Writers born a hundred years ago — 2) Kingsley Amis savages John Keats

Jot 101 Kingsley Amis pic

Best known for Lucky Jim, of course, Amis began as a poet and had his first collection published by the infamous R. L. Caton of the Fortune Press, as did his close friend Philip Larkin (see article in Bookride ). Amis published very little poetry afterwards ( much to the disappointment of Larkin), but alongside his novels he continued to teach and write about poetry, first in Swansea, where his son Martin attended your Jotter’s old school, and later on in Cambridge.

So it is interesting to find among the archive of the former academic and wartime diarist ( see previous Jots) Patrick O’Donoghue, a clipping of a review of a 1957 reprint of Sidney Colvin’s book on Keats originally published in 1887. In ‘The Poet and the Dreamer’, which appeared in The Spectator of November 22nd 1957 Amis asks whether such a book is relevant today.

He begins by declaring that unlike the work of Milton, Shakespeare and Wordsworth, that of Keats needed no ‘glossary’; he appealed directly to the imagination of sensitive adolescents looking for a romantic alternative to the ‘ real world ‘. Keats believed in Beauty, which appealed to those under the cosh of exam pressures at school and the job interview. Moreover his tragic short life, ‘engaging personality ‘and ‘high aspirations ‘made him an ideal poet in the minds of the young.

However, Amis regarded a familiarity with Keats’ poetry as ‘an obstacle to further literary development’. To Amis ‘a rational reading of Keats, whatever the long-term result, is initially destructive.’ While Colvin recognised the ‘dissonance ‘, for instance, in ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’, he dismissed it as a minor flaw, whereas Amis saw it as indicative of the poet’s poor technique. Rather than discussing Keats’ faults, Colvin’s book was likely to inspire “another legion of essays maundering about the way ‘the poetry seems to throb in  every line with the life of imagination and beauty “ in that sugary erotic extravaganza ,’ The Eve of St Agnes’.

In another popular poem, ‘ The Ode to a Nightingale’, which Amis conceded did contain some delightful passages, there are ‘frigidities ‘ that mar it, such as the references to Lethe, the Dryad, Flora, Hippocrene and ‘Bachus and his pards ‘—all fanciful ‘ entities  that are ( here Amis quotes Jeffery )‘ too far removed from the sources of human interest’. Keats also used these classical allusions in other celebrated poems—with the same deadening effect.

Nor was Keats a conscientious craftsman. He believed that his poetic effusions should not be unduly tampered with; he was loath to revise and when he did, the job was not assiduously done. According to Amis, ‘Shoddily worked sonnets would be thrown off and dispatched to friends the same day, to appear unaltered in print’; he knew Endymion needed radical rewriting, ‘but could not be bothered to do so.’

Worse still, In Endymion, as the Quarterly Review pointed out, Keats had the habit of using awkward words suggested by the ‘exigences of rhyme’. This practice disfigured much of his work, partly because Keats chose  forms that require several rhymes to the same sound ( ie homophones).

‘These forms, according to Amis,’ were chosen capriciously, without regard to their appropriateness or to his own capacities, on occasion merely because they happened to have been used by poets he happened to  admire. It was only an admiration for Paradise Lost that eventually took him to blank verse…’

Amis gives example of Keats’ rhyming methods. …’ emptied to the drains’, that is to say, not poured down the drain but ‘ drained , drunk off ‘ is retained to rhyme with ‘ pains’, and ‘ melodious plot’, with its glaringly inappropriate association with cultivation, is retained to rhyme with ‘ happy lot’.

Amis does concede that the middle stanzas of ‘Endymion’ contain some of Keats’ best writing. He instances the poet’s ‘ unforgettably entrancing ‘ picture of the wood itself and his confession that he is ‘ half in love with easeful Death ‘.  Here the ‘classical lumber ‘ is stowed away and the poet talks as himself, not a ‘ Delphic simulacrum, of himself ‘ on the experiences of human existence.

Amis concludes that to exalt Keats as a poet of great achievement, and even greater possibilities had he survived, on the strength of his published work is to ignore the defects of character that vitiated his work.

  1. M. Healey

5 thoughts on “Writers born a hundred years ago — 2) Kingsley Amis savages John Keats

  1. Roger

    In fairness to Amis, when he republished this he called it “a rather clever undergraduate essay” and added the mea culpa:
    I neglected to celebrate, or took for granted, that tremendous originality and audaciousness which went far beyond any mere ‘decorative’ quality and, by making poetry personal, so to speak democratised it. When Keats opened the Nightingale ode by writing, ‘My heart aches,’ he was writing about his own heart and nobody else’s. Earlier poems in the first person had had the name of some other character invisibly prefixed to them, normally an idealised or anyway carefully trimmed version of the poet, often, indeed, the Poet, which figure does a good deal of the talking in Wordsworth’s anecdotal and autobiographical verse. Keats’s ability to cut through all that— an ability which must have sprung from the same root as his self-indulgence— made it possible for anybody at all to identify with him in the process of reading the poem. The results of that ‘democratisation’, like others, may not have been altogether happy, but, like them, they were inevitable. Whatever the detail of Keats’s performance, this achievement is such that no one who has never thought him the greatest poet in the world, no matter for how brief a period, has any real feeling for literature.

  2. Gordo

    Thanks Roger. I admit to thinking Keats the greatest poet of all for a while. Usually while reading or hearing his poems. Challengers? Yeats Coleridge Milton Eliot Poe Rimbaud Baudelaire Dante Shakespeare Emily Dickinson Pushkin?

    1. Roger

      Donne or Hardy?
      Pope and Dryden were too rational to inspire such an irrational thought, or they’d be candidates as well.

  3. R.M.Healey

    Yeats and Eliot, yes, but also early Auden. Larkin comes close to being ‘ great’. Certainly not Coleridge as a poet, but as a critic. Poe no. Shakespeare obviously. I don’t rate Rosenberg highly, nor Owen. Sassoon’s Counter Attack is by far the best collection to come out of Great War. And don’t forget that Charlotte Mew is our best female poet. Far superior to Christina Rossetti.


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