The poetry of earth is never dead

John Keats portrait by William HiltonFebruary 23, 2021 marks the 200 year anniversary of the death of John Keats. Although his life was short, he has had an outsized influence on English poetry and literature in the years since.

But he was not always so beloved, and like many artists before and after, he was anything but acclaimed during his lifetime. In a blistering review of his epic poem Endymion, the magazine Blackwood’s called him “the most worthless and affected of all the versifiers of our time” and his poem was described as “imperturbable drivelling idiocy.”*

There was a prevailing theory at the time that only aristocrats had the capacity and sophistication to be poets. Keats’s father managed a horse stable, and although he was by no means impoverished, Keats always felt the weight of his humble beginnings. He originally wanted to be a doctor and went to medical school, but quit the profession before he even started, in order to devote himself to poetry.

Keats was inspired by nature, like many poets of the time, but his works evolved to tackle many different themes as he tried to break free of the sentimental stylings of his early work. Throughout his life he fought an internal struggle between his ambition and his ability, but he continued to work hard to become a better writer.

Many events are being planned in commemoration of the anniversary of his death, including a BBC radio play and a virtual tours at the Keats-Shelley House in Rome.

But perhaps the best way to appreciate this poet on his anniversary is to read his work. The sonnets are perhaps the most accessible of his poems, taking on subjects as varied as nature, books and authors he liked, letters to friends, or even how he was feeling that day. In the poem “On the Grasshopper and Cricket” he muses on nature and how it persists in inspiring us:

The Poetry of earth is never dead:
  When all the birds are faint with the hot sun,
  And hide in cooling trees, a voice will run
From hedge to hedge about the new-mown mead;
That is the Grasshopper’s—he takes the lead
  In summer luxury,—he has never done
  With his delights; for when tired out with fun
He rests at ease beneath some pleasant weed.
The poetry of earth is ceasing never:
  On a lone winter evening, when the frost
    Has wrought a silence, from the stove there shrills
The Cricket’s song, in warmth increasing ever,
  And seems to one in drowsiness half lost,
    The Grasshopper’s among some grassy hills.
 
You can read more poetry by Keats here at the Poetry Foundation.

I also highly recommend the biography John Keats, The Making of a Poet by Aileen Ward, if you can find it. The biography won the National Book Award in 1964, and focuses on the poet’s creative development as well as the events in his life.

* * *

 

The Winter’s Wind – a poem by Keats

As the new year begins, I present for you a poem by John Keats, inspired by a cold winter’s wind but encompassing so much more.

The image I’ve chosen to accompany the poem is a famous one by Casper David Friedrich called “The Wanderer Above the Mists”, painted around 1817. Obviously the artist is captivated by the misty mountains, but then why place a person in the very center of the image, blocking our view? And we can’t see his face, we can only wonder at who he is and what he is thinking. It’s this kind of mystery, along with the expert composition and technique, that make the painting great. There’s a bigger idea at work here, a puzzle that the viewer must unravel.

The poem is also open to interpretation, but I won’t even try to analyze it. I’ll let the poet speak for himself.

* * *

O thou whose face hath felt the Winter’s wind,
Whose eye has seen the snow-clouds hung in mist,
And the black elm tops ‘mong the freezing stars!
To thee the spring will be a harvest time.
O thou whose only book has been the light
Of supreme darkness, which thou feddest on
Night after night, when Phœbus was away!
To thee the spring shall be a triple morn.
O fret not after knowledge. I have none,
And yet my song comes native with the warmth.
O fret not after knowledge! I have none.
And yet the evening listens. He who saddens
At thought of idleness cannot be idle,
And he’s awake who thinks himself asleep.

– John Keats (1795-1821)

* * *