2021 marks the bicentenary of the death of Romantic poet John Keats. This online exhibition by Keats House, Hampstead celebrates his life and works for the #Keats200 bicentenary programme.
‘Next week Keats’s new Volume of Poems will be published, & if it does not sell well, I think nothing will ever sell again. I am sure of this that for poetic Genius there is not his equal living & I would compare him against any one with either Milton or Shakespeare for Beauties.’
John Taylor, Keats’s publisher, to his father, 24 June 1820.
‘displays the ore of true poetic genius,
though mingled with a large portion of dross’
Anonymous review in the ‘Monthly Review’, July 1820.
Most of the poems Keats wrote between 1817 and 1819 were criticised by the conservative,literary establishment of the day. As a follower of Leigh Hunt, he was mockingly referred to as a ‘Cockney poet’, with the Tory paper the ‘Quarterly’calling him ‘more unintelligible,… twice as diffuse and ten times more tiresome and absurd than his prototype’.
Keats only published three books of poetry during his lifetime. The publication of his first book, ‘Poems’ in 1817, mostly went unnoticed while reviews of ‘Endymion’the following year, attacked both the poem itself and Keats personally. One critic questioned whether someone of his background should write about classical subjects and suggested that he should abandon all hope of being a poet.
‘back to the shop Mr John,back to ‘plasters, pills, and ointment boxes’’
Review by ‘Z’(John Gibson Lockhart) in ‘Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine’, August 1818.
‘My book is coming out with very lowhopes, though not spirits on my part.’
Keats to Charles Brown, about 21 June 1820.
The critical response to his last book,‘Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St Agnes, and Other Poems’ published in 1820, was more positive. The respected ‘Edinburgh Review’ praised the collection’s imaginative power and beauty of expression and Charles Lamb writing in the‘New Times’, compared Keats favourably to Dante, Chaucer and Spenser.
‘Mr Keats, we understand, is still a very young man; and his whole works… manifestly require, therefore, all the indulgence that can be claimed for a first attempt: – but we think it no less plain that they deserve it; for they are flushed all over with the rich lights of fancy, and so coloured and bestrewn with the flowers of poetry, that even while perplexed and bewildered in their labyrinths, it is impossible to resist the intoxication of their sweetness, or to shut our hearts to the enchantments they so lavishly present.’
Anonymous review (by Francis Jeffrey) in the ‘Edinburgh Review’,1820.
The ‘Lamia’ volume contains many of the poems written during 1819 and is now seen as one of the strongest collections of poetry ever published. Sadly, Keats never knew the pleasure the poetry in this volume would later bring to so many people. The reviews at the time were not positive enough to make his work widely popular and fully understood by the public, and worsening symptoms of consumption meant that Keats wrote no more poetry after 1820.
Each day until 23 February, marking 200 years since Keats's death, we will share a new story related to periods in his life.
The Keats200 bicentenary is a celebration of Keats’s life, works and legacy, beginning in December 2018 through to February 2021 and beyond. It is led by three major partners – Keats House, Hampstead, The Keats Foundation and the Keats-Shelley Memorial Association – and is open to all individuals and organisations who have an interest in Keats or poetry. The bicentenary of Keats’s most productive years as a poet, and the period when he found inspiration, friendship and love, is an exciting opportunity to (re)discover and enjoy his works as well as engage with poetry and its ongoing relevance to us all today.