John Keats’s life and work offer some intriguing lessons for writers.
Because Keats died young, it is easy to see him as a natural genius, a spirit born to write great lines, but in reality Keats spent a large amount of his short life writing entirely average poems—and then a while longer writing merely quite good ones. As his biographer, Walter Jackson Bate, explains, the mystery is not how Keats was born writing brilliantly—because he wasn’t—but how he improved so rapidly. He learned in months what other writers might take years or decades. And the self-teaching never ceased: when those famous five months begin, during which he wrote his best works, his first Odes still aren’t that great.
This is the first four lines of “Ode to Psyche,” written in the spring of 1819:
One morn before me were three figures seen,
With bowed necks, and joined hands, side-faced;
And one behind the other stepp’d serene,
In placid sandals, and in white robes graced;
This is not very memorable. Shelley probably muttered this sort of stuff in his sleep. The poem is, however, merely Keats’s first go. He writes one ode after another, and only a few months later, he completes “To Autumn.” Here are its first four lines:
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;
It’s hard to recognise the first writer in the second. If nothing else, notice the velocity of the lines of “To Autumn”, the Shakespearean clarity of phrasing, each line running into the next.
Keats, in other words, was able to improve very fast. Here are seven of his “habits” that may have helped him (which I have mostly extracted from Bate’s biography and Helen Vendler’s study of the Odes).
1. Constant practice of the basics. Keats seizes all opportunities to write. He writes sonnets in his letters to friends, he accepts every challenge to write poems on a given theme, and during his walks in Scotland and the Lake District, he composes a fresh sonnet every time he and his friend Brown reach a significant spot. He writes rhyming doggerel to his sister, and verse letters to his peers, until writing in couplets becomes as natural for him as prose. When Hunt challenges him and Shelley to write a sonnet on the Nile in fifteen minutes, both men complete their poem within the time. And Keats uses these impromptu poems, as well as his prose letters, as seed beds for his later works. Phrases and images from the letters and casual sonnets reappear in the great poems, as if Keats, through this daily practice, is creating a world of words from which to build his poetry. And once he has started scribbling, he allows, if it comes, better writing to emerge: Bate’s biography records multiple occasions when a well wishing to an ill friend or a dull challenge turns into real poetry.
2. Stealing from the greats. Keats seems to focus on a few writers as models and sources, and repeatedly goes mining. He reads King Lear over and over, and gains much of his famously paradoxical imagery (“Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips / Bidding adieu”) by studying Shakespeare’s sonnets. In order to write “Hyperion,” he absorbs from Paradise Lost Milton’s distinctive use of double stresses (spondees) and sixth syllable caesurae (“But where the dead leaf fell, there did it rest”). In his biography, Bate comments: “One of the fascinations of Keats to both the poet and the prosodist is his unerring ability to catch the use of caesura and pause in any poet he uses as a suggestive model.” And as his work becomes more and more original, the borrowings only increase—Helen Vendler shows how “Autumn” lifts a great many of its images from Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton, and Wordsworth, as well as from Keats’s earlier poems.
Keats reads poetry, it seems, to find a language.
3. Thinking about poetry. Although Keats may have said he admired sensations more than thoughts, he was still very fond of the latter. Through his letters, he is constantly talking about what he is doing, both in terms of specific technical issues and the wider questions of the purposes of poetry. Writing expository prose seems to him a vital part of his self-tuition. Comparing Milton and Shakespeare to the best poets of his day, he tries to understand his era within the tradition of English poetry, and what modern poetry must be, given the society and culture in which it is made: he constructs his theory of “negative capability” as a criticism of what he sees as the opinion-heavy, highly subjective poetry of his time.
4. Making things harder for himself. Keats seems adept at turning the writing of poems into learning experiences, and is therefore able to tune up and calibrate his writing with each passing season. This is most clearly visible in Helen Vendler’s account of the Odes, showing how Keats takes on increasingly tricky challenges with each poem. Unsatisfied, for instance, with the (too passive) view of the artist he expressed in “Ode to a Nightingale,” Keats creates a radically different vision for “Ode on a Grecian Ode.” He also works on one sense at a time, focusing on hearing for Nightingale, sight for Urn, taste and touch in Melancholy, until, with Autumn, he is ready to bring all the senses together. But the sense of self-progression is also noticeable in his attitude towards “Endymion,” which he decides to treat as his training in invention and quantity, and not worry too much that the overall result is below his standards; he eventually takes many of the best images and phrasings from “Endymion” and brings them into “The Fall of Hyperion” and the Odes.
5. Staying ambitious. Keats wants to compete with the best poets of his day, even those of all time, and this keeps him pushing onwards. He maintains a hearty disdain for the opinions of “literary culture” (“These men say things which make one start, without making one feel”) and by attending Hazlitt’s lectures and reading Shakespeare, he comes to see his own era as fallen, a time of superficial art, a world in which a new voice, one that correctly understands the lessons of the dead, can create great verse.
6. Mingling. Yet Keats also maintains a circle of close friends, using each of them as they are useful. He discusses ambition with the grandiose, religion with the spiritual, versification with poets, and practical matters with the business-like. He befriends a wide range of fairly influential Londoners, and many of them extend him enormous help. Woodhouse, for instance, decides that Keats will one day be a great poet, and reassures him during times of despair, copies out his manuscripts, and (anonymously) donates considerable sums when Keats needs it. Keats meets Leigh Hunt early, and gains a great deal from him; later, when he has moved beyond Hunt artistically, he makes new contacts. Although often desperately short of money, he is able to go drinking with Wordsworth and Lamb, and in his crucial fallow period before he begins the Odes, he runs into Coleridge on Hampstead Heath and lets him pour out ideas over two miles of walking:
“… he broached a thousand things—let me see if I can give you a list—Nightingales, Poetry—on Poetical sensation—Metaphysics—Different genera and species of Dreams—Nightmare—a dream accompanied by a sense of touch—single and double touch… Monsters—the Kraken—Mermaids…”
7. Getting money. This final point seems harsh, given how poverty-stricken Keats ended, but speaking as a modern person, it is noticeable how little “work” Keats does. He spends a portion of his inheritance buying himself time to write, and lives cheaply around England, looking for good places to get poetry done. At times he is humiliated to ask his publishers for money, but he does ask, and the money arrives. He makes sure that he keeps writing. Just before the tuberculosis begins to kill him, he has come to believe the two years without an income has failed, and so he considers writing for the stage, or joining a ship’s crew as a medic—but, despite what he thinks, it has worked—he has written great poems—the time to write has allowed his harvest to come in.
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.