Keats' Poems and Letters

Keats' Poems and Letters Study Guide

Though he could hardly have expected it during his lifetime, since his work was roundly condemned by the conservative commentators of his day, John Keats became one of the most revered English poets of the Romantic period within a few decades of his death. At the time of his death itself, he had only been writing poetry for about six years, and had only published three volumes of poetry. In his work, however, he had taken on the challenge of using a wide variety of poetic forms -- from the Miltonic epic to the sonnet to Spenserian romance -- infusing them all with his signature striking sensitivity, verbal adeptness, and impeccable lyricism. Some of his contemporaries, notably his editor and friend Leigh Hunt and the famed poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, championed his work, but they were in the minority. Influenced by Hunt's Examiner, Keats sometimes declared himself part of a "new school" of poetry; this radicalism may have alienated contemporaries.

His posthumous reputation grew steadily, however. The Cambridge Apostles, a secret society of undergraduates which included Alfred Tennyson, a later Poet Laureate of England, was supportive of his work. The first Keats biography was published in 1848, situating Keats in the English poetic canon. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood of painters, an English group of moderately well-known artists, also used his poems for inspiration. By the end of the century, his writing was deemed to include some of the best specimens of English poetry. Today, he is placed in the absolute top ranks of the major British Romantic poets, right along with Williams Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Blake, Lord Byron, and Percy Bysshe Shelley. Commentary by his friend Shelley, who declared that Keats was too finely-tuned and sensitive to survive in a world of unduly harsh criticism, has always colored the public perception of Keats and the reception of his writing.

Keats' letters, which were first published in installments 1848 and 1878, were initially thought of as distractions from his poetry. In the twentieth century, however, these documents became much more highly regarded. Modernist poet and critic T.S. Eliot wrote, "There is hardly one statement of Keats' about poetry which...will not be found to be true, and what is more, true for greater and more mature poetry than anything Keats ever wrote." Keats used letter-writing as a way of synthesizing his thoughts and philosophy, especially in the abundant letters he wrote to his brother George and his sister-in-law Georgina, who had moved to the United States. Some of his most noted philosophical concepts -- the chameleon poet, negative capability, and the Mansion of Many Apartments -- took form in his letters. The letters also appear to have influenced Keats's poetry; for example, in an 1817 letter to Benjamin Bailey, he wrote, "I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the Heart's affections and the truth of Imagination – What the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth," thus presaging one of his most famous lines in "Ode on a Grecian Urn". He also composed perhaps his most well-regarded poem, "To Autumn", after noting the beauty of the season in a letter to John Hamilton Reynolds.

Currently, Keats occupies a seat as one of the most famous poets of the English language. Jorge Luis Borges even named Keats as his most significant "literary encounter." The poetry of this versatile British author is now among the most widely taught and analyzed in English literature, and both the quality of his verse and his reputation as an emblem of the high Romantic era ensure his continued popularity.