"But within the limits of that work must we look of course for the genuine credentials of his fame; and highest among them we must rate his unequalled and unrivalled odes.
Greater lyrical poetry the world may have seen than any that is in these; lovelier it surely has never seen, nor ever can it possibly see. From the divine fragment of an unfinished ode to Maia we can but guess that if completed it would have been worthy of a place beside the highest."
Keats received a classical education at Clarke's School, Enfield, but was orphaned at the age of 14, with his inheritance (and that of his younger brothers and sister) under the control of a trustee. Initially training as an apothecary, he abandoned this for a life dedicated to poetry. His first published poems appeared in 1816 in The Examiner edited by Leigh Hunt, and his first volume of verse in 1817. This was included in the attack on "the Cockney School of Poetry" in Blackwood's Magazine the same year. At an early stage in his development he was convinced of the importance of the epic form, and his next publication, Endymion was a major narrative poem. Again this was attacked in Blackwood's, this time by Lockhart, and some people believed that this led to Keats's premature death. Byron wrote "'Tis strange the mind, that very fiery particle/Should let itself be snuffed out by an article." (Don Juan). In 1820 appeared a volume which was comparatively well reviewed, Lamia, Isabella, the Eve of St Agnes, and other Poems. By this time he could no longer ignore the symptoms of tuberculosis, and left for Italy in the hope of improving his health, in the company of Joseph Severn. He died in Rome.
The epitaph which John Keats prepared for himself and which was later inscribed on his gravestone in the protestant cemetery in Rome is "Here lies one whose name was writ in water."
See also Keats's poems of 1820
Keats published just three books of poetry; the first, Poems, published in 1817 contained thirty-one poems; his second Endymion, was published in 1818. Both sold poorly. His third volume, Lamia, Isabella, the Eve of St Agnes and other poems, was published in June 1820. It contained just thirteen poems, - the poems on which, in the main, his reputation rests, including what Swinburne called "his unequalled and unrivalled odes". Some of his poems of the second rank (e g La Belle Dame Sans Merci) were not published during his lifetime. His letters contain playful poems, including some about Oxford, Devon and Scotland and other places he visited.
The Odes of 1819
"Of these perhaps the two nearest to absolute perfection, to the triumphant achievement and accomplishment of the very utmost beauty possible to human words, may be that To Autumn and that on a Grecian Urn; the most radiant, fervent, and musical is that to a Nightingale; the most pictorial and perhaps the tenderest in its ardour of passionate fancy is that to Psyche; the subtlest in sweetness of thought and feeling is that on Melancholy."
Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
- Think not of them, thou hast thy music too, -
- While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
- And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
- Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
- Among the river sallows, borne aloft
- Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
- And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
- Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
- The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
- And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.
- (Last stanza of To Autumn)