The whole of Keats’s poetic history is contained in the four years, before the end of 1815 and the beginning of his fatal illness in February 1820, after which he wrote almost no poetry. Before 1815 when he began his poetic career he was a medical student who had just begun to write verses or perhaps more truely “just begun to feel himself devoured by the ambition to become a poet.” These four years are the most prodigious four years in the life of a genius-of which we have record. No one, perhaps in any nation, or at any time, has achieved an everlasting poetic glory in such a short span of years ; certainly no one in England. It is a miracle. Shakespeare had thirty years of poetic career, whereas Keats had but four.
John Keats’s prophecy
“Keats was the son of a livery stable keeper. As a small boy he showed little poetic promise. Cowden Clarke, the son of his master, aroused his literary talents and in 1813 gave him Spenser’s poetry which so fired his imagination that poetry became immediately and permanently the one great interest in his life, although till 1815 he was trained as a medical student. The development of his poetic process, between 1815 and his death in 1821, is unparalleled in the record of any other poet. I think, said Keats, I shall be among the English poets after my death. Indeed his prophecy has proved to be true ; he is now regarded as one of the first rate poets of the English language. Matthew Arnold has rightly said, He is ; he is with Shakespeare.
Influence of Spenser and other literary figures on Keats
The treatment of Keats’s poetic growth will be only half-sided if we omit to trace the influence of other poets on the development of his poetic genius. Keats was educated almost exclusively by the English poets. In the early part of his poetic career the influence of Spenser was immense. “It was the Faerie Queene” says Brown, a friend of Keats’s later years, “that first awakened his genius.” In Spenser’s fairyland, he was enchanted, breathed in a new world and became a new being. It is significant that Keats’s earliest composition is the Imitations of Spenser, written probably in 1813 ; and Spenser never lost hold upon his imagination.
There was indeed an essential kinship between the two poets, and that brooding love of sensuous beauty, that frank response to charm of nature and romance, that luxuriance of fancy and that felicity of expression to which the Faerie Queene owes its irresistible fascination, were soon to be re-echoed in the poems of Keats. He also came under the influence of Chatterton. Early in 1815, he came under the influence of Chapman’s translation of Homer.
The early works of Milton, and of the. poems of Fletcher and of William Browne, while his delight in the seventeenth-century Spenserians remained inextricably blended with his admiration for the most prominent of Spenser’s living disciples, the charming and versatile Leigh Hunt. Spenser and Hunt gave a great impetus to his spirit of romanticism. “Keats was introduced by Leigh Hunt,” says Elton, “to the enchanted gardens of romantic poetry.” He saw “beautiful things made new.”
Influence of Shakespeare, Milton and Wordsworth on Keats
Shakespeare and Wordsworth developed his intellect and style though in different ways. The vocabulary and phraseology of Endymion differ chiefly from that of the 1817 volume in the influx of Shakespearean words, allusions and reminiscences, drawn from a large number of plays while the influence of Shakespeare’s poems is shown in the fact that though the large number of Keats’ s sonnets are in Italian form, all the best, with the exception of the Chapman’s sonnet which belongs to an earlier date, are written upon the model of Shakespeare.
At the same time that he was finding in Shakespeare the greatest examples of the imaginative presentation of life, he was turning to Wordsworth whose teaching had gained a deep hold over his mind. The Hymn to Pan (in Endymion) seemed to Wordsworth a pretty piece of paganism, yet it was Wordsworth’s interpretation of Greek mythology which revealed to Keats the spirit which informed the poem. Furthermore, Keats owed much to the spirit and vocabulary of the old English poets especially those of the Renaissance. The influence of Paradise Lost is visible in Hyperion.