10 Most Famous Poems by John Keats



John Keats (October 31, 1795 – February 23, 1821) was an English poet active in the Romantic Era in literature. Romanticism was characterized by its emphasis on emotion and individualism as well as glorification of all the past and of nature. Among other things, Keats is regarded as a Romantic poet for his fondness of sensation, the rich aesthetic of his language and his love for nature. Keats is best known for the Six Great Odes that he composed in 1819. These are: Ode on a Grecian Urn, Ode on Indolence, Ode on Melancholy, Ode to a Nightingale, Ode to Psyche and To Autumn. Apart from these odes, his most famous work include the ballad La Belle Dame sans Merci, his narrative poem Endymion and a number of sonnets. Here are the 10 most famous poems by English Romantic poet John Keats.



#10 On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer

TypePetrarchan Sonnet
Published1816

In the autumn of 1816, Keats spent a night reading poetry with his friend Charles Cowden Clarke. It was Cowden who introduced Keats to some of the best passages in George Chapman’s 17th century translation of Homer’s classics Iliad and Odyssey. Keats was delighted with the work and, when Cowden left him, he wrote his sonnet as a tribute to Chapman. The next day, he had a copy of it on his friend’s breakfast table as a gift. In the poem, Keats talks about the thrill he experienced in hearing his friend Clarke read from Chapman’s Homer to him. Among other things, he compares his discovery of the work to the overwhelming excitement felt by an astronomer who has discovered a new planet or by Cortez when he first saw the Pacific from a summit in Central America. It is to be noted that it was not Cortez but Balboa who was the first European to view the eastern shore of the Pacific. On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer was first published in The Examiner on December 1, 1816. It was subsequently included in Keats’ first volume of poetry, of which it is regarded as the finest poem.

POEM:-

Much have I travell'd in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-brow'd Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star'd at the Pacific—and all his men
Look'd at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

#9 The Eve of St. Agnes

TypeNarrative Poem
Published1820

Agnes of Rome was a member of the Roman nobility, considered to be very beautiful. Considered a follower of Christianity, she was condemned to be dragged naked through the streets to a brothel. She was then beheaded. Agnes is venerated as a saint in the Roman Catholic Church. She is a patron saint of virgins and chastity. The feast day of Saint Agnes is January 21. This poem takes its title from the folk belief that, on the eve of the feast day of St. Agnes, if a girl performed certain rites like going to bed without supper and without looking behind her, her future husband would appear in her dream. The poem tells the story of lovers Porphyro and Madeline, whose families are rivals. Madeline, who believes in the legend regarding the eve of St. Agnes, performs the required rituals and the story builds from there. The Eve of St. Agnes consists of 42 iambic nine-line Spenserian stanzas. It is a very descriptive poem stimulating the imagination of the reader. Considered one of the finest works of Keats, the poem was influential in 19th century English literature.

Excerpt:-

     She hurried at his words, beset with fears,
     For there were sleeping dragons all around,
     At glaring watch, perhaps, with ready spears—
     Down the wide stairs a darkling way they found.—
     In all the house was heard no human sound.
     A chain-droop'd lamp was flickering by each door;
     The arras, rich with horseman, hawk, and hound,
     Flutter'd in the besieging wind's uproar;
And the long carpets rose along the gusty floor.

#8 Ode on Melancholy

TypeOde
Published1820

The period beginning in the winter of 1818 and lasting for most of 1819 saw Keats take gigantic leaps as a poet. In this period, he composed his most remarkable work including the six great odes: “Ode on a Grecian Urn”, “Ode on Indolence”, “Ode on Melancholy”, “Ode to a Nightingale”, “Ode to Psyche” and “To Autumn”. Unlike the other odes of Keats, in Ode on Melancholy, the speaker speaks directly to the reader rather than to an object or an emotion. Comprising of just three stanzas of 10 lines each, it is the shortest of the great odes of Keats. Moreover, he later cancelled its first stanza perhaps because he thought it was not needed. In this stanza, he basically tells the reader to avoid inappropriate measures in response to melancholy. In the second stanza, he advises the reader on what to do in place of the things he forbade. In the last stanza, he shows how pleasure and pain are inextricably linked.

Excerpt:-

She dwells with Beauty—Beauty that must die;
     And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips
Bidding adieu; and aching Pleasure nigh,
     Turning to poison while the bee-mouth sips:
Ay, in the very temple of Delight
     Veil'd Melancholy has her sovran shrine,
          Though seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue
     Can burst Joy's grape against his palate fine;
His soul shalt taste the sadness of her might,
          And be among her cloudy trophies hung.

#7 When I Have Fears

TypeShakespearean Sonnet
Published1816

Before writing this poem, Keats did a thorough study of the sonnets of Shakespeare and, as such, the work closely imitates one of Shakespeare’s sonnet patterns. The poem explores the theme of death and the fear of Keats that he wouldn’t be able to realize his potential and achieve love and fame before his death. It is believed that this fear of Keats was based on the early death of his parents. Tuberculosis was like a ‘family curse’ to the Keats family. In 1810, he lost his mother to the disease while his younger brother Tom would succumb to it a year after Keats wrote this poem. Keats himself would come under the influence of tuberculosis in 1819, finally submitting to it in February 1821. The fear of Keats, which he expresses in this poem, would thus come true as he died before achieving fame and marrying Fanny Brawne, the woman he loved so passionately.

Poem:-

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.

#6 Endymion

TypeNarrative Poem
Published1818

According to Greek mythology, Endymion was a shepherd who was so beautiful that the goddess of the moon, Selene (or Cynthia), fell in love with him. She asked Zeus to give him eternal youth and make him sleep forever, a wish Zeus granted. Selene visited Endymion at night and went on to have fifty daughters with him. While Keats chose Endymion as the hero of his poem, he changed the myth with Endymion being desperately in love with Cynthia. Keats then narrates the adventures of Endymion while in look for his love. Endymion was the first long poem by Keats. It is divided in four sections of about one thousand lines each, written mostly in loosely rhymed couplets. The poem was hugely criticized when it was first published but now it remains one of the best known works of Keats. Its opening line, “A thing of beauty is a joy for ever”, is one of the most famous lines in English literature.

Excerpt:-

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.
Therefore, on every morrow, are we wreathing
A flowery band to bind us to the earth,
Spite of despondence, of the inhuman dearth

#5 Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art

TypeShakespearean Sonnet
Published1838

Fanny Brawne is today best known as the fiancée of John Keats and his muse. They met in 1818 and became secretly engaged in October 1819. Unfortunately, Keats soon discovered that he had tuberculosis and he died in February 1821. It was in 1878, by which time Keats was a world renowned poet, that Brawne became known to the public through the publishing of intimate letters between her and Keats. Like most of his poems on Brawne, it is difficult to date this poem and it can only be achieved with conjecture. It was officially published in 1838 in The Plymouth and Devonport Weekly Journal, 17 years after Keats’s death. The poem primary revolves around the themes of eternal love, death and nature. Bright Star is the most famous sonnet written by John Keats. Moreover, it is his best known poem dedicated to his love Fanny Brawne.

Poem:-

Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art—
     Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
     Like nature's patient, sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
     Of pure ablution round earth's human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask
     Of snow upon the mountains and the moors—
No—yet still stedfast, still unchangeable,
     Pillow'd upon my fair love's ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
     Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever—or else swoon to death.

#4 La Belle Dame sans Merci

TypeBallad
Published1819

Although it doesn’t follow its storyline, this poem takes its title from a 15th-century courtly love poem by Alain Chartier named La Belle Dame sans Mercy. The title of this poem is translated to “The Beautiful Lady Without Mercy”. Like several of Keats’ poems, it primarily focuses on the themes of love and death. The poem follows an encounter between a knight and a beautiful but mysterious woman. She declares her love for him but ultimately leaves him in despair as she abandons him. La Belle Dame sans Merci may be divided into two parts with the first three stanzas a query to a knight and the remaining nine being his reply. “Negative capability” was a concept used by Keats in his poem which gave more importance to intuition and uncertainty above reason and knowledge. It allows what is mysterious or doubtful to remain just that. La Belle Dame Sans Merci is cited as a prime example of “negative capability” in the poems of Keats. It is a hugely popular poem and continues to be referenced in many works of literature, music, art and film.

Excerpt:-

I met a lady in the meads,
     Full beautiful—a faery’s child,
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
     And her eyes were wild.

I made a garland for her head,
     And bracelets too, and fragrant zone;
She looked at me as she did love,
     And made sweet moan

#3 Ode on a Grecian Urn

TypeOde
Published1819

The Elgin Marbles are a collection of Athenian marble sculptures taken from the Parthenon and brought to England in 1806. Keats’ encounter with the Elgin Marbles was an important inspiration for this poem. So were articles written by Benjamin Haydon which described Greek sacrifice and worship, among other things. Keats also had access to prints of Greek urns at Haydon’s office. In Ode on a Grecian Urn, the speaker describes and discusses the images on the Grecian urn, particularly one in which a lover pursues his beloved and one in which a sacrifice is being performed. The scenes mystify and fascinate the speaker. The urn has made them last hundreds of years, yet they are frozen in time. The final statement in the poem, “‘Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty.’ – that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know” has been much analysed and is one of the most famous lines written by Keats. Ode on a Grecian Urn was not received well by the critics of the time. Its reputation has grown over the years and it is now one of the most famous odes in English literature.

Excerpt:-

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 Pastoral!
     When old age shall this generation waste,
          Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than 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."

#2 To Autumn

TypeOde
Published1820

To Autumn is the last of the great odes of Keats and also his last major work. In dire need of money, Keats could no longer remain a poet. Moreover, a little over a year after this poem was published, Keats died of tuberculosis in Rome. Comprising of three stanzas of eleven lines each, the poem touches on a number of themes while praising the warm, plentiful and lovely nature of the season. There are several interpretations of the work including as a meditation on death and as an allegory of artistic creation. To Autumn is the most critically appreciated work of John Keats. It has been widely regarded as one of the most perfect short poems in the English language. Among others, English writer and critic Algernon Charles Swinburne calls it “the nearest to absolute perfection” of Keats’s odes while Keats’ expert Aileen Ward declared it “Keats’s most perfect and untroubled poem”.

Excerpt:-

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.

#1 Ode to a Nightingale

TypeOde
Published1819

In the summer of 1819, Keats was staying with his friend Charles Armitage Brown. According to Brown, a nightingale had built a nest near their house. One morning, Keats, sitting under a plum tree in the garden, was inspired by the song of the bird and composed this masterful poem in a few hours. Ode to a Nightingale is not a simple poem describing the bliss experienced by the speaker on hearing the nightingale’s song. In the poem, the song of the nightingale transforms the mental state of the speaker and triggers a deep meditation on time, death, beauty, nature and human suffering. The poem primarily focuses on the subject that nothing can last even as the speaker compares the immortality of the song of the nightingale to human mortality. Comprised of 80 lines, Ode to a Nightingale is the longest of the great odes. Apart from being one of the most anthologized poems in the English language, Ode to a Nightingale is the most famous poem by John Keats.

Excerpt:-

Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!
     No hungry generations tread thee down;
The voice I hear this passing night was heard
     In ancient days by emperor and clown:
Perhaps the self-same song that found a path
     Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,
        She stood in tears amid the alien corn;
           The same that oft-times hath
     Charm'd magic casements, opening on the foam
           Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.



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