John Keats' relationships with other writers

ByronGeorge Gordon Noel Byron

John Keats in a letter to his brother George, September 1819:

'You speak of Lord Byron and me - There is this great difference between us.
He describes what he sees - I describe what I imagine - Mine is the hardest task.'

Even from just this quote, you can pick up on the evident rivalry between Byron and Keats. This rivalry was more acutely felt by Keats; Byron was a flamboyant and handsome nobleman whose wit, charm and ancestral title accorded him entry into the most elite circles of English society. Keats on the other hand was a poor and struggling middle-class poet whose work was often savaged by the great critics of the age.

Percy Shelley

ShelleyShelley and Keats were virtual admirers. Shelley was already in voluntary exile in Italy when Keats sailed over for his health.

Upon learning of Keats's illness, Shelley graciously asked him to stay with his family in Italy. The poet politely refused. Shelley wrote the beautiful elegy Adonais in Spring 1821 upon Keats's death. Adonais was first published in July 1821. The next year, Shelley himself drowned; a volume of Keats's poetry was found in his pocket. So Shelley obviously was an admirer of Keats' poetry.

Adonais was composed as a pastoral elegy, in the tradition of Milton's 'Lycidas'. Like most of Keats's friends, Shelley believed the poet died because of the harsh and negative reviews of his poetry, specifically those of the Quarterly Review. His friends supposed that Keats suffered a rupture in his lungs because he was so angered by the attacks; they were wrong, but the idea persisted well into the 19th century.

OwenWilfred Owen

Keats's poetic genius even inspired the great War poet, Wilfred Owen. In 1915, Owen wrote that the only thing that would hold him together would be the 'sense that I was perpetuating the language in which Keats and the rest of them wrote'

Several writers have mentioned how the language in the final version of 'Anthem for Doomed Youth' became less romantic but noted that the rhythm and rhyme became stronger. The language Keats uses in his poems is sensuous and he creates vivid images for the reader. Owen uses certain aspects of the romantic heritage (e.g. vividness) and abandons other aspects (dream-like states) in his effort to write about modern war.

The school of English poetry which Owen belongs to had derived from the Romantic poets at the beginning of the nineteenth century- writing should be personal (to the point of appearing confessional), sincere (which meant limitations on satire and humour, and richly loaded with imagery. What had seemed a new start at that time had become the norm after 1850. Owen was introduced to the Romantics at school, but he did not seem to have encountered the later nineteenth century poets in the same way... He heard of Wilde and Swinbourne, for example, at a much later stage. Of all these poets it was Keats who seemed to provide a role model. There are the ironies (to us, with hindsight) of the almost exact parallels between the length of their lives, (26 years), and the fact that their important writing was crammed into one year; for both men, the large bulk of their writing which does survive consists of letters.

The early poems Owen wrote about Keats radiate hero-worship, e.g. 'Written in a Wood, September 1910' and 'On seeing a lock of Keats's hair'. These are rather juvenile efforts, but the study of Keats did permanently influence Owen's choice of verse-forms. In particular he frequently attempted the sonnet, and sometimes the ode. Occasionally, the shorter descriptive poems are a form of the verse-letter. Owen's attempts at longer narrative are also indebted to Keats e.g. 'Hercules and Antaeus', but are not really more than exercises.

But years of reading the earlier poet's work had familiarised Own with the main features of Keats's special vocabulary, and his use of it in slow rhythmical effects. This led him to a choice of words which are long (in duration), dark rather than light in tone, but (negatively) sometimes seem too beautiful for the task ahead. This is difficult to illustrate without quotation from Keats; yet what we are really looking for is a continuation of his style after a hundred years and the validity of any suggestions must be a matter of opinion. For example. The way that Owen's sonnet 'Maundy Thursday' ends:
'I kissed the warm live hand that held the thing'
May go back ultimately to Keats's:
'This living hand, now warm and capable'
(addressed to Fanny Brawne)
'To let the warm Love in!'
(Ode to Psyche)

But this does not tell us much that we could not foresee from any word-by-word close reading Keats and Owen. Whereas the ending of the Anthem for Doomed Youth:
'And each slow dusk a drawing down of blinds'
One of the slowest lines to read aloud in the English language, owes everything to the discipline inculcated by Keats in his 'Sonnet on the Sonnet':

'Let us inspect the Lyre, and weigh the stress
Of every chord, and see what may be gain'd
By ear industrious and attention meet;
Misers of sound and syllable, no less
Than Midas of his coinage, let us be
Jealous of dead leave in the bay wreath crown...'

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