The Poetry of John Keats: Questing In Search of an Ideal Lover

The Poetry of John Keats: Questing In Search of an Ideal Lover

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InOctober 1817, John Keats returned to London with a new purposefulness. He was steadily working on Endymion and planning another long poem.

But the world was too much with him in London. In October 1817, Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine printed an article “On the Cockney School of Poetry”. It was the first of several attacks on Hunt and his circle by John Gibson Lockhart and John Wilson. His association with Hunt created ill public criticism for Keats.

On top of this, Keats’s brother Tom now clearly had tuberculosis, and his brother George was out of work and needing money. He escaped London in late November for the quiet suburban surroundings of Burford Bridge. There he completed Endymion. Though Keats struggled and was frustrated by his progress in the spring, he actually achieved his audacious goal of completing the epic poem by that fall.

The themes of Endymion are similar to Shelley’s Alastor, written a year earlier in 1816. In both, a poet imagines an ideal lover and quests the world in pursuit of this archetype. It is similar to a grail quest, and the poet attains transcendence through this extended journey. Endymion is the mortal protagonist of the poem. He is restless and unsatisfied with his realm’s rustic charms and becomes enchanted by desire for Cynthia, the goddess of the moon.

After a sequence of trials and exploits, while questing for her, he renounces his idealistic search, which he has come to see as a chimera. He then falls in love with a simple maiden who is then revealed actually to be Cynthia.

The themes evoked here thread through much of Keats’ subsequent work. Only by embracing the mundane can the ideal be attained. He became convinced that redemption and transcendence were attainable only from a deeper engagement with human nature and embracing its limitations.

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The poetry of Endymion has been critiqued as uneven, the story tedious, and the point obscure. I will leave it to you to decide its value as poetry. But as a disciplined and focused practice, it helped refine his craft and crystallize previously inchoate ideas. This creative process significantly advanced Keats’s development.

The poem appeared in late April 1818. The critics were vicious. It has been common to believe that these attacks had a grave impact on Keats’s and ultimately broke his health. Shelley protested the savagery of the critics in solidarity with a fellow poet and exaggerated their effect on Keats. Charles Brown also thought that this was “his death-blow.”

The myth of the frail and vulnerable genius is attractive because of its quintessential Romanticism. Keats was not devastated by the reviews. It was a nineteenth-century conceit that Keats’s had been “snuffed out by an Article”, as Byron wrote in Don Juan, Canto II, 1823.

This attribution was hyperbolic melodrama. It suited the agenda of others to point to Keats as a tragic case in order to heap scorn on critics.

The role of critics has always been a legitimate target for artists. These articles were politically motivated to disparage Hunt, and his circle and Keats understood that.

Keats was not frail and retiring, and he was not thin-skinned to criticism. The insolence and injustice of his reviewers have also been exaggerated. As Lord Houghton’s biography of Keats says, “men have died and worms have eaten them but not for fear of critics or through suffering inflicted by reviews.” We do Keats a disservice if we think him incapable of weathering critics.

He was actually acutely aware of the tonic effects the process of composing Endymion had on his abilities to execute poetically. To James Hessey he wrote on October, 8 “In Endymion, I leaped headlong into the Sea, and thereby have become better acquainted with the Soundings, the quicksands, & the rocks, than if I had stayed upon the green shore, and piped a silly pipe, and took tea & comfortable advice.”

Their critiques didn’t have any immediacy to their sting because Keats had grown beyond their reach even before Endymion was completed. His time with Bailey and his absorption of Hazlitt’s ideas had contributed to an unshakeable confidence in his thinking about the role art and his role as artist.

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