By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
John Keats (1795-1821) died when he was just twenty-five years old, but he left behind a substantial body of work, considering he died so young. Nevertheless, a number of his poems immediately suggest themselves as being among the ‘best’ of his work. In this post, we’ve selected what we think are the top ten best Keats poems.
Learn more about Keats’s writing with our pick of the most famous quotations from his work.
1. ‘Ode to Psyche’.
Yes, I will be thy priest, and build a fane
In some untrodden region of my mind,
Where branched thoughts, new grown with pleasant pain,
Instead of pines shall murmur in the wind …
The earliest of Keats’s 1819 odes, ‘Ode to Psyche’ is about the Greek embodiment of the soul and mind, Psyche. Keats declares that he will be Psyche’s ‘priest’ and build a temple to her in his mind. Although this is probably the least-admired of Keats’s classic odes (though ‘Ode on Indolence’ would rival it), it’s a fine paean to poetic creativity and the power of the imagination.
2. ‘Ode on Melancholy’.
Another one of the famous odes, this time addressing us, the reader, directly, and telling us the best way to deal with a case of the blues.
Rather than trying to shake it off or ignore it, he says that we should allow ourselves to wallow in melancholy by dwelling on the transience of all things – including melancholy itself. Keats argues that looking upon pleasurable things and reflecting that they will soon die will, surprisingly, cheer us up: it is like an injunction to ‘live each day as if it were your last’, and stop moping about (though admittedly Keats’s way of putting it is considerably more poetical).
We cease to appreciate joy when we’re happy, because we take it for granted.
But when the melancholy fit shall fall
Sudden from heaven like a weeping cloud,
That fosters the droop-headed flowers all,
And hides the green hill in an April shroud;
Then glut thy sorrow on a morning rose,
Or on the rainbow of the salt sand-wave,
Or on the wealth of globed peonies …
‘This too shall pass’, as the old line has it. Follow the link above to read the full poem.
3. ‘To Autumn’.
Probably the most famous poem about the season in all of English literature, Keats’s ‘To Autumn’ is also one of the finest autumn poems in the language. Jonathan Bate has a fine analysis of this poem in his book of eco-criticism, The Song of the Earth, which points up all of the contemporary allusions to early nineteenth-century politics and history. It begins, famously:
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core …
‘How beautiful the season is now — How fine the air. A temperate sharpness about it. Really, without joking, chaste weather — Dian skies — I never liked stubble-fields so much as now — Aye better than the chilly green of the Spring. Somehow, a stubble-field looks warm — in the same way that some pictures look warm. This struck me so much in my Sunday’s walk that I composed upon it.’
So Keats wrote in a letter of September 1819, hinting at the origins of ‘To Autumn’ and the circumstances of its composition, while Keats was living in Winchester, Hampshire, in southern England.
4. ‘Bright Star’.
No—yet still stedfast, still unchangeable,
Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest …
This sonnet muses upon the fragility and inconstancy of human life. It doesn’t actually have a title, and instead is known by its first line, ‘Bright star! Would I were stedfast as thou art’.
Keats copied the finished version of the sonnet into a volume of The Poetical Works of William Shakespeare, placing his poem opposite Shakespeare’s A Lover’s Complaint. The first two words of the sonnet were used as the title of the 2009 biopic about Keats’s life, Bright Star, starring Ben Whishaw as Keats.
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific …
This sonnet focuses on Keats’s initial encounter with an English translation of Homer’s poetry by George Chapman (c. 1559-1634), likening the experience to that of an astronomer discovering a new planet or an explorer sighting an unknown land.
Curiously, the poem contains an error: Keats writes of ‘stout Cortez’ sighting the Pacific, but it was Balboa, rather than Cortez, who conquered South America and would have stood ‘upon a peak in Darien’. Whether this mistake matters depends on your view of what Christopher Ricks has called ‘literature and the matter of fact’.
Another product of Keats’s annus mirabilis of 1819, ‘Lamia’ is a longer, somewhat tragic narrative poem about Hermes’ search for a beautiful nymph, whom he finds thanks to Lamia, a queen who has been transformed into a serpent:
Whither fled Lamia, now a lady bright,
A full-born beauty new and exquisite?
She fled into that valley they pass o’er
Who go to Corinth from Cenchreas’ shore;
And rested at the foot of those wild hills,
The rugged founts of the Peraean rills,
And of that other ridge whose barren back
Stretches, with all its mist and cloudy rack,
South-westward to Cleone. There she stood
About a young bird’s flutter from a wood,
Fair, on a sloping green of mossy tread,
By a clear pool, wherein she passioned
To see herself escap’d from so sore ills,
While her robes flaunted with the daffodils …
This poem contains Keats’s famous objection to science as a discipline which unravels the mysteries of nature and ‘unweaves the rainbow’.
7. ‘The Eve of St. Agnes’.
One of the longer poems to feature on this list, ‘The Eve of St. Agnes’ is a narrative poem told using the Spenserian stanza, the nine-line verse form Edmund Spenser developed for his vast sixteenth-century epic, The Faerie Queene:
St. Agnes’ Eve—Ah, bitter chill it was!
The owl, for all his feathers, was a-cold;
The hare limp’d trembling through the frozen grass,
And silent was the flock in woolly fold:
Numb were the Beadsman’s fingers, while he told
His rosary, and while his frosted breath,
Like pious incense from a censer old,
Seem’d taking flight for heaven, without a death,
Past the sweet Virgin’s picture, while his prayer he saith …
On a cold night in a medieval castle, a young lover breaks into his sweetheart’s chamber, hides in her closet, and then persuades her semi-conscious self to run away with him.
8. ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’.
I met a lady in the meads,
Full beautiful—a faery’s child,
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.
I made a garland for her head,
And bracelets too, and fragrant zone;
She looked at me as she did love,
And made sweet moan
I set her on my pacing steed,
And nothing else saw all day long,
For sidelong would she bend, and sing
A faery’s song …
This ballad is among Keats’s most popular poems: it tells the story of a knight-at-arms who was seduced by a woman who was more fairy than human (you know the sort of thing), lured back to her cave, and then abandoned on the cold hillside. There’s a sense of reciprocity between the knight and the lady, but how equal they are remains open to question.
Although we might view the knight as merely the passive observer, used by the beautiful faery-woman (yet another victim to fall under the spell of the beautiful woman without mercy) it is also worth noting the to-and-fro nature of the action in this ballad: the knight gives the lady three gifts, and she responds with three gifts for him. He silences her sighs with kisses, before she silences him in sleep by singing him a lullaby.
The poem inspired the title of Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking 1962 work of environmentalism, Silent Spring, from the line of Keats’s poem, ‘And no birds sing.’ We have analysed this poem here.
9. ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’.
What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?
Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter …
Inspired by the scenes depicted on an ancient Greek urn, this is one of Keats’s best odes.
However, original readers didn’t think so: in 1820 it was met with a lukewarm reception. Since then, though, its reputation as one of Keats’s most polished poems has become established – including the famous final two lines, ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty, – that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’ We have analysed this complex and rewarding poem here.
10. ‘Ode to a Nightingale’.
Darkling I listen; and, for many a time
I have been half in love with easeful Death,
Call’d him soft names in many a mused rhyme,
To take into the air my quiet breath;
Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
To cease upon the midnight with no pain,
While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad
In such an ecstasy!
Unlike the ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’, this fellow ode was admired by contemporary critics and reviewers of Keats’s work. According to one account it was written by Keats under a plum tree in the garden of Keats House, London in May 1819.
Keats was inspired by hearing the sound of birdsong and penned this poem in praise of the nightingale. Like ‘Bright Star’ it is a brilliant poem about mortality and the lure of death and escape. F. Scott Fitzgerald took the phrase ‘tender is the night’ from this poem and used it as the title for his 1934 novel. We have analysed this poem here.
Looking for a good edition of Keats’s work? We recommend the excellent John Keats: Major Works (Oxford World’s Classics). Discover more Romantic literature with our pick of Percy Shelley’s best poems and these classic William Blake poems.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.