Blog

Keats

I'm having a wonderful time working on Keats at the moment. Every time I come back to him, I find he just keeps getting deeper.

I always knew he was profoundly complex and a truly original thinker and critic. You can take any of his remarks about other writers and however many times you read one, it seems to leap from the page afresh, with a startling exact and powerful expression.

On Shakespeare's Sonnets, for example, we find this gem: ‘they seem to be full of fine things said unintentionally - in the intensity of working out conceits.’

But it’s his most famous comment on Shakespeare which is not only the most piercingly acute insight into the genius of Shakespeare but was to become the most quoted piece of criticism in all literature:

‘At once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously- I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties. Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.’

In 1817 on a trip to the Isle of Wight, Keats wrote this fine early sonnet after reading King Lear. He was feeling very alone. He had climbed the downs with a view over the Solent and Carisbrooke Castle. He imagined the huge cliff ‘of nearly 300 feet at least’ leading down to the sea to be like the scene in Shakespeare’s play where Edgar leads the blind Gloucester to the cliff at Dover. He wrote to a friend ‘From want of regular rest, I have been rather nervus - and the passage in Lear - “Do you not hear the Sea?” - has haunted me intensely.’

This wonderful poem was the result:

ON THE SEA
It keeps eternal whisperings around
Desolate shores, and with its mighty swell
Gluts twice ten thousand Caverns, till the spell
Of Hecate leaves them their old shadowy sound.
Often 'tis in such gentle temper found,
That scarcely will the very smallest shell
Be moved for days from where it sometime fell.
When last the winds of Heaven were unbound.
Oh, ye! who have your eyeballs vexed and tired,
Feast them upon the wideness of the Sea;
Oh ye! whose ears are dinned with uproar rude,
Or fed too much with cloying melody---
Sit ye near some old Cavern's Mouth and brood,
Until ye start, as if the sea nymphs quired!

I will be giving a Talk on Keats and Shakespeare at Keats House on Thursday June 28 evening. I will post booking details when they're available.