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John Keats: Beauty and Truth In a Life of Art

John is a retired English teacher, world traveler, and sports enthusiast. He has studied the writings of William Faulkner for decades.



Keats' Early Life and Education

John Keats was born in October 31, 1795 in London, and died February 23, 1821 in Rome, Italy. His father,Thomas, died after a fall from a horse returning home from visiting John and his brother at their school in 1804. His mother, Frances, remarried almost immediately after her husband's death, then abandoned the children at their grandmother's home until he finished at the Enfield School school where he was known as being "pugnacious, and where he read all the books in the school's library after he became really interested in his education. He was lucky at the school that the headmaster's son, Charles Cowden Clarke, greatly encouraged John's interest in literature. After becoming serious about literature near the end of his stay at the Enfield he received an academic award in 1809. In 1810 the Keats' children's mother died of tuberculosis.

At the end of his education at Enfield, John was apprenticed to a physician, in 1811. He ended the apprenticeship in 1814 and went to London to live. He continued his medical training working as a "dresser, or junior house surgeon" under terrible medical conditions until he finished his work at the hospitals where he was trained. In 1816 Keats received his apothecary's license which allowed him to "practice as an apothecary, physician, and, surgeon," but by the end of the year when he received his certification to practice medicine, he informed his guardian that he would be a poet and turned his back on a possible medical career.

Keats made good connections from time to time in his new writing career which helped him to be only moderately successful. Charles Cowden Clarke introduced him to Leigh Hunt, a friend to Byron and Shelley as well as being an important literary critic and publisher. He also made friends with Coleridge and other literary people who supported his writing of poetry.

Keats' Poetry

It is true that Keats had little success as a poet in his lifetime. He was supported by certain friends, but some well-known critics of the day disparaged him as a "Cockney poet", lambasting his lower social background, to say nothing of his lack of a quality university education for his time. He only published 54 poems in his lifetime in thin volumes and a few in magazines.

Since Keats did not receive the "classical" education of the time, much like another great poet who was American, who was born just a decade after Keats' death, Emily Dickinson, he was substantially self taught as a poet. This fact makes the two of them my personal favorites as poets, people who essentially taught themselves to write really great poetry withrelatively little help from others.

Keats came to really love Greek culture, sculpture and poetry. In a long session into the night with his friend Charles Cowden Clarke, he studied Chapman's translation of Homer late into an evening. He produced a wonderful sonnet of tribute to Homer for Clarke the next morning. The key image at the end of the poem presents himself being like Homer as an explorer, finding a new land, a new world of meaning for his exploration, like a new planet in his sky above him.

Endymion, a about 4,000 lines long, is essentially a poem about the love of Endymion, for the moon goddess Diana. Keats worked on the poem from about the middle of 1817 until the end of November 1817, quite a long time. The poem begins with these lovely lines:

A thing of beauty is a joy forever:

Its loveliness increases; it will never

Pass into nothingness; but will keep

A bower quite for us, and a sleep

Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet


What a lovely statement of what beauty can mean to anyone's life, as it obviously did to Keats.

Ode on a Grecian Urn

From looking at the three of Keats' poems mentioned above, we can see that he had a great admiration for Greek culture: poetry and visual art. Keats was introducedto Greek culture by Charles Cowden Clarke, his childhood school friend and the son of the headmaster of Keats' school at Enfield. These poems are "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer", "Endymiom" and "Ode on a Grecian Urn." They all deal with Greek culture in wonderful ways.

"Ode on a Grecian Urn" is the first of five Odes written in 1891, four in the spring and the last, "Ode to Autumn," written in the Fall of that year. An ode is a Grecian "lyric poem in the form of an address to a particular subject, often elevated in style or manner and written in varied or irregular meter." At the Wikipedia article "Ode on a Grecian Urn" there is a picture of a drawing of a Grecian urn that Keats drew with information on the poem. This poem is composed of five ten line stanzas, the first forty-eight lines are addressed to the urn by the speaker in the poem, and the last two are addressed to the speaker by the urn, and through him to all of us. Below I will quote the first few lines of each stanza then discuss what I see as some of the meaning of each stanza as I see it, except for the last stanza which is presented completely.

Stanza 1

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"Thou still unravis'd bride of quietness,

Thou foster-child of silence and slow time,

Sylvan historian, who canst thus express

A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:

The urn is addresses as a "bride of quietness" able to tell a "flowery tale" more sweetly than the speaker in the poem can. Then he begins to describe the pictures on the urn (for us readers, the audience). There are beings depicted on the urn, either "deities or mortals or of both." He finishes the stanza by completely turning the "quietness" of the beginning of the poem to a discussion of "mad pursuit" and struggle to escape" and "wild ecstasy" between the people and/or gods, who can tell which. This is stanza signals the "struggle" of all of us to understand what the meaning of the poem will be when it is finished.

Stanza 2

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard

Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on:

Not to the sensual ear, but, more part endear'd,

Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:

Here is an open door to one of the important meanings in this poem, that real beauty is not found in physical things, no matter how much we may find them appealing to us; true meaning and beauty are spiritual, not physical. The stanza ends by discussing a young woman in love. The Bold Lover, though the young woman is near, he can never kiss her, though

She cannot fade, though thou has not not thy bliss,

Forever wilt thou love, and she be fair.

His conclusion is that we can put our regardin "spiritual," not physical things, and they will remain alive, at least as long as we live, even though the other person in our relationship may now be gone into another life.

Stanza 3

Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed

Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;

And happy melodist, unwearied,

For ever piping songs for ever new;

More happy love! more happy love!

Forever warm and still to be enjoy'd,

This stanza says that nature will will remain alive eternally if that is the truth which we accept about the existence in which we live: it is either physical and subject to death and ending in our experience with it, or it is eternal, as many people believe the human spirit is, and will last forever. In contrast to this spiritual "world" is the one containing "human passion" in the last two lines, fleeting and empty, leaving "a heart high-sorrowful and cloy'd" and unsatisfied. The "melodist" represents music as an art, which can be physical in its presentation and gone as soon as its sounds fade away, or it may be in the eternal sense "for ever new" for one's spiritual being.

Stanza 4

Who are these coming to the sacrifice?

To what green altar, O mysterious priest,

Lead'st that heifer lowing at the skies

And all her silken flanks with garlands drest?

To me, Keats speaks here about about spirituality in a broad sense, not a narrow one. It is not about specific Greek people going to a specific sacrifice but any group of people led by their "priest" with their "pious" actions to make sacrifice in their spiritual beliefs, not their physical ones.

Keats goes on to speak about the village from which these people have come whether from riverside, seashore, our mountainside. It makes no difference. The meaning is that they have left together in common feeling to express their spiritual oneness. It makes no difference why they are gone, or to where. What makes the difference is that they are together in their spiritual activity.

Stanza 5

O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede

Of marble men and maidens overwrought

With forest branches and the trodden weed;

Thou silent form, dost tease us out of thought

As doth eternity: Cold Pastorol!

When old age shall this generation waste,

Thou shalt remain, in the midst of other woe

ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say'st,

"Beauty is truth, truth beauty--that is all

Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."

The poem begins with the poet speaking to the urn. It ends with the urn speaking to the poet and all of us about what is really important in life, beauty and truth, which are not found in physical things or activities but what Keats refers to as things or activities of the spirit.

Keats' Sickness and Death

Except for his father who died of a head injury after the fall from a horse, Keats' whole family died of tuberculosis, beginning with his mother and an uncle, followed by his brother, George, who emigrated to Kentucky with his wife, both of whom died of tuberculosis. Later, John was a caregiver for his brother, Tom, from it is thought that he caught the disease while he was dying.

After Tom died in 1818 when Keats was 23, he moved to Hampstead with a friend, Charles Brown, and lived there in a large duplex home. In the other side of the dulplex lived the 18 year Fanny Brawne with whom Keats fell deeply in love, and she with him. Two circumstances precluded their marriage, his lack of money at first, then his learning that he had tuberculosis.

Keats Grave, Protestant Cemetery in Rome

Keats Grave, Protestant Cemetery in Rome

"Here who lies one whose name was writ in water"

As can be seen at the bottom of Keats' tombstone pictured above, this is the last sentence written on his tombstone in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome. It is surely not true that Keats died of the the negative reaction to his poetry in his own day as is written on this tombstone; it is what some at the time called the "poet's disease" of the time, his family's disease; but long after his death, John Keats became one of the most admired and beloved poets in the English language.

John Keats died 300 years ago today, February 23, 1823. Long may his love of art expressed in Truth and Beauty, the true loves of his life, live in our lives.


A Personal Note

To me, one of the great joys of travel is being able to visit specific places where certain activities happened. Two of these places were connected with the John Keats.

The first is the "Keats House", Wentworth Place, a museum in Hempstead, London. When Keats lived there with his friend Charles Brown from 1818 until 1820 when he went to Rome to avoid the bad weather in England after Keats had his first serious attack of tuberculosis, from which his mother and brother had died. These two years were among the most production of Keats' writing career[Wikipedia].

The other is pictured above, the Shelley/Keats museum beside the Spanish Steps in Rome where Keats died. I found both of these places very powerful places to visit because of my love for Keats as a person and his poetry.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.


John Murphree (author) from Tennessee on August 21, 2021:

Keats is one of my very favorite poets. We were in Mumbai on a tour a few years ago, near the Arch where the British used to enter the country, in the 'bad old days.'

John Murphree (author) from Tennessee on March 05, 2021:

Thank you for reading and commented.

Umesh Chandra Bhatt from Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, India on February 25, 2021:

Very well presented. Thanks.

John Murphree (author) from Tennessee on February 25, 2021:

Thank you for read and commenting. I made a rubbing of his tombstone once,,,strictly forbidden,,, and also did a rubbing of Emily Dickinson's tombstone, my two favorite poets. You might like my article on her.

Liz Westwood from UK on February 25, 2021:

This article takes me back to my English studies. You have managed to summarise Keats' life and poetry very well in this article.

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