Keats' Poems and Letters

Keats' Poems and Letters Summary

"The Eve of St. Agnes", a 43-line poem written in Spenserian stanzas, describes a young virgin, Madeline, who falls in love with a young suitor, Porphyro, who is an enemy of her family. Traditionally, on the eve of St. Agnes (a Saint's day), maidens believed that they could be joined in dreams by their future husbands. Porphyro sneaks into Madeline's room and, after she has fallen asleep, sings her awake. They run off together.

"Ode on a Grecian Urn" is a meditation on the perfect, timeless ideal versus the imperfect, lived reality. Keats addresses the urn directly and wonders aloud what real scenes the illustrations on it describe.

In "Ode to a Nightingale", Keats describes his dismay at not being able to live in the ideal world of the nightingale. The nightingale's song, which has been heard by people across millennia, is ageless and perfect; Keats concludes that the bird, unlike the human race, "wast not born for death."

In "When I have fears that I may cease to be", Keats describes his apprehension of dying without having achieved artistic and romantic success. When he experiences this anxiety, he reminds himself that death erases all human achievement anyway.

"Ode to Psyche" describes Keats' fictional encounter with Psyche and her lover, Cupid/Eros, during a forest walk. Psyche, having been one of the last goddesses to join the Greek Pantheon, does not have a temple. Keats promises to build her one in his mind.

In "Ode on Melancholy", Keats advises those who experience melancholic states. Rather than avoid melancholy, such individuals should embrace it as a means of encountering "the Beautiful."

"La Belle Dame Sans Merci" describes the encounter of a knight-at-arms with a mystical lady, who lulls him into sleep and then leaves him, cold and alone, on a hillside. The knight sees many other men who have been subjected to the same fate.

"Ode on Indolence" describes Keats' encounter with three mystical female figures: Love, Ambition, and Poesy (Poetry). These three try to convince him to abandon his summer indolence, but he wishes them away, convinced that he will find more enjoyment in laziness than in any contentment they could give him.

"To Autumn" is an homage to the season named in its title. Keats personifies autumn in various ways -- as a gleaner/sower, reaper, and cider-presser -- and assures the season that, though, it may not possess the fresh songs of spring, it does have its own music.

"On the Sonnet" expresses Keats' dissatisfaction with existing poetic norms, and construes poetry as a means by which language is constrained. He wishes that there were a better poetic form to suit the beauty of language.

In "Bright Star, would I were stedfast as thou art", Keats initially expresses a desire to be "stedfast" like a star, hanging over the Earth and observing the movements below (water flowing, snow falling, etc.). Yet he then changes his mind. He would rather be unchanging while holding his lover in his arms.

In the Letter to J.H. Reynolds (3 May 1818), Keats describes his theory of knowledge and of the human experience of the world. The intellect is a "Mansion of Many Apartments." The first chamber (room) is Infant Thought, in which one does not learn or analyze anything deeply. In the second chamber, one is exposed to the suffering of the world. After the door opens to other hallways, one is drenched in darkness and does not know where each hallway leads.

In the Letter to Richard Woodhouse (27 October 1818), Keats describes the nature of a poet: a poetic artist is a "cameleon" (chameleon) who blends into any environment in which he finds himself. The "poetical nature" is a lack of any nature itself; poets are blank slates, pure speculation.

In the Letter to George and Tom Keats (21 December 1817), Keats describes "negative capability," that is, the capacity of an artist to observe the beautiful without trying to situate it in any philosophical or logical structure. The pursuit of knowledge, rather than beauty, will detract from an artist's work.