Study Guide to Ode to a Grecian Urn and Other Works by John Keats
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Study Guide to Ode to a Grecian Urn and Other Works by John Keats

Intelligent Education

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Study Guide to Ode to a Grecian Urn and Other Works by John Keats

Intelligent Education

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A comprehensive study guide offering in-depth explanation, essay, and test prep for selected works by John Keats, one of the main figures of the second generation of Romantic poets. Titles in this study guide include Endymion, Hyperion, and The Fall of Hyperion, A Dream, Lamia, Ode to Psyche, Ode to a Nightingale, Ode to a Grecian Urn, Ode on Melancholy, and Ode on Indolence.As a collection of the early-nineteenth-century, Keats' writing adopted the style and mannerisms of many poets, particularly those of his mentor Leigh Hunt. Moreover, Keats wrote about various themes such as transience of life and negative capability. This Bright Notes Study Guide explores the context and history of Keats' classic work, helping students to thoroughly explore the reasons they have stood the literary test of time. Each Bright Notes Study Guide contains: - Introductions to the Author and the Work
- Character Summaries
- Plot Guides
- Section and Chapter Overviews
- Test Essay and Study Q&AsThe Bright Notes Study Guide series offers an in-depth tour of more than 275 classic works of literature, exploring characters, critical commentary, historical background, plots, and themes. This set of study guides encourages readers to dig deeper in their understanding by including essay questions and answers as well as topics for further research.

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John Keats was born in a northern suburb of London on October 31, 1795. His parents were the keepers of a prosperous livery stable called the “Swan and Hoop,” and young John, the eldest of four surviving children, together with his brothers George and Tim and his sister Frances, seems to have lived a happy and uneventful life for his first seven or eight years. Then, very suddenly, disaster struck the family. Keats’ father died in a riding accident, his mother quickly remarried and then left her new husband and her children, returning later only to die of tuberculosis, watched over by John. Finally, the grandmother, who after his parents’ death had given the children a home, also died. Luckily the young Keats was not left entirely abandoned. At his school at Enfield, which he attended from 1803 to 1811, he made a lifelong friend of Charles Cowden Clarke, the son of the headmaster. However, Richard Abbey, the trustee and guardian of the family’s small estate was an unscrupulous man who manipulated the funds in his trust, withheld money improperly from the Keats children, and immeasurably added to the burden of the young poet-to-be during his short life.
When Keats left Enfield, at the age of sixteen, he was apprenticed to Thomas Hammond, an apothecary-surgeon, to begin his training for the medical profession. He did not lose touch with Clarke, however, who encouraged his former pupil to develop his literary interests and who introduced him to the work - Spenser’s The Faerie Queene - which inspired Keats’ first extant poem, an “Imitation of Spenser.” In October, 1815, Keats went up to London as a medical student, still writing verses in his spare time, and as the months passed, debated the choice between surgery and poetry as a profession. By September, 1816, as we learn from the “Epistle to Charles Cowden Clarke,” the decision had been made, and as if to put a seal on that decision, Keats wrote, in October, the first of his great poems, “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer.”
By this time the young poet had already been introduced to Leigh Hunt and had become the older man’s disciple, picking up certain vulgar mannerisms from Hunt that were to be hard to shake off and that would give critics the basis for their later, bitter attacks. But this was characteristic of the whole of Keats’ brief career. Becoming a poet was to be for him like a voyage of discovery, of self-discovery. He would try everything he met with on the way, be momentarily influenced by every experience, and all the while would slowly come to a knowledge of himself and of his own voice.
The history of that voyage of discovery is recorded in the poems, a chronological study of which follows. That Keats reached his goal is clear from his work; that when he died of tuberculosis in 1821 he had not lived long enough to know that he had reached it, is plain from the epitaph he composed for himself and which marks his grave in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome:
This Grave Contains all that was mortal of a Young English Poet who on his Death Bed, in the Bitterness of his Heart at the Malicious Power of his Enemies, Desired these Words to be engraven on his Tomb Stone “Here lies One Whose name was writ in Water.”
The Transience Of Life
The chief qualities of Keats’ poetry had their roots in the writer’s early experiences. One of the central themes in the poems, for example, is the brevity, the transience, the fragility of life, and it is impossible not to associate this theme with a number of the events of the poet’s childhood - the sudden death of his father, the disappearance and later the death of his mother, the death of his grandmother and, still later, the death of his brother Tom. Under these circumstances, it is not surprising to find Keats obsessed, in his poetry, with the subject of “beauty that must die.” But if the reality of death was brutally imposed upon him by events, his response to that reality was his own. He might well have given up on life, abandoned it as too painful to contemplate as other men have. Instead, the very transience of beauty made him commit himself even more tenaciously to its pursuit and appreciation. One critic has said of Keats that he was “a man for whom the physical world exists,” and Keats himself indicated that the quality in Shakespeare which he most admired was “thinginess,” the sense of the object itself having been communicated. Before anything else, Keats was true to “things-as-they-are” in his poetry.
The Oxymora Of Life
Another insight which experience - especially the experience with his mother - forced on Keats was the paradoxical nature of the world. Keats had loved his mother very much, and then suddenly he found himself abandoned by her. For the rest of his life, therefore, his attitude toward women, both in his own experience and in his poetry, was ambiguous. He could not do without women, yet he could not bring himself to trust them; thus there came into being in his works such figures as Cynthia, La Belle Dame Sans Merci, Lamia - women who are at once enticing and treacherous like his mother and like Fanny Brawne, the girl he deeply loved but of whom he was frequently (and unreasonably) jealous.
But the experience with his mother did not only affect Keats’ attitude toward women, it colored his whole vision of life, brought him to see life as a series of inevitable and unavoidable contradictions: joy as a function of sorrow, beauty as a function of death. Indeed, this insight into the paradox of life is a key to the understanding of all of the poet’s best work, this commitment to light-and-shade-together one of his greatest strengths. The Greek word for a phrase - like “aching pleasure,” for example - which unites two contradictory ideas in a single, meaningful term, is oxymoron (plural oxymora). It is Keats’ profound oxymoronic vision of the world, his ability to hold two conflicting ideas in his mind at the same time and still continue to function, which gives his work its characteristic maturity, richness, and depth.
Negative Capability
Anyone who is profoundly committed to the world and to its contradictions, as Keats was, must, as a corollary, be able to resist the temptation to “do something” about those contradictions. Most people have fairly naive notions about neatness and order and are as offended by oxymora, by paradoxes in life, as a housewife is by an unmade bed. Such people are constantly developing theories or philosophies to prove that the contradictions are only apparent, that paradoxes can be explained, that oxymora are just games with words. Yet such simple-minded orderliness actually belies the complex reality of life, and to have the strength to resist this impulse to neatness is what Keats called “negative capability,” the ability to refrain from attempting to shape the world and to allow the world to shape you.
Many people who claim to love the world really only love it when things are going well or really only love their own theory of what the world is like. Keats’ genius, on the other hand, lay in the fact that he genuinely loved the world for what it was, that he truly meant it when he wrote:
Welcome joy, and welcome sorrow, Lethe’s weed and Hermes’ feather; Come today, and come tomorrow, I do love you both together! I love to mark sad faces in fair weather; And hear a merry laugh amid the thunder; Fair and foul I love together.
Introduction To The Odes
During the very week in which he wrote his sonnet “On the Sonnet,” Keats embarked upon the most creative period of his life. Of this score of days Aileen Ward has written: “The last week of April and the first week or two of May [1819] seemed lifted out of time. The fine weather in mid-April had hurried the season forward; then for a few days the spring seemed to stand still.” In the last week of April Keats wrote his “Ode to Psyche,” and then in the first week or two of May continued with four more odes - “On Indolence,” “On a Grecian Urn,” “To a Nightingale,” and “On Melancholy.” In these poems, Aileen Ward goes on, “Keats reached his own full ripeness as a poet at last. . . . For these few weeks he stood at a point of perfect balance, confident in his ability to meet the future, able to contemplate his past with calm, and rejoicing in the beauty of the season, the joy of an answered love, the delight of a mastered craft. . . .”
Keat’s performance in this period represents one of the most astounding outbursts of creative energy in the whole history of art; to find its equal we would have to turn to Mozart’s feat of composing his last three symphonies in six weeks. Keats had never written so freely and so profoundly before, and with his death now less than two years away, he would never enjoy such a rush of creativity again. These few spring weeks in his life were unique, and the source of his power ultimately beyond explanation.
Having said this, however, it is necessary to add that while the nature of Keats’ genius may defy analysis, it would be wrong to think of the products of that genius - the odes themselves - as distinct from the rest of the poet’s life and work. “All of Keats’ life illuminates the odes,” says one critic, and indeed, all of his life was preparation for these odes. “That which is creative must create itself,” Keats had written, and had then gone on to make himself, very literally, the sort of poet capable of doing such work as this. Thus the odes constantly bring to mind earlier poems and prose: the lines from the “Epistle of John Hamilton Reynolds” foreshadowing similar verses in the “Ode on a Grecian Urn”; the technique of mingling “light and shade,” whose development we have been so carefully following; even the transmutation of prose from the letters into the poetry of the odes. In a letter written to his sister in the spring of 1819, for example, Keats had spoken of the joys of “a little claret-wine cool out of a cellar a mile deep,” and in the “Ode to a Nightingale” we find the famous lines:
O, for a draught of vintage! that hath been Cool’d a long age in the deep-delved earth. . .
In addition, the stanza forms of the odes, as we have already noted, evolved from Keats’ desire to break out of the prison house of the sonnet without abandoning all structure and form. The ode stanzas, especially those in “To a Nightingale,” “On Indolence,” and “On a Grecian Urn” are thus quite obviously fashioned from the sonnet, being, in the case of the last two mentioned, sonnets lacking only four of the eight lines of the octave. Finally, there are so many striking similarities among the odes themselves -references to “Lethe” and “opiates” in the odes” On Melancholy” and “To a Nightingale,” to “open casements” in the odes “On Psyche” and “To a Nightingale,” to “urns” in the odes “On a Grecian Urn” and “On Indolence,” very clinical references to life’s pain and sorrow in the odes “On a Grecian Urn” and “To a Nightingale” - that they argue the existence of a patiently gathered body of material from which the poet was able to draw in producing his best work.
In the life of every great artist there are moments which seem miraculous, which seem to defy explanation, but which are also clearly the outgrowth of earlier work, the result of years of preparation. Keats’ life is no exception to this rule, though in his case the paradox is somewhat sharpened by the fact that his whole career was compressed into a period of five years. Thus, confronting the odes, we are perhaps more astonished than we might otherwise have been at the unaccountable leap his genius took, and also more aware of how his great work is the result of his obsessive lifelong preoccupation with a few images and themes.
This poem was written in June, 1816. For some two years prior to its composition, Keats’ had been writing verse, influenced by Spenser, among the “illustrious dead,” and by Leigh Hunt, among his contemporaries. This early poetry is competent, and sometimes the appearance of a really striking passage in it, of the sort which fills the mature work, seems to prophesy the greatness to come. The sonnet “To One Who Has Been Long in City Pent,” also titled “Written in the Fields,” is representative of these first literary efforts.
In the fall of 1815, the twenty-year-old Keats had left the rural outskirts of London, where he had been apprenticed to an apothecary and surgeon named Hammond, to enter the United Hospitals of Guy’s and St. Thomas’ for a kind of internship. To quote one of Keats’ most recent biographers, “The United Hospitals stood on the edge of the Borough of Southwark, a jumble of narrow streets, sunless alleys, and tenements swarming with the poorest of London’s million inhabitants.” Keats, who loved long tramps over the fields and through the woods, was distinctly unhappy in the dark city, and when the term ended in the Spring of 1816, he celebrated his release with this sonnet.
The person who has long been in city “pent” (that is, “confined”) is, of course, Keats - not Keats the keen observer of nature-as-it-really-is, but rather a self-conscious Keats, a Keats too much aware of himself as a poet and determined to record what a poet might be expected to feel upon his return to the country. In particular, the boneless sentimentality which characterizes much of Leigh Hunt’s verse has here plainly influenced Hunt’s young protege. Keats strikes poses. He speaks of breathing “a prayer/ Full in the smile of the blue firmament.” Fatigued, “he sinks into some pleasant lair/ Of wavy grass, and reads a debonair/ And gentle tale of love and languishment.” (Would the poet have used “lair” and “debonair” if he hadn’t needed the rhyme?) He doesn’t listen to the song of the nightingale, something he was to do later with great success. Instead, he “catches the notes of Philomel,” and this classical, stereo-typed reference to the nightingale has the effect of standing between the reader and the poet’s real feeling, just as the word “cloudlets” seems to render the whole experience of release from the city a little contemptible.
Keats was, of course, soon to become...

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