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Keats's poems of 1820

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The poems which John Keats published in 1820 under the title of Lamia, Isabella, the Eve of St Agnes and other poems are the summit of his poetic achievement. They provoked little of the criticism which had greeted his less mature publications, and are recognised as among the great works of English literature.

List of the poems

The contents of the volume are, in order:

  • Three narrative poems: Lamia; Isabella, or the Pot of Basil; and The Eve of St Agnes
  • Three odes: To a Nightingale; On a Grecian Urn; and To Psyche
  • Four poems in jogging heptasyllabic couplets: Fancy; Ode ("Bards of Passion and of Mirth", on the supposed afterlife of Beaumont and Fletcher); Lines on the Mermaid Tavern (on a similar theme); and Robin Hood
  • Two further odes: To Autumn and On Melancholy
  • The stub of the uncompleted epic Hyperion, ending in the middle of a sentence part way through Book III. This was accompanied by an "Advertisement" that it was included at the insistence of the publishers (Taylor and Hessey).

The three complete narrative poems

Keats's densely descriptive style was not well suited to narrative verse, but the three complete narrative poems in this book succeed because their effect depends on evoking atmosphere and rich depictions rather than carrying forward a plot or showing character through action.

Lamia is based on a tale Keats found in Robert Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy, concerning a young man bewitched by the illusions of a snake in woman's form. She is detected by the philosopher Apollonius, and the detection breaks the spell. Keats enlarged the story with introductory material which shows the snake obtaining her wish by gratifying the god Hermes, though the plot remains very slight. The poem is in heroic couplets with the occasional alexandrine, but the verse flows smoothly and effectively.

Isabella, or the Pot of Basil proclaims that it is a tale from Boccaccio. Isabella's lover, Lorenzo, is murdered by her brothers so that she can make an advantageous marriage. His ghost comes in a dream and tells her of his grave, and she removes the head of the corpse which she places in a pot of basil. The brothers grow suspicious of her weeping over the pot and discover the head. They flee and Isabella dies. The poem, in ottava rima, has more incident than the other two, and is on the whole colourful and successful; but Keats's verse, always in danger of toppling over into the ludicrous, occasionally fails to keep its balance, as when a strong and vivid condemnation of the merchant brothers' exploitative trading is followed by a bathetic rhetorical question about their pride.

The Eve of St Agnes, which has the least incident, is the most completely successful. The setting is vaguely medieval. On a bitterly cold night Porphyro enters the house of his enemies, where revelry is in progress, and, with the help of an old woman, makes off with his love Madeline. The poem is in Spenserian stanzas, which Keats handles confidently, evoking strong images.

The five Odes

The odes show Keats's lyric mastery, and also his gift as a phrase-maker. Any dictionary of English quotations will carry multiple excerpts from them, sometimes of whole stanzas. Three of the five have ten-line stanzas, the first four lines rhyming abab and the next six using three rhymes in different patterns. To Autumn has an additional line, the two penultimate lines rhyming as well as having a rhyme elsewhere. To Psyche is irregular

To a Nightingale interweaves the song of the nightingale with Keats's unavailing attempts to use it as a vehicle for escaping thoughts of sorrow, illness and death. The beauty of the descriptions partly conceals the morbidity of the poem. There are eight stanzas.

On a Grecian Urn: despite the title, the ode is actually addressed to the urn, an imagined creation. At least two scenes depicted on it are evoked but not described. The urn's message is "Beauty is truth, truth beauty".

To Psyche — Addressed to "the latest born and loveliest vision far Of all Olympus' faded hierarchy", this varies from the other four odes in having no regular verse form. The stanzas are of unequal length and irregular rhyme scheme, and some lines have no rhyme. The effect is altogether more passionate, and is enhanced when six lines are repeated en bloc with slight alterations.

To Autumn is purely descriptive of early autumn: as the ripener of fruits in the first stanza, as personified in scenes of harvest in the second stanza, and, in the third, as a time which has its own forms of natural music.

On Melancholy is also in three stanzas. The first urges the reader to disdain the conventional aids to melancholia, while the second offers alternative objects to gaze upon to enrich the experience. Finally, Melancholy is conceived of as a goddess, whose shrine is in the very temple of Delight.

The four poems in couplets

Two of the four poems in couplets(Robin Hood and Lines on the Mermaid Tavern) are among the playful pieces Keats would often include in his letters, and the other two (Bards of passion and of mirth and Fancy) are of like nature.

Hyperion

Hyperion is a narrative poem based on Greek mythology. It starts after the fall of all the Titans except Hyperion, governor of the sun; and it deals with their efforts to regain their former position, and with the deification of Apollo, who is to replace Hyperion. Keats is known to have said that the poem was too Miltonic. He later started a new version, The Fall of Hyperion, giving the same theme the framework of a dream.