I almost gave this book three stars, since I really loved only a few of the Keats poems contained within, but the book as a whole gave me such a great look at his progression from start to finish. That was one intent of the editor, Elizabeth Cook. She writes in her introduction: “But to read Keats’s poetry through in chronological sequence (the principle of this volume) is to be impressed with the astonishing speed with which it matures. Keats effectively produced his life’s work in two years; the greater part of it in one” (p. x).
I found several of his poems too verbose, as though he were trying to impress us with his vocabulary. I’ve seen intense poetry from Coleridge, Wordsworth, Shelley and other Romantics that hit on similar themes but did it in fewer words. I’m not looking to enforce a word limit (e.g. I love the Odyssey), but I want these poems to be beautiful, using only what is necessary. Keats succeeds best when his craft fades away and the story and emotions come to the foreground. But even in these longer works, he often has a moment of clarity. In “Sleep and Poetry,” he writes: “Stop and consider! life is but a day; / A fragile dew-drop on its perilous way / From a tree’s summit” (lines 85-87).
I like his narrative poems the best. “Lamia” is my favorite, by far. It is a well constructed story with beautifully chosen words the flows perfectly. I thoroughly enjoyed “Hyperion: A Fragment” as well. His attempt to rework this unfinished poem in “Fall of Hyperion” fails, in my opinion. He returns to using too many words again, almost like a student padding a paper to reach the required page count. The beauty and sadness of “Hyperion” is lost amongst the glut of words.
I wonder what Keats would have produced had he not died of tuberculosis at 25. Based on Hyperion and Lamia, I think he would have continued to grow and increased his legacy even further.
Let me give yet another shout out to the wonderful editions in the Oxford World’s Classic series, produced by the Oxford University Press. I really love these editions … this is my 7th in the series. A great introduction, timeline of the authors life, the work and then fantastic notes that provide context and elucidation.