European Humanities

English Romantic Poetry

February 2019

John Keats (1795-1821)

Study Guide


Keats’ Life


Keats was the son of a livery stable manager who died in a horse racing accident when Keats was eight. His mother died of tuberculosis when he was fourteen, so he and his two brothers and sister were on their own as teenagers, supported by a grandmother and a distant foster father.


Keats was an exceptional student. He loved all aspects of school. He was an athlete as well as a scholar, and he excelled at English and Art. He began writing poetry while in school and quickly became recognized in the literary world as an exceptional, precocious talent. His first poems were sonnets written in imitation of great English poets like Spenser and Shakespeare.


Keats’ first great poem was On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer (1816). He and his friend Charles Cowdern Clarke had stayed up all night reading out loud from Chapman’s translation of The Iliad and The Odyssey. Keats left at dawn and wrote this sonnet in a couple of hours. It expresses how you feel when you are actually learning something.

Unfortunately, Keats’ foster father pulled him out of school and made him an apprentice to a surgeon when he was sixteen. (Surgery was not the glamorous profession in 1816 that it has become in modern times since the invention of effective anesthetics.) Eventually, Keats drifted away form the profession and devoted all his time to poetry.

Keats was introduced by his friend Clarke to a circle of Romantic poets living in London, and he published his first collection of poems in 1818. That winter he met and fell in love with Fanny Brawne, but their relationship was cut short by tragedy.

Keats became ill that spring when he caught cold during a hiking trip with friends. Later that same year his condition worsened while he nursed his dying brother Tom who was suffering from tuberculosis. All this time Keats was writing exceptional poetry, experimenting with a variety of poetic forms and themes. During 1819 he wrote his romances, The Eve of St. Agnes and Lamia, two versions of his epic, Hyperion, and his great odes, Ode to a Nightingale To Autumn ,  Ode on Melancholy , and Ode on a Grecian Urn .

Keats became too ill to work in 1820, and he traveled to the warmer climes of Rome in a desperate effort to reclaim his health. There he died in 1821 at the age of twenty-five.


Reading Comprehension

Read the following poems and be prepared for a reading comprehension quiz:


Study Questions:


On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer


1.     What were the circumstances surrounding the composition of this poem?

2.     What two images does Keats use to describe how it felt to discover Homer as translated by Chapman?

3.     What historical mistake does Keats make?



On Seeing the Elgin Marbles


              Once again Keats is describing his first reaction to seeing an extraordinary work of art, this time the Elgin Marbles. These celebrated sculptures had been taken to England from the Parthenon in Athens during the Greek Civil War. The sculpture had decorated the pediments and friezes of the temple with processions of the gods and goddesses of Ancient Greece.


1.     What is Keats’ first reaction to seeing these sculptures, artifacts of an ancient, vibrant culture?

2.     How does the existence of this great art balance for Keats the sure knowledge of his mortality?

Ode to a Nightingale


             Keats wrote this ode during the spring of 1819 just after his brother died from tuberculosis. He was visiting a friend who mentioned that a nightingale made frequent visits to his garden. That morning Keats went out and sat in the garden for about three hours and wrote this poem in one sitting.

1.     What response does Keats have to the beauty of the nightingale’s song?

2.     What does he wish he could do in verse #2?

3.     What is he trying to forget in verse #3?

4.     In verses #4 to #6, what fantastic realm does Keats strive to enter with the power of his imagination?


Ode on a Grecian Urn .


Two weeks later, Keats wrote this ode. It is frequently described as the greatest lyric poem in the English language.


1.     What situation does Keats describe in the picture painted on this Grecian Urn? (verses #1 and #2)

2.     What paradox expressed by this work of art so fascinates Keats? (verses #2 and #3)

3.     When Keats looks on the other side of the urn, what scene does he see? (verse #4)

4.     Read the last verse carefully. Which approach to life would Keats have us take: touching the eternal beauty of this cold pastoral or experiencing the fleeting passion of an actual love affair?


To Autumn


In late September of the same year Keats wrote this ode after going for a long walk through the fields in which the grain had just been harvested.


1.        For Keats, what is autumn’s role in the life cycle?

2.        In what different roles does Keats personify autumn in verse two?

3.        What music does Keats hear during these last autumn days?

4.        What paradox does autumn symbolize for Keats?


Ode on Melancholy


1.      Keats makes many allusions to classical literature in the first verse:




Wolf’s bane-




2.      How can it be that Keats finds pleasure in melancholy in verse two? How can one find pleasure in such pain?

3.      How is the paradox resolved poetically in verse three?


Group Presentations on Keats’ Odes

  1. What happens in a Keats poem? Describe its action in a BRIEF paragraph.
  2. What is the key symbol in the poem?
  3. What paradox does Keats explore in this poem? What are the three key moments in the poem? Quote the text.
  4. What is an ode? Describe Keats’ poetic voice. What ‘musical’ devices has he used to create the particular sound of this poem? How does the sound of the poem relate to Keats’ poetic purpose? Quote the text to support your point.
  5. What is Keats’ purpose in this poem?  How does the poem’s theme relate to Keats’ larger interests about the meaning of our lives and our path to God? What makes this poem Romantic?
  6. At the end of class, be prepared to write a thesis statement which relates all three poems:

lyric poetry

a verse or poem that is, or supposedly is, susceptible of being sung to the accompaniment of a musical instrument (in ancient times, usually a lyre) or that expresses intense personal emotion in a manner suggestive of a song. Lyric poetry expresses the thoughts and feelings of the poet and is sometimes contrasted with narrative poetry and verse drama, which relate events in the form of a story.

Elegies, odes, and sonnets are all important kinds of lyric poetry.



The sonnet is a verse form that began as the love poetry of troubadours in Medieval Italy. The sonnet form was perfected by the great Italian poet Petrarch during the fourteenth century, and it became popular among English poets during the 16th century. Shakespeare wrote an immortal sonnet series in the 1590’s.

A sonnet consists of 14 lines that are typically five-foot iambics rhyming according to a prescribed scheme. The first eight lines (the octave) is rhymed abbaabba. The rhyme scheme of the next six lines (the sestet) varies; it may be cdecde, cdccdc, or cdedce. Typically, a sonnet presents an idea or situation in the sestet which is questioned or complicated in the sestet.


A rimed (rarely unrimed) lyric, often in the form of an address; generally dignified or exalted in subject, feeling, and style, but sometimes (in earlier use) simple and familiar (though less so than a song).