ROBERT L. PATTEN
This class will use the life and art of John Keats (1795-1821) to explore some of the core issues about poetry. What are its subjects? How does it employ language? What kinds of things might be “learned” from poems?
The Problems for Poetry: “On First Looking into Chapman's Homer”
Keats, orphaned and saddled with an unsympathetic trustee for the funds left from his parents' livery stable, wants an education, wants to write&emdash;but how, and about what? His first mature poem speaks of “realms of gold” in ways that bespeak both his poverty and his rich imagination. But there seems to be no way for him to travel further.
One Solution: Escape&emdash;”Ode to a Nightingale”
In a few months in 1819, Keats, having completed a course of training at Guy's Hospital to be an apothecary, wrote a large number of astonishing poems, each evidencing remarkable growth in technique and thought. In the second of the “great Odes,” Keats explores desires to escape from the gray world of materiality, mortality, and thought.
Another Solution: Art&emdash; “Ode on a Grecian Urn”
If the material world, history, nature, and imagination provide no ways of escaping from the world of sensations and sorrow, might not art, transcending human time, provide an answer?
A Resolution: Acceptance&emdash; “To Autumn”
By the fall of 1819 Keats had nursed his brother through terminal tuberculosis, fallen in love with Fanny Brawne, and begun to suspect that his own health was fatally damaged. If there was to be no escape, what might remain for the poet and the person?
Robert L. Patten is Lynette S. Autrey Professor of English at Rice University and managing editor of Studies in English Literature. His two-volume study, George Cruikshank's Life, Times, and Art (1992 and 1996),was selected by the Guardian as the best biography of the decade.
A paperback text of Keats's poems and letters will be available at the Brazos Bookstore. Participants are encouraged to read the poems cited above and some of Keats's from the same text.