John Keats: five poets on his best poems, 200 years since his death

From Ode to a Nightingale to Modern Love, Ruth Padel, Will Harris, Mary Jean Chan, Rachel Long and Seán Hewitt choose their favourites

Chosen by Ruth Padel

For three hours, Keats sat in a friend’s garden listening to a nightingale. He was 23, and trying to live by poetry though reviews so far had been woundingly critical. He had just watched his younger brother die of tuberculosis, which he now had, too. The eight stanzas he wrote that day track fluctuating feelings about mortality and transience that everyone has had at times. Especially now, during the pandemic.

You sound so happy, the poem tells the nightingale. I don’t envy you, I’m glad at your happiness, I long to escape this world of suffering. You, though, will never die. Your song opens vistas on to history and myth, which, though magical, are very lonely. When you stop singing I’m back, asleep or awake, with reality.

That’s the thread. But the pitch-perfect music, the profound thought wrapped in sensuous imagery, and dark-glowing description of things seen only through imagination – the essence of poetry – make this poem one of the greatest of all English lyrics.

  • Ruth Padel has written Songs of the Night, a poem inspired by Ode to a Nightingale, to mark the bicentenary with the Poetry Society and Keats House Hampstead.

Chosen by Will Harris

When our English teacher read out Ode to a Nightingale, he cried. Though I didn’t think he was pretending, I couldn’t understand it. It played into my feeling that some people liked the idea of poetry more than poetry itself – and who represented the idea of poetry more than Keats?

Years later, I read another Keats poem, nothing like the Ode. “I had a dove” appears in a letter Keats wrote to his sister and brother in January 1819. He dismisses it as “a little thing”, but its serious context looms over it: Tom, his youngest brother, had just died.

The poem is a strange, sing-songy fable about loss. The speaker traps a dove; the dove dies. Did he kill it? There are plain statements and unanswerable questions (“Why should you leave me, sweet bird! why?”). Amid the monochrome of grief, three colours come through: “little red feet”, “white peas”, “green trees”.

It’s the Keats poem that makes me cry. It reminds me of his line about poets being “the most unpoetical of all God’s creatures”. “Unpoetical” because, despite any strong feelings, the poet is always trying to empty themselves out, to let ambivalence speak, to experience the world with “trembling delicate and snail-horn perception”.

Chosen by Mary Jean Chan

Growing up in Hong Kong with English as my second language, I remember finding Anglophone poems to be a distinct challenge. But I was able to rely on my love of classical Chinese poetry to help me navigate them, as I appreciated how each word could carry multiple layers of meaning, that musicality was key to a poem’s internal logic. I remember loving the phrase “winnowing wind” when I first came across To Autumn in secondary school, in particular because I had mistaken the word “winnow” for “minnow” and thus conjured up this lovely image of the wind meandering like a tiny fish. The poem also made me feel less alone. The lines “Where are the songs of spring? Ay, Where are they? / Think not of them, thou hast thy music too” was a source of comfort to my 16-year-old closeted self, who felt inadequate and ashamed in a heteronormative world. In her book Infinite Gradation, the Canadian poet Anne Michaels writes: “Poetry must lead the reader not to the poet’s life, but to the reader’s own.” I remember thinking, “thou hast thy music too”, and for a brief moment, believing it.

Chosen by Seán Hewitt

La Belle Dame sans Merci is a ballad. Ostensibly, it tells a story: a knight has fallen for an enchanted woman, but has witnessed the horrors of those she has taken before him, “their starved lips in the gloam / With horrid warning gapèd wide”.

Keats varies the rhythm in the fourth line of each stanza, sometimes abruptly, halting the cantering music of the previous lines. The form restrains his excess, as in the contrast between the repetition of “And there I shut her wild wild eyes” and the curtailed rhythm of “With kisses four”. You can almost feel the pull of the form, reining in the poem, so that when the grip loosens, and the images become hallucinatory, the effect is all the more unsettling.

It is full of lacunae and weird associations – the knight answers the unseen questioner, but his answer is almost a riddle. The poem echoes beyond itself – a man in shock, witness to something brutal and eerie, tries to account for his isolation. In its staccato, faltering music, its replacement of the sublime with the austere, the poem suggests a mind haunted by trauma, the surreal breaking through into the bleak, lonely landscape where “the sedge has withered from the lake / And no birds sing”.

Chosen by Rachel Long

It is fitting that I should be revisiting this poem days after a Valentine’s spent alone in my flat, and, like everyone else in the country, in the ache of Lockdown III. A Keats-esque question keeps appearing on my timeline: what is love, in the time of corona?

The clever beauty of this posthumously published poem, which is not anti-love but let’s-be-real-about-love, lies in its timelessness, its enduring relevance – no mean feat for a poem to speak to lovers in the 19th century and 2021. Keats’ critique of the fluffiness of love feels more relevant now than ever. Here we all are, levelling with love, asking it how it needs us to be. How can we show it to ourselves and others when we no longer have the luxury of being grandiose with it? (No making dinner reservations at a favourite restaurant, taking yourself to the cinema in the middle of the afternoon, or texting a lover “pack a bag, meet you at Heathrow” – OK, I have never done this, but I dream.) In this most painful moment, when we cannot see family or friends, we’ve had to learn how to communicate our love through a screen, from two metres, through glass. Gone is the “tiara”-love, the “doll dress’d up”. Love in the time of corona, is, I think, happening in a far less decorated but perhaps more honest way. Keats might approve.

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