Nineteenth and twentieth century views of Keats

It is interesting to note how appreciation of Keats' poems changes according to the era in which the critic lived.

Critical appreciation from the early to mid-nineteenth century 

J.W. Croker (1818)

'It is not, we say, that the author has not powers of language, rays of fancy, and gleams of genius - he has all these; but he is unhappily a disciple of the new school of what has been somewhere called Cockney poetry; which may be defined to consist of the most incongruous ideas in the most uncouth language ... This author is a copyist of Mr. [Leigh] Hunt, but he is more unintelligible, almost as rugged, twice as diffuse, and ten times more tiresome and absurd than his prototype.'

Mid to late-nineteenth century views

Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889)

Gerard Manley Hopkins'Keats died very young and we have only the work of his first youth. Now if we compare that with Shakespeare's early work ... such as Venus and Adonis and Lucrece, it is, as far as the work of two very original minds ever can be, greatly alike in its virtues and its vices; more like, I do think, that that of any writer you could quote after the Elizabethan age ... He was young; his genius intense in its quality; his feeling for beauty, for perfection intense; he had found the right way in his Odes; he would find his way right at last to the true functions of his mind. And he was at a great disadvantage in point of education compared with Shakespeare. Their classical attainments may have been much of a muchness, but Shakespeare had the school of his age. It was the Renaissance; the ancient Classics were deeply and enthusiastically studied and influenced directly or indirectly all, and the new learning had entered into a fleeting but brilliant combination with the medieval tradition. But in Keats' time, and worst in England, there was no one school; but experiment, division and uncertainty.' 

Matthew Arnold (1822-1888)

'Keats as a poet is abundantly and enchantingly sensuous, but the question with some people will be, whether he is anything else ... [His] yearning passion for the Beautiful is not a passion of the sensuous or sentimental poet. It is an intellectual and spiritual passion.'

Oscar Wilde (1882)

'It is in Keats that one observes the beginning of the artistic renaissance of England. Byron was a rebel and Shelley a dreamer; but in the calmness of his vision, his self-control, his unerring sense of beauty, and his recognition of a separate realm for the imagination, Keats was a pure and serene artist, the fore-runner of the Pre-Raphaelite school.'

Early to mid-twentieth century views

F.R Leavis (1895-1978)

'Keats, at a time when the phrase had not yet been invented, practised the theory of art for art's sake. He is the type, not of the poet, but of the artist. He was not a great personality, his work comes to us as a greater thing than his personality. When we read his verse, we think of the verse, not of John Keats.' 

Cleanth Brooks (1906-1994)

'There is much in the poetry of Keats which suggests he would have approved of Archibald MacLeish's dictum, "A poem should not mean / But be." There is some warrant for thinking that the Grecian urn (real or imagined) which inspired the famous ode was, for Keats, just such a poem, "palpable and mute," a poem in stone. Hence it is the more remarkable that the Ode itself differs from Keats' other odes by culminating in a statement - a statement even of some sententiousness in which the urn itself is made to say beauty is truth, and - more sententious still - that this bit of wisdom sums up the whole of mortal knowledge.
'This is "to mean" with a vengeance - to violate the doctrine of the objective correlative, not only by stating truths, but by defining the limits of truth. Small wonder that some critics have felt that the unravished bride of quietness protests too much.
'T.S. Eliot, for example, says that "this line [‘Beauty is Truth,’ etc.] strikes me as a serious blemish on a beautiful poem; and the reason must be either that I fail to understand it, or that it is a statement which is untrue." But even for persons who feel that they do understand it, the line may still constitute a blemish. Middleton Murry, who, after a discussion of Keats' other poems and his letters, feels that he knows what Keats meant by "Beauty" and what he meant by "Truth", and that Keats used them in senses which allowed them to be properly bracketed together, still, is forced to conclude: "My own opinion concerning the value of these two lines in the context of the poem itself is not very different from Mr. T. S. Eliot's." The troubling assertion is apparently an intrusion upon the poem - does not grow out of it - is not dramatically accommodated to it.
'This is essentially Garrod's objection, and the fact that Garrod does object indicates that a distaste for the ending of the Ode is by no means limited to critics of notoriously ‘modern’ sympathies.
'But the question of real importance is not whether Eliot, Murry, and Garrod are right in thinking that "Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty" injures the poem. The question of real importance concerns beauty and truth in a much more general way: what is the relation of the beauty (the goodness, the perfection) of a poem to the truth or falsity of what it seems to assert? It is a question which has particularly vexed our own generation - to give it I. A. Richards' phrasing, it is "the problem of belief".'

Mid to late-twentieth century views

T.R. Barnes (1967)

'His greatest poems are ... the four Odes, on the Nightingale, Autumn, the Grecian Urn and Melancholy. In them he expresses and harmonises the themes of beauty and death, the immortality of art, the relentless passing of time, the fears that he 'may cease to be ... before high-piled books in charactery / Hold like rich garners the full ripen'd grain'. We must remember that Keats knew all about tuberculosis; he had had a medical training, had nursed his brother Tom who died of the disease, and recognised his own symptoms. "That" he said, looking at his pillow after a haemorrhage, "is arterial blood". All the more striking therefore is the poise and balance of these poems, their lucid architecture. Their mellifluous beauty, and the richness of their imagery have made them popular, and an important influence on the poets of the Victorian age.'

Robert Gittings (1968)

'What makes [Keats] different from any other poet is his extraordinary sensitivity to the impression of the moment, and his use of the day-to-day circumstances of life for poetry. He could, and did, transmute almost any experience into poetry, in an instantaneous and instinctive process. The initial value of an experience did not matter to him; it could be the most trivial incident or piece of reading, the most casual sight or sound ... The vital force behind all his verse was his power to apply imagination to every aspect of life, so that the result far transcended its origins.'

Kingsley Amis (1922-1995)

'To exalt into greatness one whose achievement was actually that of an often delightful, if often awkward, decorative poet may have ... harmful consequences. Any presumption that Keats might in time have become a major artist is cast in doubt by the fact that it is unpromising theories about poetry that derive from defects of character, quite as much as bad influences and the results of illness, which vitiate his existing work.' 

Alan Bold (1982)

'At his best Keats was an original though he had an extraordinary mimetic gift: he was a writer who combined an inquiring modern mind with an almost Elizabethan response to the sheer luxury of language. He gathered together in his poetry all those stylistic ingredients that contributed to an impressive literary texture. The result disturbed the taste of his time. Keats' artful attempts to produce seemingly spontaneous poetry, verse that apparently emerged fresh from the inspirational moment, seemed emotionally indecent to literary minds conditioned by the metrically precise prosody of Pope. The Neoclassical ideal eliminated self-indulgent obscurity and encouraged clarity so the reader was forcefully directed to the subject matter of the predictably measured verse. Keats was unwilling, and temperamentally unable to conform to this artificial tradition. His models were Spenser and Shakespeare and he attempted to duplicate their verbal density by producing poetry that ostentatiously drew attention to itself. He threw euphony and alliteration, sensuousness and sensitivity together with such enthusiasm that the finished product possessed an abundant verbal charge. In addition to his sense of the musical power of words, Keats had a strong pictorial imagination so that the poetry he composed was constantly alive to the possibilities of synaesthesia.'

Michael Schmidt (1998)

'[Keats wrote:] "Poetry should surprise by a fine excess, and not by singularity." In the odes what is dazzling is the fine excess, the wealth of apposite images which, in stanzas of impeccable prosodic development, answer to the poet's deepest concerns. If Keats lacked the intellectual resources of Coleridge or Shelley, he still came close to solving the same problems of poetic form they wrestled with. The odes indeed appear to the reader as the wording of his own highest thoughts, "almost a remembrance".'

Brian Silver (1998)

'With Wordsworth, mortality is often just under the surface, as it was with Keats, another child of his time, who believed, because of the Enlightenment, that we are material beings in a material universe and that we must just accept that fate. We are mortal, but with no divine shoulder to lean on, and we will never understand the deepest truths, which, contrary to all the protestations of the Enlightenment, neither reason nor science can reach. Keats had a tragic sense of life. He is recognisably a Romantic; there is no Enlightenment Utopia waiting for him.'

Critical appreciation from the early twenty-first century

Jack Stillinger (2000)

'All of [the Poems of 1819] possess the distinctive qualities of the work of Keats' maturity: a slow-paced, gracious movement; a concreteness of description in which all the senses - tactile, gustatory, kinetic, visceral, as well as visual and auditory - combine to give the total apprehension of an experience; a delight at the sheer existence of things outside himself, the poet seeming to lose his own identity in a total identification with the object he contemplates; and a concentrated felicity of phrasing that reminded his friends, as it has many critics since, of the language of Shakespeare. Under the richly sensuous surface, we find Keats' characteristic presentation of all experience as a tangle of inseparable but irreconcilable opposites. He finds melancholy in delight and pleasure in pain; he feels the highest intensity of love as an approximation to death; he inclines equally towards a life of indolence and "sensation" and toward a life of thought; he is aware both of the attraction of an imaginative dream world without "disagreeables" and the remorseless pressure of the actual; he aspires at the same time to aesthetic detachment and to social responsibility.
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