Literature

A Short Analysis of John Keats’s ‘To Hope’

Written in February 1815 when he was just nineteen years old, ‘To Hope’ is one of John Keats’s early poems. Although it is not as celebrated or as polished as his more mature work, the poem is worth sharing, so below we reproduce the text of the poem, and offer a few words of analysis.

To Hope

When by my solitary hearth I sit,
When no fair dreams before my ‘mind’s eye’ flit,
And the bare heath of life presents no bloom;
Sweet Hope, ethereal balm upon me shed,
And wave thy silver pinions o’er my head.

Whene’er I wander, at the fall of night,
Where woven boughs shut out the moon’s bright ray,
Should sad Despondency my musings fright,
And frown, to drive fair Cheerfulness away,
Peep with the moon-beams through the leafy roof,
And keep that fiend Despondence far aloof.

Should Disappointment, parent of Despair,
Strive for her son to seize my careless heart;
When, like a cloud, he sits upon the air,
Preparing on his spell-bound prey to dart:
Chase him away, sweet Hope, with visage bright,
And fright him as the morning frightens night!

Whene’er the fate of those I hold most dear
Tells to my fearful breast a tale of sorrow,
O bright-eyed Hope, my morbid fancy cheer;
Let me awhile thy sweetest comforts borrow:
Thy heaven-born radiance around me shed,
And wave thy silver pinions o’er my head!

Should e’er unhappy love my bosom pain,
From cruel parents, or relentless fair;
O let me think it is not quite in vain
To sigh out sonnets to the midnight air!
Sweet Hope, ethereal balm upon me shed,
And wave thy silver pinions o’er my head!

In the long vista of the years to roll,
Let me not see our country’s honour fade:
O let me see our land retain her soul,
Her pride, her freedom; and not freedom’s shade.
From thy bright eyes unusual brightness shed—
Beneath thy pinions canopy my head!

Let me not see the patriot’s high bequest,
Great Liberty! how great in plain attire!
With the base purple of a court oppress’d,
Bowing her head, and ready to expire:
But let me see thee stoop from heaven on wings

That fill the skies with silver glitterings!
And as, in sparkling majesty, a star
Gilds the bright summit of some gloomy cloud;
Brightening the half veil’d face of heaven afar:
So, when dark thoughts my boding spirit shroud,
Sweet Hope, celestial influence round me shed,
Waving thy silver pinions o’er my head.

When Despondency, Despair, and Disappointment assail the poet, he asks for Hope – which, like these other moods, is personified here with a capital letter – to come and brighten his outlook. For John Keats as much as for Emily Dickinson, hope is ‘the thing with feathers’, or at least with wings: ‘Sweet Hope, ethereal balm upon me shed, / And wave thy silver pinions o’er my head.’ Hope is presented like a guardian angel.

‘To Hope’ might be regarded as a trial run for Keats’s later, great odes of 1819, on the topics of Melancholy, Psyche, and other topics. Whenever Despondency, Disappointment, and Despair threaten to assail the poet, he calls upon Hope – personified here with a capital letter – to chase them away, like an angel chasing off demons. He likens this to morning ‘frightening’ away the night: bright hope sees off dark despair.

It’s obvious that ‘To Hope’ is an early work, lacking the complexity and ambiguity of some of Keats’s later great odes (the debate continues over whether the concluding stanza of ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is ironic), but it’s interesting to see the young Keats thinking about the role that hope plays in his own poetry career:

Should e’er unhappy love my bosom pain,
From cruel parents, or relentless fair;
O let me think it is not quite in vain
To sigh out sonnets to the midnight air!

Here, there seems to be a more ambivalent attitude to despair, and to the role unhappiness plays in making a great artist: should these bad things happen, the poet says, at least let me believe that writing poems of hope isn’t something done in vain. Encoded within those two lines is a tacit acknowledgment that poetry can be a tool for making hope a reality, almost as if those ‘sonnets’ addressed to the darkness have a talismanic or incantatory ability to alter the world. But of course, it’s not the world they need to alter: only the poet’s attitude to the darkness. Keats the Stoic would have known this.

2 Comments

  1. Pingback: A Short Analysis of John Keats’s ‘To Hope’ — Interesting Literature | Slattery's Magazine for Writers

  2. Mike Butler

    Very apt for the ‘lock down’ we are experiencing at present. I think about ‘Bright star’ when ever I look out at the sky at night.

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