Some Quotations in Keats's Poetry

By Dean, Dennis R. | Philological Quarterly, Winter 1997 | Go to article overview

Some Quotations in Keats's Poetry


Dean, Dennis R., Philological Quarterly


Is there in truth no beauty?

George Herbert, "Jordan"(1)

John Keats often used the rhetorical device of quotation in his poetry. He did so in a variety of ways and sometimes with unclear directions to his reader. His aberrant use of quotation marks has, in particular, created editorial problems. In this exploratory essay, I review the several mechanisms of quotation used by Keats and then discuss two particularly well known examples--"pure serene" in the Chapman sonnet and the Beauty-Truth conclusion to "Ode on a Grecian Urn," suggesting sources and appropriate punctuation for both. If I am right about the latter, especially, then a long-standing textual crux may at last be resolved.(1)

Quotations in poetry can be original utterances created by the poet and then assigned to his personae in a poem having dramatic characteristics approximating conversation. Alternatively, or additionally, quotations in poetry can also be utterances previously formulated by another author (the "source") and then appropriated by the poet either verbatim or in paraphrase for any of several reasons. In some cases, the borrowings are probably unconscious; coincidence of expression is also a possibility. If the borrowing is conscious, it may be an intended theft (as in Coleridge, at times) and therefore unacknowledged. Alternatively, the poet may utilize the device of quotation, and selected examples of his choice, precisely because the reader is expected to recognize (possibly with help from the poet) words originating elsewhere that have, through the poet's craft, become a legitimate part of later work (as with "Sir Patrick Spens" and Coleridge's "Dejection: An Ode"). Quotations of this kind, particularly if unmarked, grade into allusions, with which Keats's poems and letters are well supplied.(2)

Among several devices of conscious quotation in Keats are these:

(1.) Like Coleridge in "Dejection," Keats sometimes preceded his own verses with mottoes from the works of others, the device of epigraph. Thus, his early poem "Fill for me a brimming bowl" begins with an identified quotation from Eunuchus (or Eunuch, as Keats has it), a lively if somewhat gross comedy by the Roman playwright Terence. Keats's "Sleep and Poetry" has an epigraph from "The Flower and the Leaf," a medieval allegory then but not now attributed to Chaucer. "I stood tip-toe" begins with a line from Leigh Hunt's "Story of Rimini"; and Endymion, less obviously, with one from Shakespeare's seventeenth sonnet. Epigraphs can relate to the poems they precede in any of several ways, but their general purpose is to establish a kind of dialogue in which the lines of an older speaker have already been written.

Even after November 1817, when the Shakespearian motto preceding Endymion is mentioned in one of his quotation-filled letters (22 November, to Reynolds), Keats continued to favor the device of epigraph. He derived from Milton some quoted lines at the beginning of "Welcome joy, and welcome sorrow" and accepted mottoes from both Wordsworth and Shakespeare in "On Some Skulls in Beauley Abbey, near Inverness." Epigraphs are thereafter less common in Keats, but other mature poems provided with them are "On Fame," which quotes a proverb; and "Ode on Indolence," quoting the gospel of Matthew. Though most of Keats's epigraphs derived from honored poetic predecessors, his last two examples favored wisdom literature instead.

(2.) Keats also quoted the writings of others within his own poems. Examples include "Fill for me a brimming bowl" (Campbell), "To Hope" (Hamlet), "To George Felton Mathew" (Milton and Spenser), "Addressed to Haydon" (Wordsworth), "Unfelt, unheard, unseen" (proverbial), "Before he went to live with owls and bats" (Romeo and Juliet; Daniel [Bible]), "Robin Hood" (Chaucer), "Dear Reynolds, as last night I lay in bed" (Twelfth Night), "On Some Skulls in Beauley Abbey" (Lear), "Castle-builder" (Daniel), "`Tis the `Witching Time of Night'" (Hamlet), "The Eve of St. …

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