John Keats: The Overwhelming Artistry

Just the other day I was on TBS eFM’s The Bookend, talking about John Keats. But well after the recording, the man just keeps lingering in my mind. Below is my attempt to explain why I think Keats has been on my mind. 

O, for ten years, that I may overwhelm
Myself in poesy; so I may do the deed
that my own soul has to itself decreed.

These loud and thunderous words ring out from John Keats’, “Sleep and Poetry.” They are words of ambition, yet not of the kind we expect.

When most of us get started in our pursuits of mastery, we say “I want to… play like Lebron, win an Oscar, or, make Junior executive in five years.”

And with a soft approving pat on the back from our peers and our mentors, we’re told good job. You have goals, go and get them, you can do it, don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t. Believe in yourself, or maybe, set your mind to it and it will become reality.

These feel-good pleasantries were not the backbone of Keats’s ambition. His was 10 years of overwhelming effort toward one thing: mastery of poetry.

And boy did he improve. His first work was considered printable but hardly the stuff worth inclusion in a Norton Anthology two hundred years later.

But something happened when he was twenty years old – the same time he wrote those words above.

He got serious.

His first major work to get notice was “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer,” the result from an all night binge of Homer’s poetry and subsequent mad scribbling of his impressions in poetry form. (With a well-documented historical error. Can you find it?)

I think what’s happening here – besides wickedly meaty language – is that he’s interacting in a sort of conversation with the work. He did more than just read the poetry of Homer, have a nightcap to ward off the plague and go to sleep. He hardwired his experience in poetry.

This is practice. Hard work. Hard knock, hardhat wearing, lunchpail carrying work that he’ll remember for a long time and will be able to dip back into when he’s seeking inspiration or guidance in his own writing.

Keats was no, (Cue whiny nasally voice) I want to be a great poet, I better get a sweater and bath salts and cry in a bathtub, no. He was serious and didn’t mess around.

He was doing a form of deliberate practice. Did he put in his 10,000 hours? I’m sure he did.

In his letters and in his poetry, you can see how that dedication pay dividends. And even with such a short career – died at 25 – and reputation of being oversensitive, –Byron claimed he died from the shock of reading a negative review – Keats to me seems like a tough guy with lots of heart.

Here’s some steak and potatoes from Keats:

  • “pearly shell”
  • “Temple of delight”
  • “deep delved earth”
  • “with beaded bubbles winking at the brim”

These morsels are just some of the language that beams from John Keats’s. Throughout his poetry you find a type of richness that is missing from so much of what we read today.

Some Keats one-liners:

  • “‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’—that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
  • “I would sooner fail than not be among the greatest.”
  • “If poetry comes not as naturally as the leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all.”
  • “Poetry should surprise by a fine excess and not by singularity.”
  • “I have left no immortal work behind me – nothing to make my friends proud of my memory – but I have lov’d the principle of beauty in all things, and if I had had time I would have made myself remember’d. “

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