was taken with their down-to-earth poetic diction and generally anti-authoritarian tone. In fact, he was so enthusiastic about Hunt’s work that he sent to The Examiner a sonnet he had written the previous autumn called Solitude. Hunt published it on May 5 1816. A fellow medical student described Keats as being ‘exceedingly gratified’.
Hunt’s poetry is generally not seen as a good influence on Keats, his diction generally being rather mannered and eccentric. One peculiarity is his preference:
  • for adjectives in y and ing, many of them his own invention – e.g. plumpy (cheeks), knify, perky, sweepy, farmy, bosomy, pillowy, arrowy, liny, leafy, scattery, winy, globy; hasting, silvering, doling, blubbing, firming, thickening, quickening, differing, perking
  • for adverbs in ly – e.g. lightsomely, refreshfully, thrillingly, kneadingly, lumpishly, smilingly, preparingly, crushingly 
  • for unauthorised or awkward comparatives – e.g. finelier, martialler, tastefuller, apter.
However, it should be noted that Keats was open at this time to many poetic influences, and to Hunt, Spenser and Wordsworth can be added Milton, Drayton and Shakespeare.
When Keats’ first volume of Poems was published in 1817, it contained a dedicatory sonnet to Leigh Hunt.

Chapman’s translation of Homer

In October 1816 Cowden Clarke invited Keats to his rooms in Clerkenwell to show him a volume which was being passed round the Hunt circle. This was a 1616 folio edition of George Chapman’s translation of Homer. The two friends were absorbed by it and read it through the night. When Keats got home he immediately started to compose his sonnet On first looking into Chapman’s Homer. Keats posted it as soon as it was finished and it reached Clarke at 10.00am. This response to the power and imaginative vision of another poet was Keats’ greatest poem so far; its technique, subject matter and ideas are typical of so much of the poetry that followed – as well as making it one of the finest of all nineteenth century sonnets.

Benjamin Bailey

In 1817 Keats became friends with an Oxford student called Benjamin Bailey with whom he developed a close literary friendship. Together they read and discussed Wordsworth, Hazlitt, Milton and Dante and visited Shakespeare’s birthplace in Stratford-Upon-Avon. This contributed to a new seriousness in Keats’ thinking about art. He wrote to Bailey:
I am certain of nothing but of 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.     
In a letter to his brothers he commented: 
The excellence of every Art is its intensity, capable of making all disagreeables evaporate, from their being in close relationship with Beauty & Truth – Examine King Lear & you will find this exemplified throughout     

Negative capability

What impressed Keats so much about Shakespeare was what Keats called his ‘Negative Capability’,
that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.     
In other words, a poet had to be sensitive to the things around him, accepting the insights afforded by the creative process without searching for reasons. Keats believed that by fully focusing on a particular moment or object, he could rise above the ordinary to reveal a more profound meaning which he could share with his readers. Keats’ poetry combines this sense of intellectual enquiry with a deeply sensuous grasp of the physical world. 

Keats and Shelley

Percy Bysshe ShelleyKeats was introduced to another Romantic poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley by Leigh Hunt in 1816. Although they became friends and great admirers of each other’s work, Keats was always slightly in awe of Shelley (who was three years older). Shelley came from an aristocratic background and he combined scholarship and sharp intelligence with the sort of social confidence and elegance that Keats could never aspire to. Shelley was also extremely outspoken and relished his ability to destroy the argument of anyone who tried to defend what Shelley saw as the grave injustices of religion, politics or sexual morality. 
Although Keats was diffident, he was also intensely curious about Shelley’s ideas and admiring of his poetic talent. When Shelley advised Keats to delay the publication of his first volume of Poems until he had something more substantial to offer, Keats turned down the advice, even though he would have avoided some of the critical attacks if he had heeded his friend’s advice. This attitude no doubt sprang from Keats’ attempt to distance himself from a very strong personality. The same was probably true when Shelley invited Keats to spend the summer with him at Marlow. Keats felt that he needed his own ‘unfettered scope’, something which too much of Shelley and his outspoken friends may well have prevented.
Throughout their relationship, Shelley was a staunch supporter of Keats’ work. If Keats received hostile reviews, then Shelley sometimes exaggerated them - as examples of the reactionary forces he was dedicated to fight.
Shelley was staying in Rome when the dying Keats and his friend Joseph Severn arrived there in November 1820. Although Shelley invited them to stay with him, the invitation was declined. As a response to Keats’ death, Shelley wrote Adonais: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats (1821). Written in Spenserian stanzas, the elegy moves from an account of the mourning at Keats’ funeral bier to a triumphant declaration of his immortality. When Shelley drowned in 1822, a copy of Keats’ Poems was found in his pocket.


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