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Introducing John Keats

John Keats was an English lyrical poet, prominent in the second generation of Romantic poets. He is known for his sensuous appeal and use of vivid imagery. Keats’s reputation grew only after his death at twenty-five years old. This collection includes his six most famous odes and four sonnets, including his most famous sonnet and three others dedicated to other poets that inspired Keats or had an influence on his own work. This collection aims to expand the accessibility of Keats’s work online, as well as extend the understanding of his imagery and philosophy. Applying scholarly research to Keats’s poems to analyze his influence on diction, versification, and style, this edition highlights the parts of his work that make Keats so significant. The goal of this collection and analysis is to expand Keats’s work and significance to (early) readers who do not read or have a knowledge base in English Romantic poetry. 


Before Keats started writing his own poetry, he enjoyed the work of Edmund Spenser. He particularly  enjoyed The Faerie Queene, and was inspired to write his own poetry after reading this collection. Keats dedicated his own epic, Endymion, to Spenser. Keats describes the honor it is to write and publish work like Spenser, but worries that he’ll never be as known or make as much of an impact as Spenser. He hopes that Spenser’s soul might be with him in the summer as he writes, and Keats will try to write work that gives Spenser joy and honors him. This sonnet reveals the changes and continuity in Keats’s developing ideas of Spenserian poetics. 

This poem is one of Keats’s first sonnets, but is certainly not his most famous. However, Chatterton greatly influenced Keats and his works, making this an important poem. Keats mourns his young predecessor because he committed suicide at the age of 17 rather than starving to death. Keats describes the tragedy of Chatterton’s death because the potentiality of his Genius was never fully explored or developed because of his early death. Now, Chatterton exists in the sky where there are melodies and the sky cries tears.  

Lord Byron was an established, aristocratic poet of the second generation Romantic poets. Byron struggled to appreciate Keats’s work, but Keats admired Lord Byron’s work more. This sonnet is written in admiration of Lord Byron. The poem starts by directly addressing Byron, stating that his melodies are sad and sweet enough to touch his soul tenderly - Sorrows generally overshadow all other emotions, yet his work is no less delightful. According to Keats, Byron carried grief in a pleasing manner, and the imagery used to convey this is the moon covered by a cloud with its beams of light highlighting the edges of the cloud. This poem explores the power of imagination. In a letter to his brother, Keats compared himself to Byron: “He describes what he sees, I describe what I imagine,” Still, Keats admired working alongside Byron, as this poem details.  

This is, perhaps, Keats’s most famous sonnet and is credited for being the sonnet in which he developed his own distinctive poetic voice. Keats was familiar with Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, and the discovery of George Chapman’s translation allowed him to gain aesthetic enjoyment of Homer’s works too. This sonnet describes how the poetic translation provided Keats with the same overwhelming excitement felt by an astronomer discovering a new planet, or by Cortez when he saw the Pacific for the first time from a summit in Central America. This is essentially a poem about poetry itself: reading poetry induces an experience so profound that an entire world awakens. 

Keats addresses autumn throughout the poem as if it were a person. The first stanza describes how the autumn, and the sun are best friends, plotting to grow fruit and ripen the crops before harvest. The ripening will produce seeds, setting the stage for the spring, resetting the whole process. The second stanza describes the period after harvest, when autumn can nap, take walks, or what the making of cider. The final stanza notes how the spring’s music is a distant melody, but autumn’s music is sweet too. The music includes images of all the sights and sounds that produces a veritable symphony of beauty: clouds, harvested fields at sunset, and singing birds. 

The poet imagines that he has dreamed of or seen the winged goddess of the soul, Psyche, while he was wandering alone in the forest. The goddess is lying in the grass, her limbs entangled with Cupid’s. Psyche has no temple or altar, and no one plays an instrument in her honor. No shrine is sacred to her. Keats, therefore, vows to be her choir, her lute, her shrine, her oracle and her prophet. Keats vows to build her temple in his mind. His thoughts will serve as pine trees and his imagination will decorate the sanctuary with a variety of flowers. This sanctuary will be a “bright torch” and an open window at night so that Cupid may enter. 

Keats is in a state of drowsiness as a reaction to the happiness he has experienced through sharing the happiness of the nightingale. The bird’s happiness channeled in its singing. Keats longs for a draught of wine that would take him out of himself allow him to join existence with the bird. The wine would allow Keats to be aware of life’s pain, understand that the young, the old suffer, but his imagination serves just as well as the wine to allow him to escape. When Keats realizes this, he becomes a spirit, lifted above the trees where he can see the moon and stars. He listens to the nightingale in the dark. Keats feels it would be a rich experience to die while the bird’s singe ecstatically. The nightingale is free from the human fate of death. “Forlorn” is the last word of the preceding stanza, bringing Keats back to consciousness in the concluding stanza.

The three stanzas address coping with sadness. The sufferers should avoid certain things: going to Lethe (river of oblivion) to forget their sadness, commit suicide (nightshade or the poison “ruby grape of Prosperin”), and should avoid obsession with objects of death and misery (the owl, the beetle, and the death-moth). The speaker goes on to describe how this will anguish the soul drowsy. The second stanza notes how the sufferer should overwhelm his sorrow with the natural beauty offered by the world: glutting it on the morning rose, or in the eyes of your beloved. The third stanza explains how pleasure and pain are inextricably linked: Beauty must die, joy is fleeting, and the flower of pleasure is forever “turning to poison while the bee-mouth sips.”The man who does this shall “taste the sadness” of melancholy’s might and “be among her cloudy trophies hung.” 

Keats discusses three mysterious figures he has seen inscribed on an urn. The figures appear in the poet’s vision and disrupt his calm mind. He is feeling lazy and indolent beneath the tree, and is confused when the figures disappear just as soon as they have appeared. To understand the allegorical figures, readers should first read “Ode on a Grecian Urn”. The figures appear in Keats’s imagination embodied as Love, Ambition, and Poesy. In the third stanza, the speaker feels an urge to stand up and follow them. The first two figures are mostly controllable, but the poetic persona tempts the speaker. In the end, he requests that those figures fade away so he can be left alone with his other dreams. The appearance of figures, and their absence, trouble the poet’s imagination. 

The speaker stands before an ancient urn, addressing it. At first glance, the speaker sees a picture that depicts a group of men pursuing a group of women. The speaker looks at another picture of a young man playing a pipe, lying beneath a tree with his lover. The “unheard” melodies from his pipe are sweeter than mortal melodies because they are unaffected by time. The speaker tells the boy that he can never kiss his lover because she is frozen in time. Though, the youth should not worry because her beauty will never fade. The speaker is happy he has a pipe to play new songs, and that the lovers will last forever. In the fourth stanza, the speaker examines a new picture on the urn: a group of villagers leading a heifer to be sacrificed. The speaker wonders what they’re doing, reflecting on their empty town streets that will” for evermore” be silent for those who left it, frozen on the urn. In the final stanza, the speaker considers how the urn remains long after his generation, and how beauty and truth is all the urn knows.

Chapman’s Homer

Reference to the poet, Homer, who wrote the Odyssey, and Elizabethan playwright, George Chapman. This poem tells of Keats's astonishment while reading the work of the ancient Greek poet as freely translated by Chapman. 


The obligation of fidelity on the part of a feudal tenant or vassal to his lord; loyalty. 

Fealty is the medieval work for loyalty, referring to tenants owning fealty to their lords. In this case, bards (tribal poet-singers) owed loyalty to the god of poetry who governed the poetry aspiring isles and people. Keats is speaking about poetry itself, and how the readers, and more importantly, poets, must have loyalty to the art. 

"fealty, n." OED Online, Oxford University Press, March 2021,

Edmund Spenser (1552-1599)


Edmund Spenser is considered one of the greatest and most prominent English poets. He was born to John Spenser, an obscure cloth maker, and Elizabeth, but very little is known about his upbringing. He is famous for his publications, The Shepheardes Calender and The Faerie Queene. Sir Philip Sidney is cited in crediting The Shepheardes Calender as a major contribution to the development of English literature. Appearing in 1579, the poem was Spenser’s first major work. The eclogues are short pastoral poems in the form of dialogue or soliloquy, in which each month is a stand-alone poem. The calendar emulates Virgil’s Eclogues of the first century BCE and the Eclogues of Mantuan by Baptista Mantuanaus, a medieval renaissance poet. Spenser’s masterpiece, The Faerie Queene, is an epic broken up into three books published in 1590, followed by three more books in 1569. This epic was written in honor of Queen Elizabeth I and in celebration of the Tudor dynasty. Alongside Sidney, Spenser set out to create work that could parallel the great work of Dante, Petrarch, and extend the line of English literary culture that Geoffery Chaucer began (and who was a major inspiration to Spenser). Among Spenser’s great contributions to English literature, he is the namesake and originator of the Spenserian stanza and sonnet. 

Spenser worked within very distinct verse forms, especially seen within The Faerie Queene. The Spenserian stanza is characterized with the main meter being an iambic pentameter (five feet or stresses) with the final line being an iambic hexameter (six feet or stresses). The rhyme follows ababbcbcbcc. The Spenserian sonnet is distinguished by its rhyme scheme in which the last line of every quatrain is linked with the first line of the next quatrain: ABABBCBCCDCDEE. Notably, Spenser emphasizes beauty of mind and beauty of intellect, which is perhaps what Keats was interested in and connected to. 

“Edmund Spenser.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 

“Edmund Spenser.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation, 

Thomas Chatterton (1752-1770)

Chatterton by Henry Wallis, 1856 via Wikimedia Commons.

Thomas Chatterton was an English poet, who had considerable influence on the Romantic poets, died by suicide at age 17. The Romantic poets and their successors cite Chatterton as a representation of a sort of idealism. Chatterton was born in Bristol, England where he grew up in extreme poverty and lived in a boarding house part of the time. After school he would work as a copy clerk, where he would write poetry in his free time, and his employer would beat him for doing so. When visiting and staying with his mother, Chatterton locked himself in the attic with his books, cherished parchment, drawing materials, writing and living in thought with 15th-century heroes and heroines. By age 11, he began publishing his mature work in Felix Farley’s Bristol Journal. His first mystery was the dialogue of Elinore and Juga. Eventually he was able to pass off his work under the pseudonym, Thomas Rowley, an imaginary 15th-century poet, and monk. Chatterton by Henry Wallis, 1856 via Wikimedia Commons.

These publications were successful because few people of the time were familiar with medieval poetry. By age 16 Chatterton began seeking a patron, someone to financially support him and his work. However, he was unable to find one in Bristol because the offerings were not high enough, and being only 16, the Rowley pseudonym called patrons to question the legitimacy of the work, and he was sent away. Chatterton began writing political papers for the Middlesex Journal and he moved to London. However, Chatterton’s earnings were not enough to keep him, and eventually poisoned himself with arsenic. Sadly, his body was found the next day Dr. Thomas Fry traveled to London with intentions of financially supporting Chatterton. At the time, his death attracted little notice or attention. The interest Chatterton’s life and death caused commemoration by many Romantic poets: Percy Bysshe Shelley in Adonias, William Wordsworth in “Resolution and Independence”, Samuel Taylor Coleridge in “Monody on the Death of Chatterton”, and John Keats’s sonnet “To Chatterton”. His death fit with the romantic sense of tragedy. Keats also inscribed Endymoin “to the memory of Thomas Chatterton”. Alfred de Vigny wrote a play about Chatterton is still performed, and the oil painting The Death of Chatterton, pictured above, painted by Henry Wallis is famous today. 

Gittings, Robert. “Keats and Chatterton.” Keats-Shelley Journal, vol. 4, 1955, pp. 47–54. JSTOR,

“Thomas Chatterton.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation, 

Wills , Matthew. “The Posthumous Mystique of Thomas Chatterton.” JSTOR Daily , JSTOR, 2019, 

Lord Byron (1788-1824)George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron was born on January 22, 1978 in London, England, and was a leading poet in the second Romantic generation. His first published volume of poetry, Hours of Idleness, appeared in 1807. Though it eventually was considered a work of prestige, the collection faced harsh criticism, so much so that Byron was asked to duel. His first collection fostered Byron’s initial recognition in the literary world. From 1809 to 1811, Lord Byron embarked on the Grand Tour, traveling around various parts of the Mediterrean, avoiding central Europe due to the Napoleonic Wars. After returning to London, Byron  published the first two cantos of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage in 1912, a narrative poem describing his travels (in four parts published over time). In 1819, Byron published the first canots of his most famous poem, Don Juan. This epic poem spans 17 cantos, and is considered one of the most important long poems in England since John Milton’s Paradise Lost. The poem’s roots stand heavily in literary tradition, it involved itself with the contemporary world or reality of the time: social, ideological, political and literary. Canto III expresses strong detestation for William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, first generation poets of the Romanticism movement. Lord Byron’s work is known for heavy satire, unusual for Romantic poets, and the personification of the “Byronic hero”. Aside from his publications, Byron is famous for being notoriously promiscuous with both men and women, and acquiring large debts that forced him to leave England in 1816 for Switzerland. He met up Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Shelley in Switzerland to write. Byron died at the age of thirty-six from a fever after fighting in the Greek War for Independence.

Marchand, Leslie A.. "Lord Byron". Encyclopedia Britannica, 15 Apr. 2021,

Sylvan (historian)

Mythology. An imaginary being supposed to haunt woods or groves; a deity or spirit of the wood

A person dwelling in a wood, or in a woodland region; a forester; a rustic.

Keats describes a Sylvan Historian, and it refers to the way that the urn is telling the story across its surface. The scene the poem is sets takes place in a woodsy setting. Keats refers to the setting at “sylvan.” Two lovers are about to kiss in the woods in a specific moment in the past. The urn is recording history, and therefore is a historian. The “Sylvan Historian” who basks in the woods and sees all is best fit to tell this story.  

"Sylvan | silvan, n. and adj." OED Online, Oxford University Press, March 2021, 


Sweet-briar: rose native to Europe. 

"eglantine, n.1." OED Online, Oxford University Press, March 2021,


Poetic or literary inspiration; a source of this.

In Greek Mythology, Hippocrene is a spring on Mt. Helicon that was sacred to the Muses. The water was supposed to bring forth poetic inspiration. Keats is describing the “blushful” spring, bubbling with inspiration, and he wants to drink from it. Seeing the nightingale allows Keats to discuss creative expression. Drinking poetic inspiration would allow for that expression to be put to paper. Keats could be drunk on wine and Hippocrene water, forget the world, and escape with the nightingale to live in a world of beauty and imagination rather than angst. 

"Hippocrene, n. and adj." OED Online, Oxford University Press, March 2021,


The produce or yield of the vine, either as grapes or wine; the crop or yield of a vineyard or district in a single season. Now rare or Obsolete.

The speaker desires a drink of wine. There is a “draught of vintage”, meaning that a lack of wine exists, and Keats wants to spout into the soil to let the good times flow. Keats sees nature as a provider. 

"vintage, n." OED Online, Oxford University Press, March 2021,


A melodious bird that can be heard at night. The bird is not easy to see, but can always be heard. Nightingales are symbolic of creativity, nature’s purity, and virtue. Wordsworth, the poet from the first generation of Romantics, saw the nightingale as an instance of natural poetic creation: the voice of nature.  



The west wind, frequently personified; (Greek Mythology) the god of the west wind. 

Keats is describing the parts of nature that make the scene in the forest meadow. The idea of the birds and bees have a sexual connotation. The “birds and bees” conversation is typically the conversation parents have with their children to inform them about sex and sexual relationships. Psyche and Cupid are laying together, perhaps performing acts of “Birds and Bees’ without their lips touching, with the wind and the streams flowing around them. The use of this word continues to create the whimsical forest scene that Keats sets.  

"zephyr, n." OED Online, Oxford University Press, March 2021,


A bird's wing; esp. (chiefly poetic and rhetorical) the wing of a bird in flight. Also: the terminal segment of a bird's wing, bearing the primary flight feathers.

Cupid and Psyche’s arms embraced, and their wings did too. Keats stumbled upon the two creatures embracing, but not kissing, in the forest. Both had wings, and the female, was the goddess Psyche herself. Winged creatures are often messengers from the god. Wings symbolize freedom and spirituality, which is what Keats suggests Psyche is free to do with the winged boy - the warm Love. Freedom constitutes love and vice versa. In Greek, “psyche” is the term for soul, and the soul is typically represented as having wings of a butterfly (symbolizing freedom and joy). Cupid, the boy with wings, also traditionally has wings. 

"pinion, n.2." OED Online, Oxford University Press, March 2021,


In Greek Mythology, Psyche is the goddess of Soul. Psyche was originally mortal, but Cupid fell in love with her, and Jupiter granted her immortality so that the two could be reunited and together forever. This goddess and this poem embody Keats’s ideal of love: an unobtainable concept in our world (reality) but possibly attainable in in our imagination where we might build a window, enter, and enjoy a perfect union.

Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. "Psyche". Encyclopedia Britannica, 12 Feb. 2018,


Peonies are the last of nature’s entities listed in a row, in addition to a morning rose and the water’s waves. Keats suggests that to remedy melancholic feelings, overindulging in the beauty that nature has to offer, in “glut” or excess, can dissolve the melancholy. Peonies are one of the specific aspects that can mediate these feelings as they symbolize prosperity, good luck and honor. 

Peonies, Édouard Manet, 1864–65, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Public Domain


Greek Mythology. A river in Hades, the water of which produced, in those who drank it, forgetfulness of the past. Hence, the ‘waters of oblivion’ or forgetfulness of the past; Oblivion. 

Keats wanted to avoid “Lethe” in every literal sense. For one, he wishes to avoid the river in Hades because he does not want to forget the past. For that reason, he also wishes to avoid oblivion. Lethe, in Classical Greek, can be defined as “oblivion”, “forgetfulness”, or “concealment”. It is related to “alethia”, the Greek word for “truth.” Rather, the speaker of this poem aims to seek the truths of life rather than fall into oblivion by escaping into dangerous modes of coping like drinking and even suicide.  

"Lethe, n." OED Online, Oxford University Press, March 2021, 


Poetic work or composition, verse; poems collectively or generally; poetry. Formerly also: the gift or skill of writing poetry (obsolete). Now archaic or depreciative.

This is particularly important to the theme of the poem: imagination causing temptation and distraction from other activities or thoughts, including laziness. In this case, “poesy” refers to the whole process of creating verse in comparison to the final product, the poem. The act of writing and composing poetry is “demon” or natured spirit. Writing poetry is what tempts the speaker, not reading a poem. 

"Poesy, n." OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2021. Web. 15 April 2021.    


Greek Mythology. A supernatural being of a nature between gods and humans; an inferior divinity or spirit; spec. the soul of a deceased person, esp. a deified hero.

In Greek mythology, a “demon” (or daimon, or daemon) is simply a nature spirit. The spirit is unpredictable but might be helpful and is not necessarily evil. As a Christian or Puritan based country, we believe in the Christian legend: demons are terrifying evil spirits that torment living souls. This is clear from the first seven definitions in the English Oxford Dictionary. The other definitions describe demons as “ugly”, “cruel, wicked, and destructive”, and “malevolent”. The Christian legend makes demons out to be the followers of the fallen Lucifer, and therefore differentiated from “The Devil ''. However, Keats depicts “Demon Poesy” as a wily demon (of poetry) that tempts the speaker to end their lazy spell and to write. 

“Demon, n. (and adj.).” OED Online, Oxford English University Press, March 2021,


Poetic work or composition, verse; poems collectively or generally; poetry. Formerly also: the gift or skill of writing poetry (obsolete). Now archaic or depreciative.

This is particularly important to the theme of the poem: imagination causing temptation and distraction from other activities or thoughts, including laziness. In this case, “poesy” refers to the whole process of creating verse in comparison to the final product, the poem. The act of writing and composing poetry is “demon” or natured spirit. Writing poetry is what tempts the speaker, not reading a poem. 

"Poesy, n." OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2021. Web. 15 April 2021.     


Figurative and in figurative context: developed to the stage of being ready; mature, full.

Keats is referring to “ripe” summer days, where the day is full and mature. During the season of summer, the days are the longest and the hottest of the year. The season is “ripe” and mature. The heat is so great or extenuating, it can cause one’s blood pressure to drop and restrict the blood flow to the brain. As a result, one might feel fatigued or drowsy. The poem’s speaker is outside on a “ripe” and warm summer day, and the day’s heat induces a sleeping coma, or a nap, that might encourage indolence throughout the poem. 

"ripe, adj., n.2, and adv." OED Online, Oxford University Press, March 2021,


The disposition to avoid trouble; love of ease; laziness, slothfulness, sluggishness.

This poem is an abstract about indolence, or laziness, in the case of the poem's speaker. The speaker is daydreaming about three figures on an urn (Love, Ambition, and Poesy). Recognizing them, they threaten his idle day. To avoid getting into trouble or lost in a poetic frenzy, he continues to nap on the grass in “indolence”. Overall, this poem, named for laziness, idealizes listlessness. 

"Indolence, n." OED Online, Oxford University Press, March 2021, 

"beauty is truth, truth is beauty"

Keats arrives at this philosophical idea after diverging through the paradoxes of transience and eternity throughout the poem. Keats is notoriously known for his letter correspondence in addition to his poetry. A collection of these letters can be found in Selected Letters, published in 2002. In a letter written to his friend Benjamin Bailey in 1817, Keats said, “What imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth.” This was later transmuted into the lines, “beauty is truth, truth is beauty” in the ode. Keats loves nature and his way with words or poetic touch transforms everything into beauty. He creates imaginary worlds of dreams where one can forget life’s harsh realities, and those imaginations become our own beautiful truth. 

Keats, John. Selected Letters of John Keats, 2002. Harvard University Press, 2002.

The Examined Life. “John Keats Selected Letters.” The Examined Life, 2021, 

Urns are the jars or vases that safekeep the ashes of a person postmortem. In ancient Greece, burial rituals took place in three parts: prothesis (laying out the body), the ekphora (funeral procession), and then the interment or cremation. After 1100 B.C, Greeks began burying bodies in individual graves rather than mass, family tombs. However, Athens was an exception; cremation was normalized, and Athenians placed the ashes in urns. Lamentation (grieving or passionate expression of grief) was featured in Grecian art, like urns. Vases were decorated with scenes of mourning, as can be noted on Keats’s depiction of a Grecian Urn. 

Department of Greek and Roman Art. “Death, Burial, and the Afterlife in Ancient Greece.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (October 2003)