John Keats, Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes and Other Poems, 1820
John Keats is the pattern that all other poets are cut from. He embodies almost every preconceived notion of the poet.
- was not appreciated by critics during his own life, but later became one of the most well-read, well-loved and well-respected poets of all time.
- was very sensitive. He never recovered his self-esteem after his poem Endymion received a scathing review.
- struggled to make a living.
- suffered from depression.
- ran in an elite circle of poets and intellectuals.
- was enamored with classical—Greek and Roman—literature. Consequently, his poems are full of somewhat obscure references.
- was morbid, brooding, and obsessed with his own mortality.
- was tormented by love for a woman that he could never marry.
- died young.
See what I mean? The absolute perfect poet’s poet. He even wore scarves. Not out of affectation; that was the style at the time.
For this post, I read a collection of Keats’ poetry published half a year before his death, entitled Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes and Other Poems. This volume is considered one of the most important works in English literature, with good reason. It just thrills my heart to read Keats’ poetry. His precise selection and economy of word give weight and depth of meaning to each line. Unlike some of his predecessors (I’m looking at you, Lord Byron), he doesn’t ramble.
Let me tell you about my favorite poems in this volume:
Lamia—an epic poem set in classical Greece. A mystical, snake-lady convinces Hermes to transform her (back?) into a woman, so she can win the heart of a handsome young man. Delightfully mystical and tense.
Isabella—based on a story in Boccaccio’s Decameron, this tells the tale of the forbidden love between a medieval Italian noble lady and a man beneath her station. I won’t even tell you the grisly, weird stuff that goes on in this poem. You should just read it yourself, it’s great.
The Eve of St. Agnes—one of my favorite poems. According to medieval superstition, if a maiden goes to bed without supper on the Eve of St. Agnes, she will see her future husband in her dreams. When young Porphyro discovers that his beloved Madeleine intends to try this ceremony, he hides out in her room to be certain that she will see only him after she goes to sleep. He stands behind a screen, watching her undress. Keats’ toes the line between creepy and romantic in this poem.
Ode on a Grecian Urn—The famous line “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” is actually me least favorite part of this poem. What I love is his description of the Greek urn, particularly the “still unrevised bride.” Keats loves the urn, and he’s jealous that the scenes depicted on it will never fade, but he is doomed to die. It’s okay, Keatsy. We still remember you.
Ode to a Nightingale—Keats composed this whilst sitting under a plum tree, like a poet. It embodies the classical romantic theme of “Look at the beautiful thing! I’m going to die! Angst.”
To Autumn—one of his last poems, and it’s a doozey. Such a lovely elegy to all the autumns Keats saw and all he wouldn’t live to see. Agh, it’s so beautiful. It captures the mature, ripening but restful energy of fall. I love it so much. Here’s a quote:
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.
You might like Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes and Other Poems if:
- you know what’s good in this world.
Final thoughts: I know a guy who has “Truth” tattooed on one side of his chest and “Beauty” tattooed on the other, in wildly different fonts. When I found out about this I said “Oh, so you’re a Keats fan?” And he said “???” Who the heck gets a literary reference tattooed onto their body without knowing what it refers too? Crazy people, that’s who. I really want to tattoo “vs” on him so it reads “Truth vs Beauty.”
Final thoughts part 2: If you haven’t read Keats in a while, revisit his works. So good. So very good.