Like a lot of people who’ve read a lot of poetry, I had my phase when I read the Romantics. I was always rather sniffy about Keats, however. Taking my cue from a very fine teacher whose class I was very lucky to be in, and who was very much a Shelley man, I took the view that Keats fundamentally “had nothing to say”. It was all Odes to this and that and well-tuned, finely-wrought (overwrought?) stuff about things that didn’t really matter.
You could give me the sturm and drang, the passion and cynical humour of Byron. Or better still the intensity of Shelley, with his tempestuous imagination and his wide-ranging taste for experimentation.
Now my tastes have changed. There are still bits of Keats that I don’t much care for (his ‘comic’ verse, perhaps, and his taste for slightly whimsical stuff every now and again). But credit where it’s due: as a technician, as a craftsman, as a man with the sense of which is the right sounding word with just the right sense, he has very few equals. It was reading a biography of the italian writer Giuseppe Tomassi di Lampedusa (of The Leopard fame) that got me thinking about Keats again. Tomassi was exceptionally well read in other literatures, especially english, and he considered Keats’s work, especially the famed Odes, to be one of the crowning glories of the language. I took a look at them again and decided he was right.
What I see in Keats now is someone whose passion matched Shelley’s; whose technical skill matched Byron’s; whose imagination could be as wild as Coleridge’s; whose ability to take his own personal thoughts and reflections and make them applicable to his readers in such an enlightening and sympathetic way was the equal of Wordsworth’s.
Where he outdid them all was in his mastery of brevity, and I think that this is one of his great qualities. Put simply, at his very best, I think that Keats says what he wants to say and that’s it. Yes, he wrote long poems, but even these don’t come across as being half so long winded and ponderous as- for example- Wordsworth’s Prelude.
He only had a short time to live, and of course he knew it. I think, then, that this lends his poetry a seriousness of intent and a level-headed and unflinching quality when it comes to confronting some of the very big human themes. It also gives his very best work a refreshingly crisp directness. John Keats, therefore, is one of my favourite English poets because with him there is no flannel and barely any messing around. The only annoying thing is that it’s taken me so long to realise it.
I now think that rather than being someone who “had nothing to say”, Keats is someone with so much to say, and who says it so much better than most others.
When I have Fears That I May Cease to Be
When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain,
Before high-pilèd books, in charactery,
Hold like rich garners the full ripened grain;
When I behold, upon the night’s starred face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour,
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
Of unreflecting love—then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.