John Keats (31 October 1795 – 23 February 1821) has been described as the “most Greek of all English poets”. This description probably has its roots in the fact that Keats was an ardent lover and pursuer of beauty and believed that the expression of beauty is the ideal of all art. Through most of his odes runs a common expression of art being the only thing of permanence, in a world of instability and transience.
Keats was one of the poets who are roughly demarcated as the second phase of Romantics. His poetry is less political than the others’, and much more personal. He is the one poet who registers most vividly a constant obsession with death and impermanence, traces of which linger in the works of the other Romantic poets as well. This can be traced back to Keats’ own life, and the fact that he bore witness to the deaths of family members and loved ones. He lost his father when he was nine, mother when he was fifteen and nursed his consumption-ridden brother and lost him too, in December 1818. In October of the same year, Keats himself contracted consumption, and was faced with the ultimate jolt of having to confront the ephemeral nature of his own life. He sailed to Italy on his doctor’s advice in the autumn of 1820, but he died a few months later, at the age of 25.
Keats’ poetic career lasted a little over five years. Early in 1818, Keats realized that he had little over a year to live and work, and he immersed himself not in extensive reading, but in copious writing. By 1819, he had produced the works that would immortalize him in the pages of literary history, starting with Hyperion earlier that year. Keats was extremely influenced by the works of Milton and Shakespeare, but he struggled to find and establish a style unique to him, rather than imitate those of his literary idols. He was constantly experimenting with form and structure, using both Spenserian and Shakespearean sonnets. He had read a vast number of Greek translations and delved into the epics extensively. Keats’ political world was not a stable one either. There were riots in England, and Europe was facing great disillusionment after the promises of the French Revolution turned into senseless massacre. 1819 was the year of great political turmoil, and after the Peterloo massacre in August, Keats left London and went to Winchester. Between August and September, he began to write The Fall of Hyperion, an allegorical work about the contemporary political changes.
Keats, however, was not a political poet, like his contemporaries Percy B. Shelley and Lord Byron. Keats’ poetry is a serving of artistic beauty and linguistic lavishness. His poetry is meant to be felt and seen, not merely read, and the sensuality he creates makes his work reminiscent of a work of fine art. In his works there is a constant desire to escape, both London and sometimes, the world altogether. His art becomes his means of escape into a world where his ideals would hold truth and value. He had come equate truth with beauty, as is evident from Ode to a Grecian Urn, and he felt that in the midst of all impermanence and mundaneness, the only thing of value and stability is art, which stays for all posterity to cherish. For an artist with such a disturbed personal life, living in such a turbulent time, an escape into the epics and Greek art held the only stability he could find respite in. Ode to a Nightingale, written in May 1819 after a meeting with Coleridge, is Keats’ longest and most personal ode. The poem is laced with a gloomy heaviness, characteristic of a person who realized fully how close he was to death.
Having suffered so much in such a short time, Keats shows a continuous vacillation between the attractiveness of a world of escape, a paradise created by art and literature, and the intrusion of the real world with all its squalor and ugliness. He is the poet caught between succumbing to the realm of his ideals and his creation, and the jarring starkness of his bleak reality, and this allowed him to immortalize himself through the permanence of art instead of receding into the oblivion of an impermanent world.