The best poems by Keats selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
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.
‘Ode to Psyche’. 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.
‘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. ‘This too shall pass’, as the old line has it…
‘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.
‘Bright Star’. 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.
‘On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer’. 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’.
‘Lamia’. 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. This poem contains Keats’s famous objection to science as a discipline which unravels the mysteries of nature and ‘unweaves the rainbow’.
‘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. 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.
‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’. 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. 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.’
‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’. 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.’
‘Ode to a Nightingale’. 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.
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.