The University of Toronto at Scarborough

ENGB02Y: English Literature: Historical Survey (SpringTerm)

Instructor: Melba Cuddy-Keane

John Keats (1795-1821)

Notes on his Life:


- father a stable-keeper in London
- considered a "Cockney" boy by Byron
- but was sent to private school and apprenticed as an apothecary-surgeon (at 15)

short career:

- seems to have begun writing in 1814
- died of tuberculosis in Feb. 1821
- only wrote poetry from age 18 to age 24 (died at 25)
- all significant poems in three years; most in 1819

love for Fanny Brawne:

- the popular view of Keats's life has tended to sentimentalize his passionate but hopeless love for Fanny Brawne and his early death from tuberculosis
- early views of Keats's life portrayed Fanny as a coquette, as a beautiful but flirtatious young girl who had little interest in poetry
- however, her letters express her sincere love for Keats and her encouragement of his writing of poetry
- for the quality of Keats's love for Fanny Brawne, see his letter to her, p. 841 (note romantic intensity, exclusive commitment to her, almost religious adoration, image of himself as worshipper, fear of domesticity but willingness to sacrifice all for her love, mixture of spiritual and sensual in his image of her)

critical reception of his poetry:

- not much read during his lifetime
- harshly judged by critics
- belief arose that negative criticism hastened his death (see Norton p. 767 for refutation of this theory)
- Keats wrote to his brother George "I think I shall be among the English poets after my death"
- but wrote this for his own epitaph: "Here lies one whose name was writ in water"
- reputation (like Blake's) established by later Victorians
- Tennyson considered him the greatest poet of the 19th C
- the Victorian critic Arthur Hallam (editor and close friend of Tennyson) contrasted Keats and Shelley as poets of "sensation" with Wordsworth as a poet of "reflection"
- literary criticism at first echoed this judgement, focusing on the philosophical implications of Wordsworth's writing, but limiting discussion of Keats to the aesthetic aspects of his poetry
- Keats began to be treated as a serious thinker and literary theorist with the publication of his letters in the twentieth century (see Norton p. 828)

Poetic Theory (Letters)

Keats did not, like Wordsworth, articulate a formal poetic theory, but he wrote informally to his friends about the ideas that most excited him: the imagination, the relation between thought and sensation, the poet's identity

Letter to Benjamin Bailey, November 22, 1817

"The Imagination may be compared to Adam's dream--he awoke and found it truth." (p. 829)

Much critical discussion has been devoted to this line. Earlier interpretations posited that Keats meant that the imagination is a higher type of perception giving us access to a hidden spiritual reality, or the "unseen order of things." Later views have argued that Keats meant that moments of heightened imagination are more intensely "real" than ordinary moments, that imagination offers its own experience, and that this experience is valuable for its own sake: Imagination (dream) seizes upon Beauty (physical embodiment) yielding an intense and impassioned moment that it just as "real" as any scientifically-observed phenomena. The ideas in this letter (1817) seem to underlie Madeline's dream in "The Eve of St. Agnes" (written 1819).

Letter to Richard Woodhouse, October 27, 1818

Although Keats admired Wordsworth, he disapproved of the subjective nature of much of Wordsworth's poetry. For Keats, a personal or autobiographical approach limits the poet to his own identity, confining him to the "wordsworthian or egotistical sublime." Instead Keats took the view that the poet should be impersonal, able in fact to abandon his personal identity while in the act of writing. By being nothing himself, he can be all things, "continually . . . filling some other Body." The poet thus embraces contradictions and oppositions, and like a "camelion," can change colours depending upon circumstance.

"The Eve of St. Agnes"

plot: Romeo and Juliet motif: star-crossed lovers; feuding families; help of old nurse; but here not tragic ending

love theme: idealization of perfect love and triumph of youth over age; at same time potential for theme of seduction and betrayal hovers in the background

theme of imagination: about nature of dreams, of idealism, and relation to ordinary reality

- motif of ascendance, unification: compare Blake's sense of Fall into Division and Resurrection to Unity
- division into two sexes can also be read as division of psyche into 2 parts: often body/spirit and active/passive
- here idealized union of lovers achieves the harmony, unity of the spiritual and the physical, and of desire and reality

Religion versus Sensuality

poem begins with the isolated worlds of spiritual and physical expressed in the contrast between the beadsman in the chapel & the revelry in the great hall:

- cold vs. "golden", "glowing"
- silence vs. sound (music)
- asceticism vs. sensuality
- isolation vs. group
- but both worlds are wanting in comparison with the world of the lover: religion is associated with death, imprisonment, loneliness and there are suggestions of superficiality in the party crowd: "numerous as shadows"
- separated from each other, religion and sensuality are inadequate

Plot of Lovers:

- youth/age: the world of the young lovers (intense, passionate, free) versus the world represented by the old nurse (conventional, moralistic, normal reality)
- moral code versus desire
- authority versus freedom (cf. Blake's nurse)
- the old Beldame is treated somewhat comically (stanza 21)
- at the same time, her cautions sound a real note of danger: "Ah! thou needs must needs the lady wed" (stanza 20)
- (Compare the near fate of Lydia in Pride and Prejudice)

- the spiritual/physical polarity is also suggested in the contrast between the dreams of Madeline and the sensuality of Porphyro but the distinction not as clear cut as Madeline = spirit; Porphyro = body


- old legend of St Agnes Eve itself suggests integration of spiritual and physical: fasting of young virgin brings to her in her dream her ideal lover
- motif of withdrawal, retreat links Madeline to isolation of Beadsman (stanzas 7 & 8)
- Madeline also associated with death: "all amort" (l. 70) yet not ascetic like the Beadsman
- "honey'd" (l. 49)--suggestion of physicality of her sought-for dreams
- physicality however is purified in her: "lily white" (l. 52), "so pure a thing, so free from mortal taint" (l. 225)


- in contrast to Madeline's association with white, Porphyro is associated with colours: "rose" (l.136), "purple" (l.138)
- links him to passion and physicality
- the terms, however, in which he addresses Madeline position him as a worshipper before a holy object: she is his "seraph," "heaven," (stanza 31) and "shine" (stanza 38), before which he stands as her "eremite" [religious hermit] (stanza 31) and "pilgrim" (stanza 38)

The terms of religious worship are interwoven with the courtship rituals of physical love.

The Sexual/Imaginative Climax

- note the building up of pleasures, intensity in the appeal to various senses--taste, smell, hearing
- leading up to the sense of ascendance to another level of reality: "beyond a mortal man" and "Ethereal" (stanza 36)
- the merging of lovers is both physical and spiritual, expressed as the blending of two flowers, two perfumes
- an experience more "real" because of intensity of both sensuality and vision

- but not simple celebration of the victory of love and imagination
- note reminders of the distance between imaginative reality and ordinary reality
- when Madeline wakes from her dream, her first sight of Porphyro is disappointing; he is the mortal not the ideal lover; his eyes, that were "spiritual and clear" in her dream, are now "sad" and he is pale (stanza 35)
- note the difference between the dream and the physical reality
- there are also undertones of rape
- allusion in line 206 to the "tongueless nightingale" reminds us of the story of Procne and Philomela--Philomela's tongue was cut out by Tereus, so that she could not tell her sister Procne of her rape by her sister's husband; then Philomela was turned into a nightingale and Procne into a swallow
- the poem thus encodes the possible reading of Madeleine as violated; we are made aware of the potential for violence, the possibility of a negative ending, though this time it is averted

- also song that Porphyro sings is "La Belle Dame Sans Merci"--we see too the potential for him of being enslaved like the knight in that poem
- this time lovers escape but the poem points to the difficulty of the transition from dream into actual


- not simple endorsement of youth: note sympathy for deserted nurse and beadsman and cruelty of lovers to age (contrast Madeline's care to old woman, l. 195)
- young lovers disappear into another reality; to preserve their moment of perfection, they must leave behind the ordinary and mortal world

While celebrating a union between desire and its attainment and between imagination and beauty, Keats's poem reveals an awareness of the gap between the dream and the actual--the dangerousness, the precariousness, of attempting to articulate the ideal in the realm of the actual.

"La Belle Dame Sans Merci"

William Morris said this is the poem from which all Pre-Raphaelite poetry sprang.

- the dark side of all-consuming love
- the woman as enchantress
- Medieval setting

some common Romantic elements:

- simple ballad metre, simple language ("Ancient Mariner")
- supernatural, mystery, suggestiveness ("Ancient Mariner")
- about the mind, subjective reality ("Manfred")
- medieval subject, aura of the past ("Transformation")

"La Belle Dame Sands Merci" as the mirror image of "The Eve of St. Agnes":

- reversal of Porphyro/Madeline relation: here the lady prepares food for the knight (stanza 7) and the lady sings to him (stanza 6)
- here the result of love is destructive: wasteland imagery (stanza 1), pale lily and "fading rose" (stanza 3), "starv'd lips" (stanza 11)
- desire is food which does not nourish or sustain, which instead haunts and destroys him
- having created an ideal, man then suffers because it is unattainable - he is trapped in an unending search for what exists only in his own mind

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