In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section John Keats

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews and Collected Essays
  • Bibliographies and Reference
  • Specialist Journals
  • The Great Odes
  • Sonnets and Other Lyric Poems
  • Narrative Poems
  • Prose

British and Irish Literature John Keats
Rachel Falconer, Philip Lindholm
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 August 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0078


John Keats (b. 1795–d. 1821), a major British Romantic poet, produced his greatest works within an extraordinarily concentrated period of time—just three and a half years, from 1816 to early 1820. One of the most loved and widely read poets in the English language, Keats is particularly known for his six “Great Odes” (including “Ode on a Grecian Urn” and “Ode to a Nightingale”) and sonnets (such as “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” and “Bright Star!”). But Keats himself regarded the long narrative genres of romance and epic as more significant, and he greatly admired Spenser’s Faerie Queene and Milton’s Paradise Lost. During his lifetime, Keats published three collections of poetry: Poems (1817), Endymion: A Poetic Romance (1818), and Lamia, Isabella, the Eve of St Agnes, and Other Poems (1820). He was known to his contemporaries as the author of Endymion, while all but one of the Great Odes were published in the third volume, under the insignificant heading of “Other Poems.” To present-day readers, Keats’s tragically short life is almost as well-known as his poetry, and his status as the quintessential Romantic poet has been sealed by Jane Campion’s film Bright Star (Campion 2009, cited under Modern Biographies), a fictional biography that focuses on the poet’s love of Fanny Brawne. Keats’s letters are likewise widely appreciated for the insights they give into the poet’s life as well as his poetics, and, increasingly, scholars are coming to see the letters as major literary works in themselves. If an earlier generation of readers pictured Keats as an aesthete of delicate constitution and sensibility, current criticism emphasizes his vigorous engagement in politics. He was an active participant in the debates of Leigh Hunt’s radical intellectual circle, which included William Hazlitt, Charles Lamb, Mary and Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Hamilton Reynolds, and William Godwin, among others. As Jack Stillinger argues in a chapter of The Cambridge Companion to Keats (Stillinger 2001, cited under Contemporary Reception), Keats’s poetry has the distinctive quality of being meaningful to practically everybody, and to each according to his or her own taste (see Imagination, Duality, Complexity). For the Rossettis, the Great Odes epitomized purely aesthetic pleasure, while for Matthew Arnold, they were rigorously moral and ethical. Scholars in the 20th century variously interpreted Keats’s “To Autumn” as being about the sensual pleasures of the season, about death, or about the battle of Peterloo. Although he had few readers in his lifetime, Keats predicted that he would be “among the English Poets.” That bold prediction seems conservative now as his readership expands to global dimensions.

General Overviews and Collected Essays

Both John Barnard and Kelvin Everest provide engaging, well-balanced introductions to Keats’s life and writing. Barnard 1987 considers issues of class and gender and explores Keats’s views on poetry in the context of nineteenth century intellectual debates. Everest 2002 is more expansive on Keats’s poetic techniques, and on his relation to literary predecessors. While acknowledging that Keats was a writer deeply concerned with history, Everest 2002 argues that Keats nevertheless strove to represent modes of experience outside history and time itself. Mighall 2009, an entertaining biography of Keats, is included in this section because it interweaves a narrative of Keats’s life with texts and critical commentary. Davey 2009 tells the story of Keats’s passionate love of Fanny Brawne, by using Keats’s poems and letters as primary source material. Wolfson 2001, an edition of The Cambridge Companion to Keats, makes an excellent introduction to the range of critical approaches to Keats, with a good range of essays by major Keats scholars, and an extensive reading list collated by Wolfson herself. De Almeida 1990 is a collection that emphasizes Keats’s humanism; in some of the essays, this approach is offered as a reaction against the deconstructive readings of Keats that emerged in the 1970s and 1980s. The bicentenary celebrations of Keats’s birth stimulated the publication of two collections of essays, both demonstrating the strength of interest in Keats’s historical and political contexts, as well as ongoing interest in his poetic technique: O’Neill 1997 emphasizes tensions and paradoxes in Keats’s poetry, while Ryan and Sharp 1998 lays greater emphasis on his moral philosophy. Other collected editions, such as Roe 1995 (see Historicist Criticism from 1990 to the Present), appear elsewhere in this article when they explore a more particular aspect of Keats’s corpus.

  • Barnard, John. John Keats. British and Irish Authors. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

    Considers issues of class and gender, and nineteenth century debates about poetry. An excellent introduction.

  • Davey, Peter. A Poet in Love. Ilfracombe, UK: Arthur H. Stockwell, 2009.

    Narrates Keats’s romance with the enigmatic Isabella Jones and his passionate love of Fanny Brawne, on the basis of Keats’s poems and letters as well as the letters that Fanny Brawne wrote to Keats’s young sister after the poet’s death.

  • de Almeida, Hermione, ed. Critical Essays on John Keats. Critical Essays on British Literature. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1990.

    Consists of seventeen essays, of which some had been previously published elsewhere and others were written specifically for this volume. As a whole, the collection argues for Keats’s humanizing place among the greatest English poets, emphasizing Keats’s adherence to the notions of democracy, love, a Renaissance ideal of character, and philosophical humanism.

  • Everest, Kelvin. John Keats. Writers and Their Work. Tavistock, UK: Northcote House, 2002.

    Keats is introduced both through historical context and through attention to poetic technique. Everest is particularly strong on Keats’s influences and intertexts. The arrangement of the texts covered in his study is chronological, and the maturation of Keats’s style and themes and the developments of his personal life are explored in tandem. While it does consider historical contexts, the study offers a humanist rather than a historicist approach.

  • Mighall, Robert. Poetic Lives: Keats. London: Hesperus, 2009.

    A concise and well-written biographical introduction to Keats and his major poetry, arranged into four seasons: spring, summer, autumn, and winter. Poems are quoted in full but are set off from the critical narrative in italic font.

  • O’Neill, Michael, ed. Keats: Bicentenary Readings. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1997.

    A balanced collection of essays, which consider Keats’s poetic techniques, his political and historical contexts, and tensions and conflicts in his ideas about poetry. Includes essays by Michael O’Neill, Nicholas Roe, Fiona Robertson, David B. Pirie, J. R. Watson, Gareth Reeves, Martin Aske, and Timothy Webb.

  • Ryan, Robert M., and Ronald A. Sharp, eds. The Persistence of Poetry: Bicentennial Essays on Keats. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1998.

    An important bicentenary collection, with a focus on historical contexts, poetic technique, and Keats’s moral philosophy. Contains essays by Jack Stillinger, M. H. Abrams, Walter J. Bate, Aileen Ward, Ronald Sharp, Eavan Boland, Susan Wolfson, Donald H. Reiman, Elizabeth Jones, Debbie Lee, Terence Hoagwood, Hermione de Almeida, David Bromwich, George Steiner, and Philip Levine.

  • Wolfson, Susan J., ed. The Cambridge Companion to Keats. Cambridge Companions to Literature. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

    DOI: 10.1017/CCOL0521651263

    One of the best collections of essays on Keats, to date, with a focus on poetic form, gender, history, and politics. The volume is available online to those students whose institutions subscribe to the Cambridge Online series. Contains essays by John Kandl, Karen Swann, Duncan Wu, Jeffrey N. Cox, Vincent Newey, Paul D. Sheats, Susan J. Wolfson, John Barnard, Garrett Stewart, Christopher Ricks, Theresa M. Kelley, Greg Kucich, William C. Keach, Anne K. Mellor, Alan Richardson, and Jack Stillinger.

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