The poetic development of John Keats
It seems to me as though John Keats has been a close companion all my life. Firstly, as a schoolboy, I studied his poetry and letters, then as an undergraduate at Bristol University, at a time when Professor Christopher Ricks was lecturing on Keats and Embarrassment, I explored his poetry more profoundly. Then as a teacher of English Literature, in a career that lasted almost 40 years, I have taught Keats to students, guiding them through examinations at all levels.
In all that time, I followed the traditional view of Keats as a Romantic poet. However, I always felt that Keats did not stand easily alongside the great Romantic poets like Wordsworth and Coleridge, whose “Lyrical Ballads” were innovative and modern, speaking to and of the common man and set within natural surroundings that impact on the soul.
In contrast, Keats looks back in time. His poetry is epic in scale and approach. His writing is rooted back in Classical myth and has strong ties with works from earlier ages, particularly those of Spenser and Milton. His settings and themes are taken from Greek and Roman myth – he writes of the moon goddess and the sun gods. In choosing such settings, I always felt Keats was not writing Romantic literature.
And so, over the last few years, I have revisited Keats once again. In particular, I looked at clues from his close circle of friends, like Shelley and Haydon, Leigh Hunt and Hazlitt. This small group of artist and writers were radical free-thinkers both in political and cultural terms and I believe their influence over the young Keats has been largely under-estimated.
For me, the key answer presented itself when I read Professor Jennifer N. Wunder’s article “Keats, Hermeticism and the Secret Societies”, which argues that, during the early 1800s, Keats and his friends embraced the new Hermetic ideas which were so popular at the time, and were considered so revolutionary.
Keats saw himself as Hermetic hero – a poet, a doctor and a healer.
These ideas, and Keats’ use of them in his poetry and letters, has inspired the two books above. For more information on both books, click on the cover images.
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